Apparently, four punters needed St John Ambulance medical attention in Kendal the night before I got to see Hugh Cornwell and his band’s two assured sets in not so far off Clitheroe.
With that in mind, Hugh told the audience at The Grand to keep an eye on those around them during part two of the proceedings, suggesting we might step in and loosen any clothing if need be.
Thankfully there was no Death by Strangulation this time around, a dose of honest, old school r’n’r proving just what the doctor ordered (and I don’t necessarily mean Hugh’s recent comrade-in-arms, John Cooper Clarke). Besides, as the headline act continues to claim in his defence, ‘The worst crime that I ever did was play some rock’n’roll’.
It’ll be 38 years next February since I first caught him live, at that point already in his seventh year with The Stranglers, their 16th single on its way to becoming their biggest hit.
If there was a level of thinking then that the success of ‘Golden Brown’ suggested a slip towards the mainstream, that was quickly kicked into touch. And neither Hugh, who remained on board until 1990 (10 more top-40 hits following) or his old bandmates have shown signs of mellowing since.
More to the point, he remains a creative force, as proven by the strength of his most recent releases, his continued love of the three-piece on this occasion seeing him with his latest learned ‘tag team’, Pat Hughes (bass) and Windsor McGilvray (drums), lecturers at Guildford’s Academy of Contemporary Music when not touring with their Wiltshire-based main-man.
From the walk-on music – a glorious brass-led instrumental ‘Totem and Taboo’ (is that available for general consumption, Hugh? Only I want one of those, so to speak) – there was a real buzz of anticipation at a cracking venue among the Ribble Valley’s more culturally clued-up clientele and a few cross-Lancs border stragglers.
The headliner said later he found the crowd a tad too polite, disinclined to get raucous, a little hard work. I’d like to say in their defence that a fair proportion of the assembled were getting on a bit, but our special guest had a few years on most of us, yet shows few signs of flagging at the grand age of 69.
On this occasion, he took a seemingly-brave step of playing an entire set of solo material before whipping some old Stranglers numbers into shape. And it worked so well, both parts of the evening proving his continued relevance.
This quality locked-in trio took off with ‘Pure Evel’, Hugh’s hymn to Butte, Montana stuntman/ ‘70s TV showman Evel Knievel, the opening track of his new LP followed by ‘Leave Me Alone’, one of two selections from 2000’s Hi Fi, then ‘I Want One of Those’ from my favourite of his solo works, Totem and Taboo.
New album title track ‘Monster’ was next, his tribute to godfather of special effects Ray Harryhausen surely a hit in any other decade than this.
He returned to 2012 for the Kinks-like ‘Stuck in Daily Mail Land’, while we headed back 30 years for ‘Getting Involved’ from first solo outing, Wolf, at that point deemed a side-project, then bang up to date again for ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in Hollywood’, honouring classic movie bombshell Hedy Lamarr.
Hugh’s heroes and villains theme was not confined to 1977’s No More Heroes and the new album, as proved by his respectful nod to Love’s Arthur Lee and his five-plus years in stir in ‘The Prison’s Going Down’, another 2000 cut.
Then came an impressive final section, Monster’s nostalgic ‘Bilko’ (‘Psycho Wacko Bilko, Sergeant Ernest Bilko’) leading us to a mighty three-song closing salvo, 1999’s ‘Black Hair Black Eyes Black Suit’ leading into 1979 Nosferatu cut, ‘Mothra’, with Hugh and Pat prowling the stage and Windsor calling the beat, Ginger Baker-style, this shit-hot trio somewhat joined at the hipsway.
And although lumbering Monster closer ‘Duce Coochie Man’ (‘I’ll make the trains all run on time, I’ll drain the Pontine Marsh. Believe me, it will work out fine, life won’t be so harsh’) conjures up the vote-winning spirit of Benito Mussolini, you can’t help but draw parallels with a certain modern-day excuse for a US president.
The crowd response was always going to be more animated in set two, ‘Strange Little Girl’ and ‘No Mercy’ leading the way before Hugh’s trio slip up a gear for ‘Hanging Around’ and ‘Nuclear Device (Wizard of Oz)’, decades peeling away.
Yes, I’d like to see Jet back there, I’ll never tire of JJ’s bass throb and showmanship, and it’ll never be The Stranglers without Dave Greenfield’s keyboard majesty … but you can scheme all that into your mind’s eye. And this format also works so well.
‘Golden Brown’ was a revelation, more Nouvelle Vague than the original yet somehow more atmospherically fitting, that defining moment followed by a glorious run through the timeless ‘No More Heroes’.
It was a blast to hear ‘Skin Deep’ too, Hugh soon strolling back down the years again, rather unlikely 1980 choice ‘Thrown Away’ followed by another major highlight in (Get A) Grip (On Yourself)’, like ‘Hanging Around’ recorded 42 years ago yet still so fresh.
Dispensing with the standard notion of slipping off stage, waiting for shouts for more and duly returning, our guests stuck around up there, finishing with 1978 Black and White statements of intent, ‘Nice’n’Sleazy’ and ‘Tank’.
While there was no sign of the enemy cutting down all the power, there was a curfew after all. But instead of kicking off, the more committed instead took up Hugh’s offer to ‘sign anything you put in front of me’, more than happy to wait patiently in line for a few minutes at his side. Yep, times have changed, but he’s still the man.
For this website’s most recent interview with Hugh Cornwell (and links to past features with the former Stranglers frontman) head here. For the WriteWyattUK take on Hugh’s visit to Preston’s 53 Degrees in 2013, head here. And details of the remaining dates on Hugh’s tour can be found here.
- With thanks to Windsor McGilvray for a reminder of the full set and his photo, and to Peter Gresty for his images from the night.