The punk rock stalwart tells us all about the sorry state of music today
Hugh Cornwell will electrify the Dubai Opera tomorrow night
Hugh Cornwell returns to the UAE tomorrow and, this time around, he will be plugged in.
The UK singer, the former frontman of seminal UK punk group The Stranglers, was last in the country a decade ago with an acoustic gig at Dubai’s Country Club.
Tomorrow, he will take on the somewhat grander Dubai Opera stage as part of the Never Mind the Opera concert featuring live sets by punk peers Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols), drummer Chris Musto and multi-instrumentalist Chris Spedding.
Cornwell, 69, is looking forward to the Dubai show, which kicks off a busy few months, including the release of his new solo album, Monster, on October 5 and an extensive UK tour.
Cornwell is satisfied that songs from the new album will be heard at his show in Dubai the way he intends them to sound. “There were times in my career where I couldn’t bring the band with me on tour because of finances,” he says. “But now I am playing these shows with this great group of musicians and I am looking forward to playing the new songs, as well as the classic Stranglers stuff live in Dubai.”
Despite the retrospective nature of the concert, Cornwell has never looked at himself as a legacy act. “I have always been an artist that has looked forward and seen what’s next,” he says.
“And ever since I left The Stranglers, I have always played songs from the old catalogue because they are my songs and I love playing them. So I feel like I have always taken stock of my career in a way, but at the same time always looking to take the next step.”
It’s a viewpoint that Cornwell guards fastidiously. In both interviews I conducted with him, 14 years apart, he stubbornly shied away from reminiscing about his time with The Stranglers.
Yet at the same time, it is also that lack of sentimentality responsible for the great songs he wrote for the band.
Tracks such as Down in the Sewer and Peaches from their 1977 debut Rattus Norvegicus established Cornwell’s penchant for dramatic songwriting with lyrics that were dark and frequently furious at the social and economic struggles facing the UK at the time.
“I was just writing songs about what was happening around me,” Cornwell says. “It was like being a journalist in a way, but I wasn’t commenting on what is right or wrong. We, as the band, were simply voyeurs and observing everything.”
The follow-up album, No More Heroes, remains hailed as a classic of the punk and early new-wave moment, with the caustic title track establishing Cornwell, then 28, as one of the UK’s premier songwriters and lyricists.
With the band relationships fraying and Cornwell’s seeking better creative pastures, he quit the group in 1990 to start a solo career.
While the subsequent eight solo albums did not achieve the commercial heights of The Stranglers, they were great vehicles for Cornwell to explore newfound character-driven song narratives.
“I always felt that you can write a song about anything really and it doesn’t just have to be about what you are feeling,” he says. “I love country music, and that’s all about how I loved you and you left me, but you can also write about other things, such as certain moments and people.”
It is the latter that’s responsible for some of Cornwell’s best solo material – scan through his work and you will find songs about modern and historical figures such as Bob Dylan in 24/7 and 19th-century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly in The Story of Harry Power.
When it comes to his new album, Monster, Cornwell confirms the collection primarily comprises sketches of characters both near and historical. “I have been working on this album for about six years, and the first song that came together was one about my mother who passed away six years ago,” he explains. “And from there I wrote a song about [famous stuntman] Evel Knievel and [Velvet Underground songwriter] Lou Reed, and I even talk about political figures like Mussolini and Mugabe. They are basically a collection of songs about interesting people in the past 100 years or so.”
With the past a primary source of inspiration, I wonder if Cornwell takes any cues from today’s musical landscape?
Not only does he reply in the negative, but he also goes on to expresses a deep worry for the sagging state of songwriting.
“It is in trouble I would say, and there are a number of reasons for that,” he says. “The popularity of techno and hip-hop music today is part of that trend because both of these genres don’t have a focus on melody. And then you factor in all these talent shows and I do fear for the craft of songwriting.”
Hugh Cornwell will perform at Dubai Opera, as part of Never Mind the Opera, on Thursday. Tickets begin from Dh150 at www.dubaiopera.com