Louder Than Words: Telling Stories
Between November 15 and 17, I participated in the inaugural Louder Than Words festival in Manchester. An outgrowth of the popular website Louder Than War, the Festival billed itself as “celebrating words – oral, written and published – associated with the music industry.” Among the participants were, and I quote again, “authors, artists, poets, performers, lyricists, journalists, DJs, blogger and publishers of music and popular culture.”
Held in a couple of different conference rooms (and, of course, at the bar) of the Palace Hotel on Oxford Road, where most of the visiting participants were also (generously) housed, Louder Than Words was a qualified success. Attendance was respectable, the panels were lively, the talks were generally interesting, and the participants were mostly people that I would like to consider “doers,” which meant that they had plenty to talk about and weren’t shy in doing so.
Here, then, is a short recap of my personal participatory highlights.
Meeting a number of fellow writers for the first time at the Friday night opening reception, including Charlotte Davies, who started her successful blog, Hooting and Howling, three years ago, when only 15. We are talking on a night when Happy Mondays are performing Bummed, in Manchester, in its entirety. I profess to not be bothered to not be attending. After all, I tell Charlotte, “I saw Happy Mondays when you were…” and then do the math(s). “Minus five.”
Watching poet Tony Walsh perform ‘Rock & Roll’ and ‘The Last Gang In Town?’ from his collection Sex & Love & Rock&Roll, along with a brilliant, as-yet unpublished piece on Manchester music, that manages to reference just about everyone since the days of Herman’s Hermits without actually name-checking almost any of then.
Listening to Ben Osborne DJ his ‘Manifesto for an Art of Noise,’ a historic set of electronic music that traces all the way back to the Futurists of the 1930s. The room empties of middle-aged white male journalists (like me) who, for all their confessed broad taste, prefer to be heard when talking to each other than merely be seen.
Struggling with jetlag and not getting to sleep until 3am. Waking eight hours later to find I’ve missed the opening panel on ‘Club Culture.’ Wait. Hang on. Who puts on a panel on Club Culture at 10am on a Saturday morning?
Attending the ‘Have Academics Killed Rock n Roll?’ panel. Lucy O’Brien says she got into academics because in the early 1990s, the music press turned consumerist and stopped embracing ‘new ideas.’ John Robb, playing Devil’s Advocate, argues that Black Sabbath, never taught in academia, have been more influential than professorial faves the Velvet Underground. Clinton Heylin says that academics get their facts wrong on Bob Dylan. (And music journalists don’t?) Moderator CP Lee says very little indeed.
Running over to the Lowry at lunchtime – quite literally, it seeming the fastest way to get there – to see the Defining Me: Musical Adventures in Manchester exhibition, wherein many a local, of all ages, has loaned their childhood collection of photos, cuttings, tickets and other mementos to express how the city’s music scene shaped them. It’s the kind of non-judgemental, historically pertinent trip down memory lane that is well worth your time and attention if you haven’t already.
Listening to Elaine Constandine and Gareth Sweeney talk about their impending feature film Northern Soul and the hefty book of the same name. “In the 70s, trainers were for scrubbers,” says Constantine on why Northern Soul kids wore brogues. (Which reminds me that, the previous night, Charlotte Davies has recommended the band Brown Brogues as among Manchester’s best.) Asked by yours truly how her film will differ from Soul Boy, she argues that the latter was essentially a love story that could have been set in any scene, whereas Northern Soul is very much about what its title claims that it’s about. Convinced that she and Gareth know what they’re talking about, I pick up a copy of their book.
Watching author and broadcaster Charlie Connelly deliver an hour-plus monologue on the international adventures that form his book In Search of Elvis: A Journey to Find the Man Behind the Jumpsuit. His quest may have ended up in Memphis, but it also took him to Israel, Finland, and Uzbekistan – one of only two double land-locked nations in the world, he says. (The other? Liechtenstein, apparently. Connelly would know; he wrote a book about that country’s World Cup 2002 qualifying efforts.) I like the sound of Connelly’s book, and I download a Kindle sample while he talks. More and more, I’m finding that for this kind of non-photographic, paperback narrative, I’m happy to get by on an e-reader.
Hooking up with my friend Tom Hingley, who I’ve managed to recruit, at such a last minute that he is essentially unbilled, for the panel I will be chairing later tonight. (Yes, tonight.) We listen to John Robb interview Wilko Johnson, whose cheerful countenance in the face of terminal cancer has, if this doesn’t sound like too much of a contradiction, given him something of a new lease on life. While much of the interview revamps subject matter well covered in the fantastic Julien Temple-directed Dr. Feelgood documentary Oil City Confidential, it is still an ongoing pleasure to hear Johnson in the flesh. Asked about his touring plans, he points out that promoters and venues typically like to work several months ahead, and he can’t, in all good conscience, vow that he will be around to honour any such commitments. A living legend. For now.
Skipping, regrettably, an in-conversation with Chris Salewicz, one of the better biographers out there, to have dinner with Hingley. The restaurant of the Palace Hotel seems as good a bet as any, given that time spent perusing the Saturday night streets of Manchester is, in its own way, money. But though the food is quite passable, the service is not. British cuisine has come a long, long way, the last twenty years, but one suspects that until such day as waiters are motivated by tips, the overall experience will lag far behind that of other countries.
Returning to the Festival to hear Alan McGee in conversation with John Robb. McGee has just published his memoir Creation Stories and I am happy to see that he has given Jamming! credit for being an early inspiration. I’m less thrilled to see he’s printed that old chestnut, “Paul Weller helped fund Jamming! fanzine.” Which he did not. If I had known then what I know now – that my hard work on Jamming! magazine over the course of a full decade would so frequently be perceived as down to the generosity of a rock star – I would not have chosen to run, unpaid, a record label that he did finance, at least not a label by the same name as the fanzine. Oh well, we live and learn – which is partly why, during a Q&A, I ask McGee to name the worst record he ever released. To my surprise, he names the Boo Radleys’ ‘Wake Up Boo.’
Taking to the podium (of sorts) to chair the “Memoirs of Music Obsessives” panel, sub-titled, quite clearly by yours truly, “Boys About Town: Is The Hi-Fidelity gene gender specific?” By the time we collect ourselves, here in the heart of Manchester at 10pm on a Saturday night – by far the latest, strangest time and day of week I have ever found myself in such a supposedly studious scenario – the panelists consist of myself, Guardian journalist and author Dave Simpson, singer and memoirist Tom Hingley, and journalist and author Sarah Bee. Working on the premise that the only way to keep audience attention is to engage in a Saturday night pub conversation, we talk record collections, childhood hobbies, male obsessions, the absence of women included in the Louder Than Words’ ‘In Conversations,’ the requisites of a good musical memoir, and the prospect of upcoming books by Kim Gordon and others. Simpson proves particularly good late-night material – as one might expect from anyone who tracked down 40+ former members of the Fall for a book. He also turns out to have hundreds of New Order concert bootlegs, plus a hundred more from soundchecks, along with a worrying ability to rattle off their dates and venues by memory. Martin James, former MM journo, Prodigy/Fatboy Slim biographer and ongoing Professor of Music Industries at Southampton Solent University, gets up in public to assure us that there is plenty empirical evidence to prove that the collecting gene is, indeed, male specific. The following morning, he will additionally explain why, nonetheless, the earnest students making notes in the front rows at what is now closing time on a Saturday night are all female.
Continuing the conversation in the bar, knowing all too well that jetlag is a big enough bitch as it is. Being sensible enough to call it a night after one glass of wine.
Wandering downstairs on Sunday morning to the first panel of the day, The Future of Rock Writing, to find that intended chair Mick Middles has inadvertently poured a kettle of hot water over himself. (Get well soon, Mick.) I am promptly press-ganged into moderating the conversation between Dave Simpson (yes him again), Barney Hoskins, Chris Salewicz, Martin James, and publisher of the 33 and 1/3 series, David Barker. We are, to a last individual, male, Caucasian and middle-aged, and therefore may have more to do with the Past of Rock Writing than its Future – which James assures us, based on the current composition of his classes in Southampton, and confirmed by those earnest students in the front row, is “female,” We nonetheless discuss music magazines near and far, tablets short and wide, blogs big and small, and, especially, given our age and our ongoing activities, books – and the struggle to maintain a viable living in the pursuit of their writing – to a surprisingly alert Sunday morning audience, whom I then invite upstairs to continue the conversation. Not in the bar but because I am…
Participating in the panel Big Mouth Strikes Again, sub-titled Blogs vs. Books: The Digital Revolution. Assembled by the Manchester District Music Archive, the same excellent team behind the Defining Me exhibit at the Lowry, it features former Observer Music Monthly editor and ongoing Shaun Ryder ghostwriter Luke Bainbridge; Hooting and Howling teen blogger Charlotte Davies; adult blogger and musician Phil Young; broadcaster and Podcaster and blogger and all-round tastemaker Shell Zenner; writer, DJ, TV producer and blogger John McCready; and yours truly, who was blogging before they came up with a name for it. This is the most varied line-up of the weekend and in talking about the relevance of music journalism in a 21st Century world, we take the conversation beyond the borders of print, and beyond the UK, to discuss the value of podcasts and Facebook posts and tweets as a way to share our love of music. Along the way I learn the optimum time to post on Facebook – between 7 and 8pm, though how you do this in multiple time zones as I cater for remains unanswered – while sharing my views on the perils of the ‘Comments’ section that has helped turn the World Wide Web into a World Wide Cesspit of homophobia, racism, and other general right-wing nastiness. There is a reason, I suggest, that letters pages of music magazines and newspapers alike typically employ an ‘editor.’ The time goes too fast and suddenly we are done. I have survived the two panels I signed up for and the one that I didn’t, and despite the fact that they followed each other from Saturday night through Sunday morning, and I was jetlagged to begin with, I may even have made sense through them. Thanks for having me.
Taking a breather from this overdose of public speaking to hear Steve Hanley, Paul Hanley and Simon Wolstencroft talk about their lives in The Fall, in a panel hosted, not surprisingly, by the man who tracked down 40 or so others like them for his book The Fallen, Mr. Dave Simpson. Though the conversation occasionally leans towards comedy – and there are, indeed, many laughs to be had when talking about Mark E. Smith, and especially, when delivered in the deadpan drole of middle-aged Mancunians – there is suitable acknowledgement of Smith’s artistic vision, which after all, is the reason we are here and talking about the Fall to begin with. Wolstencroft, as those who have read A Light That Never Goes Out will know, is the former drummer of Andy Rourke and Johnny Marr’s pre-Smiths group Freak Party, the man who then turned down an invitation to join The Smiths because he didn’t “like the cut of (Morrissey’s) jib.” He has written a memoir of his journeyman status, wittily entitled You Can Drum But You Can’t Hide, which will hopefully join Steve Hanley’s own memoir, The Big Midweek, in the shops next year. Evidently, writing books about the Fall is a lot easier than dancing about architecture.
Eschewing, all too sadly, former IntaStella front woman Stella Grundy’s performance ‘The Rise and Fall of a Northern Star’ because it coincides with The Fallen panel, thereby all too overtly proving my own male prejudices. Also, somewhat regrettably, missing parallel panels on ‘Bob Dylan and the Beats’ and ‘Women In Rock’ (but why Women In Rock? after all these years) because there is only so much time in a Manchester weekend and I very much want to get over to the Pretty Green store to spend money. My journey back to the Palace Hotel in possession of a lovely sweater on a freezing Sunday afternoon is slowed somewhat by the Christmas market in the front of the Town Hall in Albert Square. Almost every last stall seems to be selling booze of some fashion; indeed, Manchester city’s official website proudly announces the presence of “beer halls, gluhwein houses and Christmas punch stalls.” Being Britain, still six whole weeks away from Christmas itself, just about everyone is imbibing and wearing silly sweaters and spending money they really don’t have as the PA blares out Christmas music because, well, it’s Christmas isn’t?
Receiving the generous gift of two books from Route Publishing as recommended by Tom Hingley (whose memoir Carpet Burns Route recently published), even though I was planning on buying them. The novel Red Army Faction Blues will soon prove very hard to put down.
Listening to the penultimate In Conversation – between Tim Burgess and John Robb – but passing up on the last of them, between Jah Wobble and John Robb, because I have been told I have tickets to see childhood faves, the recently reformed Mott the Hoople tonight, and feel greatly in need of a disco nap. (And besides, one can only spend so many hours in the same two rooms listening to people talking about music. Even the New York State School Boards Association annual convention, which kicks off its panels at 8:30 in the morning, knows to let us out of class by 4pm.) The nap is interrupted by a call to say that, in fact, I do not have tickets for Mott the Hoople, a genuine downer partially offset by the fact that I already have tickets to see Television. The influential, reformed 1970s art-rockers are, so I am led to believe, performing Marquee Moon in its entirety, much as Happy Mondays did with Bummed on Friday. It turns out not to be the case, but rather a regular rock set of old, established and esteemed material performed to a packed hall of suitably greying men amidst a smattering of students, this being the University. But the very fact that Manchester has played host to so much music over the course of the weekend (other concerts I did not attend included Beady Eye, Vampire Weekend, Depeche Mode, Thirty Seconds To Mars, New Model Army, Scouting for Girls, Brown Brogues, and, um, Secret Affair) indicates not only the healthy state of the live British music scene, but a wise choice of location for the inaugural Louder Than Words. For as long as people listen to music, people will listen to what people have to say about music. The important thing is to say something of merit – and Louder Than Words did just that.