Whatever happened to . . . Hugh Cornwell?
What's a naughty old punk like former Strangler Hugh Cornwell doing at a literature festival in Galway? Brian Boyd finds out
If Devon Malcolm hadn't hit a six against India in a cricket test in 1990, Hugh Cornwell might still be the lead singer of The Stranglers. Having fronted the legendary punk band for more than years, Cornwell was watching the cricket before an important Stranglers gig. Something in Devon Malcolm's demeanour that day resonated with Cornwell. "I could identify with this character and recognise that the effort being made to fight his way out of the straitjacket situation in which the Indian bowlers had placed him, perfectly mirrored my own current, repressed state within the group," he writes in his autobiography, A Multitude Of Sins. "As I watch the ball soar high above the turf, it comes to me in a flash that I should leave The Stranglers tonight, after the gig."
It's the answer to the question that he gets asked all the time: "Why did you leave The Stranglers?" and Cornwell is happy with it. The Stranglers were one of punk rock's big guns - hit albums, hit singles, successful tours. The songs he wrote while with the band - No More Heroes, Peaches, Golden Brown, Almost The Sun (all sung in his curiously atonal voice) - are still as evocative of the era as anything by The Sex Pistols or The Buzzcocks.
The band have continued without him. They recruited a new lead singer and are currently to be seen on the "punk nostalgia" circuit. Cornwell has gone on to have a mildly successful solo career until his most recent turn into literature with the publication of his autobiography. A well-written and entertaining first-hand account of those heady days, the book brings him to Galway next week as part of the Cúirt International Festival of Literature.
Meeting him in a Dublin hotel just before his show in the Crawdaddy, the once sex, drugs and rock'n'roll maven is now a mild-mannered, extremely polite fiftysomething. He orders some herbal tea. "Twenty years ago that probably would have been crack cocaine" you tell him and he smiles wryly - this is a man who has served a prison sentence for drugs offences.
It's difficult to square this entertaining avuncular presence with the "punk rocker Hugh Cornwell". It's something he understands. "We were the naughty boys of punk. We actually managed to get banned from an entire country, New Zealand, because we were believed to be a corrupting influence. We had death threats against us in Boston, we've had our equipment thrashed and there were riots and protests."
The Stranglers came across as stern and severe men in black, a group who would use the local Hell's Angels chapter as security at their shows. What most people don't know is that they started off playing cover versions of songs such as Tie A Yellow Ribbon 'Round The Old Oak Tree. "Oh no, that song, it used to drive us mental," he says. "Back when we first started, you couldn't get away with playing only your own songs, so you had to throw in a few covers and Tie A Yellow Ribbon was one of the main ones. I hate that song, there's so many chords in it you wouldn't believe it."
The hits began when punk exploded. The band's most successful song during their late 1970s to early 1980s heyday was Golden Brown, which is now a staple on "classic" and "lite" music radio stations - despite the fact that the song is about heroin. Their music still gets used in film soundtracks and advertising campaigns, and their albums still sell steadily. "I'm still glad I'm not a Strangler though - it was just a creative straitjacket," he says.
It was at an art exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall a few years ago that he got the idea for the book. "They had all the original punk rock album sleeves laid out in this space, and I bumped into Glen Matlock from The Sex Pistols there. We were just saying: 'I can't believe this, more than 25 years after we recorded the albums, they've put the sleeves on display in a gallery'; so I took it from there.There was a lot of mythology surrounding the punk years and I certainly didn't want to demythologise anything but I wanted to present my story as a first-hand account and also to answer the questions I still keep getting asked at gigs."
He was amazed when the publishing company agreed not to use a ghostwriter. "I think it was a risk on their part but I was determined to do it my way. I had been warned that publishing companies might be like record companies, but to my surprise, they aren't. You meet a lot more intelligent women in publishing companies. Before I started the book, I read Ian Hunter's Diary Of A Rock'n'Roll Star which helped and I sort of took my cue in the book from the chapter headings. Obviously a number of famous punk characters feature in the book but I don't tell tales - honour among thieves - similarly I don't delve too deeply into my own private life. The accent is very much on what it was like to be there."
With a new solo album out, Beyond Elysian Fields, a Hugh Cornwell show is "50 per cent Stranglers songs/50 per cent solo songs", he says. Since the book's publication, he has almost being doing as many readings as shows. "I was invited to play and read in the Czech Republic recently to mark the opening of the first 'Speakers Corner' in Prague and what I'm beginning to do now is do a show which is a reading with some acoustic numbers. It's something Ray Davies from The Kinks also does."
He now has plans to write a novel. "It will have nothing to do with music. It's set in a government ministry but the most important thing for me now is to bring this book up to the Edinburgh Festival. I'm going to do a show with songs and readings interspersed. But first Galway - a literary festival for a punk rocker!"
Hugh Cornwell will be reading from A Multitude of Sins (Harper Collins, £8.99) at Galway's Town Hall Theatre on Wed Apr 20 at 8.30pm as part of the Cúirt International Festival Of Literature. He will present a songwriting workshop at The King's Head at 1.30pm (Apr 20). www.galwayartscentre.ie/cuirt