Jet Black, drummer for the influential British punk and new wave group The Stranglers, has passed away following years of ill health. He was 84.
He was born Brian John Duffy on 26 August 1938 in Ilford, Essex and was a successful businessman up until the mid-1970s.
He owned a bottle shop called The Jackpot, a home brewing company and a fleet of ice cream vans. In their early years, The Stranglers used the bottle shop as their headquarters and toured the country in one of the ice cream vans. Black joined The Stranglers in 1974 after reading an advertisement in Melody Maker magazine and meeting lead singer Hugh Cornwell.
The Stranglers became an integral part of the explosive UK punk and new wave scene. They were renowned for their sophisticated sound and growling, muscular and often misanthropic lyrics. One of their earlier tracks, ‘Peaches’, from their 1977 debut album Rattus Norvegicus was a typical example of The Stranglers’ unique genre.
Black was unusual because, in a scene that was full of youthful energy and teen angst, he was actually in his mid-30s when he decided to shift his focus from business to rock ‘n‘ roll.
In a 2010 interview, Black said he had no regrets.
“Once I had made the decision and then the commitment, I then pretty much burnt my bridges, there was no turning back. I told myself that one way or another, I was going to succeed. Now, there were many, many problems, but my thoughts were focused on how to solve them, not on questioning whether I had made the right decision.”
Black later told BBC Breakfast:
“We were on a mission to break all the rules and create something new and exciting and that’s what we’ve been doing for the past 40 years. We’ve developed a style of music that is very aggressive and exciting.”
Black’s style of drumming was generally simple and jazz-influenced, although he used more frantic drumming in The Stranglers’ songs ‘Down In The Sewer’ and ‘Duchess’. The latter appeared on The Stranglers’ 1979 album The Raven, which Black said was his proudest achievement.
Over four decades, The Stranglers achieved 23 UK top 40 singles and 17 UK top 40 albums. Many charted extremely well in other countries, particularly Australia, where the band has always had a very strong and loyal fan base.
In addition to his work with The Stranglers, Black wrote two books that documented the band’s arrest in Nice, France, in 1980 for allegedly inciting a riot. He also designed a patented bass drum pedal and created bespoke furniture.
His death comes just two years after The Stranglers’ iconic keyboardist, Dave Greenfield, died at the age of 71 due to COVID-19 complications.
Black was forced to curtail his work with the band in 2007 because he was suffering from heart issues and did not have the energy to perform full sets. He rallied around in 2010 and 2011, resuming full-time duties for the band’s tours but, sadly, was taken to hospital in 2012 after falling ill before The Stranglers were due to hit the stage in Oxford.
Black continued to drum onstage when he had the energy and, famously, was brought out to perform “Golden Brown” in his later years. A firm fan favourite, audiences would often chant his name as he took his place behind the drum kit.
However, even though the slower tempo of ‘Golden Brown’ made it the easiest song for Black to drum to, he often required oxygen before going on stage.
Black’s declining health did not go unnoticed by other band members. In 2015, Stranglers’ guitarist and current lead singer Baz Warne told the Louder Than War website that “Jet will do what he can, when he can”.
“He’s a massive hard worker and he’s never shirked away from anything but, with the best will in the world, you just can’t cheat old age.”
According to Warne, Black gave The Stranglers his blessing to continue without him.
“I know a lot of the old fans say it’s not the same without Jet and they’re absolutely right, but there comes a time when you have to ask yourself a simple question — do you want to see The Stranglers without Jet or just accept that you’ll never see them again?”
Black last performed with The Stranglers in 2015 and officially retired in from the band in 2018.
In 2016, when asked whether Black would be joining an upcoming tour, bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel said, bluntly:
“He can’t. We tried that last year and I don’t want him to become a freak show, either. The most important thing for me is his health. If he can live a bit longer then that’s a great thing. Physically, he is not in a good place at all.”
Black’s health continued to deteriorate from his retirement onwards until he passed away peacefully at his home in Wales.
“The welcoming committee has doubled. After years of ill health, Jet has finally been released. He was a force of nature. An inspiration. The Stranglers would not have been if it wasn’t for him. The most erudite of men. A rebel with many causes.”
Former lead singer Hugh Cornwell, who left the band in 1990, said:
‘We were immediately drawn to each other. He had a singular sense of purpose that I identified with. He threw everything in his previous life out to dedicate himself to our common goal.’
Cornwell added that The Stranglers’ success was ‘founded on his determination and drive. His timing was faultless’.
Stranglers guitarist Baz Warne said:
“I loved Jet. He took me under his wing over two decades ago and I never really came out from under it. I’m so very sad he’s gone.”
Sil Willcox, the band’s manager, said:
“He was the Jet force that launched The Stranglers. He was the Jet force that powered the band’s determination to get heard and get noticed.”
“Jet Black was the real deal. Astute in business, a talented drummer and an obsessive perfectionist. I will cherish the times we planned, pranked, ate, drank and laughed on so many great nights together.”
On the band’s website in 2010, when asked how he would like the band to be remembered, Black replied:
“I guess if we are actually remembered, then that will do.”
Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.
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