Aural Sculptors - The Stranglers Live 1976 to the Present


Welcome to Aural Sculptors, a blog aimed at bringing the music of The Stranglers to as wide an audience as possible. Whilst all of the various members of the band that have passed through the ranks since 1974 are accomplished studio musicians, it is on stage where the band have for me had their biggest impact.

As a collector of their live recordings for many years I want to share some of the better quality material with other fans. By selecting the higher quality recordings I hope to present The Stranglers in the best possible light for the benefit of those less familiar with their material than the hardcore fan.

Needless to say, this site will steer well clear of any officially released material. As well as live gigs, I will post demos, radio interviews and anything else that I feel may be of interest.

In addition, occasionally I will post material by other bands, related or otherwise, that mean a lot to me.

Your comments and/or contributions are most welcome. Please email me at adrianandrews1@sky.com.


Saturday, 15 February 2020

Hugh Cornwell Interview New Musical Express 3rd November 1979

To the best of my knowledge, the extensive UA promotional campaign launched for the 'Nosferatu' album was not accompanied by significant column inches in the press. Of the established UK music weeklies only the New Musical Express carried a feature on the album (or at least that is the only one that I have - happy to be corrected).

In late October 1979 shortly prior to the album hitting the record shop racks journalist Nick Kent interviewed Hugh about his collaboration with Robert Williams. In an increasingly spikey conversation something can be gleaned as to how this album came into being. Being one of the few contemporary pieces on the album it is valuable, but it could have been better if Cornwell and Kent hadn't spent much of the time sparring with each other.

Fair enough, Hugh wanted to talk about their new album and not The Stranglers whilst Nick Kent continued to bring his other band into he discussion. Hugh for his part kept up The Stranglers versus the press front and an opportunity was lost. Sadly towards the end of the piece Ken got personal and the whole thing turned into a tirade against The Stranglers.

Nevertheless it is what it is as they say.... so read on.


LAST TRAIN TO TRANSYLVANIA

Hugh ‘Crypt-ic’ Cornwell gets fangs in perspective viv-a vis the latest solo Stranglers concept album, ‘Nosferatu’. Nick Kent jams as Van Helsing the vampire hunter.

It’s not far from the trashy confines of Carnaby Street to the desolation of James Street, the seedy side of Covent Garden which houses the offices of Alan Edwards, PR to The Stranglers, Blondie, Squeeze, Motorhead, Generation X and many others.

At literally ten minutes notice, I am to be found heading for this locale on Wednesday lunchtime to interview Mr Edwards’ oldest and newest client, Hugh Cornwell, who has come up to London from Portsmouth expressly to talk to NME. (The reason for my sudden enlistment into the job? The scribe initially detailed has been detained for the day in hospital, where his infanticipating wife is due to let nature and the stork take their course. So…).

I arrive to find that Cornwell is absent. It transpires that he is out having his rough-hewn mid-30’s rugby-teacher-gone-to-seed visual photographed by the incomparable Pennie Smith – an absence which gives me an opportunity to grab a quick listen to today’s item of discussion, ‘Nosferatu’ Cornwell’s new album which hitherto I have only heard by chance one night at a mutual friend’s house.

It’s a tricky aural extravaganza to gauge the full strength of when using a mere portable cassette player. The mix gives a disorienating slant to the albums dynamics, depth and texture, the instruments often appear to float in some odd limbo. Certainly, it’s a fair old departure from Cornwell’s more orthodox heathen thrust when he harnesses his resources to The Stranglers.

One vital reason for this is that, where the latter are propelled by Jet Black’s meat and potatoes drumming, here Cornwell has collaborated with Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band percussionist Robert Williams, not merely usurping his idiosyncratic trap-trouncing, but also placing his talents right in the centre of ‘Nosferatu’s’ creative processes.

Indeed, although ‘Nosferatu’ will probably be branded by the media as Cornwell’s solo album, the outer cover declares the album strictly a dual creation, in no uncertain terms. The pair stand together, both names in bold – “Hugh Cornwell and Robert Williams in ‘Nosferatu’.”

As Cornwell later explains, they met whilst Beefheart’s current band was playing three nights in San Francisco. The Strangler, a fervent Beefheart admirer (he nominates ‘Clear Spot’ as his favourite B.Fart album, explaining that ‘Trout Mask Replica’ “has so much going for it that I’m still discovering new things”), went backstage and “found Robert to be the most forceful personality, the one with the strongest sense of direction. Also we quickly found that we were into many of the same things.”

Among other appealingly morbid perversities that proliferate on the album, Cornwell and Williams chose primarily to use the character Nosferatu, a gnarled old vampire type doomed to a living death: an evil, macabre blood-sucking existence, so pathetic that one feels genuinely sorry for the poor old ghoul.

The character dates back to Egyptian mythology – his doomy four syllable moniker translated as “spirit of darkness/evil” or “cloak of death” or some such suitably grim handle. Indeed one could go into an intoxicatingly lengthy description of the original vampire himself, but literature is abundantly available for those wishing to sample the full force of this monstrous apparition.

More to the point, two films have been made using the old bloke’s name, a 1920’s Expressionist masterpiece directed by Murnau and made in suitably gothic black and white with no sound, that grabbed Cornwell who, when he viewed it early last year, “visualised it as an amazing vehicle for emotional music”.

Williams evidently felt the same, and the two set to work last summer, writing and recording together as a basic unit with “friends” who were around who, according to Cornwell, “could add things, say, or fill in the odd hole with their interpretation”.

The project was completed six months ago and is currently on the vinyl release starting blocks.
But again we begin to get ahead of ourselves. As his quotes are starting to appear, so one should at least acknowledge that yea, exactly after 40 minutes have elapsed Hugh Cornwell arrives.

Expecting a somewhat more outwardly more aggressive character, I’m pleasantly surprised to receive an instant impression of the man as a fairly civil chap. That relentless bullyboy vocal he adopts for singing is absent from his speaking voice, which suggest previous associations with colleges of further education. Certainly he in no respect resembles a rock star, what with his second hand demob suit and open necked white shirt, topped off by features that rarely ease up from their naturally taut bone structure.

The final embellishment – a small goatee as thick as a paint-brush but greased to stand at a point – is typically Beefheartian …

At first hand-shake, he is amenable courteous enough and comparatively soft-spoken, thus temporarily undermining all prior visions I had of The Stranglers – or at least Cornwell – treating journalists with total disdain.

This cosiness is however almost instantaneously destroyed, when Cornwell leaves the PR office to walk next door to his management office. Wondering if he intends to do the interview in there, I follow. Cornwell, seeing me sauntering into the room, turns distinctly chilly.

“The journalists’ room is in there” he states curtly, as though he were telling a dog where his kennel is.

The incident, minor enough at the time, in retrospect ties in perfectly with Cornwell’s view on the media. Journalists, in The Stranglers’ terms, are basically inferior lags to the superior warrior-like self-acclaimed artists the band so obviously consider themselves to be. We journalists are at best useful, at worst intolerable – and if we are intolerable, then a bloated egomaniac thug like JJ Burnel sees no moral issue in brazenly using his black belt karate training to beat up a critic like Jon Savage of Sounds, who dared put his name to a criticism of whatever The Stranglers’ latest product was at the time.

No, The Stranglers are a law unto themselves, and in that respect they remind me a lot of Led Zeppelin.

Call one ‘new wave’, call the other ‘heavy metal’, but both groups are out on their own, armed for combat in a ‘dog eat dog’ business. Both groups have a reputation for being ‘heavy’ outfits who despise outside criticism, because they foolhardily believe themselves to be the best judges of their work and other opinions, unless virtually sycophantic, are redundant.

Now, just as Jimmy Page still troops out every so often to give the odd interview – purely for promotional reasons usually – so Hugh Cornwell has chosen to talk to yours truly or anyone else from the music papers... but strictly about the ‘Nosferatu’ album.

And nothing else. He’ll talk about how “when we started recording, it was really terrifying music we were making. I mean we were really frightening ourselves with the music that was coming out. Then it was levelled out into becoming almost a soundtrack... a soundtrack for a film that could never be made.”

And he’ll tell me that the whole album was recorded in 22 days  - “10 days at one stretch, then 12 at another,” in LA.

But that’s yer lot. Despite the proximity of ‘Raven’ to the top of the album charts, not a word will he vouchsafe on the subject of his day job – The Stranglers.

So OK, let’s do the business on ‘Nosferatu’. This bit’s for Hugh’s scrapbook.

The songs were written by Cornwell/Williams, apart from Cream’s ‘White Room’ – given a radically claustrophobic arrangement (it fits into the album concept by dint of the white room representing Nosferatu’s hide-out from the daylight) and one number involving a composer’s contribution from Devo’s Mothersbaugh brothers. Two songs feature one ‘Duncan Poundcake’ : ‘Puppets’ and ‘Wrong Way Round’, for my tastes the albums strangest cut, with Dury delivering a chillingly raucous ‘Little Egypt’ freak-show owner’s harangue.

Although a final view-point has yet to be reached, ‘Nosferatu’ strikes me as an intriguing, ambitious equal-parts success and failure. It strives for diversity and wholeness at the same instant. But whilst Cornwell and Williams’ experiments often call for unorthodox arrangements that capture the alienation and claustrophobia of being trapped in a form at once repellent and almost comically pathetic, Cornwell’s voice – a drone that is neither effectively disembodied nor catatonic – often can’t carry it off. Certainly Dury’s cameo whacks the point home with a vengeance.

Meanwhile Cornwell, obviously pleased with the creation, talks about how one song – ‘Losers in a Lost Land’ – was written with Williams “by post”, the two potentially diverse sections (Cornwell’s bass patterns and Willams’ percussive effects) created 2,000 miles apart but in perfect synch with each other.

“We produced each other. Robert would be behind the console whilst I was laying down my tracks and vice versa when he was laying down his percussion, snatches of synthesiser, and other bits.
“He even wrote the lyrics to ‘Nosferatu’ itself. That was to be an instrumental.”

Elsewhere the Mothersbaugh brothers appear on one track, the collaborative work entitled ‘Rhythmic Itch’, whilst Ian Underwood, best known for his multi-talented instrumental expertise showcased most strongly on Frank Zappa’s ‘Uncle Meat’ and ‘Hot Rats’, appears on one or two cuts.

“It’s reached a point where I feel this record is sounding like another crummy solo album with ‘starstudded’ guests”, mutters Cornwell, disgruntled.

I disagree, and he seems mildly appeased at my contention that names like Robert Williams and Ian Underwood aren’t exactly in the same mould as yer super session stars like Ronnie Wood and Ringo Starr, for which we can all be thankful. Still, Cornwell’s paranoia about star-spotting leads him to deny quite adamantly that any such personage as Ian Dury appears on the record. “Duncan Poundcake is on the album. Not Ian Dury. Get that right.”

Cornwell looks back on the album’s making.

“It was almost like Robert and I being schoolboys again and going in and experimenting. Very quickly we ended living a sort of quasi-vampiric existence. Sleeping all day, recording all night and making sure we got home just before dawn.”

In the midst of what can only be described as blithe reminiscences on Cornwell’s part about his work with Robert Williams in Los Angeles, I am suddenly reminded that this is the same man who on ‘raven’ wrote a song entitled ‘Dead Loss Angeles’.

“Yeah well, when you check the inside of the sleeve of ‘Nosferatu’ you’ll see I’ve written ‘Recorded in Undead Los Angeles’. I wrote those lyrics as an indictment against the fact that that on one level Los Angeles stands for everything crass and dumb and sick in American society. It’s the very epitome of all that crap.”

Hugh joins the queue for the bloodbank. Pic: Pennie Smith

He expounds on his own particular vision of Nosferatu, based primarily on the ‘20s film as opposed to the recent re-make of Nosferatu by German wunderkind Werner Herzog.

“He’s a desperate man – very, very desperate. But he’s got something a lot of people crave and that’s immortality. But the irony is that he doesn’t want it. He’s very pathetic really. No-one realised that in fact he’s a very, very sad man.

“All the songs on side one are portions or episodes, say, of an imaginary film Robert and I made about him. The first track has him hurrying, desperate to get home because it’s close to daylight. Then with ‘Losers’ (Cornwell’s favourite cut) he’s back in the crypt, pondering his miserable existence. Then in ‘White Room’ he recalls his past and how he got into this state in the first place. The fourth track, ‘Irate Caterpillar’ is him confronting technology – this immortal ghoul in this industrial complex where he sees a crane and thinks that it’s giant caterpillar out to destroy him. Then the side ends with the Mothersbaugh’s ‘Rhythmic Itch’ which is just a totally objective viewpoint on the basic theme right.”

The second side consists primarily of Cornwell’s studies in aspects of perversity.

“It fascinates me. Perversity is a part of everyone, because all humans are imperfect and those imperfections create perversities, right. It’s so logical to me. Everything I do is logical. It comes from studying science – chemistry - at college, see. I don't like going off at tangents. There's never any point to tangents."

The latter remark harks back to a reference I'd made to The Stranglers' work. To him, that's a "tangent" as far as this conversation is concerned.

At first though, Cornwell consents to answer a few perfunctory questions on the subject of the band he still adamantly declares to be the main source point of his creative output. The dreadful live album! ‘X Certs', he states with blunt candor, "would've been much much better, if we'd mixed it. Instead, (Martin) Rushent mixed it. That's why it's so bad.

"We're never going to use a producer again. What the fuck for? Producers are just shitty little parasites. Period. All they're good for is telling jokes. And we know better jokes than any of 'em!"

I ask Cornwell if the six-month delay of 'Nosferatu' was irksome and whether it was dictated by a need for new Stranglers product. Cornwell feigns mild indifference but declares firmly: "Not at all. In fact, the six-month break has helped Robert and I to really come to terms with the project, to sharpen a few things up, get it in perspective."

OK then, let's go for some serious issues, Mr Cornwell. I mean, here you are recalling with great affection the making of an album with Robert Williams, a musician most unlike any of The Stranglers. And, God knows, the album sounds very different from anything The Stranglers have done, particularly 'Raven' . ..

"So? ... " Cornwell is getting peeved.

Well, did you feel that you needed to make 'Nosferatu' due, perhaps, to The Stranglers going through a lean period? You know, going through the motions?

"What do you mean by 'going through the motions'? Do you mean 'crapping'? We crap all the time. Every day, in fact (laughs)."

Cornwell is peeved. This journalist is going above his station. Doesn't he know that he, Cornwell, only wants to talk about his album? But tell me, Hugh, can you explain the human chemistry involved in the four members of The Stranglers?

"No!"

But you talk in great depth about how you worked with Robert Williams. OK, so how do you work-with someone like Jean Jacques Burnel?

Cornwell has to stop this here and now. ''I'm not going to answer that. Like, how would you feel if some journalist asked you about your emotional relationship with your girlfriend?"

Well, it would depend on the context. A more realistic parallel would be someone asking me how I get on with fellow writers on the paper I work for: I'd certainly answer that.

"I don't see the parallel," mutters Cornwell.

"And I'm not going to talk to the press about emotional relationships I experience! The Stranglers are alive and very well and they are still the group that I commit most of my energies towards. OK? Now I came here to talk about this" (points to 'Nosferatu' cassette)
"and nothing else."



Get the picture? Cornwell wants a nice slice of publicity for his collaborative off-shoot record - nothing more. I'm just the stooge who's around to ask nice bland questions and pass on the relevant platitudes.

Yet again however I return to The Stranglers/'Nosferatu' dichotomy, and Cornwell at least attempts to make a distinction between the two.

"The band is my professional career. It's a very vital part of my life, a very good way of getting across certain things. 'Nosferatu' - which I'm very, very proud of - is like, almost a hobby, what I did on my holidays."

But earlier you were talking almost ecstatically about how you and Robert Williams worked so well together OK, so right now you're tied to different bands, you've got commitments - but if Williams phoned up and said: "Listen, I'm leaving Beefheart, let's work together full-time," would you take his
offer?

" No (pause). No, because however great it was working with Robert, there was a concept there, there was a kind of spontaneity we shared for one great period of time that in 22 days created 'Nosferatu'. That doesn't mean it'll gel like that automatically a second time. Maybe it might, maybe not."

In the six months since 'Nosferatu', have you thought up any new ideas with theme that could take off like that did?

"I've had ideas, yeah. I get ideas for songs, write them down in five minutes and then lose the piece of paper I wrote them on. There's always something up there. It's more a case of actually getting into the studio, getting in with the right chemistry and doing it. Otherwise all those ideas are nothing more than scraps of paper. Which I lose more often than not." He laughs to himself.

Two final culminative verbal exchanges occur, leaving me half-bemused and half-amused by Cornwell.

A stray remark from Cornwell about how, unlike the artistic maverick of a rock composer that he is, I as a writer am always prey to all kinds of censorship and hob-goblin sub-editors out to twist the meaning of what I've written, gets me well pissed-off. Taking the statement to be tantamount to calling me a hack, l enlighten Cornwell on certain facts – in particular that I am a freelance writer and my primary concern is that my pieces, give or take the odd verbose sentence, remain in the state in which they were first conceived and penned.

"You're lucky then," mutters Cornwell. " 'Cos almost everyone else gets their articles cut to shit." .

No more, I counter, than people like yourselves. Bands have producers and big record-companies calling the shots on them. You're evidently successful so your company lets you go on with what you want to do. But if you weren't successful, your bollocks would probably be in hock. God knows, I've seen more bands totally compromised than journalists.

Cornwell mutters words of disbelief. The Stranglers, after all, are warriors. Journalists are just voyeurs to him.

The hilarious thing is that many of The Stranglers' song lyrics are just fifth-rate puerile sneering attempts at some kind of journalistic overview on 'current issues', weighed down by a rock-slide of splenetic bilge and tossed out with a sneer, a boot-boy swagger and a total absence of humanity.

A simple question about The Stranglers' future plans makes Cornwell turn downright rude. "I'm not telling you! I Want to keep you guessing," he retorts in what I presume he considers to be a mischievous tone of voice.

You want to keep me guessing? Listen, mate, do you think I really give a toss what you do next? Two years ago, you were doing a Roundhouse concert against Mick Jagger, because he said you were "dreadful" or some such belittling adjective. Now you're sounding just like him!

“Well, I just want to keep you on your toes!"

Hugh, old son, I'm afraid to tell you but I frankly don't give a fart in a tunnel about your future projects, because, give or take a couple of new riffs, it'll be the same-old-same-old in a new wrapping; music for people who're trying to learn how to sneer with sincerity.

Back to the crypt, old son. Dawn's coming up and the light's too fierce for your transparent superciliousness.




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