youtube clip of Steve Albini recording Hugh Cornwell new album

Hugh Cornwell

Manchester Academy 3

12 October 2012

Hugh Cornwell : Manchester Academy  : live review of former Stranglers frontman

The past couple of decades haven’t always been straightforward for Hugh Cornwell, not least because of his ongoing tussle with himself over matters of his musical legacy. I’ve been present at gigs where he’s all but scolded audience members for cheering Stranglers songs he’s just played. Lately though there’s a sense of a happier balance, in no small part because his last couple of solo albums have been corkers.

Tonight he is performing the whole of his excellent latest record Totem and Taboo, an album which recaptures the lean punch of his 1970s performance, all garotte-tight guitars and sardonic vocal deliveries, resulting in a spartan, hard-hitting pub-rock trio in the vein of, say, early Feelgoods.

It’s a positive endorsement that the room is as full for this set as it will be for the subsequent set of Stranglers material. Cornwell – black-clad, of course – takes to the stage with his regular rhythm section of rock-solid drummer Chris Bell and cheerful Tom Jones-alike bassist Steve Fishman, and they open the evening with the thudding glam-rock drum beat of the album’s title track. A little disappointingly, between song banter is minimal. Cornwell pauses to reprimand people using flash photography, but otherwise it’s a track-by-track reproduction of a fine record – Bad Vibrations and Gods, Guns and Gays benefit fully from the meaty amplification, and brooding album closer In The Dead of Night swaggers the first set to a close with its moody Riders On The Storm vibe.

Present-day relevance thus asserted, the second set is a gleeful toe-poke into an open goal for the eager middle-aged audience – the whole of 1977’s No More Heroes album.

The advertised addition of keyboards is actually a rather odd compromise where on half the songs bassist Fishman does the Ray Manzarek trick of playing lead and bass parts on keyboards. He turns out to be a surprisingly good player – hardly of the calibre of Dave Greenfield, but few are – but you can’t help thinking that, having made the decision to include keyboards, bringing in a designated additional player would have made more sense.

One of Cornwell’s strengths in the past has been the inventive rearrangements he has made to cover the absence of keyboards, and the mostly-faithful versions he plays tonight don’t always benefit from a three-piece performance. Fishman takes the yobbish lead vocal to Something Better Change, which sounds like a ramshackle pub cover, and Burning Up Time falters under some quibble over monitors and a poor keyboard sound. But then, there are unexpected highlights too – the rarely played Peasant in the Big Shitty conjures an eerie power, School Mam is a hypnotic rhythmic juggernaut, and hearing Cornwell sing the Stranglers’ ode to fallen friend Dagenham Dave (originally voiced by JJ Burnel) is strangely moving. Throughout though, there’s a simple thrill in seeing one of the foundation stones of British punk performed by the still-charismatic voice that originally provided it. A victory for the past as well as the present.


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  1. Exactly – an additional muso on keys would have allowed those bass-thumping songs, such as Burning up Time and School Mam, to shine through as they do on the album! Perhaps next time….

  2. Hi Rob
    Great review! Was myself at the Manchester gig, which thought was excellent,
    totally agree with you on your comment about bringing in a seperate keyboard player,
    when I heard Hugh was adding keys to the NMH set, I was elated, to say the least,
    thinking to myself…Yes, a four piece, just like the old days! Then totally gutted to find out ‘Fish’
    was swapping between bass and keys
    Having said that, thoroughly enjoyed the gig….Hugh, Steve and Chris as outstanding as ever,
    for me, first set swayed it….Hugh’s guitaring, as tight as a nut! and in my opinion, Totem and Taboo has got to be one of his finest albums.


  3. Attended the gig with my Dad and his brother…Made the short drive from oldham with black and white playing in the background.Got to the academy and was pleasantly surpised by how many people had turned out.Wasnt expecting much from his new album as hadnot heard it yet,reason being havnot been impressed with a lot of his solo albums.But have to say what a corker of an album.Hugh himself seeming a lot more chirpier than usual.Then no more heroes…Each song played brilliantly,highlights being,i feel like a wog,peasant in the big shitty,and bitching.all in all a brilliant gig and night…Ian .

  4. I saw Hugh Cornwell in Bristol last night (Weds Oct 17) ‘Gleeful’ isn’t the word I’d use to describe the gig. ‘Reluctant’ and ‘begrudging’ would be more accurate. I wasn’t the only one who watched open-mouthed as the bassist swapped his instrument for the keyboards and back again. WTF? If you’re going to play the whole of NMH ‘with keyboards’, as advertised, then don’t short-change your fans by doing it at 3/4 of its potential! Hearing the album’s title track without the keyboard riffs was more than disappointing – it was a rip-off, quite frankly. It would have been better for Hugh not to have done the album at all than sneer at its legacy. As for his new stuff, well there’s a lot of potential there and in fact I enjoyed it more than NMH. Maybe this is what he was trying to achieve by the below-par performance in the second half? Even so, his new songs are, by and large, pedestrian in their current three-piece pub rock format. I’d rather see him do something interesting with them – I dunno, play with a jazz band or a cello player or a DJ! – than plod through a dull format that sort-of echoes the Stranglers but gets nowhere near their twisted genius. There is still a spark in Hugh Cornwell, but he needs a creative producer who will take no shit from him and push him away from the mundane and ‘it’ll do’ mentality. He’s got it in him, but dare he rise to the challenge? It would be interesting to see….

  5. I was at the Islington gig (19th Oct) and interaction with the audience was again minimal. Instead, it appeared to have been replaced by a kind of grim determination to battle through everything as quickly as possible; I’ve been to gigs where Cornwell has seemed much more at ease. Partly, I suppose, ploughing through T & T before revisiting the whole of NMH blow by blow is a fairly mammoth task. I’m certain that the programme helped to fill up the venue, but on an artistic level I’m not entirely sure it was worth the effort. Getting the excellent bassist Steve Fishman to switch between guitar and keyboards (could he be persuaded to play both at once next time, I wonder?) just served to highlight how much Hugh misses the input of Dave Greenfield. A while ago Hugh said that putting keyboards on a track was like pouring glue all over it, but boy could we do with a dollop of gloop – something to add interest and complexity to this skilled but rather pedestrian set up. In the end, however, I’m just glad that Cornwell is still out there performing. The encore at Islington included ‘Strange Little Girl’, a song all Stranglers fans have heard so often that it has worn an indelible groove in their brains. Somehow, it still manages to sound fresh – a wonderful mixture of the lyrical and the downright strange (twisted genius indeed, tfh) which showcases Cornwell’s voice perfectly . Moments like these keep me turning up for more.

  6. I went to see Hugh in Islington, I had not seen him play since his Stranglers days and I was intrigued, I always liked the album Black Hair Black Suit etc. Watching him I thought so glad you left The Stranglers, he looked worn out tired and a former shadow of himself, almost as if he didnt want to be there and was going through the motions. The Stranglers with Roberts and Ellis were just lame, Baz sparked new life, if Hugh had stayed I think The Stranglers would have disappeared a long time ago. Sad to say I will never see Hugh play live again, disappointment was all I can describe what I felt was a very weak performance almost unprofessional, his spark has long gone


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