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There’s no shortage of unsung heroes, could-have-beens and flameouts in the long, strange history of rock & roll. But few rockers had as much grit and grime, swagger and sneer as the Stranglers. Formed in 1974, they were scrappy, straight-up punk pioneers. Their machismo-drenched pub rock would have been forgettable if it weren’t so smart and irresistibly catchy. Film aficionados will recognize the off-kilter waltz “Golden Brown” from the pikey fight montage in Guy Ritchie’s 2000 film Snatch. The same year found the Stranglers’ “Peaches” used in the opening scene of Jonathan Glazer’s superb gangster flick Sexy Beast.
In the golden era of London punk, the Stranglers played alongside the Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks and Patti Smith. But unlike the Roman candle that was most punk bands of the past (and present), the Stranglers adapted, evolved and endured for the next 30 years. In the 1980s, they surfed the New Wave swell and fell in line with ex-punkers Blondie, the Police and Dire Straits. Hugh Cornwell, guitarist and lead growler, says that instead of sticking with one genre, the musically adept, cocksure Stranglers weren’t afraid to experiment.
“No one really cared whether we were or were not punk,” he says. “We were just excited to make records. Call us what you want; we didn’t care.”
One band especially took notice of the Stranglers’ iconoclastic, genre-smashing sound: the Clash. “I actually got to know Joe Strummer quite well when he was just starting,” Cornwell says. “We struck up a sort of a camaraderie with him. Before the Clash, he had a band called the 101, and we were doing the same shows on the same bill, so we used to sit around and compare notes on life.”
In 1990, Cornwell broke off on his own to reclaim the raw, stripped-down sound that earned the Stranglers mainstream success back in the early ’80s. In the early 2000s, crate-digging, Internet-scrounging DJs rediscovered the Stranglers as gems from the early days of punk. One Stranglers devotee was White Stripes recording engineer Liam Watson; the power trio’s garage-rock sound had a major influence on Jack White. Watson approached Cornwell and recorded his recent album, Hooverdam, on vintage equipment in his London studio—the same way the Stranglers used to do it.
“At no stage did Hooverdam have any digital work at all,” Cornwell says. “[Watson’s] got this tiny little 8-track studio, and he has 1-inch analog tape. You mention computers to him, and he breaks out in a rash.”
Although the production of the warm, garage-pop rocker Hooverdam was analog, Cornwell embraced the audience who found him through the digital domain. In 2009, Cornwell offered up Hooverdam for free through his website, in the spirit of Radiohead. “We didn’t want to sell this record to just some core Stranglers fans,” he says. “We wanted it to go viral and for young people who had never heard of the Stranglers to get it just because it’s free.”
Though digital distribution is an up-to-the second business model in the free-flailing music industry, Cornwell maintains that social media and the viral nature of music today are really in tune with those early days in London, when the Stranglers played to a devoted audience that Cornwell says was “mobile.”
“People would just call each other 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 land lines and meeting one another on the streets and at the cafés.”
Now 60 years old, Cornwell has lost none of the energy that drove the Stranglers’ success. His live show, he says, is a “chop and change” of Stranglers hits interwoven with the catchy tracks from the crunchy Hooverdam. He embraces the past while looking to the future, bringing together the old hits and the new cuts, the analog and digital, cutting-edge social media and the old-fashioned, hard-knock life on the road. Thirty years after sitting at the pub with Strummer, speculating about punk rock’s future, Cornwell is still most at home thriving in the rock & roll underground. “It’s all come full circle, really,” he says.
Hugh Cornwell with Duane Peters and Ari Shine at Alex’s Bar, 2913 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 434-8292; www.alexsbar.com. Sat., 8 p.m. $12. 21+.
This article appeared in print as "Getting a Grip: The Stranglers’ Hugh Cornwell on the Clash, the golden era of London punk and giving albums away."