Solo life is peachy for ex-Stranglers star Hugh Cornwell

Hugh Cornwell

Hugh Cornwell - Credit: Archant

The solo star speaks to Alex Bellotti about his violent image as a youngster, the perils of life in a band and his rebellious Hampstead mother.

Alongside artists such as Blondie, The Jam and Elvis Costello, the Stranglers emerged in the 1970s riding on the wave of the emerging punk scene.

While they were rarely regarded as pure disciples of the genre – preferring instead to adapt it into punchy pop songs such as Peaches or ethereal baroque classic Golden Brown – they nonetheless became one of the era’s defining British groups, recording countless hits and attracting a legion of loyal fans.

As the band entered its third decade however, lead singer Hugh Cornwell felt the group was stalling. “It became a job – we should have put suits on, it was so corporate,” he explains, and so he went solo.

It was a brave decision – if there’s one task nearly as hard as making your name as a new band, it’s escaping the name of an old one.

“I’d been associated with a big brand,” says Cornwell ahead of his solo show tonight (Dec 4) at the Electric Ballroom. “It’s like if you’ve been employed by Boots for 15 years and then want to become an independent pharmacist – it’s going to be tough.

“I just got fed up with the situation I was in. We weren’t friends anymore in the sense that we weren’t hanging out; we had different tastes and people wanted to be with their families.

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“You were just meeting up to rehearse and do gigs and make records. It was just so boring and dull and I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

Closing in on 25 years since he left the band, Cornwell’s decision is now paying off. His latest album, Totem and Taboo, has been one of his best received yet; by many accounts, it channels the grizzled wit and strong melodies of The Stranglers in their prime.

With the band still active to this day without Cornwell, I wonder if he’s glad to be rid of the thuggish reputation – which even extended to accusations of misogyny – they garnered in their early days. While he isn’t necessarily proud of their yobbish image, he suggests it was merely a reflection of the era’s unrest.

“You must remember that at that time, the social mood was pervasive… there was a lot of tension everywhere. Just below the surface, there was a lot of anger and aggression because of the state the country was in – it was terrible.”

Does he see a circling pattern considering Britain’s political unrest today? “Well I’m not sure if those circumstances can ever been created again. It’s a completely different age and world we’re living in.

“There may be a bigger divide between people that have and people that don’t have, but there’s so much activity: the amount of building work that’s going on, renovation, what the government’s spending. If you’re in London, you see that there’s no recession here.”

Born in Parliament Hill and raised in Kentish Town – and having attended school at William Ellis in Highgate – tonight’s gig is in many ways a homecoming for Cornwell, who in the Stranglers’ early days even squatted in Camden Town before they moved to Guildford.

Having left behind drugs for a live of exercise and clean living though, he admits the last time the Cornwell name actually made the Ham&High’s pages was when his late mother, Winifred – a swimmer in Hampstead Heath’s ponds for over 50 years – was called in to to see the warden for breaking into the ponds after they had closed.

“She stood there and he said, ‘What are we going to do about you, Mrs Cornwell?’

“He ended up giving her a key to the lock. He said, ‘If you start climbing over fences, you’re going to have an accident. If I can’t stop you, I’ll give you the key and you can go in, as long as you lock up.’ So she was given the key to the kingdom!”