From Kentish Town to Chicago, via Shalford – the Hugh Cornwell interview

Scouting Talent: The legendary hut that played host to The Stranglers and a Shalford boy made quite good (Photo copyright: writewyattuk)

Scouting Talent: The legendary hut that played host to The Stranglers and a Shalford boy made quite good (Photo copyright: writewyattuk)

THEY’RE the stuff of legend in my old neck of the woods – the days The Stranglers rehearsed in our village scout hut.

I was there myself within a couple of years with my first band – the 1st Shalford Cubs. But even at that impressionable age I didn’t really see the value of dib-dobbing in my woggle (not a euphemism), sticking my head in giant vats of flour to bite on manky apples, or having ‘murderballs’ propelled my way by the bigger lads.

It was only in later years that I became aware of the wider significance of that creaking wooden structure alongside the main Reading to Redhill railway line, and I’d long since forgotten my cub scout promise by the time The Stranglers were riding high in the charts and it seemed like the whole of Surrey was pretending they’d followed them from the start.

Debut Album: 1977's Rattus Norvegicus

Debut Album: 1977’s Rattus Norvegicus

I have my older brother to thank for an early appreciation of The Stranglers, getting into the ground-breaking Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes albums and later The Raven while most kids of my age preferred Grease and Star Wars. When I was 14 I saw them live for the first time at Guildford Civic Hall in early 1982, although I probably played that down at school. They were after all riding high in the charts with Golden Brown at the time.

Thirty years later, those songs still hold strong, even though at first I sang ‘lays me down, with my mancherums’ instead of ‘in my mind she runs’ on the latter hit – convinced Hugh was name-checking some exotic herbal cigarette. Although I probably wasn’t too far off there.

While managing swivel rock near-legends His Wooden Fish in the late ’80s, I remember a sell-out gig at our local, The Star in Guildford, when fire regulations ensured there were only around 100 paying customers.

That made me laugh, thinking back to that late-January night in 1982 as The Stranglers played a packed Guildford Civic Hall and singer/guitarist Hugh Cornwell asked if anyone there had been at their early shows at The Star. Needless to say, around 2,000 people shouted out in the affirmative. Even then – despite only knowing that Quarry Street local from regular shopping trips to town – I wondered how the floor had held out.

Second Album: No More Heroes, also from 1977

Second Album: No More Heroes, also from 1977

They were the Guildford Stranglers when they debuted at The Star in September ’74, with Cornwell having previously fronted a band called Johnny Sox, formed by the biochemist student while he was a post-graduate in Sweden.

Hugh takes up the story of how he ended up in my hometown: “That was a long time ago. It’s all a bit hazy. You go to Guildford now and it doesn’t look anything like it did then. I’ve got fond memories of Guildford though.”

So why Guildford? Hugh was after all a Kentish town lad. He recalled: “The band I had from Sweden – Johnny Sox – were in London when President Carter issued an amnesty for all American ‘draft dodgers’ to return home, without fear of imprisonment. Our drummer wanted to go back to Chicago to see his family, so we needed a new drummer.

“Brian Duffy, aka Jet Black, came to meet us in Camden Town, where we were staying, and said, ‘I really like what you do, why don’t you come down and stay with me? I’ve got an off-licence in Guildford, with spare rooms upstairs – we can rehearse up there and work on songs’. We said, ‘Great, why not!'”

That base was Jackpot, an off-licence and ice cream business run from Woodbridge Road, Guildford, former jazz drummer Jet – who even by the late ’70s seemed an older statesman of punk – buying a new kit from nearby Anderton’s (where I bought my two bass guitars), and setting up with his new cohorts.

Big Influence: The Stranglers' 1979 LP The Raven

Big Influence: The Stranglers’ 1979 LP The Raven

Those band-mates also included Godalming-based former Royal Grammar School pupil Jean-Jacques Burnel, Swede Hans Warmling, and a sax player dubiously named Igor Saxophonich, who lasted two days before being kicked out. 

As Steve Gibbs put it after interviewing 74-year-old Wiltshire-based Jet last year for Surrey Life, they ‘devoted as much of their time as possible to songwriting and rehearsals, in his shop basement, and Jet even sent Cornwell and JJ out in his fleet of vans to earn their keep.’

Those early gigs also included a short-lived lunchtime residency at the Royal Hotel in Stoughton, later owned by wrestling legend Mick McManus. By then, keyboardist Dave Greenfield was on board, further defining that classic Stranglers sound, Jet soon selling his businesses and moving his dysfunctional family to the village of Chiddingfold in 1975. And those rehearsals at Bramley Village Hall and Shalford Scout Hut proved even more important after they were thrown out of their cottage for rent arrears.

In time they gravitated towards London, having by then fallen out with their adopted hometown, the local council more or less ruling out a triumphant return in those early days. They did however infamously storm off stage in 1978 at the University of Surrey during a BBC Rock Goes To College transmission, after a row over ticket distribution.

By then, they’d made it, the success of Rattus Norvegicus setting the standard for 25 years of hits and so much more. And you can forgive Hugh for not remembering too much about those days, not least with The Stranglers estimated to have played 350 gigs alone in the year up to their signing for United Artists in late 1976.

Great Form: Hugh Cornwell's previous solo album, Hooverdam

Great Form: Hugh Cornwell’s previous solo album, Hooverdam

But while Hugh turns 64 at the end of next month, he remains as focused as ever, and still eager to test himself judging by his most recent solo releases, 2008’s Hooverdam and his latest LP, Totem & Taboo.

The Stranglers were the most commercially successful group to emerge from the punk and new wave scene, boasting more than 20 top 40 hits between 1977 and 1990, when Hugh left the band. Seven reached the top 10, with 1982’s Golden Brown only kept off the top spot by The Jam’s A Town Called Malice, and Cornwell acknowledged as one of the UK’s finest songwriting talents and accomplished live performers.

The Stranglers enjoyed 10 hit albums in his time, the early fire of singles like No More Heroes, Peaches and (Get A) Grip (On Yourself) gradually giving rise to a more sensitive period and successes like Always the Sun and Skin Deep.

But if that suggests a more mellow Hugh these days – having left his old band-mates more than 20 years ago, releasing a wealth of solo albums since – think again.

For the most recent album is far more stripped-down, a raw three-piece band completed by Steve Fishman (bass, backing vocals) and Chris Bell (drums) combining to great effect with Chicago-based engineer Steve Albini, best known for his past work with Nirvana, Pixies, PJ Harvey, Manic Street Preachers and The Wedding Present.

Still Firing: Hugh Cornwell remains on top of his game, judging by his latest recordings

High Quality: Hugh Cornwell remains on top of his game, judging by his latest recordings

Hugh said: “Steve did a wonderful job. I’d recorded very high quality demos of all the songs and we spent a lot of time demoing, with Steve (Fishman) and Chris (Bell) able to embellish and put their mark on. The three of us then went into the studio in London and improved on those numbers for a few weeks. We did a live show then got on a plane to see Steve. He had the demos up front so was in the picture and familiar with the songs. His brief was then to translate those songs to recordings with his special skills as an engineer.

“He does say he doesn’t like to be called a producer – he likes to be an engineer, and loves working with people who have a clear idea of what they want. He will then facilitate getting those ideas recorded. He loved it when we turned up and everything had been decided. We just sat down for the first day and worked out how many tracks we were going to need for each song, determining if we recorded it on 24-track or 16-track.

“We ended up managing to get it all on 16-track, which we preferred, as it means there’s more tape per track – a third more recording film giving a richer recording. We recorded the album in 10 days, went away, listened to it for two weeks, went back and mixed it in four days, because there was so little on it, and eight of the 10 mixes were great.

“It’s just recording in a big room, and for about three-quarters of the albums we recorded the drums in a big room, so there’s such a great ambience.”

Totem and Taboo has enjoyed rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, and is currently being performed in full on the road, alongside some classic Stranglers material.

Hugh said: “I’m playing the whole of Totem and Taboo as you hear it, but every second song is a Stranglers song, slotting in a few of the hits as we go through the album. And they sit very well together.”

Does he still enjoy playing live, after all these years? “Yes, I do, but it’s very hard work, especially when I recently went to Crete to do a festival but was there less than 24 hours. It was fabulous, but a hard trek for the timescale.”

hughcornwell04-hr

Face Value: Hugh Cornwell carries his musical influences with him

And does Hugh get the old Stranglers albums out these days? “The only time I do is when I’m going to do a version of one live and try and remember how it goes. I’ve done quite a few now. I tried Men in Black the other day, to do an acoustic version of one song. I ended up doing Thrown Away. The others were almost impossible.”

A lot of key influences can be heard on the new album, from The Beatles, The Kinks and The Who to Cream, David Bowie, Lou Reed and T-Rex. And there’s a few Stranglers moments too.

Hugh said: “When you write and record songs you tend to look back at the things you love and try to recreate those you hold in esteem in your own way. A prime example is Paul McCartney, who was quoted as saying Back in the USSR was The Beatles trying to write a Beach Boys song.

“You’re bound to hear some Stranglers influence too – I was part of that and haven’t tried drastically to change what I do. I still write songs and sing, and the lyrical content will be very similar to Stranglers, the voice and guitar, and a lot of the song-writing. So it’s not really a surprise.”

One such song is the quirky I Want One of Those, while on God Is A Woman he appears to make up for the feminist-unfriendly hit PeachesCornwell fans will recognise the trademark wordplay in places, not least on Bad Vibrations and the quintessentially-English  Stuck in Daily Mail Land. Then there are the story-songs, one of which, The Face, name-checks not only the main subject – a certain international star with the surname Ciccone – but also Paul Roberts, who replaced Hugh in The Stranglers in 1990.

He explained: “I’d been to this party, invited along to release of one of Madonna’s albums in the 1990s, at the ICA in The Mall, a great venue and a great place to have a party. It was full of great people, with limitless booze and food going around on trays. It was brilliant and this girl I know who worked for a record company introduced me at some stage to the Stranglers’ new lead singer, Paul, which was very odd. We shook hands, but didn’t really know what to say to each other, so eventually wandered off in different directions.

“I got quite drunk and wanted to go to the bathroom. I saw this queue and joined it. It wasn’t moving for about 15 minutes, and so I asked the bloke in front of me if he knew what was happening, and he said ‘she’s spending at least 10 minutes with each person’. I suddenly realised I’d joined the queue to meet Madonna in the bathroom, where she was doing one-to-ones with her fans. So I rushed out of the queue and hoped no one had seen me.”

Still Firing: Hugh Cornwell remains on fine form, 35 years after his first hits

Still Firing: Hugh Cornwell remains on fine form, 35 years after his first hits

A couple of the songs on the album were written in Los Angeles, it was recorded in Chicago, and Hugh has a number of gigs coming up in America. So is the USA a home-from-home these days? “I did an album a few years ago, 2005’s Beyond Elysian Fields, recorded in New Orleans and New York, but it was nice to do this one just in one place. As for it being a second home, only by the necessity of going there so often to play. You get more familiar with places and get to know people there. I much prefer Spain. But I’ve got a lot of time for America, and I’m very fond of it.”

I suggest there’s a real filmic feel to epic closing track, In The Dead of Night, and Hugh answers: “Well, let’s hope someone uses it in a film. Actually, I’m making films to go with all the songs. It will take another year to finish that, but when it’s all done we’re linking them all together, putting it out as a DVD.”

Away from the recording and live shows, Hugh is a keen writer too, with his latest novel, Arnold Drive, due to be published in September, set in Somerset. He added: “There’s nothing like a change – it’s as good as a rest. I like writing while I’m away. I can escape into it. The book starts off in Corsham, which I know well. I’ve got a cottage down there. And if you’re writing something you should always write about what you’re familiar with.”

So where is home these days? “I’m in central London, but all over the place, and not quite sure where home is.” And is Hugh a family man? “I’m not. I wouldn’t be able to get away with all this if I was!”

Does the former Bristol University student ever wonder what life might have been like if he hadn’t chosen music as his career path? Perhaps he might have carried on being a bio-chemist? “Well, I wasn’t very good at it. I loved doing it, but you have to be good at something or you’ll have a very frustrating, unfulfilled life. You’ve got to pick something in life that you feel you’ve a chance to do well, otherwise you’re on a downer.”

After all these years he clearly remains in love with his music, even if he doesn’t want to share too much talk about the business. The keen cricket fan added: “I’ve a lot of friends in music, but the last thing you want to do when you’re relaxing is talk about the business. The way I relax is to get completely away from it. And I’d rather talk about cricket.”

totem* Thanks as ever to Mark Charlesworth at Preston’s 53 Degrees, plus Hugh’s manager David Fagence, and Steve Gibbs for his excellent October 2012 article in Surrey Life, cataloguing the finer details of those Guildford Stranglers days (reproduced here

* For details of Hugh Cornwell’s forthcoming dates, starting with his July 5 visit to Preston 53 Degrees, and other news, head to his website here

* And for the writewyattuk lowdown on Hugh’s excellent Totem & Taboo album, head here 

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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6 Responses to From Kentish Town to Chicago, via Shalford – the Hugh Cornwell interview

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