Chances are that you know the Stranglers without knowing the Stranglers.
Remember the opening for Jonathan Glazer's Brit-gangster flick, Sexy Beast? “Walkin' on the beaches, looking at the peaches?” You've heard it (this is as close as it gets). Remember that fight scene in Snatch where the Pikey Brad Pitt gets a K.O. with a single punch? The Stranglers' “Golden Brown” harpsichord waltz leads him out of the ring.
Tonight the Stranglers lead swagger-er, Hugh Cornwell saunters onto the Spaceland stage to play a mix of the old school Stranglers' hits as well as newer cuts (aka from the last 20 years of his solo career), including some tracks from his gritty album, Hooverdam. Cornwell has made something of a splash in the U.K. for standing in opposition to a new bill that would punish
illegal downloading. The 60 year-old rocker positioned himself on the side of free-for-all digital distribution on Hooverdam, by offering it free of charge on his website. With the lo-fi album, recorded all analog by White Stripes cohort Liam Watson, and a strong power trio, Cornwell leaves none of the sneering proto punk in the past, instead updating it for the present.
Cornwell recently chatted with me about playing with the Clash, London in the 1970's, and the advantages of giving away music.
What was the musical scene like in London as pub rock shifted to punk rock?
Yeah, you'd bump into people. But there was still a lot of antagonism between the bands and competitiveness. We were all young and naive. Joe Strummer saw The Stranglers in London at the Round house supporting Patti Smith and he burst into tears in my arms at the bar, and said, “I want a band like yours” Then he went off and formed the Clash the next week. And that is the Gospel Truth.
Punk only lasted for a few years in London before many of the bands dissolved and evolved. Why do you think punk is still valid today?
Nothing else has come along that was so vibrant and so essentially rock and roll. When we started we were a trio, we were bass drum and guitar, the keyboards came in later. All the punk bands, there was no keyboards in sight. That was the essence of rock and roll sound for me. So we got a keyboard player, and we changed our sound drastically. I've been working with a Trio now for six years and I love it. Look at all the great trios, Cream, Hendrix, and Nirvana, it's the quintessential elements of rock and roll. That's why it still makes sense now
What was the political and economic situation like for you guys in the middle 70's London?
It was tough, no one had any money, so it was the perfect opportunity to make some homegrown music. The music that was happening then was completely out of the media's control. It was very underground. People would just call eachother and say, hey the Pistols are doing a gig, or The Stranglers are doing a show. Or the Buzzcocks are down from Manchester. All this without texts and mobile phones, just landlines and meeting eachother on the streets and at the cafes. There was a mobile audience around London, then, I knew that, of about 1000 people who loved this music and would move around according to who showed up. You'd only need a few days notice to get a crowd.
How is releasing your new album Hooverdam for free like those homegrown days back in London?
Back then it was all about flyers and word of mouth, you would see a band and tell all your friends. The Stranglers had a residency at the place called the Hope and Anchor. We set up and nobody came in. We went up to the guy who owned the place and we asked, “What do we do?” He said, “Just wait for one guy to come in, and start playing.” So we waited, and one guy came down the stairs. I bought the guy a pint of beer and we played the whole concert for him. The following week he came back with six of his friends. Then the next week it was 70 people. Then a few weeks later no one could get in. That was viral back then. Just people telling people, bringing some friends, and other people getting interested. It's ironic, right? All of this technology that brings us back to basics.
So, giving out the album is just like buying someone that first beer, right?
Ha, well I can't do that these days, there's just too many people and it would just take too long!