Louder Than Words music and literature festival Friday 10th to Sunday 12th November 2017
As Billy Joel once said “Ohhhhhh… it doesn’t matter what they say in the papers ’cause it’s always been the same old scene; there’s a new band in town, but you can’t get the sound from a story in a magazine.”
Wise words that I had lived by; that is until I had the pleasure of visiting the Louder Than Words Festival in Manchester last November. Set in Manchester’s Principal Hotel, nee The Palace Hotel (a much more sensible moniker on account of the building being.. well.. palatial) the ‘setlist’ promised a “genre-based literary Festival celebrating words – oral, written and published – associated with the music industry. Authors, artists, poets, performers, lyrics and lyricists, journalists, DJs, bloggers and publishers of music and popular culture.”
My first reaction to that summary was that it was a bit of a mouthful but on reflection it is was about as tightly as you could nail down the smorgasabord on offer and these days it’s even Twitterable. It was a case of feeling both the width and the quality as you flicked through the brochure and all for as little as £59 pounds for two-and-a-half days on the Early Bird ticket (though cheaper individual event and day tickets were available) it surely worked out at much than less than a penny a word.
The variety was a bit of a head-spinner too. That said, although it was a smorgasbord there was no Abba this time but although I would have needed a couple of clones to catch every session I’ll be damned if there wasn’t some “next phase” and “new wave” and “dance craze” to be found over the weekend.
It was a programme that included some ‘names’ Rat Scabies and Pete Wylie among them but, as with all the best festivals, it’s the acts that you hadn’t heard of and the sets that you take a punt on that can give the sweetest hit.
Jah Wobble – a working musician
And so it was not down to any starfecker tendencies on my part that I kicked off my visit with Jah Wobble. It just so happens that he was the opener on the Friday night for the whole festival and much like any opener at a music festival, or indeed a comedy gig, it fell on him to reassure the audience that they were in safe hands right from the first note.
With his ‘favourite-mate-down-the-pub’ relaxed delivery and timing of a punchline you could imagine him being a comedian, in a lesser life. He talked of how he never had a talent for taking hallucinogenics but he did for playing bass, clay pigeon shooting, playing golf and taking heroin but it was only the bass guitar that he stuck with. He was wary of the infamous oh-so- lovely ‘cotton wool’ feeling that heroin gave him and having seen what heroin had done to a previous girlfriend among others he has since steered clear of it, cheerily adding “I became an alcoholic instead”.
In recovery for some time he knows too well now the taste of diet coke and you can’t imagine him being able to eat-through, whilst inebriated, the range of musical genres and partners that he has done post Public Image Ltd with combative Cream founder and drummer Ginger Baker being one. Top tip for any waiters reading this – if Ginger Baker asks for custard with his pudding and you only have treacle, better to quit the job on the spot than serve him treacle.
It wasn’t a vainglorious “I was there! ” session, far from it. He talked of how he thinks, every time that ‘this job will be where the luck runs out’- as he put it “a very working-class attitude”. But he was there when a slurring Sid Vicious ‘christened’ him ‘Jah Wobble’, rather than John Wardle. He was there in the development of working class art and as I listened to him talk about it in the refined surrounding of the palatial Principal Hotel, it struck me harder than ever that ‘popular music’ is a working class art form and that makes this festival still more important. If it were a middle class art form there would be many more festivals like Louder Than Words. Similarly, if the Hacienda (just down the road) had been an avant-garde 80’s opera venue, it wouldn’t be a block of flats now. As Joni Mitchell, Billy’s fellow North-American thinker said, “don’t it always seem to go, That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til its gone”
Jah Wobble continues to tour and record with with Jah Wobble & The Invaders Of The Heart (see www.jahwobble.com) .
Much more than Brighton, punch-ups, parkas and scooters
I stayed on for a name new to me. Paul ‘Smiler’ Anderson who continued the working class theme. This time with a working class music and style movement – Mod.
Pinning down the nature of Mod seems as tricky as pinning down the nature of God (if my religious friends are to be believed). It seems that if you’ve pinned it down to a certain music, or parkas, the latest suits or shoes then you’re stuck and it has moved on. It’s all about the new, the MODern. Early on it was often about young people, usually with little money, sleeping out on beaches after gatherings as they couldn’t afford a B&B or maybe they could if they didn’t scrimp every penny to buy the latest rare record or fashion trend, or even better, create the latest fashion trend or champion a new record.
If you can’t get to hear him speak, any remaining Christmas gift vouchers would be would be well-spent on his book ‘Mods: The New Religion – The Style and Music of the 1960’s Mods’ for a music and style magpie. It continues the evocation of the movement he gave on the night with still more detail from the scene-makers and scene-followers of the time and pictures that do full justice to its art and fashion.
He has taken the eclecticism and style of the Mod movement into his record collection as he showed when he finished off the night with a DJ set that had the audience plus a few lucky hotel guests cutting a rug. I’d imagine that he’s available for the more discerning weddings, parties and Bar Mitzvahs
Not very rock and roll from me
Saturday was a blank for this reviewer. I’d really like to say that this is because of a wild weekend of rock and roll behaviour that followed on from Smiler’s set. But it was down to a very un-rock- and- roll diary clash. So both you and me have in common that we missed discussions around Steely Dan, Poly Styrene and rave culture for starters.
When I got back into town on the Sunday I was in time for Paul Hanley, five years drummer in The Fall and now recreating that lissom drum and bass unit with his brother Steve (I also missed Steve on the Saturday – doh!) in Brix and The Extricated.
So, another book about The Fall then? No, because for Paul there have probably been enough and anyway he felt his brother’s book ‘The Big Midweek’ – Life Inside The Fall’ had been there and chronicled that. What we do get is ‘Leave The Capital, A History Of Manchester Music In 13 Recordings’.
The highest compliment that I can pay his interview on the day with John Robb (as well as his book) is that, though I am a Fall zealot, I still really enjoyed the Fall-lite content of both. The book cuts a broad and ambitious slice through the almost forgotten ‘Manchester Regiment’ of the 60’s British Invasion of America including The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits and up through ‘post-punk’ with Joy Division and into the stirrings of Madchester with the Stone Roses.
Proud Greater Mancunians should be still prouder as they read about the story of Strawberry and Pluto studios in Stockport where producing genius Martin Hannett oversaw early Factory recording including Joy Division and where artists as diverse as Paul McCartney, Herman’s Hermits, The Fall, Neil Sedaka, The Stone Roses, The Smiths, 10 cc and St Winnifred’s School Choir cut discs. There was certainly plenty of Manchester music going on before Madchester swamped the narrative, our kid.
As Paul points out, the Beatles located a few songs in Liverpool but never a recording studio where they might have recorded at least one of their songs. As one of the proudest of proud Mancunians once put it:-
“Why had those early Factory releases had that magical Hannett sound? The young genius had been able to plug in his digital thingy into the outboard racks of a major world-class thirty-six track studio that was in Stockport – Stockport ladies and gentleman, Stockport, because 10cc were a Manchester band and they had taken the proceeds of the delicious “I’m Not In Love” and had reinvested in their home. Reinvested. Built a fuck-off studio. Respect”’ – Tony Wilson (2002)
Again, Christmas book tokens at the ready, ‘Leave The Capital’ is available from all standards of bookshop and via http://www.route-online.com/all-books/leave-the-capital.html. Brix and The Extricated will be back on the road in 2018.
Paul Hanley can also be heard discussing his book Leave The Capital, his life in The Fall and beyond on listen again on The Church of The Fall with Stephen G. Titley via https://www.mixcloud.com/ChurchOfTheFall/cotf-leave-the-capital-with-special-guest-paul-hanley-151217/
Lest We Forget
In a fitting coincidence on the Remembrance Sunday, the Unsung “a funeral party for the forgotten fallen heroes of music” were next up.
With the Unsung you do actually get “the sound” as well as the words and it’s an unreasonably broad range of musical styles, unfeasibly well-delivered by poet Genevieve Carver’s backing band of Sarah Sharp, Tim Knowles and Brian Bestall.
It was a funeral stage set and theme and an order of service of spoken word ‘hymns’ celebrating the lives and deaths of those lost souls from the Bataclan and lesser reported fallen music-lovers is on the face of a potentially tricky gig for performers and audience alike. But Carver’s poetry; angry and celebratory in turn was lightened by asides including “I’ve written at least one joke” and so the whole hour felt like great funerals should, tears but also joy at lives well-lived.
The settings ranged from the ungraspable scale of awfulness of the Bataclan attack to the more prosaic suffering of singer Lina Prokofiev, wife of musical genius (and “twat” as Carver not unreasonably puts it) Sergei. Lina subsumed her talent and life to support Prokofiev and he in turn had a high old time with his mistress and didn’t lift just one of his pianist’s little fingers as she rotted in a Russian gulag for eight years. As Carver said ‘I’ve been in love with men and it was good but potentially there might be more to life than that, I want to be the music.’
There is a record of the Unsung where you can hear the celebratory rock, calypso, jazz and more with the words of celebration and definance skilfully scanned over the beat but I’m with Billy Joel again on this one; go and get the sound live too https://genevievecarver.wordpress.com/the-unsung/
Following the trawler
Frank Zappa’s view that “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read” is likely a bit harsh (less so on us ‘rock journalists’, perhaps). But I do always feel like I’m a seagull following the trawler picking up scraps of sardine from the properly- talented musicians.
But (sorry Frank) Louder than Words is a great music as well as writing festival, notwithstanding that there were only a smattering of singing voices and instruments. Time spent learning about and celebrating great tunes and art, especially working-class great tunes and art, is never time wasted and going back to another North American thinker (and true blue-collar working class hero) Bruce Springsteen, it’s quite possible that we have sometimes “ learned more from a three-minute record, baby, Than we ever learned in school.”
As well as feeling seagull-like, as a reviewer of past events, I always feel a bit like Jim Bowen addressing a couple from the Midlands who sadly just missed out on Bully’s star prize and so would sadly never have a speedboat rusting- up outside their semi in Wolverhampton, miles from the sea. There is always an element of “look at what you could have won.” But when you’re wistfully working your way through this year’s brochure (link below) and checking out some of the sessions from this year on their site–rejoice! Louder Than Words will be back in November 9-11, 2018.
It’s not very rock and roll to book early but sometimes you have to, to avoid disappointment.