Back to Black - Frank McNally on The Stranglers’ unsuspected Irish heritage

You couldn’t throw a stone in any direction in Monaghan without a high risk of hitting a Duffy

It had somehow escaped me until he died last week that Jet Black, long-time drummer with The Stranglers, was in real life Brian John Duffy, first-generation Londoner of an Irish father.

Now, in the classic style, I’m wondering which Duffys those would have been. Because growing up in Monaghan, ancient headquarters of the clan, you couldn’t throw a stone in any direction without a high risk of hitting somebody of that name.

We even had a Duffy’s Cross just down the road. And speaking of music, the cross was also still synonymous with a long-gone dancing deck. But I don’t think any of that family went to London.

With the wisdom of hindsight, I now realise that the name “Jet Black” must have been a nod to his ancestral heritage. Deriving from “dubh”, after all, Duffy means “the black lad”, or words to that effect.


Monaghan is also replete with similarly suffixed north-facing townlands, the most famous being Patrick Kavanagh’s Shancoduff, which has never seen the sun rising and is condemned forever to the unrelieved spectacle of Armagh.

But drumlin background or not, the artist formerly known as Brian John Duffy is yet another example of an extraordinary phenomenon whereby English-born children of Irish emigrants grew up to be musicians, especially of the Punk or New Wave kind.

Hence Johnny Rotten, Morrissey, Elvis Costello, Shane McGowan, Kevin Rowland of Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Boy George, the Gallagher Brothers, and more. It’s a long list, inexplicable by the law of mere averages.

Here was a subject worthy of a thesis. And sure enough a few years ago, Cambridge academic Sean Campbell, himself the offspring of emigrants, turned it into a book: Irish Blood, English Heart: Second Generation Irish Musicians in England (Cork University Press, 2011).

Alas, Jet Black did not feature. And in general, he seems never to have discussed his Irish heritage. But perhaps The Stranglers’ geographic and chronological origins explain the silence.

They started out as The Guildford Stranglers, after the Surrey town where they formed in early 1974. Guildford was soon afterwards to become synonymous with the IRA bombs planted in two pubs later that year, and with the four people wrongly convicted of the crime, who spent 15 years in jail before exoneration. The Stranglers were a Guildford Four too. No wonder they dropped the prefix.

It seems ironic therefore that one of the few pre-obituary references I can find to Jet Black’s real name in newspaper archives is from a 1980 court case.

He and the other band members were under arrest in France at the time, charged with incitement to violence after a concert at Nice University. In fact, they had only walked off stage in protest at a power-cut. But that precipitated a riot.

Their manager claimed they were being scapegoated for the organisers’ incompetence. But he also feared they would be used as an example to young Frenchmen who turned up at concerts looking for trouble “the same way as yobbos at football matches in England”.

Meanwhile, in a rare case of criminal charges unblackening a person’s name, the Stranglers’ drummer was described in court reports as “Brian Duffy (42)”. Happily, he did not become another in the list of Irish miscarriage of justice victims. The band escaped with a fine.

Not the least remarkable thing about Duffy was his age, as mentioned in those reports. The Stranglers were in general a bit on the mature side for Top of the Pops. At the height of punk, three band members were already over 27, the age at which rock stars traditionally died.

But Duffy was positively ancient. He was also a successful businessman, who owned an off-licence, sold home-brew beer kits, and ran a fleet of ice-cream vans, one of which became the band’s official transport.

For this and other reasons (including the fact that, as Duffy put it, “we could play our instruments”), the Stranglers never considered themselves punks. And their relative sophistication helps explain such songs as No More Heroes, which eulogised Leon Trotsky, Shakespeare, and “the Great Elmyr-a”.

Jet Black’s death aged 84 finally prompted me to look that last name up. It turns out that “the great Elmyr-a” was actually Elmyr de Hory (1906 -76), a celebrity art forger whose first name the band amended slightly for rhyming purposes.

I owe this knowledge to Wikipedia’s “Elmyra (Disambiguation)” page, which also mentions an “Elmyra Gainsborough” and an “Elmyra Duff”. Neither of those are referenced by the song, however. This despite Elmyra Duff’s surname having similar origins to Duffy’s. (In case you were wondering, by the way, she would have been one of the Duffs of Hollywood: and more specifically a child character from the Warner Brothers’ Tiny Toon Adventures.)