Hugh Cornwell, singer-songwriter and founder member of The Stranglers chats with Kevin Cooper about giving his album Hooverdam away free as a download, the ten most influential people in his lifetime, the release of his latest album Monster with Restoration which features ten acoustic Stranglers tracks, and his forthcoming full band tour of the UK.


Hugh Cornwell is an English musician and singer-songwriter, best known for being the vocalist and guitarist for the punk rock and new wave band The Stranglers from 1974 to 1990.

Whilst at school in London he met Richard Thompson (who later became a member of Fairport Convention) and learned to play the bass.  Having earned a Bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Bristol University, he went to Sweden to study and soon after formed the band Johnny Sox.

Coming back to the UK in 1974, Jet Black joined the band.  Cornwell and Black were then joined by Jean-Jacques Burnel.  The Johnny Sox name was subsequently dropped with the band adopting the name The Guildford Stranglers, before later becoming The Stranglers.

With Dave Greenfield joining the band in 1975, they went on to become the highest selling band to emerge from the UK punk scene.  As that scene began to fade, Cornwell began his solo career and in 1990 he decided that The Stranglers could go no further artistically.

His solo career has seen him release nine studio albums which included Beyond Elysian Fields in 2004, five live albums, and three compilation albums.

As a cricket fan, Cornwell appeared on the Jamie Theakston Cricket Show on BBC Radio 5 Live in 2001.  He played a live acoustic version of (Get A) Grip (On Yourself) with the then England batsman and guitarist Mark Butcher.  Cornwell subsequently became a player with Bunbury Cricket Club.

Whilst busy getting ready for his forthcoming full band tour of the UK, he took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

 

Hugh, good morning, how are you?

I’m doing very well thanks Kevin.  And I’m looking forward very much to coming back to Nottingham.  But more importantly, just how are you?

I’m very well thanks and before we go on let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

No worries, it’s a pleasure.

And I must ask just how is life treating Hugh Cornwell at this moment in time?

I have to be honest with you and say that life at the moment really is not bad.  It’s funny but one of the songs from Beyond Elysian Fields, Land Of A Thousand Kisses, starts off with the line ‘when I’m asked how the world is treating me, well I say that I get tired on the wheel’ (laughter) that’s the first line.  The reason why I am currently playing that song, and the reason why I am bringing it up, is that I have recently re-mastered Beyond Elysian Fields with the help of Tony Visconti, and I will be playing a couple of tracks from that album during my solo set on the forthcoming tour in order to promote the release of the album.

I am especially excited with that because we are finally releasing the album on vinyl, which for some reason we never did when it was originally released in 2004.  And I have to say that, in my humble opinion, it is now sounding great (laughter). 

I have seen you perform a couple of tracks from Beyond Elysian Fields here in Nottingham at The Glee Club and I have to say that they went down really well.

That’s excellent to hear.  I must finally be doing something right (laughter).

I must tell you that you have made me feel really old today.  I was checking the date of the first time that I saw The Stranglers and it was back in the mid-seventies at The Top Rank in Sheffield.

I remember you (laughter).

Opening for you should have been Siouxsie And The Banshees but unfortunately they were snowbound in London and couldn’t get to the gig.

Oh, is that right, I don’t remember that.  So who ended up supporting us?

We were treated to seeing The Human League. 

Hang on, I actually do remember that gig. I can remember The Human League playing that night.  I was very interested in seeing what The Human League were all about because our producer, Martin Rushent, had found them and he produced Dare with them.  Martin told us about them so when they turned up, I was interested to see just what all the fuss was about.  Can you believe that I saw them from the audience; I went out into the audience to watch them, and I have to say that, despite the funny haircuts, I thought that they were pretty good.

And the second time that I saw you which really does stand out was when you supported The Who at Wembley in 1978.  What a line-up that was, Nils Lofgren, AC/DC, The Who and yourselves. 

I remember that one too.  It was Nils Lofgren on a trampoline (laughter).

That’s right.  I interviewed Nils a few months ago and because of all of his acrobatics on the trampoline over the years, he has now had to have both of his hips replaced.

No, well there you go.  You really should stay well away from a trampoline whilst playing a guitar (laughter).

I suppose that we really should talk about your latest album, Monster.

Yes, we should; which monster would you like to talk about (laughter).

I was going to say to you that I absolutely love it. 

That’s great, thank you.

You originally released the album a year ago now.  Why have you re-released it so soon?

Yes, I did, and you are quite correct in saying that I originally released the album at the beginning of October last year.  The forthcoming tour is going to be a long time after the event, but the tour last year went down so well and the record company were saying “people will now know the album a little better so you could most probably go out again and tour it once again” so that is what we are doing.  I will be playing a few more tracks from it this time around.  I only played half of it the last time round, but now that I have added a couple more tracks to the set list I will be playing three quarters of it.  That sounds great but it has also meant that I have had to rethink what other tracks I can play around them because I am separating the sets on this tour.  In the first solo set me and the guys in the band have swapped a lot of the solo songs, so the set is now completely different to what we played last year.

Were you happy with the fan’s reaction to the new songs?

Oh yes, in fact I must tell you that my solo set got as much applause as The Stranglers set so I am happy.  I want the two to stand healthily next to each other. 

There are songs on the album which you have written about the ten most influential people in your lifetime.  How did you choose the ten?

 (Laughter) well it just so happened that I wanted to write a few songs and they just presented themselves at that moment.  It all started when my mother passed away six years ago, and I wanted to write a song about her.  So, I did, it was La Grande Dame and I was really happy with how that turned out.  So, I thought that I should probably write some other songs to go with that one for a new record, but then I started to scratch my head (laughter).  Then one day I was watching a movie about Evel Knievel and I thought ‘my god, no one has ever written a song about him, I can’t believe it.  He is such a big figure with a huge personality, and no one has ever written a song about him, especially with the motor bike connection.

You would have thought that they would have done but no one ever did, so that was the second song that came along.  And from that moment it slowly built up like that.  It wasn’t from the off going to be an album all about the people who have influenced me; it just turned out like that. 

When did you realise that you were writing a concept album?

When I was about halfway through it (laughter).  Funnily enough, when I realised that, the writing suddenly became easier.  I thought ‘well it’s obvious which way this is going, who else can I write a song about’ and I had had the title Duce Coochie Man for years.  That title occurred to me about ten years ago now.  I thought ‘that’s great, Duce Coochie Man could be a song about Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini but at that time I couldn’t really find the opportunity to write a song about Mussolini.  So, when this album turned up, I thought ‘that’s it, this is the moment for bringing out Duce Coochie Man’ (laughter). 

I am so glad that you have mentioned Duce Coochie Man and the fact that it was written about Benito Mussolini.  You have also written the song Robert which was written about Zimbabwean revolutionary Robert Mugabe.  Were you not worried about any adverse reaction?

No, not at all because what you have got to remember about these guys is that when they started out on their political careers, I’m sure and I am sure that people will agree with me, I’m sure that they had altruistic intentions.  I’m sure that they didn’t start off with evil intentions.  I think that both of them became victims of their own success.  Mussolini was a socialist pacifist when he started out and he had a huge following from the grassroots, working-class population of Italy.  And it has to be said that he did a lot of good things.  He had this huge following until he formed an alliance, through being scared, with Germany and once he did that his support fell away incredibly despite the fact that he thought that he had done the right thing.

He was scared of being invaded so he thought that he had done the right thing.  And then, as we know, it all went horribly wrong.  When Mugabe started out, he was a young revolutionary who was rebelling against something that he didn’t believe in.  He believed in what he thought was better for the people and look what happened there.  It is just a case of power corrupts and just because I am trying to put this into a song, I don’t see why I should be criticised for that.  Everyone has been very open and understanding about why I have put them in a song.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not putting them on a pedestal and saying that they were both fantastic, but you have to accept that they did change history.

They set out with the best of intentions but as I said earlier, power corrupts.  These are people who have defied categorisation.  You have to remember that I have spent my whole life trying to defy categorisation.  If someone wants to put me into a box, then I will do my very best to try to defy it.  Despite the picture of me that is painted by the media, I am not a violent person, but I do like a violent attitude to thought processes.  In truth, I like presenting people with dilemmas about truth and fiction.  When I step back and take a look around, I see a hell of a lot of people going through life pretending to be things that they’re not and if I am totally honest, I am really of a mind that pretence is for Hollywood.  That’s the side of punk that I liked; presenting a mental dilemma to people about their behaviour.

Is there anyone who you wanted to write a song about that didn’t make it onto the album?

Listen, there are a million people who I could write a song about, and I could easily do Monster Two, Monster Three and Monster Four but, you know, I would get bored doing that.  When I get bored, I get depressed.  I like to keep my mind active, challenging and challenged because that is what keeps the brain working.  That is one of the reasons why I left the band in the first place; because I like to be challenged.  I didn’t want to keep going out playing all of the old catalogue every night.  Don’t get me wrong, you can make a lot of money doing that, but I find it all very tedious and boring.  I want to get out there and perform new stuff.  I want the new stuff to be regarded in the same light as the old stuff.  I want them to receive the same respect and the only way for me to do that was to leave so that’s what I did.  I am being true to myself. 

I recently went to see The Stranglers and I heard some people in the audience referring to them as a tribute band.  What is your opinion of that?

 (Laughter) really, and I suppose that the band would not be happy with that would they?  What you have to remember is that they put a lot of work into trying to survive in their present status, and then that is said and it is like raining on their parade (laughter).  What you have to remember is that it is a free country; you have got to accept people’s opinions which sometimes you don’t particularly like.  People often say to me that The Stranglers sound better without me than they did with me, but in all honesty, I’m not angry about that, it is their opinion (laughter).

Swiftly moving on as I may have to interview JJ (Jean-Jacques Burnel) and Baz (Warne) again at some stage (laughter).  Usually at this point I would be telling you what my favourite track is on the album and why but with Monster I simply cannot do that as I currently have four tracks which I can’t stop playing.

That’s great, which ones are they?

They are Mosin’, Bilko, Monster…

Mosin’ I personally love that track and Bilko, I love that also.  It’s nice that you like Monster.

Finally, The Most Beautiful Girl In Hollywood.

I am so pleased that you have chosen those four tracks as in my opinion; they all could be number ones, couldn’t they?

I think so but then again, what does my opinion count for (laughter).

Exactly, what we do we know (laughter).  Well thank you, you really have made my day saying that because when I made the album I thought ‘I really don’t know which track is my favourite song.  One day I like this track and then the following day I can’t get that track out of my head’.  And so, it is nice when I get some people who think the same thing as me.  It’s good.

When I was listening to Monster, my thoughts automatically went to Mighty Joe Young and the skeleton fight scene in Jason And The Argonauts. 

Yes, I know exactly what you mean, absolutely.

Ray Harryhausen was a genius; he was so far ahead of his time.

I know, and George Lucas is quoted as saying, “if it hadn’t have been for Ray Harryhausen I wouldn’t have entered the movie business”.  George is a huge Ray Harryhausen fan. 

And then whilst I was listening to The Most Beautiful Girl In Hollywood, I had a look at my research notes on Hedy Lemarr and did you know that she was married six times and that her sixth husband just happened to be her divorce lawyer (laughter).

(Laughter) just how funny is that.  I suppose that you will know this, but Hedy Lemarr used to entertain Adolf (Hitler) in the castle in Austria.  Apparently, Adolf was a strict vegetarian who used to drink an awful lot of red wine (laughter).

So, all in all, you have picked some really interesting people to write about.

Thanks for saying that as I think so too.  They are people that are a bit neglected as well.  I don’t like people being neglected when they have done something of interest.  

Are you happy with the album?

Sure yes, in fact I am over the moon with it.  I am always happy with every album that I release otherwise it wouldn’t get released.  But when I get the sort of feedback that Monster has got, it makes my day.  Then it feels as though it has not all been in vain.  When you are an artist, you want to be recognised for good work so whenever you get a reaction like that you feel like ‘I have finally made something that a lot of people can enjoy’.  It’s great.  You must remember that I am only a public servant (laughter).

A lot of the fans are saying that Monster is your best solo work to date, would you agree with that?

That’s fine, that’s good, that must mean that I am getting better, I guess.  I personally wouldn’t say that it is my best solo work to date, but as I have said, I am pretty proud of it. 

I personally feel that your voice is getting better with age.

Oh great, thanks for that.  Well there you go, I’d better not stop smoking then, should I (laughter).

With this release, there is a bonus acoustic album, Restoration, containing ten Stranglers tracks.  As we have previously mentioned, you have such a vast back catalogue of work, was it difficult to keep it down to just ten tracks?

I’m so pleased that you have mentioned Restoration because a lot of the journalists that I have spoken to don’t seem to want to talk about it so thank you for that.  In answer to your question, no, not at all.  The acoustic album was all Sony’s idea.  They said “we love the new album, its great but we think that you would draw in more people if you put something in there as a carrot to Stranglers fans”.  So, I said to them “what about an acoustic album, I have never done an acoustic album in the studio. I have played an acoustic album live but never in the studio”.  I thought about it and thought that I didn’t want to do ten greatest hits of The Stranglers.

However, over the years I have been playing the odd acoustic tour every two years or so, and in the process of doing that, I have discovered that some of the old catalogue works better than others acoustically.  So that is how I based my choices.  I simply picked the ones that worked the best, I think, acoustically.  It just so happened that a few of them were big hits but then, for example, Peaches is really boring acoustically because there is nothing going on; it is all one dimensional (laughter).   On the other hand, a song like Outside Tokyo goes into all manner of interesting places.  So, that is how the choices came about.  They are the ones that, in my opinion, work best acoustically and I’ve found ten that sit well together.

I have to tell you that I think that Ships That Pass In The Night works really well acoustically.

I’m so pleased that you have said that because I love that song.  I have to be honest with you and tell you that I have got Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull playing the flute on that track.  In fact, I most probably shouldn’t be telling you this but, at this year’s Christmas Jethro Tull Concert at Wells Cathedral on Friday 13th December, I will be joining him for a version of Ships That Pass In The Night.  When Ian invited me to go along to Wells Cathedral I said, “why don’t we do Ships That Pass In The Night” and he said “yes, great” (laughter). 

Do you still enjoy performing some of the songs from The Stranglers?

To be totally honest with you, it’s not about me enjoying performing those songs anymore.  I feel that it has now got to the stage where I feel that I have to, simply because I honestly think that people are no longer associating me with those songs after twenty eight years.  Those songs, my songs, have been sequestered by a bogus version of the group which now only contains two original members.

Do you still enjoy being out on the road touring?

Yes, I do just so long as I don’t get too tired and there is a good crowd at the show, then I’m happy. 

Has touring changed much from when you first set out on the road some forty odd years ago now?

The main thing nowadays is that you can’t enjoy it if you are tired.  As long as the distances are not too far between gigs, and I have got enough time to have a cup of tea, get something to eat, and all of those basic things, especially getting enough sleep, then it’s like a machine to be honest.

You have performed many times here in Nottingham both as the singer with The Stranglers and on your solo tours.  What do you think to our fair city?

Yes, you are right, I have been to Nottingham quite a lot over the years.  From what I have seen over the years, Nottingham is a constantly changing city.  I have loved the time that I have been able to take in the city, it’s great.

Are there any thoughts on a new studio album?

Yes, there are.  As soon as this tour finishes, I am going to start recording again.  I have got a few things inside me, a few ideas that really do need to come out.  So, as soon as the tour is finished, I will be heading for the recording studio with my engineer, where we are going to investigate and see what happens. 

If I may take you back to 2008, you gave away your album Hooverdam free as a download over the internet.  What was the rationale behind that decision?

The record company that I was with at that time was owned by two crazy Aussies who were based here in London, with a hell of a lot of money to spend on music.  They were paying for it, and they said “Hugh we have got an idea that we want to run by you.  We want to give the album away over the internet”.  I thought that it was a crazy idea and made my feelings known to them.  They came back to me saying “no one has ever done it before and we feel that it will be a great news story and it will spread the word about you, because if people can get something for free then they are more likely to listen to it than if they have got to pay for it”.  You must remember that this was way before either Radiohead or U2 did it, so I just said “okay it’s your record, you guys are paying for it, you can do what you want” so I gave it my blessing.  And that is how it came about. 

What was the first record that you bought?

The very first record that I ever bought was Here Comes Summer by Jerry Keller.

Who did you first see performing live?

Richard Thompson, who I was in a band with at school, and who taught me to play the bass, took me along to see Chuck Berry supported by The Nashville Teens, The Animals, The Moody Blues and The Swinging Blue Jeans.  After they had played their set, The Nashville Teens became the house band for Chuck Berry, and purely by coincidence, everyone on that bill had had a number one record here in the UK in the previous couple of weeks apart from Chuck Berry of course.  It was the most amazing gig at The Astoria, Finsbury Park, London.  I remember it clearly and it is something that will never happen again.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

I had to contribute to an art exhibition recently, with a piece of work, and it was about Torch songs that had influenced me.   The song was Ketty Lester singing Love Letters whilst I was doing a drawing.  As I was drawing, I was listening to that song and it really did affect me emotionally.  It is a beautiful song, and what can I say, I wish that I had written it.

I know that you are keen follower of cricket so what do you think to the recent appointment of Darren Gough as the fast bowling consultant for England’s Test series in New Zealand later this month?

What can I say, we will just have to suck it and see.  Chris Silverwood is the bowling coach anyway, so I don’t really know why they need another.  What I will say is that I am glad that (Graham) Thorpe is in there rather than Rampers (Mark Ramprakash).   Mark is a lovely guy; I have met him a few times, but in my opinion, he wasn’t that capable of transmitting his talent to that level.  I was always a bit curious about his appointment.  We all know what Thorpe did; he always had a cool head and knew just how to handle the pressures at Test level.  So, I really do love that appointment.  I just wish that Graham Gooch would get involved, especially with the opening situation.

Having him around could really do some good but he doesn’t get involved, and I don’t know why.  Maybe they don’t want to ask him or maybe he is just not interested.  Some people just don’t want to be involved. 

Hugh, on that note let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, and what can I say except that you have made an old man extremely happy. 

Thank you very much for your time Kevin; it’s been my pleasure and I look forward to seeing you up there in Nottingham.