Almost 30 years after leaving The Stranglers, the legendary punk band with whom he made his name and managed more than 20 UK Top-40 singles and 14 Top-20 LPs over barely a dozen years, Hugh Cornwell remains a force to be reckoned with.
A couple of months beyond his 70th birthday, he’s out with bandmates Pat Hughes (bass) and Windsor McGilvray (drums) this month, a 15-date tour starting at Liverpool Arts Club next Tuesday, November 12th, threading through to Gloucester Guildhall on Sunday, December 1st, comprising – like last year – both solo years and Stranglers sets … with a further twist this time.
“We’ve changed the format – it’s a game of two halves, the solo set changed considerably, with extra Monster tracks. It will be great to play those live for the first time, ‘La Grande Dame’ and ‘Attack of the Major Sevens have come in … if that makes any sense.”
It does, this scribe – who first saw The Stranglers at age 14 in January ’82, on the La Folie tour, my fourth-ever gig – snapping up Monster in a double-CD pack with Hugh’s Restoration reworking of various favourites, signed on the night by the man himself at The Grand, Clitheroe, a year ago.
“Great! And there’s an album called Beyond Elysian Fields (2004) which has just been remastered and is coming out on vinyl, so we’re revisiting that too.
“As for The Stranglers’ set which comes second, we’re going to jazz that up by not deciding on the set. We’ll go on and me, Pat and Windsor will take it in turns to call the tracks. So no one will have any idea what the set’s going to be!”
When Hugh visited my patch in 2013, he was following a different format, playing solo years’ tracks and Stranglers number alternately. And that worked equally well.
“Yeah, mixing it up, and I do that at festivals. I’m not sure which I prefer. But I know the band likes it when it’s separated.”
When we spoke last year, you suggested you were ‘being brave’ over the idea of separate sets, but the premise of a solo years set followed by Stranglers numbers has clearly gone down well.
“Absolutely, I was very apprehensive when we first did that, but it seemed to work, the fans like it, and they like to carry on with the singalong.”
At that Clitheroe show, you told us four punters needed St John Ambulance medical attention in Kendal the night before, your ‘Death by Strangulation’ set inspiring a rather enthusiastic response by an audience … erm, not getting any younger.
“Ha! Yeah, I remember that. I felt it was a bit quieter that next night, but lots of people told me later to come back a second time and it would be rammed.”
That was with Pat and Windsor too. You clearly work well together.
“That’s it. I love those guys. They’re so full of energy, they love doing it, and they’re forever saying, ‘I’ve had another listen to that old Stranglers number and what do you think of this … do you think that’s going to be an improvement?’ They’re always looking at ways to make things better, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
I spoke briefly to Pat (like Windsor a tutor at Guildford’s Academy of Contemporary Music by day) after that show, telling him I first saw you when ‘Golden Brown’ was climbing the charts in early ’81. He looked at me as if I was some mad uncle talking down the pub. You’re sharing dressing rooms with youths, Hugh.
“I know! And I feel very fortunate that not only are they involved but it’s not just a job for them. They’re actually enjoying it and getting involved, which is great.”
Are they keeping you young, or is it the other way around?
“Well, I know I’m putting them through their paces, because Pat keeps saying, ‘Jesus, if we keep playing those three numbers together, my arm’s gonna fall off!’ He told me that of all the people he’s played with, this is the heaviest work-out. Ha!
“I’m from another era, but they like to find out new stuff and are very inclusive people.”
Monster continues to get occasional plays at my house, and I get the impression in places that it’s a back to basics rock’n’roll album, not least on tracks like ‘Mosin’’, the spirit of Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Johnny Kidd trapped in the studio. I don’t know if it’s just that echoey sound.
“Sure! Yeah, I like all that. It’s what I was brought up on. It feels very natural to me.”
Listening back this morning, I reckon ‘Mr Leather’ is your most Stranglers-like moment on that album, although of course the spirit of Lou Reed is writ large too.
“Well, yeah, it’s all about Lou, so I’m happy with that.”
For me it’s still Totem and Taboo that resonates most from your solo career though. Is the brassy instrumental version of the title track that you come on to available to purchase?
“Our walk-on music? No. We call that ‘Totem Latino’. I did that with my engineer one day. I thought that melody made a great bass riff, and it became the basis of that.”
“Yeah, it works well. And that’s still on board.”
With a few weeks of propaganda coming our way before December 12th and the UK general election, are we in danger of truly being ‘Stuck in Daily Mail Land’?
“Ha! Well, between you, me, the gatepost and the rest of your readers, I don’t think Brexit is going to happen. The big problem is that whatever anyone else wants, you’ve got an elected Parliament where the majority want to stay in Europe, and until that changes …
“If half the MPs resigned, they’ve got a chance of it happening, but you’ve got a couple of dozen and that’s not enough, even if they were all Brexiteers. That still wouldn’t be enough to overturn the majority. While that situation exists, it ain’t gonna happen. That’s the truth. Maybe they’ll end up having another referendum, who knows.”
My worry is that we’re in danger of following America’s lead, getting saddled with our own ‘Duce Coochie Man’.
“Ah! I love that title!”
I was hoping he’d bite there, but Hugh wasn’t to be drawn on his take on Boris Johnson, so I moved on, telling him how that track, the closing number on Monster, came over well live last time.
“Did it? Great! And we’re playing it even better now. Down the line a bit, we’ve been to Australia with it, had a few dates in Europe as well, so it’s sounding a lot more settled.”
There were a few surprises among both the solo set and from The Stranglers’ songbook. And it sounds like that might be even more the case this time. I mentioned ‘Golden Brown’, and felt last time it was almost Nouvelle Vague-esque.
“Do you mean the Mariachi (Mexteca) version?”
Well, that was a corker, but I meant the latest live version, somewhere between the original and that, very Dave Brubeck Five-like for these ears actually.
“With the bass playing all the keyboards? Well, great. We had to learn how to play it in this format somehow, and that works, so that’s the way it goes.”
Going back a bit, 40 years to be exact, it was in November ’79 apparently that you told the NME, ‘We’re never going to use a producer again. They are just shitty little parasites. All they’re good for is telling jokes. And we know better jokes than any of ’em.’ That wasn’t a verdict on Alan Winstanley, who you’d just worked with on The Raven, was it?
“No, I think it was Martin Rushent. Alan is really – and I hope he’ll forgive me for saying this – an excellent engineer.”
Funny you should say that. Fast forward four decades and Monster saw you work with Phil Andrews, and prior to that you made Totem and Taboo in Chicago with Steve Albini. In both cases it’s about engineering rather than producing. Is that how you prefer it these days?
“Well, I know the way it should sound. I’ve an idea of the way I want it to sound. So it’s about working with someone who can create that sound.”
Recorded earlier than The Raven but released just after it, this month in 1979, you had your first record away from the rest of the band, a collaboration with Robert Williams on Nosferatu. Did that involve a learning curve?
“Sure! I was going into a studio completely unprepared. We just had the bare bones of songs. We were making it up as we went along, really.”
“No, we didn’t see eye to eye over a few things, and unfortunately he’s in LA and I don’t think he plays much music anymore. He’s more involved with scene painting on film lots.”
When The Stranglers reconvened after that short spell apart, was that the beginning of a fresh start for you?
“Yeah, I came back from that really inspired, with different ideas.”
The Raven involved a major change of gear.
“There you go. It’s got quite a bit of interesting stuff going on.”
I loved the first Stranglers album and appreciated the next two, but perhaps that was the one that proved you were about a lot more, something deeper. Did you feel that at the time? Were you consciously moving into a new era, five years after The Guildford Stranglers came into being?
“It was all about experimenting. We didn’t really know what we were doing. You’ve just got to go out there and see what happens. And I think we did introduce some new boundaries in pop music … or tried to.
“It’s also coming up to (The Gospel According to the) Meninblack 40th anniversary. That was before the Simmons electronic drumkit, but that album’s got an electronic drumkit on it … before they even existed. That was through some recording techniques I experimented with, using condenser microphones against the drums for a real metallic sound. There was stuff like that that pre-dated anything else, and I’m really proud of that. The Meninblack was my favourite album.”
They started recording that fifth Stranglers LP in January 1980, even though it wasn’t released until the following February. It was too much for a 14-year-old wanting another punk and new wave record though, having borrowed it from the travelling library on cassette. I listened hard but didn’t quite get it. That wasn’t where I was at. Listening back now, however, I see its merits and can marvel at its creation. Still not my favourite, mind.
Anyway, I’ve talked a fair bit in the past about The Stranglers’ Guildford days with Hugh, these days based mostly in the West Country, but how about his old haunts in the capital? Does he still recognise his Kentish Town, Tufnell Park and Highgate stomping grounds when he’s around there these days?
“I don’t go up there anymore, because my parents aren’t around anymore. But I do still go to Guildford, because that’s where Pat and Windsor are based, and that’s very much a return to the old stomping ground.”
“Yeah, that’s what it was called – The Jackpot! In fact, the college where they teach is built where the Jackpot was. The ACM. Ain’t that strange!”
Plenty more of that in our previous interview (link below), but while I’m getting the Cornwell grey matter going again, much was made in the past year or so – amid a public battle to save The Star pub in my old hometown – about where the earliest gigs took place for the band. In fact, some reckon an early September ’74 date at that Quarry Street local was the first. But flicking back through Hugh’s 2004 A Multitude of Sins autobiography, he suggests the first show was actually that summer at a youth club in Guildford.
I don’t think he’s being dismissive there. It was more a case of over-running with our interview, and pressure to call the next number, quickly reminding me he has to wrap up soon. I crack on regardless, keen to get in at least a couple more questions.
Last time we spoke you had your 70th birthday on the horizon but were playing it down, telling me that if you have too much time to think about birthdays, ‘it means you’re not busy enough’. Did he mark the occasion in style after all?
“No, I did nothing! I was doing something else. I can’t remember what!”
Talking of anniversaries, next year marks 30 years since you walked away for the last time from The Stranglers.
“That’s right – is that next summer? Wow, incredible!”
Are you going to mark that in any way?
“Probably doing a gig! Ha! I think it was while there was a Test match on, so it must have been either a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday. It was at the Ally Pally. I think it might have been a Saturday.”
Records suggest he’s right, his last appearance alongside Jet Black, JJ Burnel and Dave Greenfield at iconic Alexandra Palace in Muswell Hill, North London on August 11th, 1990, two months after the release of their 10th album … erm, 10. Time flies, eh.
And with that in mind, what do you reckon the 1977 Hugh Cornwell would have made of this engaging fella who signs anything put in front of him at the end of a show these days? You’ve got a grizzly punk rock reputation to live up to after all.
“Yeah, yeah! He’d probably be saying, ‘You idiot! Why are you doing all that?’ Anyway, I best go. Take care, man. I’ll see you in Bury or Liverpool!”
To revisit WriteWyattUK’s October 2018 feature/interview with Hugh Cornwell, with links to previous interviews, follow this link. And for the lowdown on his November 2018 visit to The Grand, Clitheroe, head here.
Hugh Cornwell UK dates: Tuesday 12th November – Liverpool Arts Club; Wednesday 13th November – Carlisle The Brickyard; Thursday 14th November – Aberdeen Lemon Tree; Friday 15th November – Edinburgh Liquid Rooms; Saturday 16th November – Leeds Brudenell; Sunday 17th November – Bury The Met; Thursday 21st November – Harpenden Public Halls; Saturday 23rd November – Southampton 1865; Sunday 24th November – Exeter Phoenix; Tuesday 26th November – Basingstoke Haymarket; Wednesday 27th November – Nottingham Rescue Rooms; Thursday 28th November – Bury St Edmunds Apex; Friday 29th November – Wolverhampton Bilston Robin 2; Saturday 30th November – Swansea Sin City; Sunday 1st December – Gloucester Guildhall. For tickets call 08444 780 898 or follow this link.