‘I’ve got a sense of punk anarchy in my blood’

Punk legend Hugh will play Belfast, January 26
Punk legend Hugh will play Belfast, January 26

UK punk lord Hugh Cornwell tells JOANNE SAVAGE about new album Totem & Taboo ahead of his Belfast gig

Punk legend Hugh Cornwell, formerly of The Stranglers, with whom he played his last gig more than 23 years ago, is a dark and refined musical artist, a man who is slightly Bowie-like in his edginess, choice of raw riffage and risqué lyrics.

When I call him he’s in Mexico and I immediately apologise for pulling him away from the hot sun, tequila and passing Mariachi bands; but Cornwell is extremely polite and assures me it has just become really over cast down Mexico-way; the time is providential for a chat about his new album Totem & Taboo ahead of his gig in Belfast on January 26.

“Does the spirit of punk live on in all that you do, Hugh?” I begin, hopefully.

“I dunno,” he offers. “I think I’m too subjectively involved to judge.”

Listening to God Is A Woman and other tracks off the dark, edgy yet smooth new album, I’d say punk spirit is very much still there, if mellowed and tempered, though some of the music here has seriously sharp claws.

“I mean I’ve never had any problems being anarchic,” he continues after a short pause. “It’s in my blood. I’ve got a perverted sense of anarchy in my blood.”

Thank goodness Cornwell hasn’t lost it then. A straight-laced artist supporting the status quo would be terribly disappointing.

The Londoner, 64, left famous punk band The Stranglers after the release of their 10th album in 1990 and at the time they were one of the best-selling acts to come out of the UK punk scene. Back in punk’s heyday, when they were best known for hits like Peaches, No More Heroes, Always the Sun, Skin Deep and Golden Brown, they hung out with the Sex Pistols, The Clash and Blondie, and of course they wore leather, swore, smoked, drank, and derided all that was conventional.

But Cornwell, clearly single-minded and hungry for individual success, decided to branch out and to date his solo career has yielded 10 albums, with Totem & Taboo his latest Freudian-named offering, a darkly loaded confection of songs that draw on an eclectic mix of influences – punk, electro, rock, dark balladry and the aforementioned anarchic mood.

“I love God Is A Woman from the new album,” he offers, “The more I play it the more I like it.” And it is a hugely compelling song, layered, achingly hip, it whispers of scandal, has a kinky video and begs to be listened to again. “It’s just all the men who don’t realise that God is probably a woman,” he quips, laughing rebelliously.

“My other favourite is In the Dead of Night. That song was conceived in the dead of night, you see. I just woke up and I had this brilliant bass riff in my head.”

I ask Cornwell, described as ‘UK punk’s dark lord’ by one music bible, if he is indeed a dark and tormented individual?

“Well the problem in my life has always been that I get bored very easily,” says Hugh. “And when I get bored I start to think too much and that makes me depressed.”

I interject: “Thought often leads to depression, I find.”

“Yeah,” he agrees, “completely. So I try to keep really busy to avoid getting down.”

I tell Cornwell he has certainly lived a life: being in a cool punk band that formed in Guilford in 1974; spending a brief spell in Pentonville Prison for drug possession; hanging out with all the ‘in-crowd’ of the punk era; probably partying hard and living fast while out on the road; writing memoirs and a novel (he is apparently working on a second, too).

“Well yes, he laughs. But prison was only a brief flirtation.”

One song on Totem and Taboo has a bit of a dig at Madonna, the queen of pop who defies aging with fanatical fitness regimes, botox and much younger boyfriends.

“I have a lot to thank Madonna for actually. [The Face - a track on the album - describes her as launching not a thousand ships, but something much less sanitary], because I went to a party she ran and had to stand in the queue for the toilet for a long time and it inspired a song.”

Bad Vibrations – a twist on the expected Good Vibrations optimism so that it becomes more a Morrissey-style rumination on a negative drama queen, and title track Totem & Taboo, are further strong, angsty offerings, latent with black magic. Does Cornwell feel he deserves the moniker of ‘UK punk’s dark lord’, I wonder? He laughs devilishly at this.

“I like being called that. But not guilty, I’m a really regular guy.” Not that regular methinks.

Hugh Cornwell plays Black Box, Belfast, January 26 .Visit www.cqaf.com.