Hugh Cornwell is one of those artists whose work has always been guaranteed to push boundaries and challenge established perceptions while still bearing the hallmark of the master-craftsman song-writer. His catalogue of classic songs is now augmented by two acclaimed novels and most recent album Totem and Taboo bears all the classic ingredients that long-standing fans are familiar with while still seeming as fresh as the morning dew. There is the dark humour of Bad Vibrations, the whimsical observation of Stuck in Daily mail Land and the pure rocking gem of a Street Called Carroll. Possibly the best proof that Hugh’s talents remain undimmed is the slow-burning masterpiece of In the Dead of Night. Nine and a half minutes of slightly unnerving lyrics blended with superb melody and psyched out guitar arrangements that evokes memories of some of the great album closers in his career.
I caught up with Hugh as his tour dropped into Chester. It was one of those interminable November days that never really got light but Hugh Cornwell, as part of an amazingly tight three-piece would proceed to brighten up the day with a set that blended tracks from Totem and Taboo with Stranglers classics such as Straighten Out, Dagenham Dave and Grip. During the course of the interview it became clear that Hugh is as hungry as ever for new challenges to pursue and excited by the prospect of what lies ahead.
I thought what is it about these songs that would make it fit and I realised that the songs deal with things that people hold up as totemic but they also deal with things that people don’t like to discuss which is taboo, so it works. Totem and T aboo was actually the last song to be written so it all came together very well.
Love Me Slender, a track on the album, shows you’ve lost none of your humour or desire to provoke debate.
Now that song, people think I’m being reactionary for the sake of it, but it’s actually a very interesting concept of what we think about beauty and how it’s changed over the years. A hundred or so years ago, you were beautiful if you were fat, now if you’re fat you’re obese. Then we had thin is beautiful, now it means you’re on drugs or you’re bulimic. I just wanted to approach that idea from a new angle and of course the title is a play on Love Me Tender, which I always enjoy doing. I actually prefer my ladies slim but that’s just a question of taste and what suits me. I think it all comes across in the title track, ‘what’s totem for me, is taboo for you’. I’m just trying to promote a better attitude really, to live and let live as long as you’re not doing any harm to anybody.
The video for Gods Guns and Gays, which you directed, is as great piece of work. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
The video took a long time to do, there’s about 150 clips in it, and it’s basically a collage of film clips that show various aspects of American culture. There’s so many aspects to that society and I’ve tried to include as many as I can on there to give a good cross-section of America and what it’s about. It’s also a very interesting experiment as all of it came off Youtube except for the bits of me. No one has complained about it which is really surprising. I left Madonna off, even though she is a god-like figure and has been for a long time, because I knew I’d get a call off her lawyer threatening to sue.
Is it another of your songs like Hola Cadiz, Mayan Skies and Spain, where you try to capture your feelings about a place in song?
I think so, it’s just me trying to make sense of it all really. Creative people just try to make sense of the world for themselves, hopefully to make things clearer but sometimes it gets mistier the more you look at it. It should have been God Guns and Freedom of Speech but that wouldn’t fit in so I put in gays as a reference to Gay Pride which is about free speech, started in America and is now worldwide.
Stuck in Daily Mail Land is a title that certainly grabs the attention.
People all have their different papers they swear by. For me the Telegraph’s handling of world news is the best as they always check things thoroughly and they break stories that other papers take weeks to publish. However, like the Daily Mail, there’s other things they print that are questionable. However, the song came about because I was in a hotel one morning after an acoustic gig and I wanted something to read with my breakfast. I looked round and everyone was reading the Daily Mail, it was like a set up for a film. I thought ‘well, I’m stuck in Daily Mail land here’ and that seemed a good title for a song. Those lyrics are not there to pillory the Daily Mail, but written from the standpoint of a reader who is defending it. It’s just another way of questioning things.
God is a Woman certainly managed to get a reaction, you couldn’t have been surprised?
There’s nothing distasteful about the female body. I think it’s a beautiful shape and there’s nothing nasty or dirty about it. I love the cover of Electric Ladyland by Hendrix and just wondered what a film of that would be like. Good old Louder Than War where the first to put it up and then of course, it got banned. I’ve just been in LA and a friend of mine suggested we do a clean version with a link to the full version, so we did. There’s a trailer of God is a Woman on Youtube and when the girl’s breasts come up we put the Totem and Taboo shields on them.
It’s quite interesting that when you’re working in the presence of so much flesh for that long it ceases to have any titillation at all. I was fully clothed and discussing the journey into work with a stark naked woman in a very matter of fact way. The girls all seemed to be perfectly at home with it so why should anyone else have a problem? I noticed that Cindy Crawford drew a lot of criticism for appearing in a nude photo shoot at the same time as speaking out for women’s rights. Her response was that she was fighting for the rights of a woman to make her own choices. Good old Cindy I say!
The sound of Totem and Taboo is very stripped back, almost live sound. Is that as a result of your influences? Do you still hear them to this day when recording?
Very much so. When you’re a teenager and forming your own personality, that’s the time you’re most susceptible to taking on influences, both cultural and social. So we’ll be saddled with all those things we listen to as kids for the rest of our lives. I don’t think you get influenced by much after that and that includes film makers and other musicians really. I was very lucky when growing up when we had The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Cream, Graham Bond, Hendrix and people who were rediscovering Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Howlin Wolf. Then from America we got music like The Doors, Velvet Underground, Love and Jefferson Airplane and we just thought ‘wow, where is this going to stop?’ So it’s an amazing pallet of colours I was shown at a young age and I’ve been trying to make sense of it ever since. Things like that will always be my influences.
You’ve written two novels now. Had you always planned to write a book one day and just waited for the time to get round to it?
Not really no! I’ve always been an avid reader and a lot of my song ideas and titles come from books, such as Toiler on the Sea by Victor Hugo. In 2004 I wrote my autobiography which I found a cleansing experience and quite easy as obviously it was about me. I split up with my girlfriend and was due to be going on holiday to India, which I still wanted to do as I hadn’t been on holiday for ages. I was worried about getting bored but had this idea about an artist who bad things kept happening to. It turned out his agent was trying to kill him to make his art worth more and that became Window on the World. So from going on holiday with a vague idea, I got my first novel and I was hooked.
The problem is I stopped reading books as when you’re reading you really want to know what’s going to happen next. It’s the same when I write, I don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t plan it out when I sit down to write and characters can just appear and events happen to people that I didn’t expect, it’s just like reading. Now, when I go away I prefer to write a book than read one. It’s another form of self-discovery I suppose.
Religion is a major theme of Arnold Drive. What are your feelings about it?
I’m fascinated by religion and what it makes people do. I really think that religion is going to be banned at some point in the future. I think that we will become enlightened enough to realise that religion is just a load of codswallop, all of it, and all it does is turn people against each other. It’s not a unifying force at all, it’s diversifying so what purpose does it have?
Arnold Drive is about a priest as I wanted to investigate my feelings about religion and the character seemed a good starting point. He gets sacked and has to make his way in the outside world, which is like being on a different planet for him.
So what’s next, a book or album or both?
I’m half way through the next book and have done an album of quite obscure cover versions which is nearly finished. I’ve also just finished a version of MacArthur Park with John Cooper Clarke which he actually sings on and does so brilliantly. I thought it was about time for a remake of that song and we’ve also got Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull on flute. We’ve just been in Los Angeles shooting a film for it in the actual MacArthur Park but it won’t be released until the film is ready in the spring. Then I’ll start working on a new album. I think Macarthur Park is actually one of the best things I’ve ever done and I didn’t even write it.
Do you ever feel that your work is yet to be fully appreciated and that, like a lot of challenging artists while they are still around, critics find it too easy to stereotype you with the catch-all phrase of punk?
I’m very philosophical about it. You should just do what you want to do and not worry about what anyone else is saying or whether you’re getting hyped or criticised. I just try to muddle on and make sense of whatever gifts I’ve been given and hope I get the chance to fulfil all the things I want to do. Try to have fun, find out something about yourself and not worry about trends because they’re all vainglorious things ultimately.
I’m in a very fortunate position, partly due to the royalties from The Stranglers catalogue which is still very resilient. It’s very strong music, still sounds very fresh when you hear it, still gets played on the radio all round the world and I’m very fortunate as it subsidises things I’m doing now that are maybe not as appreciated, but I feel I really want to do. I don’t care if it costs me money, I’m still going to do it. I’m indebted to the work I did in The Stranglers as it’s helped me do things I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to.
Nowadays I hear people saying that Guilty is a fantastic album and Nosferatu, which I did 30 years ago, is a work of genius. Well it wasn’t exactly a hit! But people are appreciating these albums now so you never know. It must be a nightmare being an artist or author whose paintings or books aren’t discovered for 30 years, if even in their lifetime. You just hope to get some sort of glimmer that what you do is appreciated and I get it every time I do a gig. People tell me that my music transformed their lives and what more could you ask than that by way of thanks?
You’ve witnessed, or been a part of, some amazing turning points in music and culture? What would you say has had the biggest impact?
I’m not a big fan of dance music. I think it was crippling the art of song-writing. For 10 years no songs were being written, or bands that did write them were finding it hard to get heard, me included. That to me was a very important turning point in the development of music that no one’s really acknowledged at all. It set us back such a long way in terms of song-writing and music as I think the richness of music is all down to the actual writing of the song. That was a major stumbling block and we’ve paid the price for it ever since.
Also, I guess people dying before their time is also a major one. Hendrix springs to mind as he was just about to work with Miles Davies and we’re left to guess how that would have sounded. Graham Bond’s death at the age of 37 would be another example; early deaths always leave you wondering what might have happened after.
Your career can be charted in terms of risks taken, right from the early days. Is there one that you can identify as the biggest creative risk you’ve taken?
Leaving The Stranglers was a big creative risk. It was a set-up, big band, just about to go out on a ‘Greatest Hits Tour’and I just said ‘I’ve had enough, I want to go and do something else’. The management at the time said ‘Can’t you put all this on the backburner until after this tour?’ I just thought they weren’t really listening to what I was saying. It’s like if someone wants to leave their marriage and the other person says ‘Can you leave me next year instead of now?’
No one at the time suggested I take a sabbatical which is interesting. I may well have considered that. We could have had a year out then thought about getting back together and that may have worked out. But that wasn’t even considered then and it didn’t even occur to me at the time but looking back now it was a possible solution. That was the biggest creative risk I’ve ever taken because it wasn’t like I was in my twenties still. Now there’s no risks I don’t mind taking, I’ve done the big one so I don’t care anymore about those sort of things.
All words by Dave Jennings. More from Dave can be found by checking out his Louder Than War Author Archive. He is also on Twitter as @blackfoxwrexham