The Stranglers are one of Britain’s longest-surviving rock bands, pre-dating punk and still playing to sell-out crowds around the world. But bassist JJ Burnel and singer Baz Warne are also mad keen bikers, often riding between gigs. MCN joins them on the road to their end-of-summer finale in Verviers, Belgium.
s the closing chords echo across a hot and steamy Belgian festival, fading into a rapturous night air filled with cheering, two rock stars leave the stage. Drenched in sweat and sky high on adrenaline, they dive straight into an Airstream caravan to towel-off and come down from the final gig of the festival season. They’ve just given the crowd a high-energy tour-de-force of their greatest hits, all powered by a relentless live intensity.
It’s at this point, dripping in post-gig euphoria, you might expect a gaggle of groupies, or a champagne and caviar food fight; perhaps with a few other pharmaceutical rock clichés thrown in.
But no. In a few minutes, and with nothing more incriminating than a bottle of Leffe, the two band leaders are casually chatting about their true passion like a pair of bike nuts.
“So tell me,” says Jean-Jacques Burnel, bassist, writer of Peaches (one of the greatest bass lines in rock), founding member of the notoriously combative Stranglers, and Triumph Tiger Explorer owner: “So tell me, what do you really reckon to the Explorer?”. “Careful how you answer that,” adds guitarist and singer Baz Warne, who also owns an Explorer. The pair make an intimidating duo; tall, dressed in black with bespoke Stranglers Dr Martens, no-nonsense reputations very much intact. Well. Let me think about it.
Not your average celeb bikers
Earlier, en route to the gig, I follow as JJ shimmies through a gridlocked M25 like a pro despatch rider, jinking left and right, panniers skimming car mirrors, clearance down to the width of a feeler gauge. A green Toyota, oblivious to motorcyclists, swaps lanes without indicating. Although JJ is ahead of the game and sees it happening, he gives the driver a robust opinion anyway. I wonder what Toyota man would say if he knew who it was he’d just cut up. Ask for an autograph? Not sure he’d get one.
Jean-Jacques is the opposite of the usual image of a celebrity biker. Tall, greying, looking younger than his 63 years but with a reputation for not suffering foolish interviewers gladly, he doesn’t swan about in front of cameras on a hacked-up piece of hipster junk. He rides a Triumph Tiger Explorer, and has a Scrambler and a Sprint RS back home. And his lifelong love affair with two wheels began before he even picked up a bass. From the age of 15 he saved diligently to buy a Harley when he passed his test at 17 in the late 1960s.
Harley's and Hells Angels
“No-one had Harleys back then because no-one had heard of them,” he says, as we queue for the tunnel, planning to meet up with Baz later in Bruges. “My dad was in the States for a year and came back enthusing about them. So I bought one, with my own money – paid £175 for it. I ironed every note before handing it over. It was a 1942 750cc side-valve, with foot clutch and hand gear change. And it was a wonderful thing because it was so mechanical. It was 6v, so when I broke down in France once, when the coil went, I got a 2CV coil, strapped it to the frame, and it ran. I could still strip and rebuild one now.”
A few years later JJ followed the Easy Rider route, chopped the Harley, and joined the Hells Angels. “But I didn’t like the way it was going. At the start it was just a biker gang, but then there was trouble, someone was killed, and I thought better of it.” Next came a BSA A65, and university.
And then came the Stranglers. A chance meeting while JJ was driving a delivery van led to the formation of one of the most enduring bands in history. “I picked up a hitch-hiker; he was a draft-dodging American singer who’d brought his Swedish band to England to seek their fortune. I dropped him off, met his band, didn’t think any more of it. Couple of weeks later a guy called Hugh Cornwell knocked on my door. He looked forlorn and said his band had gone back to Sweden. He was living with a drummer called Jet Black. I played guitar and had written a few songs, but Hugh had this bass so I played that, and we started a band. A year later we were living in a squat – well, it became a squat because we didn’t pay the rent. I’d sold the Harley and the BSA to pay for band gear.”
The first Hinkley Triumphs
After years of gigging, refining their act and finding their sound, by the late 1970s the Stranglers had broken through. Their first three albums were huge with classics like Peaches, No More Heroes, Nice n’ Sleazy and Burning Up Time. “It was an overnight success that took four years,” smiles JJ. “But the first thing I did with my initial royalty cheque was buy another bike. Bought a house with the second cheque, so I had my priorities the right way round.”
That bike was a Triumph T160 Trident Cardinal, and began a love affair with the brand that survives to this day, through bad times (the death throes of the British industry, and a brief flirtation with Harleys again) and good (the growth of Hinckley Triumph).
“I was excited about what John Bloor was doing,” says JJ. “I got re-introduced to Triumphs by Steve Lilley, from Triumph dealer Jack Lilley, who got me on a Thunderbird around 1997.” By now we’ve hooked up with the other half of the biking Stranglers, Baz Warne. Baz rides an Explorer too, but comes at biking from a different direction. We chat at a fuel and coffee stop. “Compared to JJ I’m a novice,” says Baz. Like JJ he’s an imposing presence, but a rougher northeast diamond to Burnel’s cosmopolitan polish. Despite playing in the Stranglers for 15 years and riding bikes for eight, 51-year-old Baz is still seen as a newcomer to both. “I’ve been a professional musician since my mid-20s, and for all those years all I did was eat, sleep and breathe music. I didn’t have time for anything else. I met the Stranglers when my band supported them in the mid 90s. In 2000 they asked me to audition.”
So where did the love of bikes come from? “He had one before he had a licence,” laughs JJ, talking about the Triumph Scrambler Baz acquired in 2007. “How cool is that?”
“But I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get into biking,” says Baz. “When I think of all the riding I’ve missed out on over the years – but you know, I’ve got plenty to come. And I’m still learning – I love watching other people ride, watching how they do things, where they put their feet, stuff like that. And now I can tie in the riding with a few pals and the band. “I love the peace and quiet inside a helmet. And I’ve got a nice, big, powerful, comfortable touring machine, got a fantastic girlfriend and she absolutely adores it. We’ve got the panniers and all the swag, and we just get on the bike and ride; been to quite a few places now. Went up to Skye the other week, it was just lovely. That’s my bag. It’s not to say I don’t like going fast; got a b****rd speeding ticket last week.” By now we’re making our way through rolling farmland. JJ rides with a measured confidence, but Baz knows what he’s doing and they both sweep along at a good pace. Verviers funds its own free festival with four separate stages dotted around the town centre. We arrive at the hotel, and order food. I ask JJ and Baz about Triumph. What makes them so loyal?
“It’s a combination of things,” says JJ. “For me it’s nostalgia for a brand for which I have a very deep fondness. But also it’s a British marque – you can have a misguided loyalty when you support something that isn’t very good, but Triumphs are as good as anything else. And I admire the trajectory of the company, and respect the people who helped develop it. And it’s a template, or a benchmark, for other firms. At one point British manufacturing was the best, and then it fell apart because of complacency and lack of investment. The British have a great ability to be self-deprecating, and I often hear Americans say ‘why are you beating yourselves up?’. In this country we don’t big ourselves up; we don’t like people who brag. But it can undermine the things we’re good at. I think we should shout out loud about what Triumph have done.”
The conversation starts to mix showbusiness with motorcycling. Anecdotes come tumbling out. There’s the one about JJ walking across the street to help a bloke struggling to kickstart an old Bonnie, and when he flips the visor up it’s Simon Le Bon. Chippy, the photographer, asks if he can get the bikes on stage during the gig. Baz looks at him, deadpan, over the top of his shades: “That would be impossible,” he says, seriously. He pauses. “We’re not fookin’ Judas Priest ya knas.” Then JJ admits he used to take a Bonneville on stage, when he was touring a 1979 solo album that featured the sound of the parallel twin ticking over on one of the tracks, Triumph (Of The Good City). “I had to warm it up before I could get it in the studio to record it,” he laughs. “Otherwise it would just die. On tour, they stopped me taking it on stage; it was the first days of Health and Safety: ‘Has it got any oil in it sir?’ Of course not; it’s a Bonneville.”
Crowd go wild
The gig is breath-taking. JJ’s bass threatens to dislodge masonry, and Baz’s vocals and guitar honour the old songs as well as the new. With original member Dave Greenfield’s high speed keyboard arpeggios and touring drummer Jim’s colossal drums (Jet Black’s health isn’t up to a full set) rounding out the sound, when the band strike up Duchess and Golden Brown the crowd go wild. And so to that question; what do I think of the Triumph Explorer? I’ve just had one of the best weekends of my life, riding, eating, drinking and listening to the Stranglers. I wouldn’t mind doing it again. “I’ll tell you next time.”