Interview: Something never changed

John Walsh meets ex-Strangler Hugh Cornwell. Photograph by Donald MacLellan

John Walsh
Saturday 09 May 1998 00:02 BST

Out of the feral darkness of the LA2 Club in London's Charing Cross Road, four figures shamble onstage. They wear hooded costumes and sinister goggles that bracket their heads with red lights. Without preamble, they play a mountainous riff again and again, punctuated by dramatic silences. The leader, hunched over with his back to the audience, radiates an indefinable contempt at the rows of enraptured middle-aged men in black. The riff suddenly ends, and the band strips off their Stygian disguise, their mad red eyes. "Yeah," says Hugh Cornwell, "it was us all along."

Cornwell is tall, lean and hungry-looking, clean-cut and shorn as a bank manager but cold and sharp as a new razor blade. He sings the songs from his most recent solo album, Guilty, with screwed-up eyes and intense ferocity. "Play us something we know!" yells one unreconstructed Stranglers fan. Cornwell ignores him. Later, he is riled by the lukewarm applause at the climax. He looks as though he'd sooner give the crowd an extended middle finger than an encore. But he returns to the microphone. "I thought I heard a tiny pattering noise," he says, "like rain on the roof", and he launches into "Long Dead Train". The drummer and bassist writhe, the lead guitarist wails, and the listless metropolitans go crazy at last.

"London audiences can be a bit cooI," he admits next day, "a bit subdued. And I can get a little cantankerous about that. It's one of my weaknesses. If I have to intimidate an audience to get a reaction, then I will." He stabs a mass of scrambled egg with a deadly fork. "Otherwise, last night was great. I'm very enthused about these new musicians. We've had five days' rehearsals, done six concerts and they've picked it all up very well." He nods like a drama teacher passing judgement on this year's sixth form and this year's production of Grease. Cornwell is a man who has been through a lot since 1990, when he left The Stranglers, one of the key rock bands of the punk era and by far its longest survivors. While the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, The Buzzcocks et al imploded or split asunder or drowned in class 'A' drugs, Cornwell's men sailed together, sulky but harmonious, for 15 years. The split, when it came, was acrimonious. "It was unfortunate," he remembers, "because I left at an awkward time. We were just at the point of signing a renegotiated contract. The others speak very bitterly about me still, and I think it's very silly of them. I think you should move on and embrace change."

Cornwell likes change. He says so several times and it's borne out in the lyrics of his new songs. Guilty, his bleakly-titled fourth solo LP (the others were Nosferatu, Wolf and Wired) is full of changes: dreams of leaving, being in transit (the first line of the first song is, "I'm gonna try and steal a car ... "), making a fresh start, new love, new beginnings. The music bounces along on a jaunty upbeat, as if it's been recently let out of the nick to gambol in a summer meadow. What we have here, in other words, is the spectacle of a very English rock star in mid-passage, mid- career and, frankly, mid-life crisis. He is 49 ("I'm the right side of 50, but I have a preservation order on me"), unmarried, has no kids, and inhabits a comfortable but hardly luxurious apartment in a leafy Notting Hill street. In two weeks' time, he and his band will embark for America for a six-week tour. He has never played solo there before, "but half the e-mails I get on the website come from America. There's certainly a bit of interest out there," he concludes, modestly. And if the tour doesn't work out, will you pack it in? "There's no such thing as something not working," says Cornwell crossly, "because it's a journey. With or without success in America, I'm always developing the fan base."

You can hear a wobble in his voice when he talks like this, a tremor of vulnerability. He has had to reinvent himself, when the recording industry wouldn't touch him. "It was an emotional trip doing this album," he says, "because nobody was interested in me doing a record in this country. I found a top producer, Laurie Latham, an absolute genius, got my own studio outside Bath and I financed the whole thing. When we'd finished, we had no one to release it. It took us six months to find a label. But when we did, it was a great feeling, that someone liked it and wanted it without there being a record company saying, 'We want some more of that.'"

Cornwell has been one of the hard men of British rock for so long - the original Man in Black, the misogynistic snarl behind "Peaches" and "Something Better Change" and "Nice 'n' Sleazy", the voice that enquired "Whatever happened to/ Leon Trotsky?/He got an ice-pick/That made his ears burn ... " on "No More Heroes", the punk front-man who took truckloads of drugs, had dalliances with such rock divas as Kate Bush and Hazel O'Connor but was quite at home in middle-class-intellectual circles. A friend recalls once seeing Cornwell at a dinner party in Oxford. When he walked in, a 19-year-old Zuleika Dobson beauty languorously unfurled herself from the sofa and coolly said, "Hello, Hugh. How was Pentonville?" - he has, in short, so embedded an image of diamond-geezer hardness in the collective mind of male fortysomethings, it's extraordinary to find a sensitive, worried, ordinary man inside. Mid-life has split his shell. You can prod the soft interior without worrying that you'll get a Fender Strat across the back of your head.

The cover of Guilty shows a family snap of Cornwell as a baby, sitting in a pram wearing an unusually truculent leer. The photo was taken at the house where he was born, a prefabricated bungalow in Kentish Town. His father, Vic, was a draughtsman in the airline business during the war, "doing technical drawings with T-squares. It's a profession that doesn't exist anymore, because computers do it all". The youngest of four kids, Hugh went to a grammar school and became one of the few rock stars with a degree, from Bristol University. Does the former biochemistry graduate keep an eye on scientific news? "I do, indeed. Science teaches you to question things, and to go back to the fundamentals of life. I'm especially interested in diet and the chemistry of nutrition. It's very important to be aware that one's body is totally under one's control. I'm a strict health fanatic, when it comes to exercise. I go cycling every morning, first thing." Gosh. Cornwell turns out to be a keen cook with an curious fetish about fish. The oddest song on Guilty is called "Snapper" and seems to be a barmy rhapsody to the red piscine object that ends up, grilled, on a plate with a wedge of lemon beside it. But there are also dubious references to "well-hung game", and it ends with the words "Snapper is king or queen", so ...

What's this song about? Sexual preference?

"It's about fish," he says, deadpan, though he might mean it. "You can tell a lot about people from what they write and wear and read; so why can't you tell something about people by their diet?" And he is off at a tangent about a book he's reading called Courtesans and Fishcakes ,"on the epicurean habits of the Ancient Greeks".

The deity presiding over Cornwell's late music is Lou Reed. His influence is everywhere. The two-chord rhythm of "Walk on the Wild Side" drives one song. You can hear "White Light/White Heat" inside another. And Cornwell's vocals have that nervy flatness you associate with the Velvet Underground's saturnine hero. Cornwell grudgingly admits a similarity. He admires songwriters from the old school. "I was brought up on The Beatles and The Stones and Cream and Hendrix. I like choruses. I like verses. I'm in awe of the great crafting songwriters." His bedroom in Kentish Town was an Echoland of different styles. "My father was really into classical music. My eldest brother was into jazz. I was hearing Mose Allison and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I loved it. My other brother was bringing in Hendrix and Cream, and I was going, 'Oh that's nice and that's nice, and I don't like this but I like that.'"

At school, he formed Emile and the Detectives, with one Richard Thompson on guitar. In Sweden, working in a lab, he formed a pop band called Johnny Sox. ("Our longest song was three minutes. We played about 80 of them in a night.") Back home he linked up with Jean Jacques Burnel (drums), Dave Greenfield (keyboards), and a veteran Fifties rocker with the nom de cool of Jet Black, on torrential drums. The Guildford Stranglers hit the airwaves in 1975, just ahead of the punk explosion, just enough ahead to be called "the fathers of punk" and drop the middle name. Like all good fathers, they stuck around while their noisy children gobbed and puked and misbehaved and lost the plot and disappeared. They even provided their younger charges with a blueprint of misbehaviour (it's all faithfully chronicled in the vivid No Mercy: The Authorised and Uncensored Biography of The Stranglers by David Buckley, just published by Coronet, pounds 6.99) culminating in Cornwell's drug bust in 1980. "It was a routine police check at Hammersmith Broadway, and my driver happened to have some cocaine on him. So they searched everything and that was that." What they found was a bag of Drugs (Various), a reticule into which Cornwell habitually threw all the bags of grass and speed and what-have-you donated by generous fans. It earned him five weeks in prison, but "The people I ended up sharing a cell with were people who hadn't paid their parking tickets or had defied court orders to stay away from their estranged wives." The worst privations he suffered inside were having to clean the toilets and scour the walls, about which he is still indignant. "Have you ever seen people washing the walls of their homes? People don't do that. In prison you have to wash the walls. And the hallways and corridors. And you think, 'But no one washes walls.' You do in prison, mate. You do here."

It was, he says, "a learning experience". And life for Mr Cornwell is in general a learning experience. Pushing 50, healthy, creative, unusually frank about his life and able to transcend such minor concerns as whether he can command big audiences

in America, he's a very English combination - or not - of energy and gloom, like his songs.

I ask about the number of musicians who seem to slide through his fingers rather than stick around and hit the big time with him. "I've got to the stage where I'm embracing change," he says, back on his favourite topic. "Change is good. Trying to keep things the same, maintaining the status quo, is very boring. When people say, 'I can't be involved with this project,' instead of being down about it, I try to create some positive energy instead. I believe things can always get better."

Hugh Cornwell as D:Ream. The Labour Party should sign him up forthwith

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