Culture That Made Me: Hugh Cornwell of The Stranglers 

Now a solo artist, the celebrated vocalist plays three gigs in Ireland in April 
Culture That Made Me: Hugh Cornwell of The Stranglers 

Hugh Cornwell plays Cork, Galway and Dublin. Picture: Bertrand Fevre

Hugh Cornwell, 73, grew up in north London. 

In 1974, the Stranglers formed with Cornwell as lead singer-guitarist and songwriter. They were the UK’s most commercially successful band from the punk era. Hits included ‘Golden Brown’ and ‘Always the Sun’. 

Cornwell, second from left, with The Stranglers in 1980. 
Cornwell, second from left, with The Stranglers in 1980. 

In 1990, Cornwell left the band to pursue a solo career. He has acted on stage alongside Stephen Rea and in several films. He is host of a film podcast called Mr DeMille FM. 

  • Upcoming Irish gigs include: Pepper Canister, Dublin, April 13; Roisin Dubh, Galway, April 14; Live at St Luke’s, Cork, April 15.

Mose Allison 

As a teenager, I shared a bedroom with my brother who had a big blues record collection. I discovered Mose Allison in there who I loved. I wrote a song about him called Mosin’. I love his voice. It was unique. It didn't sound like anybody else. I was listening to Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and stuff like this. Obviously they had black voices. Then there were the white voices of white rock and rollers. Mose Allison’s voice was curious. It was a mix of the two. It was lovely, like velvet, and he was a great writer too. He got me on both counts.

Chuck Berry 

Chuck Berry was the man. His songs were like stories. Sweet Little Sixteen was one of my favourite songs – what a great story. I played it all the time. I could watch a little film in my head just listening to his lyrics. The idea that you can tell a story in a song, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Almost like three acts – the punchline in Act Three. That had a lasting impression upon me. It was through his writing that I realised the power of the lyrics to a song. He just didn't stop coming up with these fabulous tunes.

David Bowie in Ziggy Stardust mode. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)
David Bowie in Ziggy Stardust mode. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

David Bowie

I studied for a PhD in southern Sweden and was off the off the cultural map for a while because it was quiet out there. On a trip home, around 1972, I rang my friend up in London. He said. “We're going to see David Bowie tonight at the Astoria in Finsbury Park. Do you wanna go?” I went, but I hadn’t heard of him. 

It was the Ziggy Stardust tour. It was a big concert moment. The songs were great. The sound was superb. For a live concert, it was like listening to a record. You could hear every word. It stayed with me. Ever since for a gig, I always say to whoever's doing the sound, “Listen, everything goes under the voice. I've written these words because I want people to hear what I'm singing. I don't want it to be buried. The voice is important.” 

Soft Machine 

A rock album which has never ceased to amaze me every time I hear it is Volume One by Soft Machine. They’re a three-piece band. I can’t believe the sound landscape they created with just three instruments: bass, drums and keyboards. No guitar. The record is stunning – the recording, the writing, the performance. It's a very early stereo record. There's so much going on with that record. If I was stuck at an island, I would never get bored listening to it.

This Land is Mine 

A film I was astounded with is This Land is Mine. It floored me. I could not fault any little cog, any part of its make-up. Every little piece was perfect. It was a black-and-white film made by Jean Renoir, the French director. It's in English. It starred Charles Laughton. He plays a timid, shy school teacher in this provincial town in France. They've just been occupied by the Nazis. It's about what happens during this occupation. It is flawless. I can't believe what a classic it is.

 Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift in The Misfits.
Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift in The Misfits.

The Misfits 

I've always had a great pleasure from watching The Misfits with Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach. It was the last film, coincidentally, of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. It was written by Monroe's husband, Arthur Miller. It’s directed by John Huston. It's stunning. Anyone that doubts Marilyn Monroe's acting skills, watch it to see how really talented she was as an actress.

Fate of a Man

The Russian director Sergei Bondarchuk made a film in 1959 called Fate of a Man, which he starred in. It’s another black-and-white film. It's about a guy who survives the Second World War. He bumps into a wandering tramp by a campfire, when he's taking his son for a walk. He ends up telling his life story to this tramp. It goes into a series of flashbacks. It's an anti-war film. It's stunning.

Toilers of the Sea 

Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo is about a guy that gets shipwrecked. He's the only survivor on this island. He spends all his time reconstructing the ship. It's meticulously described. Then he sails back triumphantly into the port where he set out from about five or 10 years later to find his bird’s with someone else. She was the driving force that made him want to survive. Typical of life’s twists. It was the first book that affected me strongly. It’s an amazing story of endurance and survival.

Moby Dick

My father read a lot, but he never read novels. He thought novels were flights of fantasy that didn't deserve attention. So I bought him Moby Dick. I told him, “Dad, it's a novel, but it's interesting because two-thirds of the book is about the whaling industry of the early years, off Nantucket, about how they lived on the boats, what they did with the whales, how they made candles and how they entertained themselves. 

It's like a documentary. It's fascinating about life on the sea. Don't think of it as a novel.” But I don't think he ever picked it up because when he died, I looked through his books and there it was pristine as when I'd given it to him.

Philip K Dick

I believe Philip K Dick is one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century. Someone turned me on to him about thirty years ago – a book called Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. It's typical of Dick’s style. He was a science fiction writer, but his books are more about the human condition than about the future. 

In the book, a bloke wakes up in a hotel, not knowing where he is or who he is. He’s got a little address book with some of his friends’ names in it. He calls up these people and he recognises them, but they don't recognise him. They think he's a complete stranger. He spends the rest of the book trying to discover what’s happened to him. It's a very interesting book.

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