Review: Louder Than Words festival at The Principal, Manchester

Lucy O'Brien and John Robb in conversation at Louder Than Words.
Lucy O'Brien and John Robb in conversation at Louder Than Words.
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Among the country’s many literature festivals, Louder Than Words remains unique. Founded by Jill Adam and John Robb, its three days in the stunningly ornate surroundings of Manchester’s Principal hotel are entirely dedicated to music writing.

Their seventh edition included such well-known names as Steve Lamacq, Matt Everitt, Jordan Mooney, Jim Bob from Carter USM, Wayne Hussey and Thurston Moore as well as exhibitions commemorating Pink Floyd and the punk pioneer Poly Styrene.

The first night kicked off impressively with the singer-songwriter Edwyn Collins and his wife and manager Grace Maxwell in conversation with the musician, music journalist and author John Robb. Robb’s assertion that Collins “represents the spirit of independence” is certainly borne out by a 40-year career that’s occasionally coincided with mainstream tastes – Orange Juice’s Rip It Up, Collins’s million-selling solo hit A Girl Like You – but has more often than not followed a path all of its own.

Maxwell cited the influence of Collins’s grandparents – a grandfather who was director of education for Glasgow and who played rugby for Scotland, “a hard act to follow”, and a grandmother who was “into all the arts”. She recalled Collins walking on a beach with his then 95-year-old grandfather who enquired: “Would I be right in thinking the general idea [of pop music] is one takes a refrain and repeats it ad nauseum?” She also recalled Collins’s battles with record company executives and that when his career was struggling he defiantly declared that he would “find a way of doing [music] regardless”.

Collins remembered Postcard Records boss Alan Horne describing his check shirt and charity shop attire as his “John Boy Walton look”, and cheerfully admits he “ripped off” some of it from John Fogarty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Nonetheless, he was fiercely ambitious: “I think I had delusions of grandeur.” Maxwell’s acumen in licensing Collins’s work to record labels, rather than giving them full ownership, has proved far-sighted, enabling Collins to maintain an important degree of control, and his recovery from two serious strokes has been remarkable.

Concluding with a superb five-song acoustic set that included the classic Falling and Laughing, Collins showed exactly why he deserves his status as a national treasure.

Following on, Jo Wood’s conversation with Robb was full of light-hearted recollections from her time spent with the Rolling Stones, when she was married to guitarist Ronnie Wood. Once a keen diarist, she recalled a “lost year” when the Stones’ partying was at its heaviest in 1981, writing on January 1 how she woke up, “then nothing else, it was all blank”. Since Richards gave up heroin in 1989, she said the band’s stadium productions had become a much more efficient and focused.

There were insights into the band on tour – while Ronnie Wood, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts would socialise, Mick Jagger would psych himself up for shows alone. Although there were many celebrity visitors backstage, it seems only the actors John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd were really allowed into the inner sanctum before shows. Wood also remembered how much her children enjoyed being on the road and her book, Stoned, is full of snapshots from behind the scenes. The best tales, perhaps inevitably, involved Richards. The Woods once invited him for dinner at their house in LA “and he stayed for three months”, then there is his love of shepherd’s pie: “If anybody touches it, he says, ‘Don’t bust the crust’”. “Keith likes to think he’s a pirate,” Wood noted wryly, “but he’s actually a genuine guy.”

Day two of the festival began for us with Lucy O’Brien talking to Robb about her biography Dusty Springfield, which has been updated to mark the 20th anniversary of the singer’s death. She revealed that a biopic of Springfield is in the works, starring Gemma Arterton. O’Brien recalled when the book was first published Springfield was looked upon as a slightly tragic, temperamental figure, but today, in the #MeToo era, “because of what we understand now about struggles with addiction and mental health issues, what it’s like to be in the closet in a major pop scene”, perspectives had changed. “I’ve been thinking about everything she had to contend with to achieve the huge back catalogue that she achieved, the dozens and dozens of fantastic songs over several decades,” she said. “In the book I sympathised with her, the narrative around her was that she was a victim, but revisiting it, what struck me was a she was a fighter, and what enormous strength she had.”

O’Brien cited two incidents in America – one in 1963, when Springfield found a “sorority” with the likes of Marva Reeves, The Surpremes and The Ronettes, as they performed multiple theatre shows a day in New York; backstage “the beehives would bump into each other”. In 1966 she shared a residency with the jazz drummer Buddy Rich at the Beale Street East jazz club. Rich, she said, like a few American musicians, resented the British Invasion and threatened to sue Springfield when she slapped him for insulting her. By the end of their fortnight together, Springfield had found supporters in Tony Bennett, Burt Bacharach and Dione Warwick, and won over her American band. “They gave her a pair of boxing gloves dedicated to ‘Slugger Springfield’.”

Matt Everitt’s discussion with Daryl Easlea, based on the BBC 6Music broadcaster’s book about the many musicians he’s interviewed for his radio show The First Time, was hugely entertaining. Debbie Harry, he recalled, being “just not bothered” about talking about her life. “She does bored very well, a standing-at-the-back-of-Studio-54 bored”. He played a clip of Pete Townshend talking about the inspiration for The Who song My Generation, which somewhat surprisingly revolved around two incidents – in one of them he was pushed out of the way in a queue by a woman in a fur coat, while in the other he recalled how the Queen Mother had supposedly demanded that a hearse he had converted into a “mobile gig mobile” be removed from outside his London home. “I thought, ‘You can’t do this!’”

There was also a droll story of how Grace Jones vanished shortly before she was due to perform at a major London festival – only to be spotted on television by one of the crew sat in the audience at Wimbledon’s Centre Court – and another about an interview with James Brown that turned out to be totally incomprehensible. The most moving tale involved Bernard Sumner recalling the day he discovered that Joy Division singer Ian Curtis had committed suicide. Incongruously Sumner spent the day riding in a speedboat that belonged to the father of a member of the band Section 25; as he recounted the phone call from Joy Division manager Rob Gretton to Everitt, Sumner broke down.

“It’s a real honour to do this stuff because I think all these people are really important, they’ve changed not only the way we think about music, but art and love,” Everitt said.

There was levity too in comedy writer and actor Graham Duff’s conversation with O’Brien, about his book Foreground Music: A Life in 15 Gigs. After Mark E Smith appeared as the character of Jesus in Ideal, the sitcom that Duff penned, starring Johnny Vegas, the writer remembered ending up on a pub crawl in Manchester with Smith and comedian Vic Reeves, at the end of which The Fall singer pointed out a pub that had some of his lyrics inscribed on the wall. In true Smith fashion, he said he was barred from going inside. There was also a story about how on his 50th birthday Duff had ended up playing guitar onstage with his favourite band, Wire – only discover the song was a completely different key to the one he had been practising.

The day for us wound up with music writer Daryl Easlea and academic Simon Philo engaged in a “heavyweight bout” over who was better – The Beatles or the Rolling Stones. It ended with an audience vote decisively in favour of the Fab Four but was not without a lot of knockabout banter.

Roll on Louder Than Words 2020.