Review: Louder Than Words Festival 2020

As seemingly is the way of arts events in our Covid-stricken times, Louder Than Words, the UK’s only literary festival solely dedicated to music writing, was this year online rather than in its regular base of Manchester.

Bob Geldof in conversation with Daryl Easlea at Louder Than Words festival 2020.

Nonetheless its eighth edition offered two days of lively conversations between journalists, authors, broadcasters and musicians and included such well-known names as Bob Geldof, Skin from Skunk Anansie, David Gedge of The Wedding Present, Don Powell of Slade and Dave Ball of Soft Cell.

The internet format also created the opportunity for trans-Atlantic dialogue with Dennis Dunaway of the Alice Cooper Group and Chris Hillman of The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers.

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Slits biographer Zoe Howe’s discussion with Roisin Dwyer of Hot Press proved one of Saturday’s highlights. Howe remembered singer Ari Up as “a comet that blazed into any room”, adding that the first time she saw the singer at a gig in London there were “about three people in the audience but she gave this superstar performance, it was like a stadium show”.

Howe acknowledged that offstage Ari could be a “very changeable, erratic person”, but ten years after the singer’s death, she felt she had a better understanding of the forces that had shaped her. Coming from a “privileged background but strange upbringing” in Germany, she had formed The Slits with drummer Paloma ‘Palmolive’ Romero, bassist Tessa Pollitt and guitarist Suzy Gutsy in London when she was just 14. (Gutsy would go on to be replaced first by Kate Korus and then Viv Albertine.) As young women in the punk scene, Howe said: “Most of the time they were not treated well...they were ignored, abused and exploited...That scar tissue did not go away.”

The band’s stubbornness, though, led to them producing two remarkable and hugely influential albums, The Cut and Return of the Giant Slits. And even in her last interactions with Ari when she was seriously ill with cancer, Howe said, she exuded “an incredible energy that belied her health story at the time”.

Lighter in tone was the conversation between actor, comedian, songwriter and musician Graham Fellows and Travis Elborough. Of his 1970s one-hit wonder Jilted John, Fellows said his top 10 single “came about through naivety...the song was written as a spoof of punk”. He recalled some advice from Paul McCartney: “Keep writing those songs. It took me and John a long time.”

His most enduring creation, the singer-songwriter John Shuttleworth, was, Fellows said, “accidentally a Sheffield character” who had partly been based on his father, a photographer, as well as the TV dramas of Mike Leigh. “I realised how exciting and enthralling specifics were.”

The ever charismatic Bob Geldof’s conversation with Daryl Easlea offered some fascinating insights into lyric writing, not least his observation that the scream of “a-whop-bop-a-loo-bop” in Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti was “important in terms of understanding what rock ’n’ roll is meant to be...it meant nothing but everything”.

Geldof said that song lyrics should not be confused with poetry. “They sound like poetry but they are not. Music needs to precis and condense words.” He added that the “psychological subtext” of a song also depended upon the rhythm and the musical notation. “The totality of a song is what seems to work for us. Lyrics are decontextualised words, they float without a rooted parenthood.”

On Sunday Daryl Easlea’s discussion with Don Powell of Slade provided a lunchtime treat. Powell recalled that back in the late 1960s, when Slade were a skinhead band, the proliferation of small venues meant “you could play 100 gigs without leaving the West Midlands”.

Slade’s reputation as a scintillating live act meant many bands “hated” playing with them for fear of being outshone, Easlea noted, while Powell recounted a brush with the law after the band appeared in the 1970 comedy film One More Time, directed by Jerry Lewis and starring Sammy Davis Jr and Peter Lawford. The day after shooting scenes at Eastnor Castle, Slade were arrested and quizzed by CID over missing silverware. Five years later, while making their film Slade in Flame, the crew jokingly admitted the theft had in fact been committed by them.

Elsewhere, in his conversation with journalist, author and musician John Robb, Soft Cell keyboard player Dave Ball observed that both he and singer Marc Almond were seasiders and that their music was a mix of Northern Soul, Kraftwerk, Donna Summer “and trashiness”. Neither he nor Almond had aspired to become pop stars, he said. “We would have been happy to be in the indie charts. We did not attempt to look like pop stars. We were two art students messing about with electronic cabaret.”

Meanwhile, Skin revealed, while discussing songwriting with Lucy O’Brien, that the verses of Skunk Anansie’s hit Hedonism were written at 4am after a break-up, but her co-writer Len Arran insisted it needed a chorus. The finished song was, she said, a mixture of “expertise and emotion”. “There is no fast way of becoming a great songwriter,” she later added. “It takes years of work.”

Skin also welcomed the fact that the industry has been slowly starting to change since the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. “For the first time people have not balked about me talking about things from the point of view of a Black artist,” she noted.

Hopefully next year’s Louder Than Words will take place as planned at Hotel Innside Manchester from November 12-14, 2021. But as a one-off, Louder Online was a triumph.