ARCHIVE: The Maninblack is Back

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Hugh really got me: Former Stranglers frontman, successful solo performer and Wall of Fame icon Hugh Cornwell returns to the Brighton Bar for a Wednesday headliner.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit September 5, 2009)

They were called “the English Doors” and “bad-mannered yobs” when they first emerged into the greater public consciousness, concurrent with the first wave of UK punk rock in the 1970s.

And, while their keyboard-accented sound, obvious musical training and comparatively advanced years (their longtime drummer just marked his 71st birthday!) have kept the crits arguing over whether they ever truly belonged to the safety-pin set, there’s no disputing that The Stranglers have long owned and defended a hard-earned bit of turf in the pop music no-man’s land — a neutral territory at the nexus of new wave, goth, old school metal, garage, pub and even some of the more elegant strains of Brit art rock.

From their inception through to 1990, the Stranglers were fronted by guitarist and vocalist Hugh Cornwell, a former bandmate of Richard Thompson whose serious aspect, moody baritone and increasingly sophisticated leanings allowed the long-running band to trace a path from the rough and tumble of their early, “meninblack” days to their status as elder statesmen European favorites in the post-Cornwell era.

In between, the group existed for several years in the 1980s as a growing, evolving generator of hit singles and videos — a fact that many of us here on the Jersey Shore know quite well, thanks to the old WHTG-FM in their pre-corporate days. The little radio station in the Hope Road ranch house made regular rotation items of such Stranglers staples as “Skin Deep,” “Always the Sun,” “No Mercy” and “Dreamtime” — and the glossier, synthdrum-driven Stranglesongs of the period (particularly the jazzy waltz and metaphoric commentary of “Golden Brown”) continue to have a sober authority that sets them apart from their Kajagoogoo kontemporaries.

Apart from authoring three books (including a memoir of a short stretch served for narcotics possession) and becoming a radio-recognized authority on (and occasional player of) cricket, Hugh Cornwell has continued to prosecute a fulfilling post-Strangler career through more than a dozen solo albums and collaborations — the latest being Hooverdam, a solid songset with a modern trio configuration that’s actually far removed from the signature sound of his old band.

No oldies act this, even if Cornwell continues to revisit his sonic legacy onstage in remade/remodeled settings. Having just recently turned 60 years old, the singer comes to the Brighton Bar in Long Branch on Wednesday, September 9 — a return visit to the Shore’s eternal indie incubator for Cornwell, who’s already staked his spot of honor on the club’s “wailing wall” of fame.

Red Bank oRBit spoke to Hugh Cornwell on the eve of his North American tour, a jaunt of which the Brighton gig is the second of fourteen dates. Read on.

RED BANK ORBIT: Good to hear from you, Hugh. We’re doing a little story in advance of your gig at the Brighton Bar, which we’ve likened to our CBGB. Now you’ve been there before — your name is up on their Wall of Fame, which in addition to being a greater honor than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a tourist attraction in itself. People pray there; make pencil tracings of the names…

HUGH CORNWELL: If I’m not mistaken I played a gig with The Dictators there years ago — and I was in the area about 18 months ago; I did a tour with From The Jam. So can we expect anyone to be there for the show?

On a Wednesday night, down on the Jersey Shore, after Labor Day? Not a problem. All the old punks will be there I’m sure, as long as you don’t keep them up too much past their bedtime. So does this represent the start of your US tour?

Actually, the night before I’m in Jersey I’ll be in Philadelphia, at a place called Johnny Brenda’s. But I get in on Friday, and I’ll be spending the weekend with some friends in upstate New York.

Nice. So where do you make your residence these days?

I’m speaking to you from London, but I’m living outside Bath these days, in the north country. I’m spending a lot of time in Spain as well — it’s becoming sort of another residence for me.

I know you’ve toured Asia, Australia, a number of places over the globe. How far afield have you taken your act over the years? What’s the most innocuous place to have received a Hugh Cornwell concert?

The most surprising place would have to had been Bahrain — we played at a rugby club. It was one hundred percent humidity; just like a hot, sweaty club, but outdoors. I honestly thought no one would be there, but two and a half thousand people showed up.

The only place I haven’t played is South America — I’ve been invited there next spring. And I’m making inroads into Russia; playing In Minsk in Belarus, and in Vilnius and other places in Lithuania. We’ve got a show coming up in the UK where we play my new album, the entire Hooverdam album, and then the first Stranglers album Rattus Norvegicus in its entirety. Some of those songs I haven’t played in 20 years.

I’m sure you continue to address the Stranglers legacy in your live sets, but how do you address the fact that so many of those tunes are really written around keyboard-based arrangements?

We’ll be playing “Down In The Sewer,” Tank,” “Duchess” — I’ve got a lot of pedals and effects to simulate the organ sounds. They’re good songs, but I don’t necessarily play them the same way. I’ve got to play “Golden Brown,” you know, and my bass player came up with the idea of how to do it — she plays the entire keyboard part on the bass.

We also play “Walk On By” — sort of a cover version of the Stranglers cover version of the old Burt Bacharach song. I’m pleased with what we did with it, too, we added a new section on the end.

I have a pretty vivid memory of lying on the floor of my friend’s house in 1976, listening to his copy of RATTUS NORVEGICUS, after we got back from our latest record buying excursion to New York. And not only am I getting to talk to you all these years later, but your career is still taking you to some new and interesting places. 

Hooverdam is just running wild — I’ve got it free on download, and a lot of new people, people who haven’t even heard of the Stranglers, are passing it onto their friends. Exponential growth, I guess you could say.

Could you have imagined, at the start of your recording career, that you’d be excited about giving away your latest music for free? But it seems as though you’ve managed to navigate your way through the strange new world of the record business, where artists are expected to take on a lot of what the labels used to do…

I haven’t bypassed the record label — in fact, my label persuaded me to do this in the first place, saying this is the future of the industry and all that. But it’s worked out quite well. I’m lucky that I’m still doing it after all this time, and my audience is growing.

And you’re putting out some compelling new music, while some of your contemporaries — Patti Smith for example — their most recent albums have been all covers. Just some coffee table object, like a Rod Stewart record.

Well, it’s probably that they’ve run out of ideas! Between them and their record label it’s all that they can think to do, just to get a bit of attention.

I have to bring up the fact that another place where your energies are focused these days is the sport of cricket.

Oh, you’re interested in cricket then? There’s a lot of new interest in cricket in different places around the world, with the new short format game, which is just four hours. Ah, but the long form game,  the five day game, is the most fabulous form — a thing of beauty. We just had the greatest match against Australia — five games, five days each.

Mark my words — the interest in the short game will get everybody into the long game. The guys who play are the fittest athletes in the world — it takes an amazing amount of stamina, and in all disciplines — running, batting. A guy can bat for two whole days.

Do you take inspiration from that level of focus and stamina, when you’re up there headlining a show, just you and your guitar and rhythm section?

I appreciate the adrenaline rush of performing, but I couldn’t do more than a couple of hours at a time. No, all credit in this case goes to this band. We really, really have fun playing together — the new stuff sounds good, and the old stuff sounds fresh and exciting.

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