'80s - Hugh Cornwell & Clem Burke
'Cornwell & Burke: Nice N Sleazy Does It!'
Hugh Cornwell is one of the UK's finest songwriting talents and accomplished live performers. The original guitarist, singer and main songwriter in The Stranglers enjoyed massive UK and European success with ten hit albums and twenty-one top forty singles - etching himself into the UK's musical psyche with songs such as 'Peaches', 'No More Heroes', 'Golden Brown', 'Always the Sun', '(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)', 'Nice N Sleazy', 'Duchess' and 'No Mercy'. All of which are currently being performed on his new 2010/11 tour.
One of the biggest hits, 'Golden Brown', saw renewed popularity when it was featured in Guy Ritchie's 2000 blockbuster, 'Snatch', and the song will once again hit audiences when it is featured on ABC's 'Dancing With The Stars' this month!
Cornwell has released eight solo albums, most recently the acclaimed 'Hooverdam', produced and mixed in ToeRag Studios by Liam Watson, (known for the Grammy winning White Stripes’ album 'Elephant').
'New Songs for King Kong', a limited edition live double CD and vinyl album, recorded on the last UK tour, features a side one chock full of Stranglers classics, along with ‘Rattus Norvegicus IV’ in its entirety.
Currently on a small club tour, featuring Steve 'Fish' Fishman on bass and Blondie's legend Clem Burke on drums, I had the pleasure of speaking with both Hugh Cornwell and Clem Burke about the tour, and about Stranglers and Blondie inside information too!
With the first live set all Stranglers classics, the second set 'Rattus Norvegicus IV’ in its entirety, why here, why now? [HUGH] "I did it in the UK last year and it went down a storm. And so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to do it over here. And it seems to be going down very well."
Is there a difference between the English audiences that know it, and the American's that don't? "I think they're finally getting it. I mean, something like 'Hanging Around,' they're finally singing along with it at a lot of shows. I was surprised to see that, but they seem to know it. The ones at the front, singing along, knowing all the words. Great for the auto cue, for me," he laughs.
Being that 'Rattus Norvegicus IV’ is indeed being played in its entirety, when you first started singing it all again did it flash you back to the days of recording it? "God yeah, a little bit, yeah. Three of the songs I haven't played for 20 years, since I was in the Stranglers. Because, John Burnel used to sing them. And so, back then and since then, I never used to do songs he used to sing. Until now."
"Steve sings 'Princess Of The Streets' very well, and I do the other two: 'London Lady' and 'Ugly.' And 'Ugly' is a real challenge. Just singing wise, it's such a challenge. I feel like I've achieved something when I've done that."
The album was originally going to be titled, Dead On Arrival, yes? "Is that right? I can't remember. It's too long ago," he smiles.
Fair enough, but once it was called 'Rattus Norvegicus IV’ why the addition of IV in the title? "Just to confuse people, I think," he smiles again.
Did it work? "I think so, yeah."
Clem, the new Blondie album, ‘Panic of Girls’ is finally being released in early 2011 - so why all the delays? [Clem] "Is that when it is now," he smiles ruefully. "We like to keep people in suspense, I guess."
But why this huge delay in general? "Well, there's plenty of people that want to put it out, but not particularly on our terms. I think, if it were up to me, we would have just put it out on Blondie Records. I mean, we just did this world tour and so it would have made more sense to have made it available to the fans. And we probably would have made a bit of cash selling it on our own."
"So, I think maybe I'm butting heads a little with management as far as they want to proceed in having it released. I thought it was going to be licensed to EMI UK. Somebody told me that the only reason EMI UK wanted to put it out was that they wanted to use it to cross promote our catalogue. In other words, what's wrong with that?"
"Anyway, it's gonna come out, but I'm kinda surprised it hasn't come out yet. We all really like the record. When we did the Isle of Wight this summer, we chose to have them show one of the songs from the new record - and it was going down a storm. And I kinda thought that would put it in place to have the single released, but no."
"So, the upside from it is that we're gonna have to go tour all over again to promote it ... which is fine with me 'cause I like being on the road."
"And the Stones, I think, they would say the name of the album, tell people about it and yet it wouldn't come out for another 6 to 8 months! I think we're just kinda doing a bit of marketing that way. It's getting a bit embarrassing though that it hasn't been released yet. I think people blog about it - like Chris [Stein] will blog about how it's coming out; but then it never comes out!"
"I'm just standing back from it. I love being in the band, and I really love working with Chris and Debbie a lot. Making music with them is still great as there's a chemistry there. I think now it's just a 'when it happens it happens' kinda situation at this point."
Are all the tracks nailed down and chosen for the album? "Yeah, but we actually recorded too many songs too! We recorded like 30 songs. Yeah, this time last year we were doing it. Jeff Saltzman produced it - he produced the first Killers record."
Will the Michael Jackson song, 'Don't Stop Til You Get Enough' be included on 'Panic of Girls'? "No, that was just something we did in the studio. We posted it online on YouTube. We just started doing that when Michael died. We usually sort of pay tribute to people who die if we're on the road. We did 'Hit The Road Jack' when Ray Charles died. We're big on tributes to dead people," he gently smiles.
Smells like a covers album brewing, if you ask me! "Yeah, I would like to do a Blondie covers record. I mean, cover records can be a little, 'Oh, they've run out of ideas,' but I think with Debbie singing songs that are especially from a man's point of view, with a woman singing them, adds another dimension. We used to do 'Moonlight Drive' with her sort of channeling Jim Morrison and things like that. The chemistry of all that really works. I just think we can make a really great covers record. Maybe, ... some day!"
Hugh, taking a few of the songs from 'Rattus Norvegicus IV’, true or false with regard their lyrical origins?
‘Sometimes’ - was based on an argument you’d had with a girlfriend at the time? "That's correct. It was just a lovers thing at the end of a relationship, you now. It was just a fall out that happens in those kind of situations, that's all."
‘London Lady’ - was based on a female journalist? "I think it was. That was John Burnel's lyrics."
‘Peaches’ - was based on having been to a reggae dub club? "Yeah, well, in fact, we had a PA system we used to rent out to this black club in Peckham, South London. And John and I took it down there to rent it out and there were these black girl singers singing to a backing tape - and we were the only white people in there. And so the whole evening all we heard was this dub stuff for hours and hours."
"And we got back at five in the morning and John got out his bass and started playing." [At this point, Hugh grabs his imaginary bass guitar and from his own mouth, spits out the now-infamous opening bass line!] "I said, yeah, that'll be a good song, let's do something with that. So, we wrote it in ten minutes," he laughs. "And the words were written in five minutes," he laughs a little louder.
‘(Get A) Grip (On Yourself) - was based on life in your Chiddingfold squat? "Well, it was written down there, yeah. We had no money. We were renting it and then we stopped paying the rent because we had no money. We went off to do some shows and came back to find that the landlord had come round and taken all our belongings and put them all in the garden!"
"But, he hadn't changed the locks so we just opened the door and put it all back in again," he laughs.
Seeing that ‘Golden Brown’ has since taken on a life of its own, including appearing in ‘Snatch’ and on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars,’ being that it originated from your heroin period, are you still amazed that something so bad turned out to be something so good? "Well, it's one of those songs that just got written in a ten minute job between me and Dave, the keyboard player. And yes, it's turned out remarkably well!"
"It's one of those songs like 'Yesterday.' It's up there with that - apparently, every one tells me."
Clem, you are drumming here for Hugh on his US club tour before you go off and tour Australia and NZ with Blondie. Is this because you didn’t want to sit at home, watch endless TV, and simply wanted to keep your hand in? "That's one aspect of it. Being a drummer you have to work with other people. I can't be out doing a solo drum tour. So, Hugh and I are friends, we've crossed paths a few times over the years. We did a Blondie tour together a few years ago in the UK when Hugh opened for us."
"I've actually been working with Steve Fishman, our bass player whose played with Hugh for quite a while, and he and I co-wrote a song on the new Blondie record. So, Hugh came out one summer, we all met up, and he mentioned he was going to set up this tour if I was available. I was. And you're right, it keeps me going, keep the chops up, and I like working with different artists."
"I kinda feel it's what I bring to the table, when I work with someone, is all the stuff that's come before. Whether it's all the stuff I did with the Eurythmics, or with Iggy, or others I worked with over the years. It's kinda my little niche type of thing."
"Not really sitting in, but collaborating with different people. I like the process. That's the main thing for me, as a musician. And the only way to do the process is to do things like this. Rehearsing, performing, traveling - the whole process."
So, do you and Steve (Fish) have an upcoming project? "Yeah, well, Steve and I began to work with Frank Infante on and off for the last couple of years. We're still trying to set up a production team between the two of us: his expertise on the bass and my, I don't know what," he laughs. "It's a bass and drum thing. We want to be the Sly & Robbie of L.A."
With ‘Heart of Glass’ being your first US hit, it’s been said your drumming was inspired partly by Kraftwerk and partly by the Bee Gee’s ‘Stayin’ Alive’! Please explain this more! "Well, the song was inspired by Kraftwerk. The treatment. Using synthesizers. When I did the first Eurythmics album in Germany, Connie Plank produced it, who also produced Kraftwerk's 'Autobahn.' Upon meeting him for the first time, he acknowledged the influence in 'Heart of Glass' and how we assimilated that into our sound and made that into an avant-garde sound."
"Which we thought it was too and we appreciated it. Because in the States we were experiencing that whole, 'They've gone disco' backlash. And he actually acknowledged that our work with the synthesizers and the whole approach was very reminiscent of Kraftwerk. And he could see that."
"And 'Saturday Night Fever,' the film was really a big picture at that time. Punk, disco and new-wave were all happening simultaneously and in New York that was kind of the backdrop. So we kinda assimilated that sound. But it's debatable who came up with what on 'Heart of Glass'," he laughs.
"I actually demo'd it for Chris and Debbie in '74 and then we routined it again with Mike Chapman in '78. But yeah, I was inspired by the Bee Gees. I just started playing that dance beat. That's what I think happened."
You also once described ‘In The Flesh’ as 'a forerunner to the power ballad' … do you still think that way today?! "I think Chris might have said that. It's actually kinda like a Doo-wop '50s pastiche. Our producer, Richard Gottehrer played special attention to that song when we were recording the record. Although the first record I really love, he was classic in that he'd single out a few songs to make and they would be the commercial singles in his mind. And the rest were filler, for lack of a better word, for the rest of the album."
What else do you remember about the recording of it? "Ellie Greenwich sings back-up on it. They also did a treatment of it with the bells. It was our first number one in Australia. In fact, we did three videos in one day with Bob Gruen, a famous photographer and cameraman, and a guy called Rich Robinson who was a journalist; he was the director."
"So, we did those videos for songs called, 'X Offender,' 'In the Flesh' and 'In The Sun.' They were just standing in front of the camera, miming. One camera shoot, kinda thing."
And what was all this about the wrongly-played video back then? "Yeah, there's a show in Australia called Countdown, so Molly Meldrum was supposed to be debuting a video for a song called 'X Offender.' And he announced it as that, but in fact the video was 'In the Flesh.' And it was on the show equivalent to Top of The Pops. And, yeah, that song is a very commercial song, and Debbie is very sensual in the video, and it's all soft focus and all that, and it became a number one. But it was kind of a misrepresentation of what the band was about at the time, really."
"And so when we got to Australia it was a bit controversial, as we were quote-unquote a 'punk band' and they got this '50s Doo-wop ballad. Like this soft-sounding thing, you know. And some people think he intentionally played the wrong song. But, I really like that song a lot, though. We're kinda planning on doing it now again when we go to Australia."
Hugh, what is your favorite Stranglers song to sing live - and which one has become enough for you over the years? [Hugh] "Well, the most difficult song to sing is 'Ugly.' It's a real bitch to sing, but when I've done it I feel like I've really achieved something."
Why? "Because it's new to me. It's a novelty. So, that's the one I'm really looking forward to each night because it's such an achievement to get it done."
And the one you could well do without singing? "Well, I got bored, but this isn't happening now, because I'm enjoying singing it again, with 'Golden Brown.' It got to a stage with 'Golden Brown' that I was so bored singing it that I would forget the words! And I'd go, da-da-da da-da-da da-da-da, and people thought I was doing it deliberately! And I wasn't! I'd literally forgotten the bloody words."
And Clem, what is your favorite Blondie song to still perform live - and which one has become enough for you over the years also? [Clem] "I suppose, performing live, anything that gets a good reaction from the audience. When we do 'Heart of Glass' in the first encore section when everybody's kinda doing the whole thing with their hands and all that kinda stuff, it's kinda cool."
"The songs I don't like to play are the songs that I know are probably not gonna go down that well. But, we're playing them anyway. I'm kinda about giving to the audience when I do a performance. I feed off it. Something like 'Denis,' which we never play, it's just like a joke. When we go to England we just play it for fun and it's like this whole pop explosion. People just go insane," he laughs.
"Basically, you can pull the trigger or not and I kinda would rather pull the trigger and see what I'm getting back. In England, people come to our shows and think we've played songs that we haven't played! Because we're known for all these songs, they're like, 'Oh, you played that one and you played that one,' and we're like, no, we never played those! And they're like, 'Oh, no, you must've!'"
Are your set lists standard night after night these days? "No, we try to vary it. We try to have an A-B system in the set where we vary songs so that we don't get that bored. And I like doing some of the cover songs that we do. This tour that we just did, when we played in New York we did a sort of tribute to the New York bands. We did 'Havana Affair' by the Ramones, 'Pet Sematary' by the Ramones, 'See No Evil' by Television, 'You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory' by Johnny Thunders, and 'Jet Boy' by the New York Dolls - all in this set for the first encore. In New York it really kind of worked, and was really kind of cool. And we used to do covers of our peers, like 'Venus de Milo' by Television."
"But as far as songs I just don't like to play, Debbie went off and sort of did a remix of 'In the Flesh.' It was like a weird dance version of it, and I wasn't big into that at all. And also when Chris says we're gonna do 'Dreaming,' but let's do it as a country song! 'cause then you're getting into that whole Dylan area where you kinda recognize the song, but not quite. I don't think that's necessarily a good thing. I'm really about, when we do a live performance, giving people what they want."
And how did the last Blondie tour pan out for you? "This tour we did this summer worked out really good, because we were doing half a dozen songs from the new record that no one had available. But, encompassed into the set it worked really well. The songs are being appreciated, which bids well for the record - if it ever does come out!"
"But I really don't mind. I consider myself to be extremely lucky at this point in my life that we're able to do this still."
Any funny TV show stories to tell about the Blondie days? "We were doing a television chat show in the States and the host came in and requested 'Sunday Girl' and 'Dreaming,' neither of which we play any more! And as Chris wrote both of those, he's like, 'No, no, we're not gonna play them.' And so their guy's like, 'Why, aren't they great songs?' And we're like, 'Yeah, they are, but he wrote them and he doesn't want to play them!"
Finally, Hugh, looking directly at Clem right now, what is the first word that comes to mind that sums him up? [Hugh] "Professional."
And Clem, what word sums up Hugh? [Clem] "Intelligent," he states, without the slightest pause. "He's intelligent to see me being professional, you see! That shows how intelligent he is," he laughs.
Interview: Russell A. Trunk
To keep up with Hugh Cornwell and Clem Burke, check out their Myspace pages once a week!
Hugh Cornwell on Myspace
Clem Burke on Myspace
Photo Credit: Robert Kennedy