Hugh Cornwell on the punk era and his new album
Hugh Cornwell’s new album, Moments Of Madness, is out now
In their early images, the gang looks rather thuggish compared to the spiky dyed hair, slogan-stained T-shirts, and clown makeup favored by their contemporaries. “We didn’t dress up or wear safety pins, we definitely weren’t like everyone else,” former Stranglers singer and guitarist Hugh Cornwell tells me.
For starters, they were older. Cornwell turned 28 in 1977, the year punk entered the mainstream. Johnny Rotten turned 21 years old.
Behind their frowning image, the four were professional musicians. In addition to being a black belt in karate, bassist Jean-Jacques “JJ” Burnel was a classically trained guitarist who had read history in college.
Keyboardist Dave Greenfield was a piano tuner with a background in progressive rock. Drummer Jet Black owned a fleet of ice cream vans and was an accomplished jazz musician. While Cornwell was a biochemistry graduate whose first band included future Fairport Convention folk rocker Richard Thompson.
The Stranglers had spent years playing the tough London pub rock circuit, honing their chops, before Peaches became the first of three Top 10 hits in ’77.
Hugh tells me, “The need to strike a pose appealed to our provocative nature. Like Elvis Costello and Blondie, none of us were really punk. It was an opportunity. Who cares what they called us? This was our chance to walk in the door.”
The BBC banned Peaches for “foul language and innuendo”, and the band basked in the notoriety. The song (minus its raunchy lyrics) became the ending theme song for the late Keith Floyd’s TV cooking series…
“Could a group get away with it now?” Cornwell reflects. “No. Would they cancel us? We would. But those who complained about Peaches had no sense of humor.
“No one has a sense of humor anymore. It’s a sad, sad time for the human spirit that people behave like this.”
The band he epitomized in their black-clad punk days never tried to please anyone but themselves.
However, you needed more than a sense of humor to digest some of The Stranglers’ more antisocial antics. His feuds with journalists became legendary.
Hugh once tied a French journalist to a beam of the Eiffel Tower, 200 feet above the ground.
JJ kidnapped another motherfucker and suspended him on a London stage. In Australia, he recorded a journalist on stage.
“There was also a Portuguese journalist who we left in the desert,” recalls Hugh. “But that wasn’t very smart.”
At one point, the notorious Hell’s Angels adopted the band. “We realized that they were not there to harm us. When we left the stage, they took us to their clubhouse. They said, ‘Do any of these women like you? They are our girls. Whichever you like is yours.”
To cool the gang down, the gang served them amphetamine. “There was a huge knife with a lot of industrial-strength speed, and you can’t say no…”
This episode was commemorated in their 1978 hit Nice ‘N’ Sleazy, which they promoted with a now-infamous outdoor show in London’s Battersea Park with a chorus of strippers onstage.
“The police arrested the strippers afterwards,” Cornwell recalls. “They were trying to take their names and they were saying, ‘Miss Tubby Hayes’, ‘Tessa Tickell’…all fake names and addresses. It was very funny.”
The joke ended after the band agreed to play a fundraiser for the Angels. “As one of them was escorting us onto the stage, we saw two angels hitting each other with knives. Everything fizzled out after that.”
The Stranglers had spent years playing on London’s tough pub rock circuit.
Worse was yet to come for Cornwell, however, when in January 1980 he was convicted on drug charges and sentenced to two months in Pentonville Prison.
He “resisted, kept my nose clean, and was out in five weeks; you just have to treat it as a new experience that you can learn from. And I learned that I never want to go to jail again.”
The next two years turned out to be a nadir for The Stranglers. Album sales remained strong, but the hits dried up…until 1982, when Hugh scored his No. 2 UK, Top Ten single Golden Brown in six other countries, selling over a million sales.
With his dreamy, hypnotic charm, Golden Brown was, improbably, a harpsichord-led baroque punk.
London was awash in cheap ‘brown sugar’ heroin at the time and many assumed the song was about the drug.
However, Hugh still insists that “the lyrics had more than one purpose: there was a girl I was having an affair with who had beautiful golden skin.”
Burnel never liked the song. “He didn’t actually play on the record,” says Hugh. “He said, ‘I can’t. This doesn’t turn me on.’”
He must have been the only person in the world who didn’t like it.
Hugh laughs. “Well, he probably likes it now,” referring to the fact that the record still generates sizable royalties.
We met in a west London recording studio where Cornwell was putting the finishing touches on his first solo album in three years, Moments of Madness. A delight less is more that lets the music speak for itself.
“I’m not trying to break down any doors these days,” he says. “I grew up buying Eddie Cochran singles and Cliff Richard EPs. I’d rather write a big three-minute pop song than a nine-minute epic.”
There are plenty of great three-minute moments on the album, including the single, Coming Out of The Wilderness, which sounds exactly like the catchy one-two-hit that first made The Stranglers famous.
Hugh left the band in 1990 and has resisted several lucrative offers to reunite. “Five years after leaving the Stranglers, there was a seven-figure offer. I said no, and I’ve kept saying no.”
Greenfield died in 2020, aged 71, from covid-related causes. Harris, now 84, has retired. And Cornwell insists that he’s not interested in teaming up with JJ again.
“I have had hidden offers. They told me, ‘We’re going to let you rejoin the band.’ I’m gone, wait a second, I’m gone. They didn’t fire me! Thanks but no thanks.”
He frowns. “They treated me quite shamefully after I left. He never wished me luck or anything. It was sad because we had spent so much time together.’
Little has changed since his Stranglers heyday, apart from the thinning straw he still insists on raising, Hugh said goodbye to his wild years long ago.
Hugh is on a 23 date tour of the UK
“Drugs are off the table because they end up destroying your cells. The problem with cocaine took away your drunkenness. So that if you were blind drunk, you could carry on. Ultimately, your body is going to pay for it.
“The drug is now so strong. I tried some by mistake a few years ago, and I had to sit in an armchair for three hours, I couldn’t move.”
Now 73 years old, he strives to stay fit and healthy. “I eat a lot of fish; I don’t eat a lot of red meat. I avoid processed things, sausages.”
Hugh is on a 23-date UK tour, his first since pre-Covid. “I remember thinking at the end of 2019 how I could use a year off,” he says. “But not like that!”
His new show is “a game of two halves: the first is my solo stuff, the second is shoving those Stranglers songs down their throats.”
He hates encores and avoided them for years. But he has had enough of the fans complaining.
“We’re back to that facade of ‘Right. We’re going to get off stage now, and then we’re going to walk again, and then we’re going to play…’.
“You can not please everybody”.
And as he reminds me, the band he embodied in their black-clad punk days never tried to please anyone but themselves. “I was always my best judge.”
He still is.
- Hugh Cornwell’s new album, Moments Of Madness, is out now. Hugh tours the UK until 6/12. For more information visit hughcornwell.com
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