Stranglers legend talks Monster, touring and how he feels about the band’s continuation (JJ Burnel Interview here ) to Dave Jennings.
“I’m a perverted songwriter,” said Hugh Cornwell as we reflected on a career that has been as challenging as it has been unpredictable. Whilst that description may well be accurate, it can’t obscure that fact that Hugh is one of the great British songwriters. His work with The Stranglers saw consistent chart success over a period of thirteen years during changing tastes and fashions. While all these were achieved on the band’s own terms, and without the conventional wining format of a love song for the ages (excluding the Dionne Warwick cover ‘Walk on By’), a wealth of material on Stranglers albums and in his later solo-work show the distinctive Cornwell blueprint and why he should be recognised as one of the greats. His work displays that classic, Ray Davies-like, ability to blend forensic observational skills with wry humour and metaphors that mature like a fine wine.
I caught up with Hugh on a rare sunny afternoon in West London as he prepared to head out on a UK Tour. While England’s cricketers toiled against Australia at Lords, Hugh and I discussed possible ways to dismiss Steve Smith (we couldn’t think of one sorry) and went below skin deep of one of the most interesting careers in modern music.
LTW: Your most recent album, Monster, is an album in the proper sense, where you examine individuals who are important to, or fascinate you. Did you plan that before you started writing, or did it evolve?
HC: No it turned into that. My mother passed away a few years ago and I wanted to create something for her as a tribute and writing a song seemed the perfect way to do it. It turned out really well, La Grande Dame, but I still didn’t have the idea of writing about other people. However, I’m a film fanatic and was watching a film about Evel Knievel, played by George Hamilton and it was actually really good. I thought it seemed an amazing life so I researched further and the film was pretty accurate. I was astounded that no one had ever written a song about him, especially when you consider the connection between Rock ‘n’ Roll and motor biking, so I was inspired by that.
So I had one song about my Mum and one about Evel Knievel and slowly I could see what was happening so I started to think about other people who may be interesting to write songs about and they presented themselves. Either I would watch a film they were in or there is the story I have about an abortive meeting I was to have with Lou Reed. We were going to meet up in New York but we both got sick with a very similar bug, we were both bed-ridden. It never happened that we were in the same area again and he then died so that lost opportunity to meet him became more important as I’ve always been a fan of what he did, so I wrote Mr. Leather.
I then started to ponder on all these people and what had they had in common. I was originally going to call the album La Grande Dame as I thought it had a nice symmetry with La Folie, and I’m a quarter French anyway, which a lot of people don’t know, but a lot of people said an album title should be more in your face. The plan was then to call it ‘Villains’ as that’s what they all were. My Mum was a likeable villain, she was very strict and draconian but there was something very endearing about her so I had no problem about calling her a villain. So it was all set to be called ‘Villains’ but then Queens of the Stone Age brought out an album called ‘Villains’ and you can’t have two albums called the same thing coming out so close together. One of the songs was called ‘Monster’ and that seemed a pretty appropriate title and it all started from writing about my Mum.
LTW: Was it different writing about your Mum than the other people? There’s presumably less detachment?
HC: It was quite easy actually, as I knew what I wanted to say about her. There’s references to water and swimming as she was a huge swimming enthusiast, she used to swim in Highgate Ponds every day throughout the year, until she was Ninety Six. If you or I went in the water in December, we’d probably get hypothermia, but by going in every day your body gradually gets used to it and that possibly explains why she rarely got a cold and lived to the age she did.
I wanted to get the subject of water in the song, as there is something about the nature of it that is very emotive. Therefore, with my Mum’s affinity to swimming and water, and the connection I feel to it, it was easy to write the song.
For me a song never really takes that long to write. Once I’ve decided to write something, I’ve already got a pretty good idea in my head of what I want the lyrics to say before I’ve even written them. I never struggle as I do a lot of preparation for them before I even get the pen out. It’s the same with music so song-writing is something I generally fall into quite easily and hopefully people think what I come up with is worth listening to.
LTW: Some other characters on Monster, such as Mugabe and Mussolini, are interesting in that they are now very much seen as villains, but that would not have been the perception of them when they started out?
HC: They were champions of the people when they started out and it takes a lot of courage to set out on that sort of path. It’s important to remember that, even though it might all get clouded and become evil in the end, when those people started out, they made a difference. I do not mean that positively obviously, but the world is a different place because of their lives and how many people can say that?
A lot of the reason for ‘Monster’ is to highlight that. It’s a continuation of “be your own hero” and the fact that, at certain times in your life, you have to make decisions about things, mostly about your own life. It’s the decisions you make then that will change irrevocably what happens to you. Most people can look back on their lives and see certain crucial moments that, if they had acted differently, things wouldn’t have been the same. In Hinduism and Buddhism the idea of Karma is very strong, you end up in one place because of the momentous choices you make, but would you have done so if you had taken the other fork in the road? Maybe you would have ended up in the same place but by a different route.
Most people don’t like making these big decisions, they prefer other people to make the decisions for them about their lives. There’s a few times in my life when I’ve made decisions that have irrevocably changed the course of my life. One was when I gave up Biochemistry to become a musician in Sweden. I sat down with the Professor who told me my work wasn’t going very well and he couldn’t guarantee a grant for the next year. I knew than I had to leave so I told him and he was shocked. I didn’t know when I walked into that room, but talking to him it all became clear what I had to do.
Another one was leaving The Stranglers, which changed my life completely. Luckily, when I decide when I have to do something, I do it and I never make an about turn. I just feel if something has to happen, I won’t be true to myself if I don’t do it. It’s an honesty to oneself but some people may say that when these decisions are taken there’s an air of selfishness about them. You can get into a lot of trouble in life making decisions for yourself rather than for other people but you can get into even worse trouble in the long run by making decisions for other people and not yourself. Ultimately, is it right to carry on doing something you don’t want to, because other people want you to? You’re not being true to yourself or other people.
Making the album ‘Monster’, about all these people, and where they ended up from how they started helped me clarify things about myself and what I’ve been through. On the face of it, it seems like a very objective thing to write about other people, in a way it became very subjective because it helped me reconsider things looking back.
LTW: You’re out on tour again in November. You often visit smaller venues and towns that are not on the major circuit. How is the experience of touring and playing live for you now?
HC: Part of it is necessity, as since I gave up the name of The Stranglers, I don’t get the size of venue that they do with that name. I did voluntarily give up the name, I had a choice when I left whether I wanted it and I could have said to the others you can’t use it because it’s owned by the four of us. But I said “I don’t want it, it’s got too much baggage associated with it and I’d rather not have it”.
I was feeling stifled creatively by what the name signified so I thought, “I’m better off without it”.
Therefore, because I haven’t had the name, I’ve had to step down in the size of venue I’m playing, quite understandably, and I go to smaller towns which has been great for me. I think people appreciate it so it has a silver lining. In fact, the more I hear about big tours and gigs that people can’t see properly, the more I’m happy to play the venues I do. Most people in a stadium may as well be watching it on video as they spend their whole time watching on a screen. The light shows have to provide more and more to make up for that shortfall of the live experience and it all seems to be getting further and further away from what it’s all supposed to be about. That is, people on a stage making music and people close enough to appreciate what’s happening on that stage, not having to use binoculars because they are so far away.
The Stranglers did a few shows of that size back in the day and while they were fun, I wouldn’t want to be doing it regularly. You hear about Fleetwood Mac and The Rolling Stones going out on these tours and every day it’s these massive places and it must get so boring for them. Probably secretly they’d admit that they find it boring too.
We were in New York once and had three days off and a band I absolutely loved were playing round the corner. I won’t name them but. I could not believe my luck so I went to see them two nights running. The first night was absolute bliss; they played all the songs I wanted to hear, it was a smaller venue that wasn’t full so plenty of space and I couldn’t wait to get back the next night. To my disappointment, every moment that they made contact with the audience, they said exactly the same thing as the night before, it was like a script. It ruined it for me. I vowed then that, in or out of The Stranglers, I was never going to repeat myself on stage because it’s the first stepping stone to mediocrity and to boredom.
Leading on to something else about the upcoming tour, the sets are totally different from the last tour, it’s ‘Monster Phase 2’ if you like. There will be more Monster songs as people have had time to get used to it and the solo catalogue will be totally different going right back to Nosferatu. It would be easy to go out and do exactly the same show just because people liked it last year, but it’s important to give them something different and that’s what we’re doing. We’re also arming ourselves with more fantastic earlier Stranglers classics too. We have a pool of at least twenty-five to choose from, obviously we can’t play them all every night but there’s a wider choice of them.
LTW: You separate your solo and Stranglers catalogue in your set into two parts of the show. How does that work for you?
HC: I think what separating the two parts does really is highlight the strength of The Stranglers catalogue, or at least the part I was involved in. I can’t speak for anything they’ve done since I left because I’ve never listened to anything they’ve done. I just don’t want to go there; I don’t want to be asked what I think about their work since I’ve left as I don’t know how I would think about it. I’d rather not listen to it. I’m sorry to the guys for that as they may well put a lot of work into it but I’m just not interested.
To qualify that though, I don’t listen to any music by anybody. I gave up listening to music in the same way, as ever since I started writing books, I don’t read anymore, I just can’t get into it. I was an avid reader and have read very widely so it’s not like I’m not interested, it’s just that I can’t involve myself in them since I first wrote ‘Window on the World’. Musically, I don’t know how people can keep up, how do you decide what you are going to listen to? The only time I listen to “new music” is when I watch a film, a song is in there that I like, and I want to hear more of. But given the choice, I would not listen to new music. I’m so involved with learning old catalogue stuff, of which there is a lot, I just like a bit of peace and quiet when I’m not in the rehearsal room or the studio or on tour. I just don’t really want to listen to anything.
Music is ageless anyway. We’re still listening to Bach and Beethoven so we’ll be listening to rock music for many years to come. Testament to that is bands like The Rolling Stones, as we mentioned earlier, with huge business coming their way. Look at Queen who are going out without their lead singer and you would think that would be impossible but they’ve got someone doing it and they are selling out because people are curious to see what he’s like. Then you’ve got Neil Finn in Fleetwood Mac instead of Lindsey Buckingham. Who would think that a guy of Neil Finn’s status would be interested in going on tour with another band pretending to be someone else? But he’s doing it and he’s loving it and people are going to go and see him.
Let me ask you a question. The Rolling Stones are a multi-million pound business but what happens if Mick Jagger or Keith Richards or Charlie Watts can’t do it anymore for some reason, do you think they are going to stop? Of course not, they’ll get someone else in. There will be someone else who can do all the moves that Mick does or can play like Keith, and people will go to see what they are like. This is big, big business and it’s not going to stop just because someone has left or died.
LTW: So, how do you feel about The Stranglers carrying on without you?
HC: This is a completely jaw-dropping statement but I’ve suddenly realised that I’m very happy for The Stranglers to carry on without me. I love the fact that they are out there doing it, because it shows that the catalogue is that strong. They are playing to a few thousand people most nights, big venues like Manchester Apollo and Brixton Academy and the reason is people are going for those songs. They’re not saying “Oh, Hugh Cornwell isn’t involved in it, or Jet Black isn’t involved anymore so I’m not going to go. I really don’t care; I’m going for the songs”.
Now, in ten or fifteen years’ time, if maybe Dave Greenfield, or Jean-Jacques Burnel don’t want to do it anymore, maybe for health reasons or whatever, do you think they’re going to stop? The current singer, Baz Warne, is going to say “I’ve been doing this twenty years, this is my living, we’ll get another bass player or keyboard player in”. I am proud that I created a brand that is still worth something and that is still filling venues. I don’t want to do it but they can do it, that’s fine. It comes back to why I left which was to do something that was more challenging to me than just going out and playing an old catalogue with a few new ones thrown in.
So, to go back to your original question about separating the two catalogues, mine and The Stranglers in my live show, in a way it’s good to separate it because people can see the difference and if they want, they can give marks out of ten to both. Now at festivals, like when I go to Japan in February, I mix it up in one set alternatively but that works as well because it shows continuity of song writing, which I like. I think a lot of my songs work great just after a Stranglers song and also the other way round and you can see the progression in writing. But I do like the separation too as you can see my solo stuff and the Stranglers stuff, with a spotlight on both and I kind of like that. Over the years I’ve done ten solo albums and there’s a few good songs in there and it’s like those songs are saying to me “thank God you’ve given us our own fucking space now, we were getting bored just being an add-on to Stranglers songs. We’ve got a chance to shine now and to express ourselves.” So it’s nice for me to separate the two catalogues as well.
LTW: It wasn’t the easiest time for yourself when you made the decision to leave The Stranglers. You faced a few recriminations from the band and audience. Has there been a thawing of relations recently?
HC: It’s such a shame that people took it so badly. There were very emotional reactions from members of the public and the band that I’d been so disloyal for leaving. It’s like I’d signed in blood to be in the band for the rest of my life, which I hadn’t and there is life outside of The Stranglers. I was amazed at the recriminations and felt as if I was being judged, which was why I called my second album after leaving ‘Guilty’ as I was saying, tongue in cheek, “OK, I’m guilty of whatever, now let’s get this trial over with”. But the only thing I was guilty of was being myself. I was amazed at the level of emotion directed against me though.
LTW: Have relations improved between yourself and the rest of the band?
HC: Well, I don’t have contact with them. I felt stifled when I left, it just wasn’t firing creatively from my point of view. I was only meeting up with the guys when we rehearsed and we hadn’t made an album for a couple of years. That was 10, and that was a bit like recording by numbers. The band wasn’t in a very creative space at the time and maybe I pushed their creativity by leaving and it certainly pushed mine.
As for improved relations, well they never mention me now, which is better than being slagged off. When I was in that band for seventeen years, I put every ounce of my creative juice into it. That includes song writing, on stage and coming up with ideas for videos. Whatever I needed to do, I did it, that was quite a big contribution, and I’ve been astounded over the years that none of them has shown any acknowledgement of that. However, they are packing out venues and I get pad while I’m asleep because of it so I’m happy for them to do it. It’s a win-win situation. I have no bitterness at all, I’m just a little bemused at the lack of recognition and hopefully a few other people can see that too.
LTW: Your record as a songwriter stands with the very best, with consistent chart success over thirteen years while you were in The Stranglers. All this has been achieved without the slightest hint of a conventional love song, which generally has the wider appeal. This is consistent with all your solo work too, so what is your philosophy on song writing?
HC: It’s perverse; I’m a perverted song writer. Just writing a conventional pop song is not of interest, but to write a pop song that has an unusual quirk about IT, now that is of interest to me so whenever I can do that, I will. If it’s too bland I lose interest in it. Sometimes songs are saved from blandness by an arrangement.
Songs aren’t just about song writing, the arrangement is crucial too. It’s something we really focused on as a band and the others were very vocal in the arrangements too. For example, Jean deserves credit for his work on the arrangement of Always the Sun. Although it was a song I’d written, his input made it a bit more interesting so the process of arranging songs is very different from writing them. It can’t happen without the song in the first place, so it’s a secondary skill.
LTW: I have to ask you about the arrangement of Walk on By as, even today, The Stranglers version still has the power to take the breath away and personally I still marvel at how you came to the finished Stranglers version from the original track.
HC: Well that came about because it was a hangover from the early days when we used to do Working Men’s Clubs and we had to do a few standards alongside our own songs. We’d get people dancing to something they knew and we’d quickly throw in ‘Go Buddy Go’ and they wouldn’t realise we were playing our own stuff, it was a technique. Walk on By was one of my favourite songs but it’s quite short so we’d each throw our own bits in to it, Dave would do his keys and then I added my stuff and so on and it just developed over the course of around a year. So the arrangement of that was a real group effort and that’s probably why it sounds so unique. You can’t really make that up in an afternoon, it took many, many hours of playing to get to that stage
LTW: Your work with John Cooper Clark is an example of unexpected arrangements; in fact the whole project was delightfully “left field”. How did it come about?
HC: That started in a pretty strange way. It came about as John Cooper Clark and I have a mutual friend, and he came to a couple of my shows with this friend. It turned out he has a fantastic knowledge of music and we were both big mutual fans of each other.
One night my girlfriend at the time and I were playing each other songs on YouTube and, after she mentioned Richard Harris, I played her MacArthur Park. As I was listening to it, I could suddenly hear John talking the words, like a poem, in his Manchester drawl and I thought it would be like a surrealist experiment to do it. The song is by one of my favourite song writers, Jimmy Webb, who got in touch to say he loves our version of it by the way, so I contacted John who loved the idea. I did the track, which took me about six months, and John came down to do the vocals. As soon as he got on the mic, he started singing it and I wasn’t expecting that. My jaw had dropped and he asked what was wrong and if I would prefer him to talk it instead. But his voice sounded great so we kept it like that, it was all a happy accident. When we played it to Sony, they loved it and wanted more songs to make an album.
LTW: Is writing and producing for other artists something you’d like to do in the future?
HC: If someone asks me to write for them or produce them, I’d be happy to do it. I was going to do something for a band from the ‘80’s a while ago but it all fizzled out. If people ask me to do things, I’ll consider anything. I don’t like going and asking as that’s not right but if someone asks you, it means you’ve done something they like and want you to help them. I could write for somebody, definitely.
LTW: We were talking about the planning versus evolution of the Monster album earlier, one that stands out from The Stranglers catalogue is The Gospel According to The Meninblack. How far was that planned?
HC: It really was something where we clearly planned what we wanted to do. It wasn’t something that evolved, we got this idea and went for it. We had this concept of the Meninblack and set about writing it and it was an inspiring idea, it’s my favourite album. It’s a stunning album, way ahead of its time. The drum sound we used was actually before the Simmons drum kit which provided a lot of the distinctive ‘Eighties’ sounds, yet Jet was ahead of all that on The Meninblack. It’s a marvellous album; it’s a combination of instrumentals, there’s raps on there, pop songs. It was like we were trying to pretend to be machines. Manna Machine is to a loop so there’s no variation on the beat, which is basically what House Music was which came around 1990, there’s lot of stuff going on with that album.
LTW: Was it a brave thing to do at that stage of your career?
HC: Well, you must remember, we’d done two albums, Rattus and Heroes which were very much to a formula, and then we’d made some other steps into the obscurity of song writing with Black and White and then with Raven, we took things a little further. So it was time to jump in to the unknown musically and the subject matter of the songs, UFO’s and possible Alien life, leant itself perfectly to that idea. The theme of the album was always important to us, also the order of the tracks. If it was ten songs, it was five on each side and if it was twelve it would be six. That meant that round about track eight or nine you could put something a bit odd in there, like Manna Machine in the case of Mennblack.
On the subject of planning and producing albums we’ve just remastered Beyond Elysian Fields which was originally mastered by someone who was more heavy-rock inclined and that album of course features acoustic guitars. We’ve had it remastered by the people who mastered Monster and it sounds great. We’ve also taken off a track, Mr Big, that I never thought really worked and now it sounds so different, really good.
LTW: Have you enjoyed working on every album, or were any a struggle?
HC: The least endurable was 10. We had recorded the album ourselves but the Record Company said it had to be produced by someone, which was a bit disappointing as we hadn’t been told that. We went in with Roy Thomas Baker, Queen’s producer, and he brought to us the Queen way of recording, which was basically recording by numbers, which is quite ironic that it ended being called ‘10’.. He was a great guy and there some very good songs on that album, but the way it turned out was a bit uninspiring and it’s most people’s least favourite Stranglers album. Apart from that, I’ve really enjoyed all my others.
LTW: As someone who was at the forefront of the movement that became known as Punk, how do you feel looking back on that time and the accompanying media explosion?
HC: It was a double-edged sword; you have to take the rough with the smooth. In one way it was labelling and in another it was enabling, a window of opportunity. Some of the people who were included in that, like Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Blondie, no way would you call ‘Punk’, they’re just writers of great pop songs. It wasn’t just us that it happened to, I mean look at The Police! It was just a window of opportunity for everybody involved and you have to take any opportunity you get.
It’s funny because even though bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash have stood the test of time in their musical significance, it’s the artists like The Police and Elvis Costello who went on to stratospheric success and they should never have been under that label anyway.
The notoriety helped and hindered The Stranglers. It got us on the front page of some newspapers, with some stories, which were embellished, made to sound worse than they actually were but in other ways it created obstacles. For example, we went to Australia for the first time and our tour of New Zealand was cancelled. We were really looking forward to going and were told that we were banned because the government of New Zealand didn’t want people like us in their country, because of what they’d read. Notoriety worked for us and against us.
LTW: I read you are currently working on a film script?
HC: It’s in the final stages of preparation but whether it will end up as a film that people can see is another matter. I’m learning that the film business is the slowest business in the world, it’s like watching paint dry. Progress is being made but nobody really knows if a film is going to be made until the very last moment, largely because of money. There’s real difficulties getting the right actor available at the same time as the money is there. I don’t know how directors and producers cope with it, they’re all spinning about twenty plates in the air at the same time so it’s a wait and see, but there is progress made.
LTW: Finally, can you tell us a little about your new novel that is due for publication soon?
HC: It’s my third novel and due out this autumn; it’s been a long time in gestation. I’ve always been a huge fan of Philip K. Dick who I think was the most underrated author of the Twentieth Century and will become more and more valued as time goes. His books are Science Fiction and pose a lot of philosophical questions about the way that we live and what’s going to happen to us in the future. He wrote about seventy novels and hundreds of short stories and many of his works have been turned into films and I wanted to write a story influenced by him.
My book is now finished and it’s called ‘Future Tense’ and it’s a thriller set in the future. There are law enforcement robots who double up as street cleaners and plastic has been banned. Plastic is really one of the biggest threats to us as a race; I really don’t know why we still seem to be using so much of it, it’s absolutely inexcusable. In the Pacific there’s a large island made up of plastic and it’s getting bigger, brought there by the currents converging. In my future world, plastic is banned and a clean-up is going on.
Also, the world has decided to act on obesity as it’s causing too much of a drain on the finances of the workforce with associated illness and healthcare issues. They have created a Body Mass Standard and every citizen has to go to a doctor and have a report made. This will consider your age, your height, body type and work out a limit of what you should weigh and if you’re over that, we’re going to tax the fuck out of you! It doesn’t work putting people in jail, you have to feed them, so society has decided to hit people in their pockets hard. One of the main characters is an English doctor in Miami who is doing these reports as they are lucrative for him and then he accepts a bribe from someone and the whole story starts from there. The artwork is just being finished and hopefully, it will be available by Christmas.
With the publication of the book, possible developments in the movie world and the prospect of an autumn tour to savour, Hugh Cornwell is still firing on all cylinders.
Please see below for tour and ticket details.
Hugh Cornwell Autumn Tour 2019
12 November 2019 Tuesday 19:00
Liverpool East Village Arts Club, Liverpool,
13 November 2019 Wednesday 20:00
The Brickyard, Carlisle
14 November 2019 Thursday 19:30
Lemon Tree, Aberdeen,
15 November 2019 Friday 19:45
Liquid Room, Edinburgh,
16 November 2019 Saturday 19:30
Brudenell Social Club, Leeds,
17 November 2019 Sunday 20:30
The Met, Bury
21 November 2019 Thursday 20:30
Harpenden Public Halls, Harpenden,
23 November 2019 Saturday 20:30
The 1865, Southampton,
27 November 2019 Wednesday 18:30
Rescue Rooms, Nottingham,
28 November 2019 Thursday 20:00
The Apex, Bury St Edmunds,
30 November 2019 Saturday 20:00
Sin City, Swansea,
01 December 2019 Sunday 20:00
Gloucester Guildhall, Gloucester, United Kingdom
Hugh’s MrDemilleFM website is now available as a Podcast at www.audioboom.com or your favourite platform.
For more info on Hugh Cornwell, visit his website Hugh is also on Facebook and tweets as @hughcornwell.
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