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The Sound

The rise and fall (and rise) of Hugh Cornwell


In 1990, after nearly 20 years as frontman of seminal punk act The Stranglers, Hugh Cornwell walked away. The schisms within the band had been growing for years, and Cornwell increasingly believed that the band’s best work was behind it. Still, leaving one of the UK’s most successful punk acts to pursue a solo career was not the safe choice.

Hugh Cornwell plays Vaudeville Mews on Sunday, June 21 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $20.

Hugh Cornwell plays Vaudeville Mews on Sunday, June 21 at 8:30 p.m.
Tickets are $20.

“Everything’s a gamble,” Cornwell said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “I’ve done a few gambles like that in my life. I was doing my chemistry degree in Sweden, and I jumped off the cliff because I wasn’t happy there and wanted to try music.

“Life is littered with several moments when you can make serious choices. Like forks in the road. I had one then and decided to try music. Then leaving the Stranglers was another one.”

He had done work apart from The Stranglers before, most notably 1979’s “Nosferatu,” with Captain Beefheart drummer Robert Williams. That album, however, was almost completely ignored by fans at the time.

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“It was a long time ago,” Cornwell chuckled, recalling the album. “I’d almost forgot about it. ‘Mothra’ works well live, so I’ll sometimes play that in shows. It was a quirky album, even at the time.

“We were setting up drum kits all over town every day. It was such short notice, we were having to use any studio that was available at the time. Lindsey Buckingham let us use Fleetwood Mac’s studio for a bit. They were working on ‘Tusk’ at the time, and he let us come in at night and mess around. That album was done so quickly, I didn’t even tell the record label that I was doing it. I just sent them a bill for the costs.”

Nowadays, Cornwell’s work tends to have more body and nuance to it than “Nosferatu.” His punk and new wave pedigree still pokes through, but his work is a continually evolving picture of the man as he is now, whenever “now” may actually be. He knows he’ll always be associated with The Stranglers to some degree or another; he still works the occasional Stranglers tune into his solo sets. But it’s a time in his life that has passed. People have asked about the possibility of a reunion with the band, but it’s something that Cornwell dismisses.

“It seems to me that it’s done,” he said. “I’ve moved on. A couple of times people have offered huge amounts of money, but I haven’t really been that broke or greedy or avaricious to want to do it.

“Someone I know mentioned to me that it’s a very sentimental thing. One can go, ‘Oh, it would be nice to do it again,’ but once you get in the room with those people, all those old things come flooding back and you remember why it ended.”

Indeed. It ended in the summer of 1990 when Cornwell said he was done. A dozen albums have come out since then, along with an autobiography and a couple of novels. Not a bad payoff on one of life’s gambles. This year, the man probably best known for fronting The Stranglers is releasing a “best of” compilation of his solo work, titled “The Rise and Fall of Hugh Cornwell.” His producers recently asked him for a quote for the back of the CD.

“I said, ‘What, a Best Of? No Stranglers songs? You must be mad!’ ” He chuckles a moment. “I hope they use it.” CV


Chad Taylor is an award-winning news journalist and music writer from Des Moines who would love to take his talents abroad if the rent were not so much more affordable in Des Moines.


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