Belfast Telegraph

Old punks ain't happy being strangled by punters' drivel

By Mike Gilson

It's never a good idea to upset a former member of a punk group, is it? Somebody did it to Hugh Cornwall, former lead singer of The Stranglers, on Sunday and we all copped it.

Hugh played out the last night of the excellent Out To Lunch Festival in front of a sold-out crowd at the Black Box. He left the band in the mid-90s and doesn't talk to the remaining members, who still tour together.

He seems quite a prickly character. Armed with an acoustic guitar and a handful of stories, he took to the stage for his solo effort promising a chronological journey through his career. Problem with that, of course, is it's a bit front-loaded. Most people were there to hear the old classics like No More Heroes and Golden Brown. Once he'd rattled through them, we were on to his later stuff, which is when I suspect some members of the audience's minds began to wander.

Half-way through one song, he exploded. This isn't a f****** pub, he shouted, as the growing hum of conversation mingled with the music.

At the end of the piece, he told anyone who didn't want to listen to f*** off and he'd refund their money.

How could they be so rude as to talk all the way through his art? Even shouts of support were misunderstood and met with a volley of angry abuse.

It's fair to say we were taken aback. He was in real danger of losing the entire audience. Hugh was half-wrong, but he was also half-right.

The truth was, at the time, his performance wasn't holding the audience in its sway. If you want to see one man and a guitar hold a sweaty crowd spellbound, go see the Villagers' Conor O'Brien.

Had it been The Stranglers of old belting out their songs a few voices talking about the weather would have been drowned out. In the true spirit of punk, the old Hugh might even have waded into the crowd to sort 'em out.

In context, a bit of antagonist banter with a crowd can be thrilling. But the poor guy was performing a gig armed with only an acoustic guitar and he was right to draw attention to a growing menace.

People's need for noise, chatter and smartphone screen time whatever they're doing is becoming an epidemic.

I went to about 30 gigs in Belfast last year and at every one imbeciles, young and old, who presumably had paid to get in, talked about last night's TV, or what the boss had said to them that day until told to shut up by someone else in the crowd.

Dance, sing, shout, cheer, or boo, but please don't let me overhear that you had Findus Crispy Pancakes before you came out.

In the cinema the other day, I noticed that people around me were checking their smartphones on a regular basis. Little shafts of white light constantly popped up, signalling the urgent need to communicate with someone, anyone, maybe even to tell the other end they were watching a film.

Gibbering, messaging loons seem to be taking over the world. Silence, contemplation, appreciation and thoughtful appraisal don't seem to count that much for some audiences anymore.

Sure, there's nothing wrong with being a critic. I left the Cornwall show early because I'd had my fill.

No one has to be an unquestioning dupe.

But I wonder when all this Me, Me, Me communication is going to reach saturation point. When the airwaves become choked with inconsequentiality.

When we might then take a step back and consider that no one is really interested in the minutiae of our lives, that being the first with an opinion is not the same as being right. That any form of art, or culture, is not simply a background for our own white noise.

You can't even stand admiring an Old Master at the National Gallery these days without a half-wit iPad filming the thing as he whizzes by.

As Hugh Cornwall might sing, Something Better Change. I'm not holding my breath, though.

Belfast Telegraph

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