Hugh Cornwell is one of the last true heroes of an era gone by. The Stranglers’ frontman and singer-songwriter performed a night of pure punk nostalgia at the Powerstation in Auckland last Friday night. The enraptured crowd saw the “Hitman” deliver a clutch of solo material, as well as some of the real bangers from the past. This time he brought a band with him and played plugged in, compared to his last visit here some 10 years ago.
An hour before he slipped onto the stage, a few lucky punters got the chance to meet and greet the living legend and share a moment with him, reliving the day they bought their first Stranglers album or attended their first gig. Hugh Cornwell was very gracious, and delightful, talking and signing everything from original 45s and LPs, to posters and t-shirts. I was among the fortunate few and took the chance to remind him of an interview he did with me for Radio 13 earlier this year. Now, as then, he went straight to all things cricket and how the Black Caps are going to go at this year’s World Cup. Seems he sees us in the finals with England, all going well. Read our interview with Hugh Cornwell here.
Another punter, with his adult daughter, talked about how he changed the chorus of Nice N Sleazy to Nice N Sneezy years ago so it could be played for her tender young ears. It seemed everyone had a story and I couldn’t help wondering what Hugh makes of the fuss, especially after all these years. I left with the impression he still gets a buzz to see his faithful from all walks of life.
As the crowd started to grow (albeit slowly), support act The Murder Chord crashed through their set. At times, it felt more like a cabaret show of banter and song but was nonetheless, an enthusiastic attempt to feed the growing number of punters hungry for the main act.
A short break and Hugh and the band almost crept onto the stark stage, all in black, of course, even the instruments. They were met with a huge roar and hoo-hah from the now pretty full venue. With minimal lighting and no fancy accessories, Hugh Cornwell and his band launched into their set, kicking off with Pure Evil the opening track of his latest solo album Monster.
The sound was loud and raw. There was going to be no jiggery-pokery here tonight. No swapping guitars after each song, no massive deck of pedals to distort the sound. In fact, I suspect it might have reminded Hugh where it all began: minimalistic, honest and from the heart, restrained only slightly by the years in between.
After hearing Leave Me Alone, off Hi Fi, and I Want One Of those, off Totem and Taboo, Hugh took a breather and welcomed everyone to the show. He announced the night was to be split into two sets, with a short intermission between sessions. It sounded much like going to the pictures years ago, when they had to allow time to swap the reels over and, perhaps he was giving a nod to this bygone era which he loved so much as a kid. Though just as likely he wanted to take stock and grab a moment before launching into the energetic second half of the show. The first set was devoted to showcasing his solo work and then alluded to something a little more fun in the second and that’s exactly what he delivered.
There was a great collection of tracks showcasing the breadth of Hugh's solo career and, for the first time here in NZ, brought to life by a full live band. I wouldn’t be surprised if those who hadn’t followed his solo work might now be getting the urge to go back to his numerous albums to find the nuggets and gems glittering in what is quite an extensive back catalogue.
A number of the tracks Hugh spotlighted came from his latest release and, in my view, one of his best solo albums Monster. As mentioned, Hugh loves the cinema and was always intrigued by the themes of heroes and villains, which was the inspiration for the album. Showcasing this he chose Monster, The Most Beautiful Girl in Hollywood, and Bilko, all based on well-known villains of the time. He finished the set with Mothra, off Nosferatu, and Duce Coochie Man, off Monster, which was a dark sinister track but a nice to way to bookend his first solo album and his last.
True to his word, at the end of the first set, the band exited stage left and gave everyone a chance to catch their breath, a beer, or both and select a vantage point for the main event.
I was initially worried and, dare I say it, a little sad not to see a keyboard lurking in the shadows for the second half. As a punter said to me it was kind of their signature to have those keyboards and organ meandering like a stream over the cranking bass and raw guitar and I had to agree with her.
But my fears were quickly dismissed as the structures the band came up with for each song not only put some new life into some of the modern classics but also allowed the bass player (who was a standout for me) to tickle the four strings like a concert pianist. I was certain that sometimes I could hear whispers of keyboards flow into some of the classics and it was coming off the bass.
Kicking off with Always the Sun, Nice N Sleazy, and Peaches was just amazing and had the crowd hooked from the very first chord. These were true disciples, hanging off every note and lyric along the way with some trying to recreate the mosh pits of old. Thankfully most were unable to sustain the pogoing for too long.
There was no let up on stage though as Strange Little Girl, Peaches and No More Heroes followed, to the dark delight of the crowd, who felt and owned every beat. A couple of tracks from Aural Sculpture followed with No Mercy and Skin Deep, which catapulted me back to the days when I played that album with mates before heading off to the local pub or nightclub. Before we knew it we were being told to (Get A) Grip (On Yourself) and Hugh said his thanks and goodbyes. What the hell?!
“Bugger this” Hugh said “we have time for another couple of tracks but just pretend we have left the stage and we’ve come back” and they finished off with Goodbye Toulouse and Tank, from Black and White, which was met with roars from the crowd before Hugh Cornwell and the band waved their last goodbyes.
24 songs in all, not bad for a man who is knocking on the door of his 70th year, still with a sneer in his vocals, glint in his eye, and the knack to remind everyone at the Powerstation just what an impact he has had on many a generation and, I suspect, will still impact more to come. That said, there was nothing better than to see him live. A memory, for those who came along last Friday night, to remember forever.
Hugh Cornwell's solo setlist
Leave Me Alone
I Want One Of Those
Stuck In Daily Mail Land
The Most Beautiful Girl In Hollywood
The Prison’s Going Down
Black Hair, Black Eyes, Black Suit
Duce Coochie Man
The Stranglers setlist
Always The Sun
Nice N Sleazy
Strange Little Girl
No More Heroes
(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)