The Stranglers at 50: “The day it becomes a chore is when we’ll stop”

David Roy chats to Stranglers frontman Baz Warne about bringing the proto-punks’ special 50th anniversary tour to Ireland later this month, and why being in a band helps keep him young at heart...

The Stranglers circa 2023: Jim Macauley, Baz Warne, JJ Burnel, Toby Hounsham
The Stranglers circa 2023: Jim Macauley, Baz Warne, JJ Burnel, Toby Hounsham The Stranglers circa 2023: Jim Macauley, Baz Warne, JJ Burnel, Toby Hounsham

“YOU can’t just throw on your Doc Martens and jeans and start leaping about the stage like you used to - you’ve got to take a bit more care of yourself nowadays,” comments Stranglers leader Baz Warne of how he’s been preparing for the band’s imminent Fifty Years in Black tour.

“We always try to rehearse as near to the tour as we possibly can. We did about two weeks last month, which sounded really good. Then, the last fortnight [before the tour] you’ll be sitting at home noodling on your guitar and trying to get packed, as well as getting back up to speed physically - which is important at our age.”

T in The Park 2014 – Day 2
The Stranglers Baz Warne in action (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Indeed, Warne will celebrate his 60th birthday during the upcoming tour, while bassist/vocalist JJ Burnel has just turned 72.

“When I joined the Stranglers as I was 36,” says the Stranglers frontman.

“Your average man only lives till he’s 72, so it took me half my life to get there - and I’ve nearly been there for nearly 25 years now. I was the baby of the band for quite a while, but now the next youngest member of the Stranglers is 20 years younger than I am. "

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Indeed, keys man Toby Hounsham and drummer Jim Maccauley are now the youngsters of the group. The pair were drafted into their ranks due to the death of veteran Stranglers organ-grinder Dave Greenfield (71), who died in 2020 after contracting Covid, and the declining health of founding drummer Jet Black (84), who passed away in 2022.

The Stranglers, with the late Jet Black (far left) and Dave Greenfield (far right)
The Stranglers The late Jet Black (far left) and Dave Greenfield (far right)

“Interestingly, I will turn 60 on this tour,” says Warne.

“Jim will turn 40 in April, Toby’s in his 50s and JJ is in his 70s. I don’t know another band that can boast that kind of generational span.”

Burnel is now the last Strangler remaining from the band’s ‘classic’ line-up: original frontman Hugh Cornwell departed in 1990 and Warne has now been leading the group longer than he did, having originally joined on guitar in 2000 before moving front and centre in 2006 following the departure of Cornwell’s replacement, Paul Roberts.

“Dave passing away was a was a horrible shock,” he tells me.

Coronavirus – Mon May 4, 2020
Coronavirus – Mon May 4, 2020 Dave Greenfield of The Stranglers who died aged 71 (Baz Warne/PA)

“JJ and myself still probably 100 per cent haven’t got over it, to be honest with you. I know that, for JJ, it still rankles with him - especially in light of the fact that it was Covid that took Dave.

“He went into hospital for something entirely different and contracted Covid while he was there. So it was a very dark time, and we actually talked about knocking it on the head. I mean, how can you replace somebody like him?”

“But Toby has more than stepped up. He’s absolutely jaw-dropping. I mean, the first time we heard him in rehearsals I had to sit down. It really knocked the wind out of my sails because I wasn’t expecting to hear those old licks played so beautifully on Dave’s old keyboard by someone else.”

The Stranglers will return to Ireland next year to celebrate their 50th anniversary
The Stranglers (l-r) Jet Black, Toby Hounsham, Baz Warne, JJ Burnel

Of course, musical ability alone isn’t enough to replace a beloved figure like Dave Greenfield, whose eccentric personality was as important to the band’s DNA as his keyboard skills.

“The other good thing is that Toby is daft as a brush,” explains Warne of the new keys man.

“He’s highly intelligent and eccentric in his own way, as Dave was. Honest to God, he has been an absolute revelation, and hopefully he’s added some years to the band’s lifespan. I know that Dave would have been very pleased that he has stepped in.”

As for Jet Black, the drummer’s health problems meant that he hadn’t performed live with the band for almost a decade prior to his death.

“I spoke to him about 10 days before he passed away, which I’m very grateful for,” reveals Warne, “he was in fine form, even though he sounded frail.

“He passed away surrounded by his family and loved ones in a beautiful little cottage in the Welsh hills after a very long and successful career. I mean he lived 10 lifetimes, Jet. I think anyone would take that, given the chance.”

Jet Black
Jet Black The Stranglers’ drummer Jet Black (Allan Ballard/PA)

Which begs the question: does being in a band help keep you ‘young at heart’?

“Without a shadow of a doubt,” enthuses the singer/guitarist.

“It makes you think like a 25-year-old. I think I think the days of it being a young man’s game are well and truly over.”

The poster for the Belfast show on The Stranglers' Fifty Years In Black tour
The Stranglers The proto-punk veterans will celebrate their 50th anniversary in Belfast next month

As you might have guessed, the upcoming jaunt will find the Guildford-formed group marking an impressive half-century in the rock and roll trenches with a run of shows celebrating the biggest hits of their career alongside lesser-played favourites.

It’s a moment to mark past achievements even as they are enjoying something of a late-career renaissance: their 2021 album Dark Matters charted at number four, becoming The Stranglers’ most successful release for over 30 years.

”We’re going to do two sets,” comments Warne,

“The first half will be the more obscure, off the beaten track stuff that everybody loves but it doesn’t get played very often.

“In fact, [on every tour] we always try to play at least one track that the band have never played in their history.

“After that, we’ll have a break for a cup of tea and a towel down, then get the old DMs back on and come out for the second half which will be all the bangers.

“So I think we’ve balanced it really well: there are quite a few surprises as well as the tunes that we can’t get out of the venue alive without playing.”

“It usually takes sort of two or three gigs to just to get sort of settled in, so by the time we get to Ireland we’ll really be firing.”

Which brings us back to where we started - the rejuvenating powers of playing live.

“When we get on that stage, you hear the intro music start and the roar of the crowd and you remember why you’re doing this,” enthuses Warne.

“You know, we’ve got nothing more to prove really other than how good we are and how good the music’s always been. The day it becomes a chore is when we’ll stop.”

The Stranglers, March 11, Ulster Hall, Belfast / March 12, Olympia Theatre, Dublin. Tickets via waterfront.co.uk / ticketmaster.ie

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