Jessica Berens

No more heroes | 1 November 2012

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Hugh Cornwell

The Wharf, Tavistock, on tour in Europe, ending in Argyll on 8 December

The Wharf is an unpretentious venue in Tavistock which offers a menu of entertainment whose criteria are difficult to fathom but are probably linked to the fact that Tavistock is near Plymouth and therefore miles from anywhere and quite an arse to get to. I saw a fat girl in an anorak screaming out loud with excitement at a poster advertising The Wurzels, so there isn’t too much going on for the under sixties. The venue stands 300 and seats about 30, which is pretty much what Hugh Cornwell would have been playing to when the Stranglers first drove their van around pubs in Guildford. All those years ago. He was old then. As a teenager doing A-levels I remember being more shocked by the fact that he was 30 than by the fact that he shouted out the word clitoris on Rattus Norvegicus. Cornwell is 63 now so he probably spends a lot of time trying to find his reading glasses. He might even garden. Some people do, I believe. Even old cool ones.

I paid the 22 quid for a seat. I didn’t want to stand when I was 17 and I don’t want to now. The live music experience is stressful and nauseating enough without adding to the physical discomfort. A seat near the fire exit is what I like. Then and now. And then I was a rock critic! Punk was impossible for that — wedged in the middle of a weird homoerotic scrum — we girls looking amazing — loving the queue — loving the shoes — loving the drink and drugs — stalking Paul Simenon down the King’s Road — but the live music itself (the noise) was always fairly unpleasant when played in small venues.

The Stranglers were a perfect band — they had Jet Black (now 70, he wears an oxygen mask for his publicity photographs; I hope I’m that funny when I’m 70); they had Dave Greenfield on keyboards which meant the arrangements had texture; they had Jean-Jacques Burnel, who was fabulous looking and quite violent and you can’t ask for more from a bassist. And they had Hugh Cornwell, a trained biochemist, who had a great voice and could write songs, neither of which were needed in the musical milieu in which they moved at that time and, indeed, were often the source of criticism, but I always loved ‘Golden Brown’ and ‘European Female’ and thought his voice would be good live.

So here I am, Saturday night, squashed between two men whose similarity to Father Christmas is so strong I wondered if I should be sitting on their knees and asking for stuff. In front of us, 200 or so middle-aged men were standing, with beer, bald and bespectacled, but having a nice time. The woman behind me, clinically obese and wafting the smell of homelessness, shouted out the details of the condition that was affecting her legs.

He is going to do his album Totem and Taboo for the first set — it is the ninth solo album that he has made since leaving the Stranglers in 1990. He will play No More Heroes, the Stranglers’ second album, for the second set.

This is the last ‘gig’ of a 12-date British tour. There is the usual wait for an hour in the dark, with a bearded person in a T-shirt fiddling about with leads on the tiny stage, and then, with no announcement for poor old Hugh, they appear, the three of them. The drummer was the youngest and loudest; Hugh says he hasn’t much of a voice so he won’t be saying anything. Then about three songs into Totem and Taboo, which was something about looking in shop windows, he asked people to stop taking flash photographs because he was trying to concentrate. Back in the day (as they say on The Wire) he could concentrate while ducking beer bottles.

I didn’t stay for the second set. The audience were loving it but I couldn’t face it. It was so boring. I should have realised. Live rock music is very rarely much cop in itself:  inherently unsophisticated, it is rendered even more crude by the technology that delivers it because it allows the music to be loud but rarely lets it be heard in the form that it was written and rehearsed, let alone recorded. I hadn’t fully appreciated that live music is not about the music, it is about the experience — live rock music needs drink, drugs, clothes, boys, worried parents, going home at 3 a.m. on the back of a fire engine. That is why it didn’t matter that punk bands couldn’t play live, and why Hugh Cornwell’s opus will always be more enjoyable listened to at home, in the warmth of nostalgic reverie for a youth very well spent.