A quarter of a century after he left The Stranglers, Hugh Cornwell remains a regular on the live circuit – still in love with his back-catalogue, and still ticking off life ambitions.
In the scheme of things, he’s been outside the band with which he made his name for 50 years all told, yet the Men in Black’s material continues to feature heavily in his live set. That said, the 66-year-old Londoner’s latest tour celebrates his solo years too, on the back of a new compilation album and live DVD.
All these years on, Hugh remains a respected songwriting talent and accomplished performer, with seven solo studio albums (if I’ve counted right) behind him, as well as a couple of collaborations, several live recordings and a few collections.
His first solo album even pre-dated the departure from his old band. But he remains best known as the original guitarist, singer and main songwriter in The Stranglers, (largely) enjoying massive success, not least 10 hit albums and 21 top-40 singles. Along the way, the band etched themselves into the European and American musical psyche through classics such as Peaches, Something Better Change, No More Heroes, Duchess, Golden Brown, Strange Little Girl and Always the Sun.
And while former bandmates Jean-Jacques Burnel, Jet Black and Dave Greenfield continue touring and recording under the old name – to a large and appreciative following, Baz Warne having led them for almost as long as Hugh and interim vocalist Paul Roberts now – the founding frontman is receiving his own accolades, not least on the back of his most recent album, 2013’s Totem and Taboo.
Hugh was between dates in Shrewsbury and Leeds when I caught up with him, not far off my patch and set to head over to Lancashire for dates in Morecambe (November 12) and Colne (November 13), before returning again for a show in Southport (November 28). And while he was only three nights into the latest leg of the tour at the time, it seemed that he’d made a bright start.
“I’ve got a few old numbers I’m playing that I’ve never played before, and they’re going down very well, so I’m quite happy with what’s going on.”
I should explain at this point that Hugh likes to go back to the back-catalogue and try out a few numbers from his past, giving them a fresh twist.
“Absolutely. I’ve taken an idea I had two years ago, last time I was on an acoustic tour, to go through the albums I’ve been involved in, both in and out of The Stranglers, pulling one off each album. And it went down so well before.
“I’ve managed to change the whole selection this time, which is great. And that’s what’s nice about going out acoustically – you’ve got a chance to experiment. It’s a bit more complicated when you’ve got a live band. With an acoustic guitar you can get away with murder!
“When you’re doing a band interpretation, you’ve a lot more original parts to try and arrange, whereas all anyone expects with an acoustic guitar is some chords … and a voice to go with it.”
Can you give me examples of a couple of songs you’re bringing into the set?
“I’ve gone back to The Gospel According to the Meninblack and found another song I can play, Second Coming. That works well and is really going down well. Then I found another from 10 which is working well, Man of the Earth, then I go forward in time, get to Totem and Taboo and a song from the next album which I’m quite happy with.”
The last time I caught up with Hugh was in June, 2013, just prior to your 53 Degrees date in Preston on the tour for that Totem and Taboo album. And that at least saved him from a grilling over the distant past with a band from my neighbourhood, once known as The Guildford Stranglers, and their practises at my old Surrey village scout hut in Shalford. So if you want to know all about those days, check out the link at the end of this feature. Because this time it’s more about the now … at least for a while.
Anyway, Hugh’s playing just short of 20 dates this month, followed by another in Paris on December 9th. Are they all venues he knows well?
“I can’t tell until I get there. I’ve done so many dates over the years, that’s it’s only when I get somewhere that I realise I’ve been there. That happened yesterday in Shrewsbury. I went to a venue and it looked like a couple of other places I’ve played. Then I went to the pub for a beer after and remembered the pub!”
Incidentally, a fellow Lancashire-based journalist – who shall remain nameless here – reminded me about the last HC visit to Morecambe, and asked me to put it to Hugh if he recalled an awestruck, wrecked reporter coming backstage with a mate to interview him 10 or so years ago. That same scribe also added ‘what a lovely, genial, cool bastard’ he was. I relate this to the man himself, and he laughs.
“Well, that’s very nice of him to say that. I have absolutely no recollection of that incident though, so he’s probably relieved.”
While Hugh’s never been one to mince his words, and was once part of a volatile band that appeared to court controversy, I’ve found that most of his peers have huge respect for him. In fact, he also came up in conversation during my recent interview with Rick Wakeman, when I noted how – despite the supposed ‘year zero’ approach to all that came before punk – The Stranglers carried traces of the prog legend’s past product in places, not least Dave Greenfield’s keyboard wizardry.
Rick mentioned how Hugh said Golden Brown was him trying to write a prog piece, adding, ‘I like Hugh a lot, a smashing fella, and he told me they never considered themselves a punk band, but just got put in that category, and because it suited they went with it.’ So is that true, Hugh?
“Absolutely. It was an opportunity, and no one can convince me The Police were a punk band, or Blondie were a punk band, or Elvis Costello was a punk. Yet it was an opportunity for us all, and we didn’t care what they called us. Who cares! It was an opportunity for us to break into the music business and gain an audience. And it’s funny, because all the people that were on the periphery were the ones that came through and went on to bigger things really.”
Getting back to this tour, I can’t believe it’s more than two years since I caught Hugh at Preston’s 53 Degrees. That was a great night, with Caroline Campbell on bass and Chris Bell on drums. But this time it’s just Hugh.
“Yes, and there are a couple of reasons for this tour. It’s 25 years since I left The Stranglers, and that was pointed out to me by a record label that phoned up and told me they wanted to put together a compilation of my solo stuff for that reason. I was very flattered they’d even considered it, and that’s now out, The Fall and Rise of Hugh Cornwell, so on this tour I’ll play quite a few of the tracks from that collection.
“The other interesting thing is that two years ago – on that last acoustic tour – I was fortunate enough to film one of the shows – at the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen. And we’ve since put together, lovingly, a beautiful little DVD of the show, called Anthology, out as a limited edition in the UK.
“Each copy of the DVD will have a personally-numbered sticker. So those who buy a copy can photograph their number and scan it to my website. And at the end of the tour I’m going to hold a draw, and the one with the lucky number is going to get a great piece of memorabilia, probably unique – a 30” by 20” poster signed by me for the Stranglers and Friends versus the Media cricket match in 1979.”
What do you remember about that match?
“Alan Edwards, our publicist at the time, realised I was really big cricket fanatic, so suggested a charity match between the Stranglers and the media, because we had this on-going thing with them. So we wanted to take it on to the cricket pitch! We got all our equipment in black – hats, bats, pads and so on, while they were in white. It was a great spectacle.
“I designed the poster with a little cartoon, and we ran it off to fly-post around London, let people know it was on. I recently found a pristine copy of it in my attic, and doubt it that anyone else was one of these. So that’s going to be the prize.”
Who was playing in your team that day? Were the roadies queuing up to join you (God forbid)?**
“Yeah …. I’m not sure if Dave Greenfield played, but Jet and Jean definitely did, and Captain Sensible and a few of our friends. Lemmy was going to play, but he had a verruca. He did show me a note from his Mum though, saying he couldn’t play. Kate Bush was going to play, but she chickened out in the end.
“And our fast bowler had the pleasure and delight of being able to clean-bowl Richard Williams with the first ball, which was great. Richard was the editor of Melody Maker, and went on to become a well-respected journalist in many fields, not just in music.”
Back to today, and when it came to the track listing of the Invisible Hands Music solo years’ compilation, The Fall and Rise of Hugh Cornwell (already out on CD and now released on vinyl too), was there as bit of head-scratching in selecting which tracks to include?
“There would have been if I’d been involved. Thankfully they made the choice before I even got involved, which was probably a good idea. If I’d have been doing it, it wouldn’t have come out. I’d still be scratching my head now.
“It’s a very melodic, almost romantic selection they’ve gone for. I’d probably have gone a bit darker and heavier, predictably. But a lot of the tracks are ones I would have put on there. I’m very pleased with it.”
The new compilation album covers Hugh’s first six solo albums, with the tracks remastered, and the CD/digital version including a new recording of Live It And Breathe It.
As it is, Hugh’s first solo album, Wolf, even pre-dated him leaving the Stranglers, going back to 1988.
“That’s right, and there are a couple of great tracks from that included. And I was always a fan of Getting Involved.”
I note that Totem and Taboo is not represented. Was that a conscious decision, seeing as it’s not so long ago in the scheme of things?
“Well, it is, and I think I agree with them there. They felt it would have been a bit cheeky to put something so recent on.”
I was mightily impressed with that album, not least performed live alongside all those ‘oldies but goldies’, as you put it at the time. Have you been writing a few new songs of late?
“I have indeed. I have about half of the songs written and will continue, after this tour, writing and demoing songs. I’m making an album by default every four years, which takes me to next year. But I’m not sure if I’m going to have the time to get it all done by then. We’ll see.”
Would you work with Chicago-based Steve Albini (who engineered Totem and Taboo to great effect) again?
“I haven’t even discussed with the people I work with who we’d like to work with, or our dream team. But Steve is a great guy to work with, and so easy to work with. He suits my way of thinking. I went in with quite a strong idea of what I wanted to sound like, and he said, ‘It’s so easy working with you, because you’ve an idea of what you want’.
“He said, ‘The difficulty is when people come and they want to be produced – because I’m not a producer! I’ll help someone get the sound they want, but they need to tell me what they want.’ He’s very comfortable with that, and does make creative decisions within that sound. But he likes to have arrangements worked out, which is one of my fortes.”
When you’re not on the road, are you still hovering between bases in London and Wiltshire?
“I am indeed, and various other points on the globe. I’ve a lot of projects I’m in the midst of at the moment.
“Funnily enough, seeing as you mentioned Rick Wakeman and prog earlier, I’m just finishing an album with John Cooper Clarke singing. No one else is really aware of this, but he’s got a great baritone voice, and we’ve done versions of a lot of old classic songs. Those include MacArthur Park, with the world’s chief prog flute player, Ian Anderson, playing on there.”
That must put a smile on your face, moments like that – meeting people who were such an important part of your musical heritage, and paying homage to songs and songwriters you rate.
“Absolutely, and I’m going to write a song about Jimmy Webb, because he’s one of my heroes. What a great writer, and a pillar of musical achievement.”
It must be good that all these years down the line you’re still ticking off major firsts and life’s ambitions.
“Yes, I’m still doing that. I had the pleasure of shaking hands with Ginger Baker a week ago, which ticked another box. That’s amazing, being able to do things like that.”
Away from the music, Hugh is an accomplished writer in another field, with five books behind him. His first dates back to 1980, Inside Information telling of his time in HMP Pentonville for drug possession. Then there was The Stranglers – Song by Song in 2001, followed three years later by his A Multitude of Sins autobiography. Since then, we’ve had two novels, Window on the World (2011) and Arnold Drive (2014), with the next on its way.
“Yeah, I’m halfway through another. This one’s taking a bit longer as it has a more complicated story, involving a lot of research. But it’s coming on.”
Since our last chat, I confess to Hugh, I’ve spoken to a certain fella called Jean-Jacques Burnel (the legendary Stranglers bass player), and we further reminisced about those halcyon days of his old band.
So, dare I ask if he’s re-opened the channels with his old band-mates these past couple of years after past fall-outs?
“No, I haven’t. They’re out there doing it, and the thing we have in common is that we both love the old catalogue. But the fact is that I didn’t want to continue playing it ad infinitum for the rest of my days, so I’ve created this alternative life, where I play some of it, a different way, and people also expect me to play a lot of new stuff.
“We do share the love of that old catalogue, and the longer it goes on and the longer the new line-up of The Stranglers keep playing reaffirms the strength of it. That can only do good for me and The Stranglers. It’s of mutual benefit. But I don’t really have anything in common with those guys anymore. It’s all a long time ago. Life moves on … and that’s it.”
Finally, the drummer who helped get the band together in the first place, Jet Black, has had a few health scrapes in recent times. When Hugh thinks back on everything they got up to over the past 40 or so years, it must make him wonder how the old band are all – thankfully – still alive and kicking.
“It’s remarkable, isn’t it. And if you look back, most of the old punks are still alive. Very odd, Very crazy.”
** ‘Roadies?’ you ask. Yes, I know. Last time I interviewed Hugh, I mentioned how in Golden Brown, I originally thought he was name-checking an obscure illegal cigarette when he sang, ‘Lays me down with my mancherums’, rather than ‘with my mind she runs’. So this time I’m bringing up another historically-misheard Cornwell lyric, having thought for many moons the line from Duchess was, ‘And the roadies are queuing up, God forbid’. It’s actually ‘Rodneys’ (meaning posh fellas, I presume). I still prefer ‘roadies’ though.
For the July 2013 writewyattuk interview with Hugh Cornwell, head here. For the July 2014 writewyattuk interview with Jean-Jacques Burnel, head here. And for the March 2015 writewyattuk interview with Baz Warne, head here.
Hugh is at Morecambe The Platform (01524 582803) on November 12 , Colne The Muni on November 13 (01524 582803), and Southport Atkinson Theatre on November 28 (01704 533333). For further tour dates and all the latest from Hugh, including details of the new compilation album, live DVD and poster competition, head to his official website here.
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