Jet Black, drummer who helped to give the Stranglers their unique sound – obituary

Jet Black with the Stranglers in 1977 - Gus Stewart/Redferns
Jet Black with the Stranglers in 1977 - Gus Stewart/Redferns

Jet Black, who has died aged 84, was the drummer for the Stranglers, who got together before the punk revolution but were perfectly suited to play a leading role when it came along to blow up pop’s ancien regime; powered by his trenchant playing they went on to have 23 Top 40 singles and 19 Top 40 albums.

Alongside Jean-Jacques Burnel’s growling bass and Dave Greenfield’s distinctly unpunkish keyboards, Black’s drumming gave the Stranglers a unique sound. Although he spoke in interviews of being jazz-influenced, on much of the band’s output his work had elements of the propulsive motorik beat beloved of “Krautrock” combined with the insistent muscularity of Motown. Asked what marked out his style, he replied: “Perhaps my minimalism” – but, like Ringo Starr’s work with The Beatles, it was minimalism to maximum effect.

He was born Brian John Duffy on August 26 1938 in Ilford, Essex; his father was a teacher, his mother a milliner. Though he described his family as unmusical, there was a piano in the house, which he began playing from an early age, later taking up the violin at his school, a Catholic convent primary boarding school in Broadstairs; he soon became the best player there, he recalled.

Family life was fractious as his parents did not get on, he said, and he suffered badly from asthma, but “grew out of it”. At secondary school he played clarinet and formed a swing band. He had also developed an interest in percussion, and one day during a rehearsal, unhappy with what the drummer was playing, he got behind the kit himself – and, he recalled, “everyone’s lower jaw dropped.”

After leaving school – his asthma meant that he did not spend much time there and left essentially illiterate – he took up a seven-year apprenticeship to a joiner and cabinet-maker while playing drums semi-professionally, mostly around East London – “Cockney weddings, pub gigs, birthdays and celebrations of all sorts”.

After the end of his apprenticeship he went on to carve out a successful business career. He started out driving an ice cream van and eventually ran a fleet of them, branching out into a home-brewing company, and an off-licence in Guildford called “The Jackpot”. His first marriage foundered, thanks to his focus on his businesses, and after some soul-searching he realised that music was his true calling. Having laid drumming aside for a few years, he bought a new kit and began practising in a room above the shop.

The Stranglers in 1977, l-r, Hugh Cornwell, Jet Black, Jean-Jacques Burnel and Dave Greenfield - Ian Tyas/Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Stranglers in 1977, l-r, Hugh Cornwell, Jet Black, Jean-Jacques Burnel and Dave Greenfield - Ian Tyas/Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He put an ad in Melody Maker and began auditioning potential bandmates, eventually assembling a line-up of Hugh Cornwell, Burnel and Greenfield in 1974. They called themselves the Guildford Stranglers, soon dropping the prefix, and began gigging relentlessly, so by the time punk exploded in 1976 their musicianship far exceeded that of their ramshackle contemporaries (who largely despised them for it).

Their first single, Grip, was released in January 1977, and was swiftly followed by such evergreen classics as Peaches, Something Better Change and No More Heroes, and albums such as their debut Rattus Norvegicus, Black and White and The Raven. As they developed a more subtle, nuanced side, on such tracks as Golden Brown and Strange Little Girl, Black showed that he could be much more than a straight-ahead rock drummer.

Hugh Cornwell left in 1990 but the band played on. In 2007 Black took a step back from touring due to heart problems, replaced by his drum technician, and for the next few years performed on and off, playing his last gig with the band in 2015.

He wrote two books – Much Ado About Nothing in 1981 and Seven Days in Nice in 2010 – documenting the Stranglers’ arrest in the South of France in 1980 after they were accused of inciting a riot.

“On the one hand, it was such a damn waste of time,” he recalled. “On the other, it was hugely significant in launching our career in Europe which was entirely non-existent at the time.”

Black went on to utilise his cabinet-making skills, producing bespoke furniture, and designed and patented the Jet Black Power Bass Drum Pedal.

He also took a keen interest in UFOs; though not a total believer, he did say: “To me, it just isn’t logical to reject the possibility of UFOs because of the activities of a couple of cider drinkers in the West Country.”

Dave Greenfield died of Covid-19 in 2020.

Jet Black’s first marriage ended in divorce, and he is survived by his second wife Ava Rave and by a daughter and son.

Jet Black, born August 26 1938, died December 6 2022