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UK punk stalwarts the Stranglers return to the States

From left: Baz Warne, Jean-Jacques “JJ” Burnel, Jet Black, and Dave Greenfield of the Stranglers.
From left: Baz Warne, Jean-Jacques “JJ” Burnel, Jet Black, and Dave Greenfield of the Stranglers.

You know that old friend you haven't called in a while? The weeks between contact turned into months, then turned into years, and, well, picking up the phone to reconnect just seemed silly.

"You feel embarrassed," is how the Stranglers bassist Jean-Jacques "JJ" Burnel described the situation, using it as an analogy to explain what happened in the relationship between his band and North America.

It has been about 17 years since the Stranglers, a group associated with the UK's first wave of punk rock, last had a tour in this country. The arrival of "Giants," the band's 17th studio album, changed that.

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"We had offers to tour before, but we turned them down for various reasons," Burnel says when reached last month in his manager's UK office. "But now we have an album we feel justified defending."

"Giants" came out last year in Europe and slowly developed a groundswell of support, both critically and commercially.

"Last year was just mad," Burnel says. "There was no scheduled North American release for the record, but then people pricked up their ears."

All My People/Fontana/INGrooves gave "Giants" a North American release on May 28, just ahead of an eight-city tour around the United States and Canada that brings the Stranglers to Brighton Music Hall on Tuesday.

The Stranglers first album, "Rattus Norvegicus" came out in 1977, landing milestone singles "Peaches" and "(Get a) Grip (on Yourself)." And though it was a punk band, the Stranglers proffered a broader sound, especially with keyboards prominent in song arrangements and horn sections in the live shows.

"The term was hijacked," Burnel says of punk rock. "Initially, it was a word denoting freedom, but we quickly saw it straitjacketed and people created rules. Who makes these [expletive] rules? I wanted to try stuff out. When you love music, you're not tribal about it. You try and assimilate. That's the whole evolution of rock 'n' roll in the first place. British bands listened to black music and resent it back to where it came from."

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Burnel and Hugh Cornwell were the Stranglers songwriters, generating such signature tunes as "No More Heroes," "Golden Brown," and "Skin Deep." In 1990, Cornwell left the Stranglers to pursue a solo career. The band continued on with Burnel and fellow original Stranglers drummer Jet Black and keyboard player Dave Greenfield. After a couple of other post-Cornwell singers and guitarists, Baz Warne joined the band in 2000, and today he and Burnel split the vocal duties.

"Giants" is the seventh Stranglers album since Cornwell's departure, and has become the band's most successful outing since its first wave of hits in the 1970s and '80s. The Stranglers took a broad view on the disc, blurring the political and personal in songs that embrace everything from icy New Wave tones to burly gutter rock (there's even a rock 'n' roll tango).

The six-minute "Freedom Is Insane" is the Stranglers' estimation that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been monumental screw-ups

"The West feels it must impose democracy on a people. Why? Didn't we see how imposing our world view was a mistake before in Africa?" Burnel asks.

At the other end of the spectrum is "Time Was Once on My Side," a song that simply acknowledges that "we have fewer years ahead of us than behind us," says Burnel "That's just a fact."

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But songs such as "Giants" and "Mercury Rising" — pointed and critical as they are — make clear that the Stranglers are not easing quietly into old age.

"I'm from a generation that felt music was a bit important," the 61-year-old Burnel says. "I saw the power of music in the '60s. It's been diluted, but music can still have the same value and depth."

Early in their career, the Stranglers were compared to the Doors, and Burnel noted the passing of Ray Manzarek by saying the Doors provided an important soundtrack to social movements, such as the protests against the Vietnam War.

"I associate music with big events. How many big events are we living through right now? Look what just happened in Boston, look what just happened in London," he says referring to the Boston Marathon bombings and the gruesome murder of a British soldier by suspected terrorists. "I think we can still have a soundtrack and comment on what's happening. I don't want to ram anything down your throat, but just sugar the pill."

And while "Giants" is a victory for the rock band,Burnel says the tour will take an expansive look at the Stranglers songbook.

"It would be disingenuous to just come over and promote the new album. We're not on a commercial treadmill," Burnel says. "We have an embarrassment of riches, and we'll try and cover all of the bases for fans."

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The show Tuesday will be similar to the Stranglers' first Boston appearance in that once again the Nervous Eaters will be opening.

Back in 1978, the Stranglers played at the Rat in Kenmore Square, and the club's owner, Jimmy Harold, was also managing the Nervous Eaters at the time.

And like the Stranglers, Boston's Nervous Eaters earned the punk tag even though to singer, songwriter, and guitarist Steve Cataldo he was playing rock 'n' roll.

"Because people were looking to describe what was going on they just called it punk," Cataldo says. "It was just that everything sounded really original at the time."

"Boston is a good music town," Cataldo says. "When the Stranglers and the Police came here they were really well received, and they were not really punk rock. It was just good rock 'n' roll."


Scott McLennan can be reached at smclennan1010@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcLennan1.