Hugh Cornwell’s new album Moments Of Madness is out now
In their early pictures, the band look positively thuggish compared to the dyed spiked hair, slogan-smeared T-shirts and clownish make-up favoured by their contemporaries. “We didn’t dress up or wear safety pins, we definitely weren’t like the others,” former Stranglers singer-guitarist Hugh Cornwell tells me.
For a start, they were older. Cornwell turned 28 in 1977 – the year punk entered the mainstream. Johnny Rotten turned 21.
Behind their scowling image, the four were professional musicians. As well as being a karate black belt, bassist Jean-Jacques “JJ” Burnel was a classically-trained guitarist who’d read history at university.
Keyboardist Dave Greenfield was a piano tuner with a background in prog-rock. Drummer Jet Black owned a fleet of ice cream vans and was an accomplished jazz musician. While Cornwell was a biochemistry graduate whose first band included future Fairport Convention folk-rocker Richard Thompson.
The Stranglers had spent years playing London’s hard-to-please pub rock circuit, tightening their skills, before Peaches became their first of three Top 10 hits in 77.
Hugh tells me, “The necessity of adopting a pose appealed to our provocative nature. Like Elvis Costello and Blondie, none of us were really punk. It was an opportunity. Who cares what they called us? This was our chance to get in through the door.”
The BBC banned Peaches, for “coarse language and innuendo”, and the band revelled in the notoriety. The song (minus its lecherous lyrics) famously went on to become the closing theme to the late Keith Floyd’s TV cooking series…
“Could a group get away with that stuff now?” ponders Cornwell. “No. Would we be cancelled? We would. But the ones who complained about Peaches had no sense of humour.
“Nobody has got a sense of humour anymore. It’s a sad, sad time for the human spirit that people are behaving like this.”
The band he personified in his black-clad punk days never tried to please anybody but themselves
You needed more than a sense of humour to digest some of The Stranglers’ more antisocial antics, however. Their feuds with journalists became legendary.
Hugh once tied a French journalist to a girder of the Eiffel Tower – 200feet above the ground.
JJ kidnapped another hapless hack and suspended him over a London stage. In Australia, he gaffer-taped a female journalist to the stage.
“There was also a Portuguese journalist who we left out in a desert,” Hugh recalls. “But that wasn’t very clever.”
At one stage the notorious Hell’s Angels adopted the band. “We realised they weren’t there to do us any harm. When we came offstage, they took us to their clubhouse. They said, ‘Any of these women you like? They’re our girls. Anyone takes your fancy, they’re yours’.”
To refresh the band, the gang served them amphetamine. “There was a huge knife with a pile of industrial-strength speed, and you can’t say no…”
This episode was commemorated in their 1978 hit, Nice ‘N’ Sleazy, which they promoted with a now infamous outdoor show in London’s Battersea Park with a chorus line of onstage strippers.
“The police busted the strippers afterwards,” Cornwell recalls. “They were trying to take their names and they’re going, ‘Miss Tubby Hayes’, ‘Tessa Tickell’…all false names and addresses. It was very funny.”
The joke wore thin after the band agreed to play a fundraiser for the Angels. “As one of them was escorting us to the stage we saw two Angels beating the crap out of each other with knives. It all fizzled out after that.”
The Stranglers had spent years playing London’s hard-to-please pub rock circuit
Worse was to come for Cornwell however when in January 1980 he was convicted on drug charges and sentenced to two months in Pentonville prison.
He “toughed it out, kept my nose clean and was out in five weeks; you’ve just got to treat it as a new experience that you can learn from. And I learned that I never want to go to jail again.”
The next two years proved a nadir for The Stranglers. Album sales held strong, but the hits dried up… until 1982 when Hugh composed their million-plus-selling single, Golden Brown – number 2 in the UK, Top Ten in six other countries.
With its dreamy hypnotic allure, Golden Brown was – unlikely as it sounds – harpsichord-led punk baroque.
London was awash in cheap ‘brown sugar’ heroin at the time and many assumed that the song was about the drug.
Hugh still insists however that “the lyrics served more than one purpose – there was a girl I was having an affair with who had beautiful golden-brown skin.”
Burnel never liked the song. “He didn’t actually play on the record,” says Hugh. “He said, ‘I can’t. This doesn’t turn me on.’.”
He must have been the only person in the world that didn’t like it.
Hugh laughs. “Well, he probably likes it now,” referring to the fact that the record still brings in considerable royalties.
We meet at a recording studio in west London, where Cornwell was putting the finishing touches to his first solo album for three years: Moments of Madness. A less-is-more delight that lets the music do the talking.
“I’m not trying to knock down any doors these days,” he says. “I grew up buying Eddie Cochran singles and Cliff Richard EPs. I’d rather write a great three-minute pop song than a nine-minute epic.”
There are plenty of great three-minute moments on the album, not least the single, Coming Out of The Wilderness, which sounds exactly like the sort of catchy one-two-punch that first made The Stranglers famous.
Hugh left the band in 1990 and has resisted several lucrative offers to reunite. “Five years after leaving the Stranglers, there was a seven-figure offer. I said no, and I’ve continued saying no.”
Greenfield died in 2020, aged 71, of Covid-related causes. Harris, now 84, has retired. And Cornwell is adamant he’s not interested in teaming up with JJ again.
“I’ve had covert offers. I was told, ‘We are going to let you re-join the band’. I went, hang on a second, I left. I wasn’t sacked! Thanks but no thanks.”
He frowns. “They treated me quite disgracefully after I left. Never wished me luck or anything. It was sad because we’d spent so much time together.’
Little changed from his Stranglers heyday, apart from the thinning thatch he still insists on pushing up, Hugh kissed goodbye to his wild years long ago.
Hugh is on a 23-date UK tour
“The drugs are off the table because they end up destroying your cells. The trouble with cocaine, it sobered you up. So that if you were blind drunk, you could carry on. Ultimately, your body’s going to pay for that.
“Dope now is so strong. I mistakenly tried some a few years ago, and I had to sit down in an armchair for three hours, I couldn’t move.”
Now 73, he tries hard to stay fit and healthy. “I eat a lot of fish; I don’t eat much red meat. I avoid processed stuff, sausages.”
Hugh is on a 23-date UK tour, his first since before Covid. “I remember thinking at the end of 2019 how I could use a year off,” he says. “But not like that!”
His new show is “a game of two halves – the first is my solo stuff, the second is ramming those Stranglers songs down their throats.”
He hates encores and eschewed them for years. But has grown tired of fans complaining.
“We’ve gone back to that facade of, ‘Right. We’re going to walk off stage now, and then we’re going to walk back on, and then we’re going to play…’.
“You can’t please everybody.”
And as he reminds me, the band he personified in his black-clad punk days never tried to please anybody but themselves. “I was always my best judge.”
He still is.
- Hugh Cornwell’s new album Moments Of Madness is out now. Hugh tours the UK until 6/12. For more info visit hughcornwell.com