“What’s totem for me/Is taboo for you,” Hugh Cornwell, the former singer-guitarist of British punk’s charter scoundrels, the Stranglers, sang in a leathery growl, exactly like the one on his old band’s nasty-masterpiece singles, at New York’s Mercury Lounge on October 26th. “Totem and Taboo” is the title song on Cornwell’s next album, which he will record in December in Chicago with engineer Steve Albini. But that chorus and Cornwell’s undimmed snarl were reassuring provocation in a set that zigzagged between Stranglers hits “from the Middle Ages,” as he cracked at one point, and fresher confrontation from Cornwell’s long solo library. “Tell you things that will make your curls/Stra-a-a-ighten out,” he promised in the Stranglers’ 1977 missile “Straighten Out,” propelled by the bare-knuckled rhythm section of Blondie drummer Clem Burke and bass guitarist Steven Fishman. “And if you’re tired of it,” Cornwell snapped in the newer “Banging on at the Same Old Beat,” from 2008’s Hooverdam (Invisible Hands), “well, I don’t give a shit.”
An ex-biochemist who played in a Sixties beat band with future folk-guitar icon Richard Thompson, Cornwell started the Stranglers with drummer Jet Black in London in 1974. By the end of that decade, Cornwell, Black, bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel and keyboard player Dave Greenfield were British punk’s biggest mainstream hard asses, with four Top Five albums and ten Top 40 singles there. Cornwell was the central menace, singing not about white riots but base instincts – hunger, lust, vengeance – with seething charisma, over racing-motor beats in strangehold choruses ringed by Greenfield’s dirty-Doors runs. At the Mercury Lounge, Cornwell opened with the rolling hypnosis and wharf rat’s blues of “Toiler on the Sea” from the Stranglers’ 1978 LP, Black and White, and encored with the crippled beat and lechery of “Peaches” from 1977’s Rattus Norvegicus.
No Organ, No Matter
Cornwell quit the Stranglers in 1990; the others have carried on under the name. I haven’t seen that version, so I can’t compare or condemn. But I caught the Feral Four in prime time – a New York gig in early 1978 – and can say this: Cornwell’s current trio is missing nothing but that organ. There was some extra space in the overcast romanticism of 1982’s “Golden Brown” where Greenfield’s Gothic-carousel organ would have been. But “Goodbye Toulouse” and “Hanging Around,” both from Rattus Norvegicus, were stripped to a lean-metal momentum – Burke’s martial-Keith Moon charge and Fishman’s grunting-treble bass – that highlighted the survivor’s fiber in Cornwell’s voice and his guitar’s steel-girder twang.
Cornwell is a lot busier than you think if you only know his Stranglers life, issuing more than a dozen solo albums over the last two decades. At the Mercury Lounge, he went back to 1997’s Guilty (Snapper) for “Nerves of Steel” and “One Burning Desire” and pulled choice sinew and resistance from Hooverdam, including “Wrong Side of the Tracks” and “Rain on the River”. (You can download that album for free at Cornwell’s website, hughcornwell.com.)
But as a younger man, Cornwell was already older and harder than his peers, even anarchy celebrities like Johnny Rotten and the Clash’s Joe Strummer. “I work hard, I’m saving my marks,” Cornwell sang at this show, revisiting the Stranglers’ 1980 single “Bear Cage” (with added slicing by guest guitarist Richard Lloyd of Television). “Watch what I do when I swim with the sharks.” Be there when he does.