Interview: Head Strangler Hugh Cornwell

Interview: Head Strangler Hugh Cornwell

hugh cornwell the stranglers
 Hugh Cornwell, The Stranglers (Photo by Ian Dickson/Redferns/Getty Images)

Ahead of The Stranglers' singer, songwriter & guitarist Hugh Cornwell’s May Australian tour, he gives us the low-down on some of his musical favourites, including tracks from The Who, The Everly Brothers, The Ramones and, err, Cliff Richard? 

Although he left the band he fronted nearly three decades ago, Hugh Cornwell’s name, face, voice and songs are synonymous with The Stranglers, the band he formed in 1974 and who rose to prominence in the UK and Australia with the rise of punk and the new wave late in the 70s.

Hugh wrote more than his fair share of punk-era classics, including ‘Nice’n’Sleazy”, “Get A Grip”, “No More Heroes”, “Hanging Around”, and their first Australian hit “Peaches”. By the early 80s, the Stranglers were unlikely but genuine pop stars, and Hugh was at it again, writing and singing some of the most memorable songs of a new age, including “Golden Brown” and “Skin Deep”.  Although he hasn’t troubled the Australian charts since leaving The Stranglers in 1990, Hugh has continued to make acclaimed records out of the dark melody and brooding melancholy he was known for. When he returns to Australia this month with his terrific three-piece band his shows will consist of two sets – one of recent material, followed by a full set of Stranglers classics. 

Ahead of his tour, ILYOS nailed Hugh down and asked him about his early musical favourites, the favourite tracks of his punk-era contemporaries, and his impressions of the Strangers first Australian tour, which ended in controversy when the band’s Brisbane show was shut down by Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s police and a live TV interview was cut short by a sensation-seeking Mike Willesee.

ILYOS – Hugh, after the sensationalism that received your first tour 40 years ago, no one could blame you if you’d never come back. What are your memories of that time and your feelings about it and Australia now?
HC - The first trip to Australia was combined with a Japan tour which preceded it. Everyone was excited about going to Japan but I was more interested in the trip to Australia. The history of Australia has always fascinated me. The attitude towards us was very naive and it was very easy to cause outrage, as you know happened. But I am very fond of the Australian character and always look forward to coming back.
ILYOS - The Stranglers preceded punk, and whilst you never had the more formulaic Ramones/Pistols/Clash/Buzzcocks sound, you certainly had the aggression and darkness that was associated with punk and indeed post-punk. Can you explain about what inspired your sound and your attitude when you started (was there a particular Englishness to do it do you think?), and where you fitted in/how you were received in those pre-punk days?

HC - We had influences which manifested themselves in our music. Mine were The Beatles, Velvet Underground, Doors & Love, and in my writing I sought to emulate them, but it came out in an English way, of course. Being older than our contemporaries meant that our influences were different, and so we were bound to have a different sound. This led to the rest of the scene at the time being unsure of us, and we weren't really accepted into the circle, although our managers were. 

ILYOS – What did you think of punk once it became a thing?

HC - As soon as punk had become accepted as a musical genre it was over.

ILYOS - The Stranglers were also capable of more melodic things, going back at least to your cover of Bacharach & David’s “Walk On By” in 1978, and of course “Golden Brown”. How did the punk fans like that stuff?
HC - "Walk On By" is very different from the original, and has a Doors' flavour to it, and it went down very well. I've never been aware of how "Golden Brown" was perceived by the 'punk fans'. It was a cross-over success.
ILYOS - How do you feel about the band that still tours using the Stranglers’ name?
HC - Because of my writing credit I receive royalties whenever they play, so I'm grateful for that. But the fact remains that it's only half the original band, but these days their audience doesn't seem to mind, as long as they still play my song catalogue pre-1990. I'm sure one day The Stranglers will be touring without any of the original members onstage. The songs will outlive everybody.
ILYOS -  My favourite description of the band back in the early days was from Sound’s Chaz De Walley - “Like a Force 9 gale of bad breath”. Your tour promises a set of old Stranglers songs along with a set of newer material. Can we expect the same in-your-face performance from you and your current band as we got back in the late 70s?
HC - He also called us 'Punk Floyd' which I liked. It's very difficult for me to answer that question, from where I'm standing. You will just have to wait and see...
ILYOS - Your new album Monster is based around the examination of the private lives of public people, including Lou Reed, Evel Knievel, Mussolini and others. Your own public persona has obviously softened over the years. How is your private life reflected in your public persona do you think?
HC - I try to be true to my character in all my musical and literary endeavours, and always have done. There is a little of every author in their work, as you know. 
ILYOS - Can you give me a list 5 of your favourite songs of your formative years with a few words about each?  
1.    'Can't Explain' - The Who - I became aware of arrangement possibilities in this song. Great use of backing vocals.
2.    'Sweet Little Sixteen' - Chuck Berry - I realised a song can tell a story listening to this. 
3.    'Take A Message To Mary' - Everly Brothers - I used to love singing along to Everly Brothers songs, they had a great command of harmony. 
4.    'Apron Strings' - Cliff Richard - Simplicity was the name of the game. 
5.    'Love Letters' - Ketty Lester - This one completely nails 'romantic song'.

ILYOS - And also 5 of your favourite songs from your contemporaries in the 70s and 80s?

1.    'Beat On The Brat' - Ramones - Groundbreaking revolutionary stuff.
2.    'Alone Again Or' - The Damned - They were brave enough to cover my favourite songwriter, Arthur Lee. 
3.    'In The City' – The Jam - They played this live on Top Of The Pops and I'll never forget it. 
4.    'Pretty Vacant' - Sex Pistols - Every bit as powerful as “God Save The Queen” but with a clever lyrical twist. 
5.    'Hurry Up Harry' - Sham 69 - Probably the most comical punk song ever. 

Hugh Cornwell (The Stranglers) Monster Australia / New Zealand Tour 2019

Wednesday 1 May Christchurch – Churchills

Thursday 2 May Wellington – San Fran Bath House

Friday 3 May Auckland – Powerstation with The Murder Chord

Saturday 4 May Brisbane – Triffid

Sunday 5 May Adelaide – Gov

Wednesday 8 May Canberra – Basement

Thursday 9 May Sydney – Manning Bar with Little Murders 

Friday 10 May Melbourne – Max Watts

Saturday 11 May Perth – Rosemount with The Painkillers (featuring members of Scientists, Hoodoo Gurus, Triffids, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds)

Get tickets and info here. 

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