When Hugh Cornwell was seeking inspiration for his next solo record, he was minded of an extraordinary lady who swam every day, come rain or shine, at the outdoor Bathing Ponds on Hampstead Heath in north London. The woman in question was his mother, Winifred, who lived until the ripe old age of 98, and who set Hugh pondering the theme of heroes and villains that runs through his new album, ‘Monster’, which celebrates the lives of 10 remarkable – and in several cases extremely controversial – figures from the 20th century.
“My mother was a legend, if only in our little world,” says the former Stranglers frontman and chief songwriter. “She was a celebrity among the swimmers on Hampstead Heath, because she would swim five or six times a day, even in winter. She was also the villain of the family (laughs), and kept us all in line. So that’s where it all started, with the song La Grande Dame.”
Cornwell is, of course, no stranger to writing about illustrious and mythic characters, having penned The Stranglers’ evergreen 1977 hit, No More Heroes, with its references to Leon Trotsky, Lenin and Sancho Panza. Forty-one years later, the subjects he tackles on ‘Monster’ include everyone from music legends Lou Reed (on Mr. Leather) and Mose Allison (Mosin’), to ’70s stuntman Evel Knievel (Pure Evel), 1940s Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr (The Most Beautiful Girl In Hollywood), Sgt Bilko star Phil Silvers (Bilko), Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (Duce Coochie Man) and Zimbabwe ex-president Robert Mugabe ( Robert).
“These are people who have defied categorisation,” he explains of his choices. “I’ve spent my whole life trying to defy categorisation. If someone wants to put me into some sort of a box, I’ll do my best to defy it. You could call it being obstreperous, but it’s also got something to do with being drawn to people who are dichotomous.”
Cornwell accepts that his more controversial choices, such as Mussolini and Robert Mugabe, aren’t to everyone’s liking, to say the least. (“He refused to exterminate the Italian Jews,” he says in the former’s defence; while of the latter he feels that “nobody can doubt that, in his heart, he wanted the best for his country”.) But challenging people’s cosy views is something Hugh has revelled in since his days with The Stranglers, when tying up troublesome journalists, inciting riots, experimenting with narcotic drugs, and singing about nubile women were all part of the fun.
“I’m not a violent person,” he says, “but I like a violent attitude to thought processes. I like presenting people with dilemmas about truth and fiction. A lot of people go through life pretending to be things that they’re not. And I’m really of a mind that pretence is for Hollywood. That’s the side of punk that I liked, presenting a mental dilemma to people about their behaviour.”
Hugh first began work on ‘Monster’ in 2014, as a follow-up to his highly acclaimed 2012 album, ‘Totem & Taboo’, but work on the project was postponed after he teamed up with Mancunian post-punk poet John Cooper Clarke for their ‘This Time It’s Personal’ album of cover versions, released in October 2016. The initial inspiration for that record was Hugh’s idea that the pair should re-make storied American songwriter Jimmy Webb’s orchestral pop epic, MacArthur Park, originally a hit for actor Richard Harris in 1968. This, in turn, led to the idea for another foundational ‘Monster’ track, Attack Of The Major Sevens.
“I’ve known about major seven chords for years, but when we covered MacArthur Park I realised how powerful they are, and that they are an emotional trigger unlike any other chord,” Hugh explains. “Heartbreak, sadness, nostalgia… That’s why I got the idea to write a song based around Jimmy Webb’s songs.”
Cornwell notes that the stark, eloquent sound of ‘Monster’, with the singer playing all the instruments, owes much to the stripped-down, economic approach favoured by Steve Albini, the Big Black legend who produced Nirvana’s ‘In Utero’ and who oversaw the recording of Hugh’s ‘Totem & Taboo’.
“There’s minimal layering on this album,” he says. “In the long run it serves you well, because when you come to do, say, an old Stranglers song live, there are three or four different guitar parts and you’re going, ‘Which one do I play?’ I can’t play them all, and I can’t get five people in, so you have to make a decision. Being minimal helps the song breathe. There’s nothing wrong with space. It’s a texture. For years now I’ve been learning about using less to create more.”
Another clear influence on ‘Monster’s’ sound – with its bright, tense electric guitars, and Cornwell’s rich, bewitching baritone – is Lou Reed, whom Hugh sings about on Mr. Leather. Cornwell and The Velvet Underground legend were due to meet in New York not long before Reed was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2012. However, the dinner date between the two men-in-black had to be cancelled when both were struck down with flu. Sadly, Reed’s subsequent illness meant they would never meet.
“Fate conspired against us,” Hugh recalls. “But we were both totally into the idea of meeting. It would have been fascinating to spend time with him. A mutual friend said, ‘He’s very curious to meet you’ – which wasn’t the case with a lot of people. So how could I say no?
“Lou created a masterpiece with the song Heroin,” he continues, “which speeds up to a crescendo and then slows down again. I mean, that’s radical rock music. I thought I’ve got to take [the drug] to understand where that came from. I don’t know if I got any closer once I tried it, but it produced some good songs [such as Golden Brown, The Stranglers’ Number 2 UK hit in 1982].”
The album’s title is taken from Hugh’s paean to one of the lesser-known heroes/villains on the record, Ray Harryhausen, whose painstakingly animated monsters in vintage films such as Jason & The Argonauts, Godzilla and Clash Of The Titans blazed a trail for modern CGI special effects.
“George Lucas, Scorsese, all the big film makers think Harryhausen is a genius,” explains Cornwell. “He was ground-breaking and so influential. He moved from America and lived with his parents in Surrey. Bobby Slayton, who’s an American comedian, has even got a shrine to him, so he’s definitely a hero.”
As a companion disc to ‘Monster’, Cornwell has re-recorded acoustic versions of 10 Stranglers songs, which he’s discovered over the years work particularly well with just him singing and playing guitar. ‘Restoration’, as it’s called, features familiar hits like No More Heroes and Always The Sun, together with deep catalogue jewels such as Outside Tokyo, Don’t Bring Harry, Let Me Down Easy and Ships That Pass In The Night.
“These are the ones that work best acoustically,” says Hugh, “and I’ve found 10 that sit well together. I’ll be playing The Stranglers’ hits when I tour this album, because I think people are no longer associating me with those songs after 28 years [Hugh left the band in 1990]. They have been sequestered by a bogus version of the group with only two original members.”
As to his final thoughts on ‘Monster’, Hugh says, “It’s been a long time since I started it, and a year since we finished it, but very recently I thought, ‘This album is a reaction to the whole current trend of celebrity’ – because the celebrity that people are striving for now has nothing to do with achievement, it’s just celebrity for the sake of celebrity. The people I’m singing about have earned their place in history.”