Sad news today as the second of the crucial Punk/Post-Punk band The Stranglers has met his end on December 6th. Jet Black [née Brian Duffy] had been the founding drummer whose savvy and jazz-forged talent had been the bedrock on which The Stranglers long career was built. Brian Duffy had done time in jazz bands in the 60s in his youth, but as he was in his mid-30s, his time spent successfully running a fleet of ice cream vans and a liquor store in Guilford, put him in the mind of returning to music full time. How many other mid-life crises were responsible for the genesis of an iconic Punk band? You can count them on the fingers of a stump!
He placed an ad in the Melody Maker and assembled the then Guilford Stranglers in 1974. The band’s truculent point of view was easily matched by their musicianship; making them an uneasy fit with the transition from Pub Rock to Punk on the UK music scene of the time. UK music journalists always viewed them with suspicion due to their age and ability to really play their instruments! At the time of their first album, Jet Black; as he was now known, was a wizened 39 years of age! As old as most Punk rockers’ fathers! That year, the group signed to United Artist Records and connected strongly with the Punk audience and had success right out of the box with singles like “Grip,” “Peaches,” and “Something Better Change.”
The band’s first two albums were highly successful releases that broke through to the charts in a big way, and their third album, “Black + White,” was notable for its sophistication in pivoting to stake dramatic claim to the Post-Punk movement then happening. This forward thinking band were capable of almost anything and time would reveal them unable and unwilling to be pigeonholed in any stylistic straightjackets.
In 1982, the band switched labels from UA to Epic Records, following their biggest hit ever with the finely etched waltz time ode to the lure of heroin and women with “Golden Brown.” Jet’s drumming also transformed as the band moved on, with an unexpected shift to electronic drums for their increasingly sophisticated move into Adult Pop with their “Feline” album. Hugh Cornwell stated that he felt that they could fill the gap the recently disbanded Roxy Music had left in the marketplace and Jet was also willing to go there.
By 1990, Hugh Cornwell decided to leave The Stranglers, and Jet carried on with the band though I never warmed to Hugh’s replacement, Paul Roberts. Jet’s age, at least a generation older than his peer musicians began to work against him as he approached the age of 70 and began to have atrial fibrilation issues which saw him begin to curtail his full time appearances with the band as of 2007. Over the next decade, he would limit his appearances and touring with the band due to his difficulties with the rigors of playing and touring.
Fortunately, the band’s “Norfolk Coast” album of 2004 marked an uptick in the band’s fortunes as it spawned the UK Top 40 hit, “Big Thing Coming” and Jet was there for the late career resurgence. The last studio album he played on was 2015’s “Giants” and Jet can be seen in the album’s packaging photographed with an oxygen mask on. Who else would have had the courage to do that? His live appearances with the band eventually got to the point where he might have played only the encores to their well attended shows. In 2018, he was officially retired with Jim Macaulay then appearing in the band’s promotional photos.
His health in the last decade or more had not been well, and one has to wonder how much of his passion for woodworking he was able to indulge in after leaving the band to retire full time. And the group he had shepherded into being 48 years ago still exist, albeit with only J.J Burnel as an original member. Tonight is the night to bust out your favorite Stranglers album and consider story of the man who broke with his generation to become a foundational Punk Rock icon at the age when many men are seeing their children graduate from high school. Condolences to his family and bandmates.