Hugh Cornwell @ O2 Academy 2, Birmingham – Saturday 13th October 2012

Hugh Cornwell has a career that spans back decades. Starting out in The Stranglers in ’74, it was his voice on ‘Peaches’, ‘No More Heroes’, ‘Golden Brown’, ‘Always the Sun’, ‘Grip’, ‘Nice N Sleazy’, ‘Duchess’ and ‘No Mercy’ to name but a few. He departed, surprisingly over twenty years ago and has managed to carve out a solo career in the ever changing and challenging musical scene. Since The Stranglers he’s released 8 solo albums and recently followed other acts by releasing his 2008 ‘Hooverdam’ album, for free, via his own website. It’s still available if you fancy a listen. He toured with this album in ’09, a duel set alongside a performance of ‘Rattus Norvegicus’ (alternatively titled The Stranglers IV). And he’s been writing too, adding to his autobiographies in 2011 with his novel ‘Window on the World.’

So here we are in an autumnal Birmingham evening to see his brand new recording; ‘Totem and Taboo’ in collaboration with Steve Albini (of Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Pixies fame) with again a duel set, the second performance this time bring the ’77 Stranglers’ ‘No More Heroes’ album in its entirety.

As the glitterballs spin in the Academy 2 we wait. The audience are friendly; room half full, predominantly made up of men of an older age. Punk songs come through the speakers, not too loud. ‘Neat Neat Neat’, it’s The Damned at their most raucous. People stand and chat and drink their drinks most affably. Probably not quite what The Captain and Vanian et al had intended!

Slightly later than scheduled, 8.30pm the three piece appear onto the tiny stage stage. As Cornwell chats with the roadie the crowd clap. Taking time to tune his guitar, clad in black,  an introduction: “We’re gonna do the total of ‘Totem and Taboo’ and then take a short break and the come and do ‘No More Heroes’.” It’s pretty loud near the front, the sound is balanced better at the back of the venue. Bang bang bang beat on the title track – this is indeed Cornwell back on form. Strut stumping track with a kinda Damned rhythm going on.

The set is the running order of the album – second track ‘The Face’ is Bowiesque.

Cornwell: “Okay let’s go shopping…” is an intro to ‘I Want One of Those.’ A local link – ‘Stuck in Daily Mail Land’ was apparently written in a Midlands hotel about five years ago….it has a chorus like a nursery rhyme then a guitar riff comes and smacks you in the face.

Cornwell is pretty friendly and affable: “Are there any celestial beings in the audience – there’s ones in the audience..” and we’re into ‘God is a Woman’. That Stranglers’ punchy beat is still there. Halfway through the roadie waves his arm frantically for the stage lights to be turned up – which the guy on the back desk dutifully does. Cornwell still has those smooth throw away charismatic vocals on ‘Love Me Slender’ – it’s a pleasure to hear his voice live again after 20 years. The roadie, at the back of the stage, does semaphore, again indicating another set change.

“Any acid in the place, I’m on my last tab of acid, any acid in the house? What am I gonna do…? Never mind…” and the band set off with ‘Gods Guns and Gays’ including ‘do,do,do ‘s’ –  ironic tongue in cheek, chuck away vocals. A deep bass beat, that rolls and rolls – ‘In The Dead of The night’ – the music tells a dark story before he evens starts singing. Cornwell wanted to do a long exit song to the end of the album like he used to do in The Stranglers – it’s dark and menacing.

“Thank you very much, we’re just taking a short break and then we’ll be back with ‘No More Heroes.’” ‘Totem and Taboo’ is an album he’s pretty proud of. It has a feel of early eighties Stranglers, Cornwell’s iconic voice still carries, it’s well worth a listen.

With a break of just 10 minutes (#win), they’re back on with the addition of keyboards. Thirty five years ago was a different world, punk was still shining and ‘No More Heroes’, with it’s covering featuring a red carnation wreath on a coffin, akin with rats tails, went to No.2 and stayed in the charts for 18 weeks. Oh the days of vinyl. And cassette tapes. Steve Jobs hadn’t even dreamt of the Apple computer…..

This set is ‘small venue’, raw, still has aggression, and the band go through the album, once again in track order. The politically incorrectly titled ‘I Feel Like A Wog’, Cornwell’s vocals still work well. It has a dangerous edge to how it is delivered, drummer Chris Bell, continues to do a good impression of The Muppets ‘Animal’. The crowd cheer, former punks emerge from their now mid age persona, comments shouted at the stage. Cornwell “I think you are more boisterous than Manchester…” the crows enjoy the tracks, and as we go through them. ‘Dagenham Dave’ gets a good response.

Cornwell: “I always ask this question – anyone been in a ferry recently? Are you a teacher? Did you go alone? Did you go to France?……. it’s all gone quiet now hasn’t it?” as an introduction to ‘Bring on the Nubiles.’ ‘Something Better Change’ it’s the bass player, Steve Fishman, giving it his all (it was JJ Burnell on the original) – he gives a good effort, bless him. A gentleman at the front is pogoing… ‘No More Heroes’ is a classic Stranglers track. This is a stripped down version – no keyboards – it’s an aggressive stomp.

Hugh Cornwell struggled after his departure from The Stranglers. And, at times, has struggled with that legacy. This new album does indeed put him back up at the level he deserves and we know he can deliver and is well worth a listen. He’s proud of it, and rightly so. And it was a great set he delivered, ‘Totem and Taboo’, great to hear his dulcet tones live once again.

As for the ‘No More Heroes’ set – this was stripped down, pub style, aggressive. The venue was half full, tickets £18, circa 250 people, who thoroughly enjoyed what they saw. And I think Cornwell deserves more. Go listen to his new album – go see this legendary iconic punk voice while you have the opportunity – you won’t be disappointed.

Review: Zyllah Moranne-Brown



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