No stranger to controversy, former Strangler Hugh Cornwell has been baiting the critics and courting trouble and debate with the artfully naked video for his new single ‘God Is A Woman’. (Watch the video here)
It seems like no-one is being left out of this one as Hugh has created, what he feels, is an artistic film clip for the song with a clip that is full of naked women that is based on surrealist paintings to extend the song’s idea that women are the superior gender. Naturally, with the context of being a former Strangler, this has led to cries of sexism from the doubters and Hugh has left himself wide open to the critics- a position you get the feeling he somewhat enjoys as it creates a debate and makes people question things.
The song itself is one of the superior cuts from his recent Totem and Taboo album, his best collection of songs since leaving the Stranglers in 1990 and also the best sounding- with Steve Albini’s raw live sound recording techniques combined with his perfection engineering and great mics really suiting the stripped down songs and returning Hugh to the kind of abrasive atmosphere that really adds to the potency of his highly melodic songwriting like back in the days of the early Stranglers.
The provocative subject matter of many of the songs is as raw as the music and it’s this side of Hugh that has always been the most fascinating, especially when it’s balanced with his romantic, artful nature. Willingly misunderstood, creating debate, causing trouble and celebrating art all inside the three minute rock n roll song- it’s a tough trick to pull off and one that will always be misunderstood in such a fast medium where the subtleties are ignored.
Hugh is adamant that this video is a positive celebration of womanhood.
‘The song is a celebration of women, and how God is really a woman. I found out a while ago, that the concept of god was originally the female concept rather than the male concept because in religions prior to christianity, woman was the god figure which was interesting. Apparently one of the main reasons for woman being considered the god was because there wasn’t a realisation of the connection between the sexual act and birth nine months later. When the baby was born everyone had forgotten about the sexual act and out pops a human being from a woman and people thought this was a god like act from the woman.
Starting with this concept Hugh took the song with its powerful lyrics and it’s addictive melody and created a film around it, touching on the songs themes, incorporating art references and creating something celebratory but also easily misunderstood..
‘I wrote the song as a celebration of this realization of god really being a woman. I also had a realisation that women are in control of the world in every possible way. Men have tried to dominate and crush woman throughout time but have failed. The song is a celebration of that fact. I realised as well that we live in a time where women are considered almost artless and a naked woman is not looked on as an art-from. So when I came to make the film for it, I wanted to make a statement. I tried to make something that celebrated the fact that throughout the history of art woman was celebrated in naked form- like in classical paintings, that was so beautiful and I wanted to do that in a filmic way.’
The context has shifted a lot from the classical paintings to modern pop culture and film.
‘It’s odd when you see movies these days because it reinforces this thing about male domination- that it’s alright to see a woman full frontal in a movie yet you very rarely see men’s parts because that’s not the done thing. I know we didn’t make the film for God Is A Woman with men with their dongers out but that would have got away from point of the song. I wanted to celebrate women not men. I find it very disingenuous that people have taken offense to the film and yet as a society we are allowing kids computer games full of killing people and full of violence and when someone like myself makes a film to celebrate beautiful woman with nothing gratuitous in it it causes a problem.
I don’t understand how it offends. I don’t think the film is patronizing. None of the women in the film are doing anything demeaning, if anything it’s discriminating against men. I think if I had put myself in there that would have been gratuitous and offensive! A lot of the women are grouped together in the film- I was trying to show a solidarity. The song, in a sense, is a modern day Peaches. When Peaches came out, it was very shocking to people and banned from the radio for being misogynistic but there has been a change in the state of mind of since then and I meet many young women who were actually empowered by that song and that;s a very refreshing to find out.’
The current album sees a return to the old Hugh of songs that confront and create situations.
‘I’m glad its provoking comment. With my whole album I wanted to promote discussion about things. In repressive societies there are things that you are not allowed to talk about. It’s a really changed landscape now, it changed with the internet which showed that anything is possible but in the end the basic mindset of society has not changed at all. People look at the film clip and miss the subtleties. There are two points in the film when a woman’s vagina is placed on another woman’s back which was a homage to Manray who did a photo collage called Le Violin d’Ingres. It was something that happened by chance and I thought it was a beautiful image and there was also a homage to Rene Magritte and the way his images have become world famous images for sale on postcards.’
Hugh is very adamant that he is not in the remotest a misogynist.
‘Misogynist means hater of women. If I hated woman I wouldn’t put them in my videos would I? People say I bet you had really good ogle making that film, but i used women who were all different shapes and sizes and I find that comment shallow
There is a great quote from one of the the founders of surrealism Andre Breton who said in 1929 ‘woman is the most marvelous and disturbing problem in all the world.”
The album seems to be pushing a lot of buttons…
‘Gods Guns and Gays is about freedom of speech and America, It was going to be called God, Guns and freedom Of Speech but when I changed it to gays it underlined what the song was about and was a better title. I like the idea that in America that whatever you believe in you have the right to say it.’
I once read that you were the last of the Angry hippies! someone who was let down by the sixties..
‘Freedom of expression is what I’m after. I hate repression of any sort. There are societies in the world where women are not allowed drive cars and not allowed to go to universities . In the case of my film people taking offence at hopefully beautiful images of women is baffling- they are not all slender Vogue models in the film, they are all shapes and sizes. It’s just highlighting the complete bigotry and hypocritical views of people and it has always interested me that some things are acceptable and other things are not and that has always been a highlight in my work.’
It’s interesting that people are still saying the same things as when you first started.
‘Thats the paradox, Nothing Has Really Changed which may be a song title on my next album (Hugh references the Stranglers big hit Something Better Change). The mindset of society had not gone through many amazing shifts in the last 30 years. You may remember when Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland came out the cover was nude woman sitting in a photo studio and the cover was pulled immediately- the cover not allowed. I have done a similar thing, this is a film version of the sleeve 40 years later. Hopefully I’m challenging people and making people reassess their views which is essential in a society.’
The album has seen a bit of a break through for Hugh with more acceptance in the USA.
‘The album has just come out in America last week and I’ve lined up to dates over there this autumn. It was fascinating working with Steve Albini. I hadn’t worked with him before , I had not even met him. He was very direct and forthright and he doesn’t suffer fools. He also vehemently denies the title of producer- he sees himself more of a facilitator, a studio engineer and mixer who will try his best to convey the artist’s ideas as close as possible to what they are trying to achieve onto tape. We did a very quick session with him, he records quickly and we were very well prepared when we went in. It’s so good to have people who know what they want.
There are very little effects on anything. There are very few overdubs on it. It’s very raw with very little going on and to play it live is like a dream. I would love to work with him again, it depends on his schedule or mine, he’s very gifted.
With a wealth of solo material to choose from, Hugh is gradually moving away from the Stranglers back catalogue whilst acknowledging his illustrious past.
‘As time goes on I’m performing less of the catalogue but I like to acknowledge my past but it’s very satisfying to play the new material. I change the arrangements of the old songs though and make them different and play unexpected songs, like we are playing Skin Deep now. It’s interesting having that past, it can be an advantage or a millstone sometimes to have that history. It’s a double edged sword. I’m an older version of the same person I was then. I have the same basic personality traits, which like most people don’t really change from when I was a late teenager. The Stranglers was great but later on I found it frustrating and that’s a reason why I left because being solo is great fun- I like the freedom..’