No more heroes anymore? Ha! One of MY heroes took to the stage Friday week ago: former Stranglers guitarist/vocalist Hugh Cornwell came to the O2 Academy as part of his UK tour to play his new album ‘Totem & Taboo’ as well as the iconic Stranglers album ‘No More Heroes’ in full!

Sporting his usual black polo shirt and exuding a sober “Let’s do that thing” approach, Cornwell was supported by bassist Steve Fishman (wearing a Stooges t-shirt, and reminding me of a young version of Jet Black), and drummer Chris Bell (wearing a WEM t-shirt).
Cornwell was greeted by a lot of fans, more in fact than at Cornwell’s previous gig at the same venue. Which made me wonder whether they all gathered to check out his new album, or whether they flocked together for old times sake and to listen to Cornwell’s take on The Stranglers golden brownies.

Split into two sets, the first part of the show was devoted to the new ‘Totem & Taboo’ album, with the title song being the first track of the night (“What’s Totem for me is Taboo for you”). Heavy on monotonous sounding guitar and a thump-thump-thump beat, it was stripped of unnecessary finesse and instead let the words take over.
‘The Face’ (a song about a female face that launched a thousand ships, but not a song about Helen of Troy) came across as interesting, though its musical arrangement probably would not launch a thousand single sales. It’s not a bad song and was performed well, but the absence of any catchy chorus or memorable tune didn’t kick things into gear.
“I like window shopping in the rain, keeps me occupied all day…” and off Hugh went putting on a semi-accusing and semi-frustrated voice in ‘I Want One Of Those’. It’s a brilliant track (and he emphasized it with brilliant guitar solo) about our obsession with gadgets and the latest consumer goods.

‘Stuck In Daily Mail Land’ borrows from bands like The Kinks – both musically and lyrically, though this being Cornwell and band, the trio managed to combine even the melodious bits with grit, spit and sarcasm.
‘Bad Vibrations’ was the first track on a proper hard and fast pace and with a in-your-face punk vibe to it, performed with edgy guitar and bass licks and a relentless percussion by sticks man Bell.
First highlight of the eve was ‘God Is A Woman’, not just because of the song’s title, ahem, no. Here, the fans were treated to a musical ménage-a-troit if you will, between Hugh, Steve, and Chris – with a great guitar solo in the middle and a choppy beat toward the end… and it all culminated into a snarly guitar sound. Also, the backing vocals were used to particular good effect here.

I wasn’t sure whether ‘Love Me Slender’ was the title of the next song or just a line from it, as a female fan standing next to me screamed her lungs out in excitement during regular intervals – piercing the eardrums of those within close proximity of her. When I finally had enough and viciously stared as if I was going to strangle her (no pun intended), the screaming came to and end for the most part of the eve. Anyway, as it turned out ‘Love Me Slender’ was the title, though the song has precious little to do with the Elvis Presley hit. In fact, Cornwell’s occasional ‘spoken poetry’ bordered on rap.
After the new-wave inspired ‘Street Named’ Carroll’ came the best song of the first set (in my humble opinion), namely the mind blowing and seemingly epic ‘Dead Of Night’. In style, this is probably as far removed from your typical Cornwell/Stranglers sound as it can get, what with its strong nod to Jim Morrisson/The Doors! It’s also the one song that reflects best the album’s title, ‘Totem & Taboo’. Worth watching live for its instrumental intro alone, dominated by Bell’s tribal drum-beats. Prophetically, Cornwell introduced his vocals to it, “A billion Indians awake in the dawn, as I book my flight in the dead of night…” This was simmering, surprisingly melodious and with a fitting retro-style guitar and bass solo halfway in. Cornwell and Fishman cranked it up playing fact to face. Much more blues-psychedelic 60’s west-coast rock than 70’s Brit-punk, it proved to be not only a musical detour but judging from the applause, the crowd really loved this particular number as much as yours truly!

Thus the first act had come to an end, and there was only a brief pause before the musicians returned to stage – a stark reminder of the O2’s policy that bands need to be finished by around 10pm to make way for a club night. Just when one gets into the spirits of things!
To rapturous yelling and cheering, Cornwell and Co. kicked off with the first song from the ‘No More Heroes’ album – ‘I Feel Like A Wog’. His own take obviously, but also unmistakably Stranglers. There’s little point in mentioning every single song her, as presumably, readers of this review will be familiar with the classic Stranglers album. Growling his version of ‘Dead Ringer’ into the mic, next came ‘Dagenham Dave’ during which bassist Fishman took to the keys for that authentic Stranglers vibe. Another crowd pleaser, if it weren’t for the sad lyrics.

The choppily performed ‘Bring On The Nubiles’ and of course title track ‘No More Heroes’ are staples of any Stranglers repertoire, though I gotta say that as far as the latter is concerned I prefer the original version. Tonight, Cornwell’s take on ‘Heroes’ just didn’t quite do it for me and somehow lacked impact. However, ‘Something Better Change’ held a surprise in store, for it was Steve Fishman who took on main vocal duties here. Obviously a man of the multi-task tribe, he changed from bassist to keyboardist to main vocals deliverer throughout the second set!
What ’No More Heroes’ lacked in impact, however, was made up with Cornwell’s rendition of ‘Peasant In The Big Shitty’ (once again with Fishman on keys). Yes, I liked it like thaaaat!
Before ‘Burning Up Time’, Cornwell announced that the next song is titled ‘Towel’… “Hold on” he joked, “there isn’t a song called Towel” while grabbing one from behind to wipe off the sweat on his face. Cornwell exchanging some sort of banter with the audience, who would have thought!
‘English Towns’ was on perfect pace to dance and sing along to and the crowd did just that, the interspersing keyboard play added to the overall feel of Stranglers nostalgia. The wonderfully cynical ‘School Mam’ (ok, pretty all the lyrics are kinda cynical) was another highlight. Cornwell was particularly impressive here for not only spitting lyrical venom but doing that numbers-counting thing toward the end of the song. And he did it to utter perfection. How bone-sober does one need to be to pull that one off?!

Although ‘School Mam’ was the last song of the second set, the fans demanded an encore – and got one. Not only one but fours songs followed, namely the beautiful ‘Strange Little Girl’, ‘Nerves Of Steel’, ‘Going To The City’ and the classic ‘Hanging Around’ from various albums. By now, the clock was ticking away and as I mentioned before, the band had to call it an evening to make room for the O2 club night. Just when everyone was in the spirit of things!

© Photo of Hugh Cornwell by Noel Buckley

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