The Stranglers: how we made European Female

‘I was going out with a Parisian ballerina and projected my idea of Europe on to her. It was passionate, destructive relationship – that’s why we’re all in cages in the video’

Jean-Jacques Burnel, singer-songwriter, bass

I was once described in France as “the most English Frenchman and the most French Englishman”. I was born in London to French parents, which was a source of much angst when I was growing up, because I wanted to be English. When I went to a posh grammar school in Guildford, I called myself John because I wanted to fit in. So on the pictures of me in the rugby team I was John Burnel.

I was in the cadets but becoming an officer in the British Army wasn’t open to me, which was another reminder of me being French. English boys’ mums didn’t kiss me at the school gates. I had quite a few punch-ups at school. When I went to college in Huddersfield, a bloke I shared a house with confronted me because my mum sent me a letter addressed to “Jean-Jacques”. He turned out to be the local National Front organiser. I started to think a lot about identity. I guess a lot of immigrants feel the same thing. I started to embrace my Frenchness and the European project early on. My solo album Euroman Cometh, in 1979, was about the ideal of a united Europe and the recognition that more binds us than separates us.

The Stranglers’ Feline album was an attempt to marry the northern element of Europe – represented by synthesisers and electronic drums – with the southern element of Spanish and acoustic guitars. We had songs about Paris and Rome. The concept of Feline was that Europe wasn’t a bulldozer, but was slowly, stealthily taking control.

European Female (In Celebration Of) was an attempt to address my identity and in a way it was my European version of Californian Girls by the Beach Boys. I was going out with a Parisian ballerina, Anna, at the time, so I projected my idea of Europe on to a person. She had green eyes, like in the song. When the French speak, they pout – it’s the way we form words – so “when she speaks, her lips are kissing”. It was a passionate, very destructive relationship, but for three years “she had me in her spell”, which was the idea behind putting us in cages in the video. The line, “We’ll be together for a thousand years” is using the cliche of the thousand year Reich, but in a love song.

I came in with the bass and lyrics and Hugh [Cornwell] added the guitar and harmony on the chorus. If he says I sing it like Marlene Dietrich, I’ll take that. It needed a certain type of delivery. You couldn’t shout or scream it.

Dave Greenfield, keyboards

We recorded it in Brussels, but that wasn’t anything to do with the concept of the song. At the time, you used to save tax by recording overseas, so we recorded a few albums over there. We all had apartments near the studio. Not the height of luxury, but it was a nice working environment. Our girlfriends – mine then is my wife now – were often in the studio. There’s a good chance that Anna, the European Female, was watching while we were recording it.

The song was produced by Steve Churchyard and mixed by Tony Visconti. We’d generally get ideas in the rehearsal room and then work them out there, long before recording. For European Female, I just came up with something on my old synthesiser to go with the band’s bits. The best ideas come pretty quickly. With Golden Brown, for example, I was working on a song called Second Coming with Jet [Black, drummer] but came up with something that didn’t fit, but that unused part eventually became Golden Brown. The keyboard melody for European Female is mostly spontaneous, or very close to it. It’s just two chords, with arpeggios over them. It’s pretty simple, but it fits.

It was our third Top 10 of 1982 following Golden Brown and Strange Little Girl, but it was one of the Top of the Pops appearances where we behaved ourselves. The Musician’s Union guy used to make you rerecord all the tracks [to then mime to on the show], so we’d distract him and use the original. There was a lot of hanging around, so to try and make things more entertaining for ourselves we do things like play the wrong instruments or mime very badly. I once pretended to play with gloves on the end of sticks. We did a TV show in Germany where Jet spent the entire song sawing up a bass drum.

• The Stranglers’ Final Full UK tour starts at the Engine Shed, Lincoln, on 20 October.

This is Europe newsletter


Interviews by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
How we made punk fanzine Sniffin' Glue
‘Punk was like a bomb going off. By issue four, we were talking about taking over the music business’

Interviews by Daniel Dylan Wray

10, Dec, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
‘We were called heretics and ostracised’: the Stranglers on fights, drugs and finally growing up
They brawled with the Sex Pistols, gaffer-taped a journalist to the Eiffel Tower and got thrown out of Sweden twice. Now, for their 18th album and final tour, the punks seem to be maturing at last

Dave Simpson

31, Aug, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
How we made Eddy Grant's Electric Avenue
‘I’d watched the Brixton riots. People felt they were being left behind and there was a potential for violence. The song was intended as a wake-up call’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

03, Sep, 2018 @3:48 PM

Article image
How we made Three Lions: David Baddiel and Ian Broudie on England’s Euro 96 anthem
‘I heard German fans singing it after they knocked England out. I had to resist throwing a TV out of the window’

David Baddiel and Rich Pelley

07, Jun, 2021 @1:47 PM

Article image
The Damned: how we made New Rose
‘Audiences hated us, motorcycle gangs chased us’ … fuelled by amphetamine and cider, this bunch of former toilet-cleaners and gravediggers made Britain’s first punk single

Interviews by Dave Simpson

19, Mar, 2018 @3:00 PM

Article image
The Stranglers on 40 years of fights, drugs, UFOs and 'doing all the wrong things'

Legend has it the Stranglers started a fight with the Clash, took heroin for a year, exploited strippers on stage, and incited a riot in Nice. But the truth, the band tell Dave Simpson, was often much worse

Dave Simpson

12, Mar, 2014 @6:11 PM

Article image
'We like a party!' – why is Scottish pop so potent?
It all started 60 years ago with the line: ‘There’s a moose loose aboot this hoose!’ But is the eccentric spirit that unites Biffy Clyro, Orange Juice and Ivor Cutler dying out in the age of Calvin Harris?

Sylvia Patterson

19, Jun, 2018 @3:57 PM

Article image
Jerry Dammers: how I made Free Nelson Mandela
Jerry Dammers on how a kid from Coventry who had never heard of Nelson Mandela ended up writing a global hit that became the anti-apartheid anthem

Interview by Dave Simpson

09, Dec, 2013 @7:00 AM

Article image
‘I’d rather be a one-hit wonder than a no-hit wonder’ – the Vapors on Turning Japanese
‘Our drummer didn’t like the song. He just went: “Boom! Splat!” But it sounded great so we kept it’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

13, Feb, 2023 @12:58 PM

Article image
How we made Chumbawamba's Tubthumping
Our neighbour would come home drunk every week, try to get into his house, fall over, and shout for his wife – it was a ritual

Interviews by Homa Khaleeli

05, Apr, 2016 @6:00 AM