Pre-punk survivors The Stranglers visit New Zealand for two shows this week. Trevor Reekie talks to guitarist, singer – and self-confessed new boy of the band – Baz Warne.
Baz Warne was still an unknown teenage guitarist when The Stranglers released their debut album Rattus Norvigicus in 1977.
Now he’s been an active member of the veteran act for 18 years, though like Ron Wood in the Stones, he’s still regarded as the new kid in the band.
Originally from Sunderland in the north of England, his first recordings were with Sunderland punk band The Toy Dolls, who had a freak hit when they covered a children’s song, ‘Nellie The Elephant’, in 1984.
The Stranglers still give him grief about it.
Baz went on to form a band called The Troubleshooters who released two singles before changing their name to the Smalltown Heroes in 1992. The Smalltown Heroes supported The Stranglers on a couple of tours but most of the time they toured they were barely making gas money.
By 2000 Baz thought his shot at being a musician was done, when he got a call from an old mate who had been a roadie for the Smalltown Heroes and had gone on to work for the Stranglers.
He rang Baz to let him know that The Stranglers needed a new guitarist. At the time Baz “was struggling to make ends meet. Married, two babies…. painting and decorating, doing gigs in the evening and just trying to hustle some money so we could survive”.
Baz’s then wife told him she didn’t want him to take the gig as “you’ve been away on the road on and off for 8 years and you’re a daddy now”.
And Baz thought to himself: “You know what? I think she’s right. I was 36, had two wonderful kids and I figured I’d had my shot and I will just get on with what I’m doing … and that lasted about a weekend. But then my missus, God bless her, said ‘This is killing you, go for it, you’ve got to do it’, and she kissed me on the cheek and walked into the other room.”
With a loan of a hundred pounds from a mate (on the condition he could come as well) and a battered Telecaster, Baz made the train trip to London. He was the last auditionee to arrive, having come the farthest distance. “I got the gig on the spot and I’ve never regretted it.”
The Stranglers had started out in 1974 when original drummer Jet Black formed the band. They played on the pub rock circuit with bands like Heads Hands and Feet, Ducks Deluxe and Brinsley Schwarz before The Sex Pistols released ‘God Save The Queen’, blowing the old school out of the game.
Somehow the punk fraternity embraced The Stranglers despite them being much older. They even had a keyboard player with droopy moustache who smoked a pipe.
“How un-punk is that?,” asks Baz, rhetorically. “There was a punk in the band, [bassist] J. J. Burnel, who had the haircut and he’d thump you if you looked at him the wrong way. But the other boys were older and wiser and were just happy to slot into the genre. It was a really good play and I don't think it was manufactured. It just happened.”
What the punks saw was a seriously tight band who could really play and had some great songs. During the 70s and 80s The Stranglers had 23 UK Top 40 hit singles and 17 UK Top 40 albums.
But the band really struggled in the 90’s especially after founding guitarist Hugh Cornwell left the band. A couple of them went on the dole. But Baz brought in a new motivation and a more rock-orientated direction, and a new camaraderie developed within the group. When they were writing new songs for the album Norfolk Coast in 2004 they lived together for eight months in an old farm house writing material and bonding in a close creative situation.
“We were in a studio in London recording the Norfolk Coast album and I will never forget - there was one song called ‘Big Thing Coming’ which was used for a lot of BBC link up things. and the first time I heard the play back, it’s got that wonderful Dave Greenfield apeggio keyboard descending line that you just associate with him and I was standing next to him and it came belting back out of the speakers at an earth shattering volume and I just looked at him and he looked at me with this big grin and said ‘We’re back!’”
The fans started coming back too. Over the next few years they rebuilt their brand, employing social media and playing Glastonbury and touring globally with bands like Blondie and the Simple Minds.
And who is the audience these days? “We get kids as young as seven upwards to people of seventy-five. There’s not as much aggro as there used to be although that can still happen. The last few gigs in Newcastle theres been a bit of argy bargy, shouting stuff, some of it unkind. But y’know, I’m six foot four with tattoos and a shaven head so I know how to look after myself. Things like that make a gig an event.”
Baz adds that the only time the band had to jump into a crowd and sort some things out was one time in Belgium, but that doesn't happen any more.
Jet Black once said they didn’t think they “would last 40 minutes never mind 40 years.” J.J. Burnel has said that in the early days he wasn't thinking past the end of the night - his idea of the future was getting back to the tour van without having a punch up.
“We’re fortunate to be doing this,” says Baz. “But we have worked incredibly hard but all this is entirely down to the unique live sound and the enduring quality of fantastic songs. I’d like to think that I’m an integral part of that sound but without Dave’s keyboards and J.J.’s bass we wouldn’t have The Stranglers.”
The Stranglers, Friday 2 February, Great Hall, Auckland; Saturday 3 February, Opera House, Wellington