Hugh Cornwell and friends deliver blasts from the Stranglers’ past
At 61, Hugh Cornwell now looks like the biochemist he was on track to become before turning into the formidable lead singer-guitarist of the British band the Stranglers. Lean and wiry, precise in his movements and economical in his pronouncements, Cornwell was at Church Thursday night to deliver the gospel according to the men in black: a trio (yes, almost entirely in black, down to Cornwell’s Telecaster), featuring Blondie drummer Clem Burke and the bassist Fish.
Cornwell’s current tour is built on an idea much in vogue: playing an entire album, in this case the Stranglers’ 1977 debut, “Rattus Norvegicus.’’ That astounding record had both snarling punk attitude and real musical ingenuity, with keening guitar lines, insistent bass, and swirling, psychotropic, Doors-somehow-meet-Edgar Allan Poe keyboards. Then there were the controversial lyrics, which kicked off with the growl, “Someday I’m gonna smack your face’’ and didn’t let up until the album’s closing line, “I’ll see you in the sewer, darling.’’
But on Thursday, clubgoers first got a set of other Stranglers songs and tunes from Cornwell’s solo career; he left the band in 1990. Highlights included a brisk “Going to the City’’ from his latest album, “Hooverdam,’’ and a fast-swing take on the hit “Golden Brown,’’ sans harpsichord, stripped to its bones. Cornwell said the song would be on this season’s “Dancing With the Stars,’’ though how the sequined ones will navigate its liquid tempos, which switch repeatedly from 3/4 to 4/4, should be entertaining to watch. A waltz for Bristol Palin, perhaps, with lyrics about heroin?
The second set brought “Rattus Norvegicus,’’ as promised. “Peaches’’ — an ode to the female form in a bathing costume, you might say — had all its lascivious swagger, plus a wry shout-out to such regional beach locales as Martha’s Vineyard, but was missing a bit of its explicit language. On “Princess of the Streets,’’ Cornwell’s reverb-saturated guitar lines were marvelously intact, suggesting oil-slicked rain pooling on some dark boulevard.
The one-song encore was the Bacharach-David classic “Walk on By,’’ which the Stranglers released as an inspired cover in 1978. It was the first time this lineup had tried it on tour, and Cornwell prefaced it by shouting to his bandmates, “Good luck, chaps!’’ On a stage no bigger than those where the Stranglers must have started out, they powered through this dry-eyed take on brokenheartedness.
Still, the spirit of the night — no frills, no illusions — was best exemplified in the first set’s “No More Heroes,’’ which built into a ferocious wall as Cornwell sang, “Whatever happened to all of the heroes?/ All the Shakesperoes?/ They watched their Rome burn.’’ Whatever happened to Cornwell, a hero for those who went to Church Thursday night? He’s doing fine. Now we know.
Rebecca Ostriker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.