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TOO MANY WORDS, SO LITTLE TIME: THE HUGH CORNWELL INTERVIEW


Need something done? Call Hugh Cornwell. Maybe.

The singer-songwriter, novelist and keeper of the flame of The Stranglers is polite and friendly enough to ask me how he can help as we begin the call. Well, now that you ask, I’ve got some roofing issues that need to be sorted out after recent storms.

“I may be able to when I come over [to Australia] but I’m afraid of heights,” Cornwell says. “So as long I don’t have to get up on the ladder …”

Yes, well, apart from the roof being by definition higher than your average human height, that’s why I’m not up there myself. This sets him off laughing. “Looks like you’ve got a problem,” says the heartless man whose new album, Monster, may be telling us more than we realise. Yeah, cheers sir, thanks.

More helpfully, a few years ago Cornwell released a compendium of his non-Stranglers work, The Fall And Rise Of Hugh Cornwell, so given he seems in no hurry to give up this music gig (certainly not for roof tiling) shall we consider this his Reginal Perrin* moment and there will be no stopping him now?

“That would be very nice, wouldn’t it?” Cornwell says jovially. “The ‘fall and rise’ came from a poster I saw many years ago for [the movie] The Rise And Fall Of Legs Diamond, but I thought it would be more appropriate to have Fall And Rise.”

On that cover the gangster’s Tommy gun is replaced by a Telecaster guitar, which has probably been the cause of more pain than the submachine gun.

”And underneath his feet were corpses but I thought it was more appropriate under mine to have solo album covers.”

You may be beginning to suspect that Cornwell was having a bit too much fun with that cover. But then at the very least sardonic, if not outright brutal humour, has been Cornwell trademark since The Stranglers somehow were co-opted, uncomfortably, into punk.

There’s a lot of dry humour on Monster, delivered in that trademark droll way, as if Cornwell has seen the past and the future and neither has convinced him to respect them.

“If there is any project I want to do, it would be a bit too boring to just do it run-of-the-mill,” he says. “So I try and do something that is going to mean something to me and put something a bit more curious and interesting into it. It’s not a virtue; it’s more an ailment.”

Perhaps that is the problem when, to borrow a line from his most recent album, you have too many words and so little time. “Exactly,” he says. “Exactly.”

If you think that a Reginal Perrin reference is plenty obscure enough for anyone who wasn’t watching television in the 1970s – let alone anyone who wasn’t even alive in the 1970s (and hello to you kids!) – there is a song on Cornwell’s album about Ernest Bilko, the grifting chancer of a military man character created in the 1950s by American comedian Phil Silvers.

It’s fair to ask, what in hell brought Phil Silvers back into his mind? Bilko is so obscure now that even people who might think he was covering Peter Gabriel’s 1980 song Biko – and we’re already old folks – would likely not know the reference.

“That’s how it started funnily enough. Back in those days, when Peter was very active and wrote that song Biko, I misread the title as Bilko because I didn’t know who [heroic South African anti-apartheid activist] Stephen Biko was, being an ignorant person,” Cornwell confesses.

“And I thought what a great person to write a song about. Then when I realised [the error] I thought at some stage I wonder whether I would have the gumption, or the gall, to write a song about Bilko. And it sat in my brain for many years.”

Now that’s not only impressive gall, but impressive perseverance: nearly 40 years gestation of an idea. Proof not only of the adage never to throw an idea away, but that if you stay alive long enough – and Cornwell turns 70 in August - you get to do most of what you dreamt about.

By comparison with Bilko, two other songs on the album are based on things a tiny bit closer to youth culture. Cornwell sings about two heroes of his, jazz pianist and occasional singer Mose Allison and the irascible king of downtown New York narrative Lou Reed.

“Mose Allison was always very exotic and I found out about him totally illegally, at that time, because I was sharing a room with one of my elder brothers and he had a record of his. I was banned from playing this vinyl but when I played it and found someone I liked it was this exciting find, a bit of an oddball: he was white but sang like a black man,” Cornwell says.

“And Lou of course, created the song Heroin, which was an amazing piece of rock music they had this changing tempo like a train speeding up and slowing down. That was revolutionary rock music to me.”

Lou Reed would seem the more noticeable presence in not just Cornwell’s writing but in his singing style. Is there some Mose Allison in his work?

“He didn’t sing all the time but I just loved his voice. His voice was unique and I couldn’t try and sound like that, but I like things that make people stick out like a sore thumb. Not necessarily in a good way either: I like things that are noticeable because of their irregularity.

“Beauty to me is boring, and I hate perfect records. It’s always the flaws that bring out everything else.”

*For those playing at home, The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin was a series of books by David Nobbs turned into a darkly comic sitcom on British TV, about a man who will do anything, up to and including faking death, to escape his pointless life. He hadn’t heard The Stranglers at that point.

Hugh Cornwell plays The Triffid, Brisbane, May 4; The Gov, Adelaide, May 5; Basement, Canberra, May 8; Manning Bar, Sydney, May 9; Max Watts, Melbourne, May 10; Rosemount, Perth, May 11.

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