Review: Louder Than Words, The Principal Hotel, Manchester

Chris Difford of Squeeze at Louder Than Words at The Principal Hotel, Manchester.
Chris Difford of Squeeze at Louder Than Words at The Principal Hotel, Manchester.
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Now in its sixth year, Louder Than Words, Britain’s only literary festival solely dedicated to music writing, continues to go from strength to strength.

Founded by Jill Adam, a former teacher and chairman of Harrogate International Festivals who now specialises in partnership work across education, the arts, sport, and the journalist and musician John Robb, the three-day event offers a unique chance to hear music writers, authors and academics in conversation with punk, pop and rock stars.

One of Saturday’s highlights was Robb’s highly entertaining interrogation of rock photographer Kevin Cummins, whose new book Morrissey: Alone and Palely Loitering is a photographic account of the former Smiths singer from 1983 to 1994. From the off, it seemed Morrissey had a clear understanding of rock iconography. “He’s the only person I’ve ever photographed who wears a T-shirt with his own photograph on it,” Cummins said, noting the singer’s ability to look beyond the camera and straight at his intended audience.

Where the Manic Street Preachers apparently spent two weeks preparing for their first cover shoot with the NME, Morrissey clearly worked out ideas in advance too, from the easily tear-able shirts he wears on stage to carrying a jigsaw bearing his own face while on tour. “He’s very aware of how he should look,” said Cummins, explaining the pair worked in collaboration and that Morrissey “understands the visual aspect is as important as the spoken word”.

There were asides on Joy Division, Jeffrey Archer, Mark E Smith and a photo shoot with one of Cummins’ musical heroes David Bowie, who he photographed in his Tin Machine phase. “I was too nervous to photograph him and art direct him,” Cummins admitted, telling how he’d wasted “reel after reel” on unusable photographs of the star who’d insisted on wearing a “terrible Versace blouson jacket”. It was only when Bowie changed into a plaid shirt and was sat smoking at rehearsals that Cummins got his cover shot, which the NME ran with the tagline ‘Ciggy Stardust’.

Cummins revealed an ambition to do a series of portraits of all protagonists from the start of the Manchester music scene as they appear now, “looking weathered”.

Glam v Prog: The Great 1970s Heavyweight Championship proved great knockabout fun. Staged over five rounds, it featured academic and author Simon Philo in the Glam corner and biographer Darryl Easley as a cape-wearing advocate for Prog rock, with an audience vote at the end of each round.

Where Glam scored on its actual songs, it struggled to match Prog for stagecraft or artwork, with Easley trumping Philo’s valiant case for a haloed Marc Bolan wielding a guitar by a giant amplifier on the cover of Electric Warrior by producing a gatefold Genesis sleeve featuring a pop-up badger, Easley had to concede Glam’s “exceptionally in-your-face” personalities couldn’t be matched by the more earnest figures in Prog. With the two sides drawing when it came to legacy, the final decision on which was better came down to a single vote in favour of Glam’s poptastic supremacy.

Upstairs in the Director’s Suite, Easley’s conversation with Squeeze singer-songwriter Chris Difford on the latter’s memoir Some Fantastic Place was thoughtful, insightful and full of wry observation. Where the book was conceived as a series of chapters devoted to the places in which Difford has lived, the chat ranged from his south London roots to the early days of Squeeze, his up-and-down relationship with co-writer Glenn Tilbrook, his lasting friendship with Jools Holland, and the modern-day renaissance of his band.

Difford’s account of his younger years, living with the rest of his family in a prefab house in Greenwich, “a wonderful experience crammed into two rooms”, was particularly revealing. He recalled the “homely smell of roast potatoes, custard and Fairy Liquid” and how, as the youngest of the brood, he spent much of his time “left under the table, speaking only when I was spoken to”. There he conjured up imaginary friends who lasted “until I was about 15”. After attending a school where “the teachers did not give a toss about us”, he fell in with a gang of skinheads who were into ska and Tamla Motown and “just about got on until we went to Charlton football ground then it all kicked off”.

Meeting Tilbrook in 1973 would change his life, although there was, he admitted, an initial culture shock as Tilbrook and his then girlfriend were hippies. “They were like Mary and Joseph and I was the donkey in the middle.”

Their comradeship over the next 45 years has not been without “great differences” but latterly they have come to recognise their “great similarities” too. “We fell into a Bernie Taupin/Elton John relationship – all on the spin of 50p for an ad in a sweet shop window which I stole from my Mum’s purse,” Difford said. “That 50p has defined my life and is why I’m here today.”

While admitting there have been battles with alcoholism and depression along the way, today Difford seems to be in a happier place, juggling band duties with managing other artists. He sets each January and February aside as “a lovely nesting time” when he can sit at his desk and write, he says, explaining the space is necessary to set aside negativity. “I can sit down and distil my thoughts and write about as many positive things as I can.”

Rounding off with acoustic renditions of Take Me I’m Yours, Up The Junction and Cool For Cats, Difford briefly stopped to sign copies of his book before heading off for a gig in Barton-on-Humber, for ever the working musician.

Our day ended with former NME colleagues David Stubbs and Martin James talking about Stubbs’ history of electronic music, Mars By 1980. The discussion was wide-ranging, and encompassed avant-garde composers such as Stockhausen and Schaeffer, who disdained the synthesiser music of the 70s and 80s that their own work laid the groundwork for, the Futuristic movement the Art of Noise, Jean-Jacques Perrey and his “dolphin orchestras”, and the innovations of Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, as well as Krafwerk, who, Stubbs noted, were “strangely unappreciated in Germany to this day” yet massively influenced the course of Anglo-American electronic music. Drawing on the Bauhaus movement, the group’s meditations on man machines and art and function struck a chord with David Bowie, who would go on to proselytise about them, as well as African-American musicians such as Afrika Bambaata, the British synth-pop exponent Gary Numan, and experimental composers such as Robert Rental and Thomas Leer.

Where rock was “a conservative medium, a genre whose narrative has come to a halt”, according to Stubbs, because it was based on star system that died with the “music weekly inkies”, electronic music’s future was wide open, he believed, “as a way of amplifying human experience”, driven by sub-genres such as minimal techno, drum & bass and bashment plus innovators such as Ricardo Villalobos and Pharrell Williams.