Frontman for The Stranglers, Hugh Cornwell tells Ed Power why he thinks it’s important to have something to lash out against in music
AS FRONTMAN of The Stranglers, Hugh Cornwell was responsible for some of the defining anthems of Britain’s punk revolution.
‘Golden Brown’, ‘Peaches’, ‘No More Heroes’, ‘Always The Sun’ weren’t just pop nuggets — they were angry blasts of defiance from the perspective of a perennial outsider.
But it was the very bloody-mindedness that defined The Stranglers which led to Cornwell quitting the band in 1990. He’d done all he could with the group (who continue to play and tour today). Time to move on. The moment you start living in the past is the moment you’re dead as an artist.
“It was very hard, leaving them,” he says. “I even have dreams about it now — after all these years. It was such an intense period of my life.
“I’ve never been married — however, I’m sure there are people who have been married and who split from their wife and who have dreams about their ex that they won’t admit to. It’s a rollercoaster ride with all these people and it never leaves you. I still have dreams: some pleasant, some unpleasant.”
Yet though he has strong emotions around The Stranglers, he is at pains not to romanticise the past. It was a thrill to be in a rock band in the 1970s. But this was no golden era. These were dingy and prejudiced times. We should be glad to have left them behind.
“It was tough,” he says. “People were bigoted. Opinions were terrible. Everyone was very narrow minded.”
On the other hand, he isn’t sure if happier times make for better music. Forty years ago — 2017 is the 40th anniversary of The Stranglers’s definitive LP, No More Heroes — people had something to lash out against. Is that the case today?
“We’re in a much better state now than we were then. Creatively speaking I’m not sure that living a utopian society is beneficial. It doesn’t breed good artists. They have nothing to complain about.”
The Stranglers sold 40m records but were not universally beloved. Within punk circles, they were widely deemed to be carpetbaggers, being several years older than the other bands and with their roots in the pub rock scene.
The perception among hardcore punks was that Cornwell and company had cynically hitched themselves to the popular new trend. The confrontations could turn nasty. Notoriously, in 1976 The Stranglers became involved in a backstage punch-up with The Ramones and The Clash. Not that Cornwell objected to the infamy. He wasn’t entirely happy being categorised as punk in the first place. He was, and remains, suspicious of “scenes”.
“I hate boxes,” he says. “You’ve got to reinvent yourself. Bowie was very good at that. He also did a fantastic Norman Wisdom impersonation, for what it’s worth. You don’t want to be defined by what you did years ago. You want to be defined by what you are doing in the present. That is the only way to stay sane.”
Cornwell has continued to write and record. On his upcoming Irish tour, he will perform material from Totem and Taboo, the visceral 2103 LP recorded with indie producer Steve Albini, in addition to debuting tracks from the as yet unreleased Villains, a celebration of his favourite rogues and outcasts. He will also acknowledge his past by dipping into the Stranglers catalogue.
“When I do the old songs they sound different,” he says. “You have to think on your feet — especially on a tune such as ‘Golden Brown’ when you present it without any keyboards. I enjoy the challenge.”
Hugh Cornwell plays Triskel Arts Centre Cork this Friday and Pavilion Theatre Dun Laoghaire on Saturday.
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