How Madonna inspired a little toilet humour in Hugh Cornwell's music
As he prepares to play the Out to Lunch Festival, former Stranglers singer Hugh Cornwell tells Edwin Gilson about almost meeting the pop superstar ... while queuing for the loo
Go on, have a guess. How many years is it since Hugh Cornwell performed with The Stranglers? The answer is sure to make you feel old, for the Londoner, now 64, played his last show with the seminal rock band more than 23 years ago. He departed after the release of The Stranglers' 10th album in 1990, a risky move for many reasons, given that The Stranglers were the biggest-selling act to come out of the UK punk scene. At the time, he felt the band could go no further artistically. Today, the engaging singer's opinion on the matter doesn't seem to have shifted.
"I wanted to branch out and try new things," he reflects, speaking down the line from his sister's house in London where he spent the recent festive season. "That's why, when I play Stranglers' songs in my set nowadays, I change all the arrangements around. The Stranglers at the moment are sticking rigidly to the old formula, and good luck to them if that's what they want to do. But I couldn't do it. I don't want to be a parrot."
Cornwell is referring here to his solo career, which has yielded nine albums.
And he promises to draw on all of his material, Stranglers and solo, when he plays The Black Box in Belfast on January 26 to close the annual Out To Lunch arts festival.
It's been a decade since Cornwell was last in Northern Ireland, he recalls.
"I stayed up near the lovely park near the university before. It was a part of Belfast I didn't know existed, and I thought it was great."
Quite aside from favourable impressions of the Botanic Gardens, though, Cornwell remembers staying at the Europa hotel with The Stranglers at the height of the Troubles, a "dangerous place" with a "fortress mentality".
"We had to go through a sandbag blockade to get into the building. There were soldiers surrounding the place."
Cornwell admits he doesn't know "how dangerous Belfast is now" but reacts with surprise when I inform him of fellow music veteran Julian Cope's decision to cancel his Out to Lunch gig over security fears. Having survived, even thrived on, the raw violence of The Stranglers' early shows, the band's ex-singer is evidently not easily daunted. Indeed bassist/vocalist Jean-Jacques Burnel, who is still a member of The Stranglers, described in a recent interview how there'd be "blood every night" at gigs. While the aggression that defined the UK punk scene was evident in The Stranglers' stage presence, it soon became apparent that the band were an altogether more idiosyncratic proposition.
Cornwell, Burnel, drummer Jet Black and Swedish keyboardist Hans Warmling formed The Guildford Stranglers in 1974, taking their name from the Surrey town in which they met. Shortly, though, Dave Greenfield replaced Warmling, the band dropped the first half of their name, and began to experiment with a variety of sonic elements. That innovation, that desire to push the boundaries of rock, spawned three albums in just 13 months.
However, despite outselling both The Sex Pistols and The Clash and penning now classic songs like Peaches, No More Heroes and Something Better Change, the legacy of The Stranglers is arguably not as large as that of the two above bands, or even New York's New Wave act Blondie, who Cornwell's gang "used to hang around with". Cornwell is pragmatic on the matter.
"It's not really my place to make comments as to whether The Stranglers were, or are, underappreciated," he says.
"My task is to do what I do. It's the job of the critics to make calls like that. I'm very happy; my career's going very well. Legacy, and everything like that, all becomes clear as time moves on. I don't know ... that era's finished, you know?"
Cornwell has fond memories of the sense of community the punk scene offered, though: "We used to see members of The Clash and The Pistols all the time," he remembers.
"Even before The Clash, Joe (Strummer) was in a band called The 101ers, who we always found ourselves playing with at some college in Kent or somewhere.
"Joe and I always used to toss a coin to decide who would play first. We both wanted first spot so we could get back to London early to go out drinking!"
Cornwell doubts the potential for another punk movement anytime soon. "Would anyone take notice? If it's not on the internet, would anyone care? The youth of today are more likely to put stuff online than go out and play a gig. I'm not sure what they're capable of."
Clearly Cornwell is aware of the transformations occurring within the business, which makes his later diatribe about change all the more unexpected.
"I was thinking about writing a song called Nothing's Ever Changed, to follow on from The Stranglers' Something Better Change. Nothing ever changes really. We fool ourselves into thinking we change things, but in reality little does."
Much has changed in Cornwell's world since 1990 however, a fact reinforced by a recent gig the singer played in Cleveland, America, a million miles away from the raucous first Stranglers' shows.
"It was awful, the people seemed half asleep and unwilling to wake up," he laments. "Why would they even bother coming to the show? Generally, though, I get a communicative and responsive audience these days. It's a 50-50 split between the young and older generations."
Cornwell released his 2008 album Hooverdam for free. His 2012 effort, Totem And Taboo, sees him on aggressive form lyrically, ranting about commercialism (I Want One Of Those) The Daily Mail (Stuck In Daily Mail Land) and Madonna (The Face) over raw, jagged guitar lines.
"I find it dumbfounding when you can't hear what modern rock bands are singing," he says. "Maybe I'm just old-school, but my lyrics are at the forefront because I have something to say."
The Face is about a disorientating incident that occurred when Cornwell was invited to a party thrown by Madonna (left).
"I joined this queue, thinking it was for the toilet, and I was confused by how slow-moving it was," he explains. "Then someone explained: 'She's spending five or ten minutes with each person.' It was a queue to meet Madonna. I just wanted to go to the bathroom. So the full title of that song became The Face That Launched a Thousand S***s. I'm not a huge fan of Madonna, but I don't know if I could do what she had to do that night; greeting people. I thought it was very odd, but she probably thought she was carrying out a worthy service."
At the same bash Cornwell came to face to face with Paul Roberts, the then Stranglers' singer who was brought in after Cornwell's departure (and who has since left the band). The two apparently had "nothing to say to each other", a state of affairs echoed by Cornwell's now non-existent relationships with the other members of the band.
"I'm not in touch with them, no. If possible, they avoid talking about me. It's the easiest solution, really."
As Cornwell pauses to ponder the modern day Stranglers' incarnation, a hint of bitterness creeps into his voice.
"The band's new songs don't seem to be setting the world on fire; they're playing a lot of older songs, which is great for me. People flock to see them played, so it's testament to how good all those old songs that I wrote and co-wrote are."
Belfast this month is the place to be if you want to hear such classic rock songs. More than two decades after leaving the band, one gets the feeling Cornwell will always think of himself as a Strangler.