They’re still proving their own song’s “no more heroes” mantra wrong by playing to sell out crowds around the world, but The Stranglers keep their feet and wheels on the ground with a Triumph always close at hand.
Internationally renowned motorcycle journalist Simon Hargreaves joined the band’s rock icons, bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel and singer Baz Warne, on part of their European tour on a trip that often saw them riding between gigs on their Tiger Explorers.
Fresh from gigs in the States, they’re booked for a seven show 2019 run with Alice Cooper around the UK in October followed by a trio of November Tokyo dates, before heading to Europe for 14 gigs to end the year.
Their website signs off with “… see you on the road”. And they mean it literally.
When you’ve sold millions of albums, you’ve earned the right to have any bike you want. Or any three bikes, if you like. Especially if they’re all Triumphs. “Besides my Explorer I also have a Sprint RS from the late 1990s that I love and a Scrambler,” said Jean-Jacques, leaning his imposing six-foot-plus frame against the Triumph Tiger on the forecourt of a Belgian service station.
Bassist and founder member of The Stranglers, JJ is also a karate expert and comes with a reputation for not suffering foolish interviewers gladly. But he’s also urbane, cosmopolitan and thoughtful – so when he describes his deep and abiding passion for Triumph, you tend to believe he means it.
Combative and often controversial, The Stranglers formed, pre-punk, in 1974 and gigged relentlessly for years, refining their sound. Then, between 1977 and 1978, they released three classic albums in a row – Rattus Norvegicus, No More Heroes and Black And White – which contained a string of hits, including Peaches, No More Heroes, Nice n’ Sleazy and Burning Up Time. (Listen to these tracks on FTR’s Spotify playlist here.)
“It was an overnight success that took four years,” smiled JJ. “But first thing I did with my first royalty cheque was buy a Triumph. I bought a house with the second cheque, so I had my priorities the right way round.”
That bike was a T160 Trident Cardinal, and it began a love affair with Triumph that survives to this day, through bad times (the collapse of the British bike industry in the 80s) and good (the resurgence of the Hinckley Triumphs).
A Bonneville even made it on to JJ’s first solo album in 1979. The track was called Triumph (Of The Good City) – a play on the Bonneville name – and the sound of the parallel twin on tick-over formed the basis of the song’s percussion.
“I had to warm it up before I could get it in the studio to record it,” he laughed. “Otherwise it would just die.” And then came the Hinckley Triumphs. “I was excited about what John Bloor was doing,” said JJ.
“I became friends with Steve Lilley, the Triumph dealer in west London, and he got me on a Thunderbird triple in 1997. It was an amazing bike and felt like a natural progression from the parallel twins.”
The Sprint RS soon followed, which JJ toured all over Europe. Then came the Scrambler, which led to the Tiger Explorer he currently rides. “It suits me perfectly,” he said. “I love the power and the performance; I’m not a particularly fast rider, but I don’t hang about.”
And, as if to prove it, JJ demonstrates his skill by dealing with traffic around Brussels in short order.
By now we’ve met up with the other half of The Stranglers who also rides a Triumph; guitarist and lead vocalist Baz Warne. Baz, who’s no less imposing than JJ with his shaved head and shades, has played in the band for 15 years and ridden bikes for eight years.
“But compared to JJ I’m just a novice,” said Baz. “I’ve been a professional musician since I was in my mid-20s, and all I did was eat, sleep and breathe music. I didn’t have time for anything else. I met The Stranglers in the mid 90s and in 2000 they asked me to audition for them, and I joined.”
So where did Baz’s love of Triumphs come from?
“He had one before he had the licence,” laughed JJ, talking about the Triumph Scrambler Baz acquired in 2007. “How cool is that? He felt obliged to pass his test.
“I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get into biking,” said Baz. “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. But I’m aware I’m a novice compared to others.” “I love the peace and quiet inside a helmet,” he continued. “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.
For me it’s nostalgia for a brand for which I have a very deep fondness.Baz Warne
What is it about Triumphs? What makes them so loyal?
“It’s a combination of things,” said 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 for other British manufacturers. At one point British manufacturing represented the best in the whole world, 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?’.
So I think we should shout out loud about what Triumph has done.” Baz agreed: “It’s a British success story. In my riding life so far I’ve ridden all of six bikes and three of them I’ve owned and they’ve been Triumphs: a Scrambler, a Tiger 800 and now the Explorer.”
The gig is breathtaking. The Stranglers have lost none of their power to electrify on stage. JJ’s bass threatens to dislodge masonry from some of Verviers’ older buildings, and Baz’s vocals and guitar honour the old songs as well as the new.
With original member Dave Greenfield’s signature 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 strikes up Duchess and Golden Brown, the crowd go wild.
No More Heroes finishes the night off, and shows that after 40 years in the business, The Stranglers are still at the top of their game. Which means they’ll probably be riding their Triumph Tiger Explorers to a gig near you soon.