Hugh Cornwell @ O2 Islington Academy

19th October 2012
Review & Photography by Graham Hilling

It’s a rainy, cold October night but the weather has not deterred an enthusiastic crowd from filling the Islington Academy to the gills in order to catch Hugh Cornwell (and mates) playing two full albums – the latest one “Totem and Taboo” and the classic “No More Heroes” from the annals of history (well, 1977).

Playing as a 3 piece, they play the whole of “Totem and Taboo”, the latest album from the ex Stranglers front man, from start to finish as a single set. The album itself is a bit of a mixed bag to be honest, while there are a few good songs, there are also a few that are just fillers and listening to the whole thing live does drag a little. “I Want One of Those” is introduced by Cornwell with the question to the assembled masses “Who likes shopping..?”

“God is a Woman” rumbles along with its’ catchy bass line, “Stuck in Daily Mail Land” is another well crafted song and closer “In The Dead of the Night”, while clearly a bit too long (coming in at over 9 minutes), has a hypnotic bass line that carries the listener along and maintains interest. Cornwells distinctive guitar playing is on display throughout, all coming out through an old VOX amp that looks almost as old as Cornwell himself.

Hugh Cornwell
Hugh Cornwell

So, not a bad start to the evening but it is obvious that most of the punters here tonight have come for the second part of the evening where we will be treated to “No More Heroes” in its’ entirety. Looking at some of the audience, it is possible they saw the Stranglers perform these songs when Cornwell was still in the band (he left in 1990). But age is no dampener of their enthusiasm and there is definitely an air of expectation. After a short break, the three musicians return to the stage and I’m immediately struck by the lack of a keyboard player (so intrinsic to much of the Stranglers material).

The first track on “No More Heroes” is “I Feel Like a Wog”, which was a bit dubious in 1977 but in 2012, the lyrics sound crass and offensive. I had forgotten this song was on the album to be honest and hearing it live left me feeling more than a little uncomfortable.

Certainly, I appreciate this was on the album and leaving it out would have upset some folks but I could really have done without hearing this tonight. Once that was out of the way it became clear how they were going to tackle the lack of keyboards problem – the bass player switched to keys and played both the keyboard lines and the bass lines (via the keyboard). I have to say, I was a little bit disappointed that a dedicated keyboard player could not be found so that the songs could have been played with the original arrangements for guitar/bass/drums and keys. Still, he does a good job of filling in.

Hugh Cornwell
Hugh Cornwell

In addition to the absolute classics of “Something Better Change” and “No More Heroes”, the album really does have a set of gold standard songs, only “Peasant in the Big Shitty” is a bit lack lustre in my book. However, despite the amazing songs, the delivery is a little bit hit and miss – sometimes sounding great and sometimes sounding sloppy and under rehearsed. Were it not for the £20 ticket price, this could almost be forgiven given the genuinely great atmosphere and undeniable trip down memory lane we were all having. “Bring on the Nubiles” and “Something Better Change” get everyone singing along and by the time we get to “No More Heroes” itself the whole room is in fine voice.

An encore that includes “Strangle Little Girl” and the mammoth “Hanging Around” (much audience participation!) are almost guaranteed to put a smile on your face and for entertainment value there’s no complaints from me. However, as I walk to the tube at the end of the night, I can’t help but think what it may have sounded like had The Stranglers themselves performed “No More Heroes”. A whole lot tighter perhaps and sounding more like I remembered them from the recorded material. Whether they would have captured the essence of the time in the same way that Cornwell did tonight, I’m not so sure…..