TR+ Extended Interview – Welcome Back: Hugh Cornwell

As frontman-songwriter with The Stranglers from the mid-70s to 1990, punk provocateur Hugh Cornwell was responsible for some of the defining anthems of the era, from Peaches to No More Heroes and beyond.

It was a tenure also marked by riots, drugs and incendiary live shows. Twenty-five years have now passed since he quit the band for a more low-key, though no less varied, solo career, as he releases a sparkling new compilation, The Fall And Rise Of Hugh Cornwell. Classic Rock catches him hanging around…

How did you whittle down all your solo work to just thirteen tracks?

The guy at the record company is a big fan and wanted to do it. He said he had strong ideas about what tracks he wanted from each album. There are a couple of tracks from my first solo album, Wolf, which came out in 1988, but the rest of it is post-Stranglers. And it sounds great. I’m glad someone else did it, because it would’ve been very difficult for me to compile.

Your solo career didn’t begin promisingly. Virgin dropped you after the release of Wolf, and there were record label problems around the time of 1993’s follow-up, Wired. Was it a trying time?

It was very frustrating. And doubly so with Virgin, because when they dropped me I was actually in America doing a promotional tour. The publicity team in New York were just starting to get some reaction, then I walked in one morning and they went: “We don’t know what to say, but we’ve just had word from London that you’ve been dropped.” It was a point in Virgin’s history when the accountants, rather than the creative people, sat down and looked at the figures. They saw mine and said: “He’s gotta go

What was it that made you press on?

Self-belief, I suppose. I had a good management team, and I’ve been lucky enough to find musicians that I enjoy playing with who are my friends. It’s funny, because I’ve been with Chris Bell and Steve Fishman, my original rhythm section, for longer than I played in The Stranglers, on and off.

In your autobiography, A Multitude Of Sins, you say you left The Stranglers because “all the danger and risk had gone”. How do you avoid that happening as a solo artist?

The Stranglers’ catalogue is so strong, and the fact the band are still active has been a great assistance to me. I get paid every time they play, because they’re my songs. Without that income I don’t know where I would’ve been. It’s meant I’ve been able to indulge in exactly what I want to do in my solo career, rather than toe any line.

You’re taking part in the Jack Bruce tribute concert, Sunshine Of Your Love, at the Roundhouse in October. Were you always a big fan of his?

Definitely. I’m going to perform one of his songs with Ginger Baker, Hear Me Calling Your Name, which Jack wrote when they were both with the Graham Bond Organization. I was a big fan of them when I was a teenager – I used to go see them whenever they played at the Marquee. I’d shoot down to watch them from where my parents lived in Kentish Town, then get back, go to bed and get ready for school the next day. In fact I’m researching a film script about Graham Bond at the moment.

Did going to the Marquee make you want to be in a band?

No. That actually happened when I was at school with Richard Thompson [pre-Fairport Convention], who taught me how to play bass. We used to hang out together and show each other music that we’d discovered. He took me to see my first concert, which was at the Astoria in Finsbury Park [January 9, 1965, when Cornwell was 15]. It was Chuck Berry supported by the Nashville Teens, The Animals and the Moody Blues. I thought: “Wow! I wanna do more of this.”’ After that I started going to the Marquee. At the end of the first set, the band – be it the Spencer Davis Group, Graham Bond, The Yardbirds or whoever – would get off the front of the stage, go to the pub next door for a pint then come back. So you were very much in contact with them. It was a privilege to be there.

Considering you’ve been at it for more than forty years now, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from a career in rock’n’roll?

That there are no rules. You just don’t know when something’s going to happen for you. It was something I realised when Pulp became very big in the 90s, because Jarvis Cocker had been doing that for 17 years. So for the same length of time that I’d had success in The Stranglers, Pulp had been struggling away in obscurity. You just have to follow your desire and keep making music, even if a lot of people call you foolish or too old or whatever. Jarvis is a great lesson for everybody.

Have there been times when you’ve doubted yourself?

[Laughing] Every day! You never know when it’s going to end. That’s why I do other things. I’ve been writing novels now for nearly ten years, and I’ve managed to have a couple published. And hopefully Window On The World [2011] is on its way to becoming a feature film. Plus I’ve started to prepare material for the next album.

Anything else on the horizon?

I’m just finishing an album with [punk poet] John Cooper Clarke. Little do people know, but John’s got a fabulous baritone voice and can hold a tune, so we’ve done a collection of old classics. We’ve just recorded MacArthur Park, the Richard Harris song, and Ian Anderson, an old friend of mine, played some fantastic wig-out flute on it. We also do Donna, by Ritchie Valens, Love Potion No.9 and Jezebel by Frankie Laine. I’m doing a few backing vocals. John’s done such a great job on the songs. He’s a real music man and knew the lyrics off by heart. The album should be ready by Christmas.

Talking of Ian Anderson, one of the most underrated Stranglers albums is 1981’s The Gospel According To The Meninblack, which has a prog element to it.

Yeah, it’s certainly prog-rocky. It was a strange album to make. We had a lot of problems finishing that off. Our studio in Munich blew up, we had various run-ins with the law, I had my drug bust, one member of our party passed away, another one had a heart attack, and all our equipment was stolen in America. All sorts of things were going on.

Are you still slightly baffled by what you perceive as The Stranglers’ lack of goodwill towards you since you left?

Only in the sense that they don’t mention me at all now [laughs], which I guess is better than being spoken of with bad breath. But that’s fair enough. They’ve got their own existence, they make records, write new songs and they think they’re just as good as the old ones. As I said, I’m indebted to them for carrying on. It’s provided me with an extra income that’s given me my creative freedom. So thank you very much, guys.

Classic Rock 215: News & Regulars

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.