Hugh Cornwell at the O2 Academy Islington
Since leaving iconic British band The Stranglers in 1990, Hugh Cornwell has amassed a considerable discography as a solo act, with over ten albums released in twenty-odd years. On 19th October we stop by Islington’s O2 Academy to watch the penultimate gig of his UK tour promoting his latest release Totem and Taboo.
Cornwell is taking the somewhat unorthodox approach of playing two full albums back-to-back: the entirety of Totem and Taboo, and a take on hit Stranglers album of 1977, No More Heroes – minus The Stranglers. It has been presented as a sort of something-for-everyone approach, with the Stranglers album for long-standing fans and, presumably, the new album for those who’ve discovered Cornwell in the time since. Walking into the room it becomes immediately apparent that we’re some of the youngest people there. Wedged between jocular groups of men in polo shirts we clock the male to female ratio at around 7:1. Despite the occasional Hooverdam shirt (Cornwell’s previous album before Totem) we suspect that most people are really here for the second half of the gig.
A few songs into the show, we’re left in no doubt. Cornwell’s voice and guitar skills are instantly familiar, but the music is received with the sort of polite indulgence reserved for artists who are yet to do what the audience wants. Driving beats and thick, layered guitars push the limits of comfort in our ears, but Cornwell’s voice is equal to the challenge (“Can you all hear okay?” he asks disarmingly, “because it’s very important you can hear the words”). Taken together the songs are fairly uniform: bold and straight-down-the-line, with no particular variations in sound beyond the odd cross-rhythms and bass licks. Cornwell apparently has a fondness for false endings, stretching final chords (and certain audience members’ patience) to the very edge of disruption before launching back into another chorus (and another – and another – and another, in the case of In the Dead of Night). Everything’s engaging to a point, but nothing particularly stands.
But it all changes when the second half begins. Finally given what they’ve been waiting for, the crowd transforms into a bouncing, dancing mass and Cornwell acquires a spontaneous chorus of backing singers. “That’s more like it,” someone near me bellows at the end of I Feel Like a Wog. It’s an interesting exercise in the transformative power of crowds because frankly the new album is not really so different from the old. It’s clearly the product of the same creator, with a similar tone and content, yet the crowd’s enthusiasm lifts the mood from mediocre to exciting. Cover versions of the entire album ensue. Although the bassist swaps to keyboard for a few songs, the sound is more-or-less the same as before, with none of the giddy exuberance endemic to many of The Stranglers’ songs. But most people seem happy, and when the album finishes with a collective cry of “FIFTYYYYYYY”, Cornwell is promptly summoned back to play an encore set. Fans leave content, but it’s hard to tell if they were here for Cornwell or The Stranglers.
Photo: Danny Simpson
For further information and future events visit Hugh Cornwell’s website here.
Watch the video for Totem and Taboo here: