The former guitarist/vocalist of the classic English punk band has, since he left the Stranglers, had a long and wide-ranging solo career as both a musician and writer. Cornwell talks at length about his musical roots, solo projects, friendships with Richard Thompson and Ian Anderson, his novels and podcasts and how Shirley Bassey (yes, Shirley Bassey) saved punk rock.
Once I received my first taste of the Stranglers back in 1978, I was instantly hooked. My high-school friend Derek was playing their latest record, Black and White, in his bedroom at full throttle—and it was a revelation. Songs like “Tank”, “Nice ’n’ Sleazy”, “Toiler on the Sea”, “Threatened”, and “Do You Wanna” were eardrum-obliterating, spine-tingling, hair-raising examples of this provocative British quartet (guitar, bass, keyboards, drums) coming at you from all directions; each musician initially playing a different riff or rhythm; the band ultimately bringing it all magnificently together, with angst and volume—but always melody, too.
“Toiler on the Sea” from The Stranglers’ Black and White album:
The Stranglers were definitely not a stereotypical spit-upchucking, three-chord U.K. punk band from the mid-to-late ‘70s!
Dave Greenfield’s synthesizers filled up the stereo with delightfully unearthly sounds—the one-in-a-million keyboardist having tragically died this year, at 71, after succumbing to the COVID-19 virus—while the Stranglers were equally blessed with Jean-Jacques Burnel’s monstrous guitar-like bass assault, as well as Jet Black’s always-energized drumming; but listening more closely to the Stranglers’ early albums (their debut, Rattus Norvegicus, and No More Heroes, both from 1977), this 17-year-old kid soon realized that the Stranglers’ guitarist was also damn good! Hugh Cornwell played imaginative solos and riffs—on pioneer Stranglers’ tunes like “Down in the Sewer”, “Something Better Change”, “Bitching”, and later songs, when they seamlessly moved into New Wave-ish territory, including “Don’t Bring Harry”, “The Man They Love to Hate”, “Golden Brown”, “Always the Sun”, “Too Precious”, “Someone Like You”—which worked perfectly with the sometimes raw/sometimes complicated music, fully complimenting Greenfield’s keyboards, be the synths/organ/piano mad, raunchy, or regal—and vice versa. Cornwell delivered well-thought-out guitar interludes that were effective, atmospheric and tasteful, if far from flashy.
Additionally, Cornwell’s highly accessible vocal style (he sang 90 percent of the material), be the delivery dramatic (the intensity of “Bring on the Nubiles” and “School Mam”) or comical (hilarious rants and grunts on “Peaches”, primal roars at the end of “No Mercy, cynical elocution in “Just Like Nothing on Earth” and “Big in America”); his off-the-wall, always thought-provoking lyrics (the outrageous sexual/social commentary on “Do You Wanna”; dark-humored tirade in “Dead Loss Angeles”; the violent, politically-charged “No More Heroes”); and the performer’s inescapable on-stage charisma as a front man, all helped move the band from strength to strength during the 16-year lifespan (beginning in 1974) of this classic line-up, as well as in the studio with the ten outstanding albums they made from ‘77 up until Cornwell’s departure in 1990.
So why did Cornwell quit the Stranglers? Three simple reasons (all explained in his engaging 2004 autobiography A Multitude of Sins): 1) Cornwell was tired of “compromising”, wanting more control over his songs, rather than being stuck in a “democracy” of four guys; 2) he felt “the others weren’t appreciating (his creative, hands-on) efforts” and; 3) the Stranglers had grown apart: “When we started out,” Cornwell writes, “we were each other’s family… One by one the band members started their own families and we stopped relaxing together…” invariably making the experience, when they did eventually get together, more of a 9-to-5 “day job”.
Consequently, when Cornwell left the Stranglers in 1990, to me it just wasn’t the Stranglers anymore.
“I always assumed that if one person left the group,” Cornwell further confessed, “the spell would be broken, and I’ve yet to be proved wrong.”
Eagerly following Cornwell’s solo career since the ‘90s, I regularly scarfed up his always-intriguing output (jam-packed with fresh, hook-like riffs; distinctive, superlative guitar solos; and loads of clever, strange, and/or satirical lyrics as in—just a few examples—“Duce Coochie Man”, “Bad Vibrations”, “The Face”, “God is a Woman”, and “Attack of the Major Sevens”), with some LPs similar in tone to the Stranglers—specifically, Laurie Latham’s slickly produced Guilty (1997) and Hi Fi (2000)—though Cornwell ultimately stripped his studio sound down to a lean/mean guitar, bass, and drums on the blistering Hooverdam (2008); gritty, in-your-face Totem and Taboo (2013), possibly Cornwell’s masterpiece (next to 1979’s Nosferatu); and, most recently, the upbeat, catchy, warm-guitar-anchored songs on Monster (2018), where, in his tributes to ten “remarkable” people from the 20th Century—including Lou Reed, Evel Knievel, and his own mother—Cornwell pretty much plays all of the instruments; occasional guest artists (like Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson) appearing with Cornwell on Monster’s bonus disc, Restoration, where Hugh plays acoustic renditions of various Stranglers’ songs from their ‘77 to ’86 catalogue.
Ever-industrious, Cornwell has also been involved in unique musical collaborations, such as the 2016 recordings of iconic American and British covers with poet Dr. John Cooper Clarke on This Time It’s Personal, containing a killer rendition of the Jimmy Webb-penned “MacArthur Park”.
Cornwell has similarly stretched his talents to writing novels (two to date; a third on the way), directing music videos, and hosting a fantastic podcast called MrDeMilleFM, where he delivers well-researched oral essays on numerous film legends (such as Laurence Harvey, Roy Scheider, Tuesday Weld, the Marx Brothers), as well as conducts interviews with cult directors (Ken Loach), punk royalty (Debbie Harry, Brian Eno), and other international celebs, all backed up with eclectic music from film.
While managing editor at Hustler, I met Cornwell in-person in 2011 and—again, being a fan—happily discovered that he was a friendly, receptive guy; and in my L.A.-to-U.K. long-distance call to him this past May (while many of us were in COVID-19 lockdown), Hugh was similarly amenable and gracious. Hell, a two-hour conversation just wasn’t enough with the guy, during which time we discussed his early London life/musical paths, the birth of/working with the Stranglers, 1979’s brilliant Nosferatu (with former Captain Beefheart drummer Robert Williams), Cornwell’s solo LPs, novels, the MrDeMilleFM podcast, his 1980 prison sentence, as well as the Everly Brothers, Heddy Lamarr, Mezz Mezzrow, Ray Harryhausen, Benito Mussolini, Patricia Highsmith, Frankie Laine, the pandemic itself, how Shirley Bassey saved punk rock… while even managing to fit God in there somehow.
PKM: The song “La Grande Dame” (on 2018’s Monster) is about your mother, whom you called the “villain of the family” in your liner notes.
Hugh Cornwell: Yeah, she just kept everyone’s nose clean. I mean, think about it: Four children… three boys, two completely at each other’s throats most of the time; a younger sister, and then me… and she was a housewife who had to look after us all, while my dad was out at work. So she had to adapt to keep these two boys from killing each other—my two eldest brothers now get on fabulously—and she developed this toughness, becoming almost draconian in what she did and didn’t allow, because if she didn’t, she wouldn’t have been able to cope.
So, yeah, she was the villain in the family just because she had to keep the whole thing running. But obviously I look back at her very fondly; all the kids do. And, of course, she mellowed as she got older.
“La Grande Dame” from Hugh Cornwell’s Monster album:
PKM: You were born in Kentish Town (in northwest London), correct?
Hugh Cornwell: Just up the road from Kentish Town, yeah. And about a mile or so up the road going north, there’s a big park-land called Hampstead Heath, and that’s because on the far west side there’s a very famous, expensive part of London called Hampstead. But I didn’t live on that side. I was on the east side, just north of Kentish Town. But we were so close to this big park land—and it’s still fabulous!—run as if it were a countryside, with a governing body which made sure it was all properly attended to. There was a lot of wildlife up there, and it wasn’t too manicured.
So I’ve got great memories of my summer holidays from school. I, my two brothers, and my sister were all free, and we lived a few minutes’ walk from this huge park, so we’d spend the whole day up there; coming back with blackberries and apples for my mother. It was almost like living in London in the countryside.
Also, it’s got some ponds, like small lakes, and some which you can swim in; so my mother, a huge fan of swimming in the open air, used to go every day to this pool—a ladies’ swimming pool—and swim. And she’d go at least once, maybe three or four times a day during the summer and swim.
PKM: Which you also mention in “La Grande Dame.” And in A Multitude of Sins, you state that your father was both a draftsman and an amateur musician, playing the clarinet.
Hugh Cornwell: Yeah! He was a music enthusiast. He used to listen to music every minute of the day when he wasn’t working. When he was traveling to work—it took him two hours each way, every day, taking the bus to go to work in Greenwich, on the other side of London—he used to read, but I’m sure if the Walkman had been invented then, he would’ve been listening to music. And he had a very wide musical taste, enjoying classical, old-time ragtime jazz bands, and a bit of country-western, too.
PKM: I also read that your brother Richard turned you on to jazz and country-western; while brother David unleashed Eddie Cochran, Cream, and Hendrix upon you.
Hugh Cornwell: Yeah. What a great environment to be brought up in. I couldn’t have asked for a better background. So it’s probably not a great surprise what I ended up doing.
PKM: I found it interesting that you thought Elvis was just too famous to be a big musical influence.
Hugh Cornwell: Yeah! (laughs) Exactly—too famous. You got it in one. ‘Everyone knows and likes Elvis, so he’s boring. Let’s find someone new!’ I’ll tell you why I liked the Everly Brothers—because of the harmonies. I was able to listen to what Don and Phil sang, because I used to sing a lot when I was a kid, and I could learn their parts. So I got a sort of tuition in harmony through my studies of the Everly Brothers.
PKM: Tell us about your first band, Emil and the Detectives—started with your school friend Richard Thompson, who went on to form Fairport Convention.
Hugh Cornwell: Yeah. And before Richard left school, we were gonna change the band’s name to the Germs. (laughs) Richard needed a bass player in the band, so he taught me how to play it. I had a rudimentary knowledge of chords and stuff, but I couldn’t play that well. So my first exploit in a band was playing bass.
PKM: What kind of a band were Emil and the Detectives? Straightforward rock ’n’ roll?
Hugh Cornwell: Yeah: two guitars, bass, drums, no keyboards.
PKM: So you were pretty much self-taught as a musician?
Hugh Cornwell: Yeah. The only tuition I got was from Richard on the bass, and once I was up and running with that, I could sit alone and play to my heart’s content, learning my favorite songs. I switched to guitar when the band with Richard folded; that’s when my brother left behind his Spanish guitar, so I had access to that. Then I went to study at Bristol University and got a proper acoustic guitar. No bands at the university, but I did lots of busking.
I got a sort of tuition in harmony through my studies of the Everly Brothers.
PKM: So did your second band, Johnny Sox, start during your post-graduate biochemistry studies in Sweden?
Hugh Cornwell: That’s right; when all of the draft dodgers were living there. There was a singer, a lead guitarist, a bass player, a drummer, and me on second guitar and harmony. Occasionally I’d sing a lead song. And it was the same line-up for the whole time. The trouble was that Hans Wärmling, the guitarist and main musical driving force behind the writing side of the band, didn’t want to come to the UK with us. So we went from a five-piece to a four-piece band.
PKM: With your lead guitarist gone, that must have put more pressure on you to play more solos.
Hugh Cornwell: It did, but I got away with very rudimentary stuff. Mostly we’d make sure there were very few instrumental passages so it didn’t seem obvious that we didn’t have a lead instrument. But they were very rockabilly, up-tempo, short, two- or three-minute melodic songs with singable hooks. Very poppy. And the musical bit came from Hans’ background because he’d been in a very late lineup of the Swedish band the Spotnicks before it broke up. The Spotnicks were huge: “Telstar” was their world-wide number one hit.
PKM: So the Stranglers were all originally members of Johnny Sox.
Hugh Cornwell: Absolutely.
PKM: First drummer Jet Black joined, then bassist/co-vocalist Jean-Jacques Burnel (aka John); and by the time keyboardist David Greenfield arrived, Johnny Sox became the Stranglers.
Hugh Cornwell: That’s right. Hans eventually came back. So he was in both groups. Hans regretted that he hadn’t come to London with us. And because I was very close with him, and he was a lovely man and an inspiration to me, I’d kept in touch. So when Jet, John, and I started rehearsing, I said, “Hey, listen, we need a lead instrument,”—because I’m not really a lead guitarist—“and I know just the guy.” And they said, “Tell us more! Tell us more!” “Well, this guy… he’s great! He’s in Sweden, can play guitar, is constantly writing melodies and music, can play saxophone, keyboards, sing backing vocals… What more could you ask for?” And they said, “Great!”
So I immediately got in touch with Hans and said, “Hans, c’mon! You got a second chance here,” and he left his job and came over. So the Stranglers were two guitars, bass, and drums, before we even knew Dave Greenfield.
And it was only by a quirk that this lineup didn’t continue. We were on our way to a gig which Jet had got, some kid’s wedding, and we were employed by the parents to provide the music. And on our way there, Hans suddenly decided that he didn’t want to do it.
“I’m fed up with doing these songs,” he said, “with all of these cover versions of other peoples’ songs!” And he was quite right. “Our songs are just as good as these other songs. I don’t wanna play ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon’ anymore. I’m fed up with it.” He threw a fit. “Stop the bus!” he said, “I’m getting out!” and he got out with his guitar—and that was it.
We looked at each other and asked, “What’re we gonna do?” “C’mon, I said, “we gotta do the gig. We’ll do it as a trio, as we did when we were initially rehearsing. We can do it.” And the others said, “What do we do when we get to a solo?” and I said, “I’ll just play the chords. It’ll be just an instrumental verse.”
So we went off and did this wedding—and everyone loved it! I’m not sure if we did any other gigs like that. I think I lacked confidence… and probably ability, as well; and we persevered to find a fourth member who could play a lead instrument. We didn’t try any other guitarists, but we tried a saxophone player for a week. And keyboards were next on the list, so we gave Dave Greenfield, God bless his soul, a try. And he was a musical virtuoso. He knew his way around his keyboard, definitely, and that’s what we wanted: somebody who could play a lead instrument. If I tried to play a lead in those days, I’d play wrong notes. And I don’t jam very often because I would still do that, because I’m not musically trained.
PKM: Perhaps that’s why you’re such a unique guitar player.
Hugh Cornwell: Could be. But, see, what I learnt a long time ago was to play within your limitations; never go outside them. So the only reason I play the way I do is because I don’t try anything that’s outside my abilities. Every solo I do is exactly the same on songs. I’m playing a part that’s been written, just like all of the other parts. So very little jamming goes on when I’m playing.
PKM: I saw some YouTube videos of you, well after leaving the Stranglers, doing what looked like long, improvised solos on “Down in the Sewer”.
Hugh Cornwell: Well, that guitar solo in “Down in the Sewer” originally started off as a melody line by John. He was playing this bass riff, this different passage of notes, and singing the guitar line. And I said, “What’s that that you’re singing?” and he said, “Well, that’s the melody line,” and I said, “No, no, no. That would be great as a guitar solo.” (laughs) And I turned it into the guitar solo, and he went, “Alright. Whatever you want,” because he was open-minded. And then I embellished it with little bits and pieces in terms of my limited skills. And for the riffy bit, I said, “That’s the bit that should be the meat of the vocal in that hypnotic section.” And, in fact, when you think about it, “Down in the Sewer” and “Peaches”, they’re really primeval rap songs.
“Down in the Sewer”, the Stranglers live in Paris, 1979:
PKM: Absolutely. So when the Stranglers were getting it all together early on, was this happening in London?
Hugh Cornwell: No, we were down in Surrey, about 45 minutes south of London by train. Very stockbroker belt, quite monied. Not a poor area. Although the area of Woking—which is next to Guildford—that’s a bit down-market to Guildford, and that’s where the Jam came from. So all of this was happening in and around the beautiful English Surrey countryside.
PKM: By the way, I’m really sorry to hear about Dave Greenfield.
Hugh Cornwell: (sadly) Yeah.
When you think about it, “Down in the Sewer” and “Peaches”, they’re really primeval rap songs.
PKM: Aside from being an extraordinary keyboardist, he seemed to have a natural gift as a singer. I mean, he’s great on songs like “Dead Ringer”, “Peasant in the Big Shitty”, and “Do Ya Wanna” Why didn’t he sing more lead vocals with the band?
Hugh Cornwell: Well, it ended up becoming a sort of token thing, with David singing one song on every album. I would sing about 90 percent of the stuff, and John was quite capable of carrying a tune, so I think Dave felt a bit superfluous as far as lead-singing on songs. But he did get to sing a lead-vocal on most of the albums while I was with the group.
PKM: I didn’t know till years after hearing “Do Ya Wanna”—for which you wrote words and music—that Dave Greenfield sang the song. I thought you’d sung that one. It’s such a wonderfully stylized vocal presentation.
Hugh Cornwell: And during the song, there are references to the style of talking that Mezz Mezzrow invented. He was an American from Chicago, a bit of a poet, and the cool black dudes loved him because he invented his own sort of slang, and a lot of it was adopted by the black community. So he was white, but he was black. (laughs) A very interesting guy.
“Do You Wanna”/“Death & Night & Blood (Yukio)”, from Black and White (1978), the Stranglers:
Actually, one fact that I found out today that I’m absolutely stunned by has to do with COVID-19. You know that they think COVID came from bats, right? How it got into the population is another matter, but it came through bats. And I wasn’t aware of this—and this is from an expert—but 20 percent of the world’s mammals are bats. That’s fucking scary. And they’ve calculated that there are probably 15,000 new COVID viruses in the world’s bat population. 15,000! Isn’t it incredible? (laughs)
PKM: It’s frightening.
Hugh Cornwell: Well, they reckon there’s gonna be one of these (pandemics) about every couple of years, and there’s gonna be more as the industrialization of the world continues and the wild parts are encroached upon by civilization. It’s interesting.
PKM: In your book, Inside Information (1980), concerning your five-week prison sentence in 1980 (note: Cornwell was found guilty of drug possession as a result of, per his book, a “routine road block… in the middle of the night… in Hammersmith Broadway” in West London; the police confiscating his overnight bag and finding in it “two packets of cocaine—one gram and half a gram; a packet of heroin—90 milligrams, which is one hit; half an ounce of dope resin; and some grass wrapped up in tissue paper”), you called Pentonville Prison in north London a “doss house”. At the time of your incarceration, what sort of crimes had Pentonville inmates typically committed?
Hugh Cornwell: All sorts. No serious crimes, but everything else: forgery, non-payment of parking tickets, non-payment of child support, you name it; all the small misdemeanors, basically.
PKM: And the magistrate overseeing your case absolutely had it in for drug offenders. Do you feel your sentence was unfair?
Hugh Cornwell: Well, I didn’t feel I was unfairly imprisoned. I really thought I was going to get off—and I didn’t. So that’s how it affected me: I was shocked. (laughs) ‘How can this happen?’
PKM: You also wrote that some, not all, of the prison guards mentally terrorized inmates.
Hugh Cornwell: It’s a general practice (in prisons) to humiliate people and bring them down to size. That’s a blanket thing, and I’m sure it happens everywhere. But the humiliation aspect, that’s the purpose of it. If (the experience) weren’t humiliating, then it wouldn’t be serving a purpose, so I totally understand why that’s the way it is. I’m not going to suddenly have an opinion where I think jail is wrong and that we should stop having jails. I mean, where would we be then?
PKM: No argument there. So how did you get involved with Dr. John Cooper Clarke for This Time It’s Personal?—where you do a fantastic rendition of “MacArthur Park”.
Hugh Cornwell: My girlfriend at the time and I were talking about Richard Harris movies. “Ahhh,” she said, “Richard Harris—what a great actor!” and I said, “Did you know he was a singer, as well?” “No.” “Yeah.” A lot younger than me, she was, and I said, “Well, have you never heard ‘MacArthur Park’”? “No.” So I immediately brought it up on YouTube and said, “This was an international smash hit. It’s a Jimmy Webb song, and Richard Harris sings it.”
And while we were listening to it, John (Cooper) came into my mind singing it, because I’d met up with him a few times around that period, and we got on really well. We were mutual fans of each other. He’s got a great sense of humor and a fascinating musical knowledge, and I’m very much a creature of… I follow my gut reaction. If I suddenly get an idea for something, I’ll follow it without really doubting it, because suddenly a light bulb goes on, and you have a great idea.
“MacArthur Park,” Dr. John Cooper Clarke and Hugh Cornwell, from This Time It’s Personal (2016):
PKM: Was it a nice change of pace focusing more on guitar on This Time It’s Personal?
Hugh Cornwell: Oh yeah—just doing a few backing vocals. I actually did all of the production; so, not being the center of the project, it helped me focus on the skills of production. Then immediately afterwards I did Monster, so they’re all things you can learn from; like steps in a process.
It took us six months to put that “MacArthur Park” track together. The original version is a fucking incredible piece of music, and we had to reinterpret it, and one section we totally changed: the bit that’s like a rock band, or a heavy grunge band. And when we finished, we were happy, and Sony—John’s record company—said, “Well, this is great, but we want a whole album. You can’t just have one track.” So I said, “Great! Alright! Let’s do it!” And John said, “Great! Alright! Let’s do it!” So I found all of these other songs that I love, which I thought John could do a good job of singing—and he did fantastic.
PKM: The guitar work is excellent, particularly on “MacArthur Park”, as well as the fuzz guitar on “Love Potion No. 9”.
Hugh Cornwell: Yeah, that’s very L.A.—“Love Potion No. 9” is very Los Angeles, where I believe the song originated.
PKM: You mention “Jezebel” in your first novel, Window on the World (2011), and perform it with John Cooper Clarke on This Time It’s Personal, so I’m thinking that song must be one of your favorites.
Hugh Cornwell: Oh, God yeah. Absolutely. Frankie Laine! Sold more records than Elvis Presley. Did you know that? He sold a quarter of a billion records—Frankie Laine. (laughs)
PKM: That’s amazing. You’ve played a Telecaster quite a bit over the years. What guitar are you using on your more recent albums like Totem and Taboo and Monster?
Hugh Cornwell: That’s it: Telecaster, Telecaster… I just love the sound of it. It’s electric guitar, but a blues electric guitar. The Les Paul isn’t blues. But with the Telecaster, you go on that front pickup down the neck, and it’s a lipstick pickup, and it’s got that blues tone. It’s just so sexy.
PKM: So on Monster, except for some guest appearances on the second disc called Restoration, you play all of the instruments: guitar, bass and drums… or handle the drum programming with your engineer Phil Andrews. Hard to believe such crisp-, organic-sounding drums are, in fact, digital manifestations.
Hugh Cornwell: That’s right. It’s quite remarkable. It did take a lot of time. Every time I have a collection of songs that I think will become an album, I go into my studio with Phil Andrews and we do demos of the songs. And the demos, logically, get better and better as we do more of them. So we had these demos of Monster, and I was playing them to my manager (David Fagence), who said, “If you’re calling these demos, I don’t understand, because they sound almost like masters.” “Yes,” I said, “but it’s just us two: me and Phil.” “Well,” he said, “why don’t we pursue that, because I’d hate to record all of these songs again with some live drums and bass and lose something that you’ve got here.”
PKM: He didn’t want to lose that magic.
Hugh Cornwell: Exactly. Keep the magic going. So I said, “Okay. Alright,” and we just upped our game a bit, honing in on things like the drums, and how I’d like a drummer to play any particular song. “It would be nice if he did that,” I’d say, and then Phil would try something and go, “What about if he did that?” and I’d say, “Yeah, I like it. That’s good.” So between us, we created this drummer. I’m not a drummer, but I’ve grown to understand what I want a drummer to sound like.
PKM: Why did you also decide to do an extra CD on Monster full of acoustic Stranglers’ tunes?
Hugh Cornwell: It came from Sony. They said, “Don’t get us wrong. We love the new album. We think it’s fantastic. But… we wanna reach as many of those Stranglers fans out there as possible, so the way to do that is give them something Stranglers-ey with this album, and we might attract a few different people.” So I thought, ‘Okay, well that sort of makes sense. But I’m not gonna re-record songs from the catalogue, just like the originals. What would be the point of that?’
But, as I’d been doing these acoustic tours playing my own catalogue and select Stranglers’ songs, I realized that some songs worked better than others as acoustic versions. So, with those songs in mind, I asked Sony, “What if I did like a Johnny Cash, dark, acoustic album of some Stranglers’ songs?” And they said, “Sounds great.” So that’s what we did.
PKM: How did Ian Anderson get involved on Monster, playing flute on “Souls” and “Ships That Pass in the Night”?
Hugh Cornwell: He lives quite near me and has always been a supporter of what I’ve been doing, so we’ve grown to know each other. He’s a lovely guy. Ian also played on “MacArthur Park”. But I met Ian through his son James, who’s his manager. James said, “Oh, my dad would really like to meet you,” and I said, “Oh, fine. Yeah, yeah.” And he introduced me to his father. Ian likes a good curry, so we occasionally go out and have some curry.
PKM: Who makes up the touring part of your band these days?
Hugh Cornwell: My live players at the moment are Windsor McGilvray on drums—who played on People, Places, Pieces (a 2006 live Cornwell album)—and Pat Hughes on bass.
PKM: The mariachi band on the updated version of “Golden Brown”…
Hugh Cornwell: I can’t remember their name (note: Mariachi Mexteca), but we did it around the time of Totem and Taboo… 2013… and that was a complete one-off thing in the sense that I suddenly woke up in the middle of the night and thought, ‘“Golden Brown” would be great with a Mexican mariachi band!’ I explained the idea to my manager who said, “Okay, well, if you wanna do that, we’ll need a mariachi band.” So he did all of the research, came up with the one band that he thought was the best to do it, got in touch with them, and they loved the idea. I, actually, did float the idea to Sony when they were talking about this other (Restoration) album. I said, “Why don’t we do a mariachi Stranglers’ album?” (laughs) which I’d still love to do, because there are enough songs in the Stranglers’ catalogue to make a great mariachi album.
PKM: That would be amazing. Hey, let’s talk about your podcast.
Hugh Cornwell: MrDeMilleFM!
PKM: Yes! I learned a lot about Czech movies and soundtracks from one of your guests, the great English director Ken Loach.
Hugh Cornwell: Listen, these people are all lovely guys. It’s very interesting, because when they realize that I don’t want anything from them, that I just want to talk about them and I’m a fan of what they do, they really get enthusiastic.
PKM: The podcasts are all still anchored in music, though.
Hugh Cornwell: Film music, yes.
PKM: You wrote a song about Heddy Lamarr on Monster—“The Most Beautiful Girl in Hollywood”—about whom you also do a podcast. I had no idea that she, basically, came up with the original idea for Bluetooth.
Hugh Cornwell: Yeah. She offered her invention to the American military in the Fifties, but they weren’t interested because they only accepted ideas from within their own research facilities. Then they came up with their own version a few years later, and she didn’t get anything out of it. I think she took them to court and won the case, but they said she’d taken so long to bring up the case that she’d no grounds for claiming money from them.
PKM: That’s unfortunate. Legendary stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen is, actually, the subject of Monster’s title track. Any favorite Harryhausen films?
Hugh Cornwell: I was one of those unfortunate kids who saw that sword fight with the skeletons (at the climax of Jason and the Argonauts), and it affected me for the rest of my life. (laughs) But I think my favorite Harryhausen movie is… The creature lands in a little capsule, gets out, and starts growing. It’s fabulous because the creature has a real character in that film. Loved it. That’s one of my favorites.
PKM: You mean 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)?
Hugh Cornwell: That’s it!
PKM: That a good one. So tell us how 1979’s Nosferatu—your incredible collaboration with Robert Williams—came about. It has such a Euro flavor to it, but it was all recorded here in California.
Hugh Cornwell: That’s right. It was all happening in L.A. I was in San Francisco and went to a Captain Beefheart show with Blondie, because I was friends with Debbie (Harry) and Chris (Stein). We were all Beefheart fans. And Beefheart was playing for three nights in a row, so we trouped down to see him all three nights, and I met Robert there. I think it was the first tour that he’d played (drums) with Beefheart, and we immediately became very firm friends.
And, like I did with (poet) Sex Johnson years later on Sons of Shiva (2002), I said, “Hey, let’s make an album,” and Robert said, “Okay.” Then I returned to England, and when I had a bit of time, I phoned Robert up and said, “Hey, let’s make that album I was talking about,” and he said, “Great! Yeah. I got some time.” “Okay, well, we better book some studio time,” and he said, “Well, let me do that.”
PKM: Why did you do a cover of Cream’s “White Room”?
Hugh Cornwell: It’s just a fabulous Cream song. It has a very surrealistic lyric and that odd time sequence which I love; you know, there’s an extra beat going on in a couple of places.
PKM: You mention in your autobiography that Shirley Bassey was the “unsung heroine of the punk era”, which I find a fascinating comment. Do you wanna explain that?
Hugh Cornwell: (laughs) Yeah. What you gotta remember was that Shirley Bassey was signed to United Artists, a small label, and with Shirley Bassey they had a hit machine. She had so many hit records and sang a lot of the early James Bond themes, and that brought a lot of money into United Artists Records. And with that money, United Artists were able to sign some punk bands like the Stranglers, 999, Dr. Feelgood… They were all on United Artists. So she financed it. (laughs)
And our (first) record producer, Martin Rushent, produced Shirley Bassey, and we introduced him to this amazing engineer, Alan Winstanley, the engineer that we used on our demos, through which United Artists signed us. So when we came to record (Rattus Norvegicus), we said, “We want to do it down at this studio (T.W. Studios), because we’ve been there a few times, and we know the engineer, who’s really good.” So they said, “Fine.”
So we went down there, and suddenly Martin Rushent finds this amazing engineer (laughs) who’s in this tiny little studio, and Martin grabs him, whisks him out, and Alan works as Martin Rushent’s engineer for the next five years, making hit after hit after hit, including, “Don’t You Want Me, Baby?” with the Human League; that was all done by Martin with Alan, this guy whom we turned Martin on to. Martin would never have found Alan otherwise.
Then Alan realized that he didn’t need Martin, and set off his own and teamed with Clive Langer from Deaf School, and they became Langer-Winstanley, who produced records for Madness, Morrissey, the group who sang “Come On Eileen” (the Dexy Midnight Runners)… So Alan Winstanley, who’s had an incredible career, started with the Stranglers in this little studio in South West London, in Fulham.
I was in San Francisco and went to a Captain Beefheart show with Blondie, because I was friends with Debbie (Harry) and Chris (Stein). We were all Beefheart fans.
PKM: Did you get much heat from detractors for the sexier videos promoting Totem and Taboo?—like the title song, featuring some rather vivacious female cabaret dancers, and, in particular, “God Is a Woman” which includes a platoon of nude females?
Hugh Cornwell: Yeah! They said about me, “He’s a sexist pig!” I said, “Listen, all of these girls did it, they worked, they got paid, they enjoyed it. So what’s the big deal? They weren’t taken advantage of. No one attacked them. What’s the problem?” But some people don’t get it.
Hugh Cornwell, “God is a Woman” (nude version, official video), from TOTEM AND TABOO, 2013:
PKM: Your video of “Bad Vibrations”—including another memorable Cornwell guitar solo—seems like a homage to both The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and Attack of the 50-Ft Woman (1958).
Hugh Cornwell: Yeah. (laughs) I liked that one. That was fun. The actress in that one did really well. But I don’t think I’d ever put my hand up to be a big-movie director. I mean, it’s fucking hard work. Jesus God. And the buck stops with you. I wouldn’t mind being the producer, because producers fire you if you’re not doing a good job. I wanna be the guy that’s firing the director because he’s shit, you know. (laughs) You don’t want to be the director having a guy breathing down your neck saying, “C’mon, you’re going over budget”, “C’mon, you gotta get this done,” “You’re fired.” What a job! Who’d wanna be a film director? (laughs)
PKM: I hear ya. Your first novel, Window on the World, is a rather scathing look at the international art world. How did that concept come about?
Hugh Cornwell: I knew quite a lot about the art world. I’ve bought pieces and have friends who are art dealers, so over the years I’ve seen how it works. And I had this idea of an artist thinking that someone is trying to kill him. You know, a piece of masonry falls off a building and just misses him… he almost gets run over… but it’s nothing that the artist can put a finger on. Then it turns out that his dealer is trying to kill him, because when an artist dies—and his work ends—then his artwork can go up in value.
So I had this idea in my head; and I’d just split up with a girlfriend and was going off to India for a couple of weeks, and thought, ‘I’m going to get really bored while I’m there. I’ll take my computer with me and try and start writing this idea I’ve had.’ And then as soon as I started writing, it took over and I had no control over it anymore—and it became (laughs) Window on the World. And I really started enjoying it. It’s better than reading a book. Instead of picking up a book and thinking, ‘God, I wonder what’s gonna happen next?’ you’d open your computer and go, ‘God, I wonder what’s gonna happen today?’ It really does take over.
Shirley Bassey was signed to United Artists, a small label, and with Shirley Bassey they had a hit machine. She had so many hit records and sang a lot of the early James Bond themes, and that brought a lot of money into United Artists Records. And with that money, United Artists were able to sign some punk bands like the Stranglers, 999, Dr. Feelgood… They were all on United Artists. So she financed it.
PKM: Window reminds me of some of Patricia Highsmith’s mystery novels.
Hugh Cornwell: Oh, well I’m a big fan. In fact, one of the latest shows on MrDeMilleFM is about Patricia Highsmith’s career.
PKM: Gotta listen to that one. Any other books in the works?
Hugh Cornwell: Yeah, we’re ready to publish one right now: a noir set in the future called Future Tense.
PKM: Great title. What about recording? Are you pretty much focusing on the podcast now?
Hugh Cornwell: No, I’m super busy. We’ve nearly finished mixing the album Hi Fi.
PKM: One of your early solo LPs was produced by Laurie Latham.
Hugh Cornwell: Right. We did Guilty together and then we did Hi Fi. Well, I’ve almost finished remixing that, which is going to come out soon. And we’ve got Future Tense, the novel, ready to go…I’ve also started work on a new album, hopefully with Sony. Lots of songs coming. Yeah, things are looking up.
PKM: And what inspired you to write your second novel Arnold Drive (2014)?—a much lighter venture than Window on the World—about a 60-year-old minister who, like an excited 18-year-old, begins discovering much about life for the first time after his church has made him redundant.
Hugh Cornwell: I wanted to explore my feelings about religion. (The Stranglers’ Gospel According to) The Men in Black (1980) is a religious subject in itself. Religion is fascinating. I mean, when you go around most of Europe, you’ll see the whole place is completely covered with these amazing buildings that point to the sky, and the only reason they’re there is because of this incredible devotion and belief in these ideas. Where did they come from? It’s amazing. I don’t know how anybody cannot be fascinated by it all. It’s just remarkable when you look.
And a lot of the buildings are absolutely beautiful; some of these big churches built by a work force which would’ve spent 40 years, their whole working life, constructing this one building, and they might not even have seen it finished, which is even more amazing. Maybe their kids took over the building of them.
PKM: The lyrics of “God Is a Woman”, on Totem and Taboo, are interesting. In fact, the minister—the title character—in Arnold Drive, states in your novel: “There’s no logical reason why God couldn’t be a woman rather than a man. No reason at all.”
Hugh Cornwell: “There’s no reason why God can’t be a woman…” That’s right. I’ve got the lyrics (to “God Is a Woman”) right here. I just looked them up online. In the song, I’m drawing attention to the fact that women do rule the world—and men don’t rule it at all. So, it’s another way of looking at it.
“There’s no reason why God can’t be a woman…” That’s right. I’ve got the lyrics (to “God Is a Woman”) right here. I just looked them up online. In the song, I’m drawing attention to the fact that women do rule the world—and men don’t rule it at all.
PKM: When you say women rule the world, do you mean sexually?… intellectually?…
Hugh Cornwell: Those are two examples. “She’s got us eating out of her hand. / It’s not how we planned. / You know she made the birds and bees…” The song is suggesting that the reason why she’s in charge is because God was a woman (laughs) and not a man. It’s an idea, anyway.
Hugh Cornwell, “God is a Woman”, from Totem and Taboo, 2013,
Special thanks: David Fagence, Barbara Vetter, David Cox, Keith Valcourt, Ladi von Jansky, Morgen Hagen, Derek Johnston.