Hugh Corn­well

Classic Rock - - Contents - Words: Mick Wall

The Stran­glers front­man on sur­viv­ing prison, stay­ing sharp, pedal power and the art of song­writ­ing.

Hugh Corn­well has never been like other rock stars. The singer/guitarist best known for fronting punk rock­ers The Stran­glers had al­ready ob­tained a de­gree in bio­chem­istry and was do­ing a post-grad de­gree in Swe­den when he formed his first band. The sen­si­tive soul has writ­ten books and done time in prison. He’s the tasty-look­ing geezer who sang Al­ways The Sun while wear­ing a long, dark over­coat that looked like it be­longed to Harold Step­toe. A genuine case of what you see not be­ing what you get.

His new solo al­bum, Mon­ster, is the same. A won­der­fully con­tem­po­rary-sound­ing, for­ward-look­ing col­lec­tion, it re­sounds with the same con­trary at­ti­tude of his ear­lier work. It also comes with an ac­com­pa­ny­ing disc of acous­tic ver­sions of sev­eral

Stran­glers hits. Now 69, Corn­well re­mains an in­trigu­ing artist.

The whole cul­ture be­hind re­leas­ing al­bums has changed.

Well, mak­ing al­bums hasn’t changed so much. You still have to go in some­where and come up with the songs and record them prop­erly. But CDs and vinyl have be­come al­most like col­lec­tor’s items.

Does that al­ter the way you think about mak­ing them? Like in­clud­ing a ten-track ‘great­est hits’ disc of acous­tic ver­sions of some your best-known Stran­glers songs?

Yeah, cover ver­sions of my own songs! Sony came up with that to see if we could get some cu­rios­ity from old Stran­glers fans. And I’ve been do­ing acous­tic tours ev­ery cou­ple of years for the last ten years so I’m fa­mil­iar with a lot of the old cat­a­logue, and I keep find­ing songs that re­spond well to an acous­tic treat­ment. I’m con­stantly sur­prised. The most un­likely ones turn out to sound great.

It’s un­usual for older artists to come up with new ma­te­rial that lives up to their hey­day. How have you kept your edge?

It’s a fluke! [Laughs] I just come up with a bunch of songs that I write at a cer­tain pe­riod of time, which works out about ev­ery five years, and it’s a com­plete fluke if ev­ery­one says they’re at the cut­ting edge. I’ve al­ways writ­ten songs from the gut.

I’ve also learnt a lot from work­ing with dif­fer­ent pro­duc­ers over the years. I didn’t take a lot of ad­vice in The Stran­glers. We did a lot of it our­selves. But when I left, I felt a bit lost when I went in the stu­dio, so I worked with Lau­rie Latham on two al­bums, which was very ed­u­ca­tional. Then af­ter that I made an al­bum with Tony Vis­conti and af­ter that an al­bum with Liam Wat­son. Then the last one was with Steve Al­bini. You learn some­thing from these ge­nius peo­ple.

So when it came to this [new al­bum] I had high-grade demos, which sounded good enough to fin­ish off my­self. It kept that spark of spon­tane­ity. We thought very much about it – and de­cided not to think too much about it, if you see what I mean.

The Stran­glers were al­ways provoca­tive – kid­nap­ping mu­sic jour­nal­ists, fight­ing with The Clash, scar­ing the hell out of peo­ple. Was that just who you guys were, or did you take on a cer­tain at­ti­tude to make your mark in that scene? Prob­a­bly a bit of both. The ne­ces­sity of adopt­ing a pose ap­pealed to our provoca­tive na­ture. A lot of it is per­cep­tion. What peo­ple per­ceive of you de­ter­mines how they be­have. That’s the same in any field. There’s that ex­pres­sion: if you don’t shout, you don’t get what you want; but un­der­neath, never show that you’re re­ally quite scared. [Laughs]

In 1980 you were sen­tenced to five weeks in Pen­tonville prison for pos­ses­sion of drugs. What was that like in terms of not show­ing how scared you were un­der­neath?

Well, yeah. You had to be very care­ful there. I wasn’t equipped for that at all. But I wanted to be in there for as lit­tle time as pos­si­ble so I obeyed the rules and reg­u­la­tions, and then came out. There were a few oc­ca­sions where I had to make de­ci­sions about what I was go­ing to do or say with peo­ple who were in there. So I made de­ci­sions and came out rel­a­tively un­scathed. For ex­am­ple, a few guys that I’d de­vel­oped a nod­ding ac­quain­tance with, they said they had some dope and would I like a smoke? The place was crawl­ing with the screws. So I started fol­low­ing them up the stairs to a higher floor, then I thought: “This is ridicu­lous. What am I do­ing this for?” So I said I’d changed my mind and I just ducked out. There’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween reck­less­ness and be­ing stupid.

De­spite the tough im­age of The Stran­glers, what also came across was the de­gree of in­tel­li­gence. Men­tions of Leon Trot­sky, San­cho Panza and ‘all the Shake­spearoes’, for ex­am­ple, in just one song, No More He­roes.

When I write I try to write from more than just one ref­er­ence point. So a song isn’t nec­es­sar­ily about just one thing.

Golden Brown is a good ex­am­ple of that. That was os­ten­si­bly about brown heroin, and yet is so beau­ti­ful and tran­scen­dent. That’s a typ­i­cal case of that. It’s a way for me to use the writ­ing of lyrics as a per­sonal state­ment, which isn’t nec­es­sar­ily ob­vi­ous to the per­son that’s lis­ten­ing to them or read­ing them. That way, for me, it’s more of a cathar­tic ex­er­cise. I’m able to put things in lyrics that only I un­der­stand. Mak­ing lyrics work on two or three lev­els, it’s serv­ing more than one pur­pose. Golden Brown was a case in point. There was a girl I was hav­ing an af­fair with who had beau­ti­ful golden brown skin, so it worked when I was writ­ing the lyric. It made sense per­son­ally. But it could be in­ter­preted [to be about heroin] as well.

Are you still rid­ing your bi­cy­cle ev­ery morn­ing? I read that you do about eight miles ev­ery day.

Not in Lon­don – it’s too dan­ger­ous. But when I’m not in Lon­don I do. If you want to con­tinue liv­ing and en­joy­ing things, you have to main­tain a cer­tain de­gree of fit­ness. The only way you can do that is by ex­er­cis­ing all the bits you want to keep us­ing and also watch­ing what you eat. Those things be­come very im­por­tant. I re­mem­ber they asked Clint East­wood why he runs ten miles ev­ery day. He said: “Be­cause I want to drink a litre of red wine ev­ery night.”

Mon­ster is out now via Sony Mu­sic.

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