"I've heard stories about us eating live chickens on stage," says Hugh Cornwell, lead singer and guitarist of England's notorious Stranglers.
"People come up and say, 'I saw you do it,'" he sighs. "Things are sometimes expected of us by audiences because of what they've read. You have to make a great effort to dispel those things before you do anything else."
But fate and publicity haven't helped the Stranglers -- forerunners of the New Wave/Punk invasion that was launched in 1975, when the British quartet was formed.
This year has been "the most unlucky year of my life," according to 30-year-old Cornwell, who is blessed with the cool, dark looks of actor Anthony Harvey. In town for a Friday-night concert at the Ontario, he is eating an early-afternoon breakfeast of Special K and eggs -- sunnyside up. You'd think a Strangler would at least scramble them.
But it's certainly better than the food in the English prison where Cornwell recently spent two months on a drug charge. Also this year, the group was charged with inciting a riot in Nice: French authorities held the band responsible for damages incurred by frantic fans when the music stopped after a third power failure. They were held in jail for a week and fined $15,000. They must return for final judgment next week.
And when the band was about to play Washington two months ago, their truck -- with $500,000 of instruments and equipment -- was stolen off the streets of New York. Without the tools, it's not easy to punch out the steamroller rock of songs like "Tank," "Baroque Bordello" or "Death, Night and Blood" -- an explicit recounting of the suicide of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. The Strangler's five albums include 1977's "Rattus Norvigicus IV," one of the first commercially successful albums from the New Wave.
Cornwell came out of the series of misadventures with a changed outlook. He even wrote a book on the prison experiences. "It's given me an amazing work ethic," he insists. "It really makes you appreciate the simple things in life, makes you reappraise and reevaluate everything."
The music of the Stranglers -- along with such New Wave co-conspirators as the Sex Pistols, Damned and Clash -- has been described as rock 'n' roll savagery. But like their reputation, the description not only precedes but exceeds them.
Their songs are raucous with punk energy but without the mindless angst and violence of many of their comrades. And the soft-spoken Cornwell seems less the arrogant rock star than the bio-chemistry graduate who worked in a Swedish hospital for three years while playing rock at night before returning to England and forming the Stranglers. The British press, he insists, has chosen to disregard the reality of the band -- possibly because (he laughs) "the band will be boys," as when they kidnapped a reporter for a day.
Really, he says, it was just "one journalist who might have had a rough time once, probably because he was an a------. From one incident, a whole reputation happens." Well, maybe two incidents: "I remember tying one up to the Eiffel Tower in Paris because he was an a------. And he enjoyed it." Or three incidents: "And we stranded one woman reporter in the desert in Portugal and of course she went back very angry. And suddenly we were very sexist again." But, he says, "We look at it all with a lot of humor. No one's recognized our sense of humor -- it's crazy."
The loss of their equipment in New York has forced the Stranglers to rent or borrow from local bands in each town they are playing on their second American tour. The first time around in 1978, audiences were expecting a Sex Pistol anarchy that had little to do with the Stranglers. "People's expectations have blown over this time around," says Cornwell.
"All we're going is using our music as a journalistic, documentary medium of everything that happens to us. We write things down, play them, tape them, give them to our record company [Illegal Record Syndicate in America] and they appear on record. We don't have any editorial problems. When we give something in, it comes out."
And not just on vinyl. Besides Cornwell's book (he put it together by sitting down with a "trusted" journalist for nine hours straight, digging deep into his memories of incarceration), the Stranglers have their own slick fanzine, of "bandzine," as Cornwell says. It's called "Strangled," comes out every two months, and increasingly features the work of its readers. "Our responsibility is to the people who support us by buying our records and listening to us."
In America, the Stranglers have only pockets of fans and little airplay. Whether their pro-blue-collar sloganeering and anti-inflation polemics will catch on here as it has in Europe, Cornwell believes, will depend on economics. "The continent of Europe has got a shock absorber around it. It takes a long time for the sounds of Europe to penetrate through to America. Everything gets here, but a little while later -- like the recession. It's taken quite a hold in England.It's just starting here.
"And it's the recession that's causing dynamic music in England. As things get tougher, the music here will get better, I'm sure. It will have more direction and motivation." What Cornwell and the band have heard on the radio while driving across the country for three months is blandness. What's saved them is the rock energies of bands from every city they have visited. They've accumulated dozens of tapes that reflect new energies. "I've got a much better idea of what America's like," says the Strangler.