Monday, 12 November 2018

Louder Than Words 2018

2018 marks the sixth year of Manchester's annual Louder Than Words music literary festival, and my fourth year of attending. Whereas for the previous two years the opening night has clashed with leaving do's at work, this time there were no conflicting events scheduled for the Friday. Instead, I was torn to discover that the Saturday night of the festival would clash with the London premiere of Gina Birch and Helen McCookerybook's excellent punk women documentary, Stories from the She-Punks, at Doc'N'Roll Fest. I really hope they manage to tour the film, and that it comes to Manchester, because I really want to see it.

The Principal hotel on Oxford Road was observing it's annual ritual of office workers in black tie and evening dress on a festive works night out when I arrived. This can be quite unnerving to walk into if you're new to Louder Than Words but, thankfully, event volunteers are on hand in the foyer, ready to steer attendees through this bewilderingly posh hotel, and up to the Directors Suite on the 2nd floor for the evenings events.

Friday night:

Gemma Cairney from Radio One was our opening speaker. She was interviewed by two teams of 3rd year Journalism students from Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) working in pairs. MMU and Louder Than Words having formed a partnership of sorts, which is helpful in terms of seeing that students get some industry experience as part of their degrees. The students were a little stiff, but that was probably due to nerves. They were certainly all very professional and clearly well prepared and, overall, they did a good job. Cairney came across as someone who's grown up in public, which might account in part for the sense I got of her being a bit of a wise old soul. It does seem as though millennials are doing their 30's well, and she is no exception to that, though her role as an agony aunt who's written a series of wellbeing related books might account for that as well. I found her to be very likeable.

Afterwards I got talking to two young women who'd been at the event. One of them had asked me to take a picture on her phone of them with Cairney, which I did quite badly unfortunately. They were sweet about it and we got talking by the lift in the corridor afterwards. They'd been to a poetry workshop and the tutor had given them tickets for the Cairney event. They were planning to attend the Slam poetry session on Sunday morning.

While waiting for Guy Pratt to come on I got speaking to Amy, one of the students who had interviewed Gemma Cairney, who was staying on to review the Pratt event. We'd both come along not really knowing much about him or what to expect, and we both ended up enjoying it. I'm not surprised that he was recommended to Louder Than Words after someone saw him performing in Edinburgh because his show (and it was very much A Show) felt a bit Edinburgh Fringe. It's quite an experimental concept in some ways in that he's telling rock'n'roll anecdotes, using guitar to demonstrate certain riffs and points, but he's doing it on his own as stand up essentially.

The show, and it's cultural references, are rooted very much in the Classic Rock oevre, which tends to attract a very particular demographic. It tends to be quite chin stroking and inclined to take itself very seriously. To have a wildly energetic, slightly manic, bass player running about doing impressions of David Coverdale and telling funny stories about Pink Floyd gigs is something of a surprise in that context. It was a marathon, high energy, two hour performance, with an impromptu interval we weren't expecting. Declaring ourselves tired afterwards, Amy and I went our separate ways for home, and bed.


I didn't fancy either of the 10am events on the Saturday but I had some errands to run before heading over to the Principal so stayed on the bus until Piccadilly then headed towards Market Street to finish my Christmas shopping, walking past the Piccadilly Rats in the process. They seemed to be on fine form, with a healthy crowd watching, and very much in rockabilly mode. I couldn't see how the Bez dancers were taking to that as I couldn't see them amidst the crowd watching.

I had two books to return to Central Library in St Peter's Square after that and decided to check out the Manchester music photo exhibition next to the music library while I was there. It is well worth a visit. I liked the punk and post punk images, though I had seen some of the Joy Division ones before, but the bit I liked the best was the montage of Manchester 2018 artists, a series of snapshots that really showcased the diversity of the current scene here. The closing images in the exhibition are two massive enlarged photos from 2017. The first is the One Love concert at Old Trafford in May 2017 and the final one is of the We Love Manchester concert at the re-opening of Manchester Arena in September 2017. Very powerful.

My first Louder Than Words event of the day was 'Writing about music is like dancing about architecture: Music writing panel discussion'. It was a bloody big panel, but I think that was a strength in this case. Said panel was made up of a mix of students, academics, starting out and well established journalists. Martin James, Lucy O'Brien, Simon Morrison and Everett True represented the established journalists, and academia. Emily Oldfield from Louder Than War, Georgia Rawson (formerly of Kerrang!) and a woman who's more on the PR/copywriting side of things, and whose name I can't recall, represented the new. There was also a student from the Chester music journalism course.

My MMU student pal, Amy, from Friday night was there covering it and MMU's journalism department in general were well represented in the audience. It was a wide ranging discussion that took in many facets, including the craft of music journalism versus the perception of music journalism within journalism itself, how music journalism isn't taken seriously, the oppositional working environment of musician's vs journalists, the decline of rigorous, critical journalism*, whether music journalism can be taught at degree level, the blurring of the lines between PR and journalism... Some of these issues are industry wide in terms of journalism, some are specific to the music industry, but they're all important. Initially the discussion felt quite nervy, like everyone was holding their guard a bit, then people relaxed and it became a lot franker and the conversations flowed naturally.

A comment I found very interesting was the assertion that you can't be a music journalist unless you're out there at gigs several nights a week. It made me ask myself a question I've been pondering for a while now: Is what I'm doing music journalism? Increasingly I find myself writing about the stuff that goes on around the music as much as, or sometimes more than, the music itself. I do ingest a lot of new music, but my gig going declined sharply with the rise of the smartphone (and associated dickish behaviour at gigs) and is only really starting to recover in the past year or so. As such, I can go for weeks, or even months in a dry period of inspiration, without going to a single gig.

Even when I was a gig going fanzine writer in the 1990's I tended to prefer no more than two gigs a week and I think that's because I like to pick and savour my gigs, which possibly isn't that helpful an approach as a music journalist, even if it has some logic as a fan. Maybe it's because my access to gigs was slightly delayed and very hard won and, as such, I still tend to view a gig as an event. There is also the financial aspect, it has to be admitted.

My second event of the day was the Madonna: Like A Gay Icon panel discussion next door with Lucy O'Brien (Madonna: Like An Icon), Matt Cain (The Madonna of Bolton) and Darryl W. Bullock (David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 years of LGBT music). It felt very unusual to be attending a panel discussion that had, at it's heart, an unashamedly pop icon as opposed to an icon of rock or electronic music, let alone a panel discussing LGBT artists and allies.

I really liked this panel, not only because all three panellists were very well informed, likeable and funny, but also because while they may have started with Madonna, they didn't talk entirely about her.  Darryl W. Bullock's book seems to be building on John Gill's Queer Noises book of many years ago, and I was interested to hear how far back he'd been able to trace the LGBT trail of influence and representation in music. I also loved Matt Cain's anecdote about the customary opening conversation gambit at Attitude magazine when meeting new starters: 'Which Diva are you?' There was a Mariah camp, a Britney camp... This related to a discussion about gay men and diva's and the long term symbiotic relationship of.

I was flagging a bit after this so I went to 8th Day for a very late dinner and returned to the Principal with a vegan brownie in a box and a bottle of rose lemonade, feeling much, much better. It did mean that I ended up missing Jeanette Lee and Geoff Travis in conversation, but at least I got to people watch some of the attendees of the annual Doki Doki Fest (also in it's sixth year) as they made their way, in full lolita fashion and cosplay attire, to and from Sugden Sports Hall.

My next event was the excellent Jordan and Cathi Unsworth in conversation with John Robb upstairs in the Directors Suite. I was late to arrive to this event and, as such, got a crap view which I tried not to let spoil my enjoyment.  Jordan and Cathi Unsworth are two very intelligent, independent, likeable women, each with their own unique look and personality. Jordan's memoir, which she wrote with Unsworth, is due out in April 2019, and it sounds like it's going to be really, really good. Jordan has only recently re-engaged with punk, but she has a lot to say, and not just about punk. Both of them talked a lot about the pre-punk world and I liked the idea of overlapping worlds and scenes. It sounds as though the book will be quite analytical, but in a good way.

I could have gone to see the Arena: Punk And The Pistols film afterwards, which featured Jordan in it's cast, but I didn't in the end because I had it on video for years and have watched it so often that there's bits I can quote verbatim, even now. I also really, really dislike the ending, for reasons too long to discuss here. Instead I went to the annual club culture's panel: Do Ravers Dream of Electric Beats?

Although this panel discussion took me way outside my musical comfort zone, I really enjoyed it. The idea this year was to take a snapshot/health check of where the UK dance scene is in 2018, 30 years on from the UK's 'Second summer of love'. As the panellists were discussing where they had been in 1988, and what they were doing at the time, I had a flashback to 1990 and my 4th year juniors leaving do at primary school. Said do being an acid house homage done as badly as only well meaning teachers and eleven year old kids can do. We only had one acid house record anyway and, after we'd played it, it was back to Kylie and the 'Lambada'. Needless to say, the panel had far more interesting memories to import.

One of the panellists was Dr Beate Peter, an academic from Germany who now lives in Manchester, and it was really interesting to hear her talk about the cultural differences between Berlin techno and Manchester techno. There was also a guy who'd been DJing in Manchester in the 80s who talked of the three tiers of exposure that had once existed for DJ's whereas now you're either massive or minuscule, no in-between.

I didn't understand everything, but I broadened my understanding a bit.


I ended up going to bed very late on Saturday night/Sunday morning and, as such, was glad of a lie in. Clearly a veggie fried breakfast and a shower were called for.

Because I was leaving the flat later than usual on the Sunday, I'd forgotten that the buses on the A6 would be diverted for the Armistice Day Remembrance event at the town hall and war memorial in Stockport, and that this would impact on my getting into Manchester. It didn't help that all the 192's seemed to be travelling in pairs that morning, meaning there were quite long gaps between buses.

As such, I only just made it to the Principal in time for Stuart Cosgrove, who was talking about the third of his soul trilogy, Harlem 69: The Future of Soul, with Daryl Easlea. Easlea proved to be an adept interviewer who had a good rapport with Cosgrove, and being the master storyteller that he is, Cosgrove was on great form. He  mentioned the significant club heritage on Manchester's Whitworth Street, and ventured to suggest that the whole history of club culture is on that street (Twisted Wheel, The Ritz, Hacienda...) and that a book could be written about it. His knowledge of soul is absolutely forensic, but it's his passion for his subject and his storytelling capacity and interest in characters that's able to sweep an audience along, and hold them.

I went to part of Sheila Rock's conversation with Rudi Esch but left part way through because I wasn't feeling great and wasn't sure about the event itself. Not long after that I decided a sandwich and fresh air were both required.

As such, my final event of the weekend was punk fanzine editor Tony Drayton (Tony D of Ripped and Torn), who was being interviewed by John Robb. Tony D provided an introduction to a book of punk essays I contributed to earlier this year, so I felt inclined to go out of a sense of loyalty, but I also wanted to go because it was a fanzine related event and there haven't been so many of them at Louder Than Words this year. I enjoyed Tony D as much as I'd enjoyed Stuart Cosgrove earlier, albeit for very different reasons. Drayton is a good interviewee, candid and slightly self effacing, and he has really good stories, not just about punk but about the stuff going on around punk, such as squat culture in London.

When I did my British Library punk fanzine research a few years ago now, Ripped and Torn wasn't one of the fanzines that I felt a lot of affection for, but I would say that it served as a good document of the times. I think I like him (as a person) more now than I would have done at the time. It was certainly an absorbing conversation, giving a take on punk that felt fresh. Because John Robb is from a fanzine background as well, he knew to ask about production and distribution/sales, which I liked.

There was a real end of the event feel to things when I emerged from the room. Not as many people were about and there was a definite sense of post event fatigue and tidying going on. I headed back to Piccadilly and caught the bus home.

* - I am guilty of this: Because I don't get paid for most of my work I am considerably un-inclined to waste precious time on the chore of reviewing and writing about artists I don't like, especially when there is so much good stuff out there that I don't have time to write about.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

An interview with Gina Birch and Helen McCookerybook

I didn't get chance to write about this last week, mainly because I was in a hurry to get the piece posted on The F-Word before our site re-design went live.

Anyway, it's been two years in the making, but... (Drumroll please...)

I have interviewed Helen McCookerybook and Gina Birch about their excellent women and punk documentary, Stories of the She-Punks: Music with a different agenda.

Folk who've been reading this blog for a few years may remember that I blogged about the work in progress version of the She-Punks film back in 2016, when times were simpler, there was still hope in the world (erm, a bit of hope? Maybe?) and Boris Johnson was still Mayor of London (I think we can all spot the odd one out in that sentence...) That was when it was shown at the British Library's conference centre in St Pancras to a rapturous response during London's 40 Years of Punk celebrations.

The finished film receives it's London premiere at Doc'N'Roll Fest on Saturday, and it is well worth seeing. Gina and Helen were very generous with their time and gave me a brilliant interview.

We did the interview at the British Library in the cafe on the ground floor, which I settled in earlier in the day having dragged myself away from the £35 plush toy snake in the gift shop. Then Helen and I walked back to Euston together and I honed my 'Finding things to do at Euston station' skills for an hour and a half.

It was good fun and well worth the wait.

Friday, 26 October 2018

Spooky (but not in a Halloween sense) playlist compiling

This month's F-Word Music blog post is now up on the site. Because we are well into the period I like to think of as Peak Touring (new university term, end of year lists pending, Christmas wish lists being compiled...) there has been an awful lot of stuff to cram in this time. 

By comparison, the playlist was pretty easy and came together almost immediately. I think I had to move, maybe, two songs around and that was it, it was done.

It was when I was listening to it back that I realised how very apt a lot of the songs are in terms of the past year. A lot are very pertinent to the #MeToo era and, most recently, the Kavanagh appointment in the US. I feel as though I've been stockpiling these songs in my mind, and in my Spotify lists, just waiting for the right moment to put them all together. 

Some are from new artists, some are from established artists. Some were recorded for major labels, some were self released. But what they all seem to share is a kind of conscious or unconscious commentary on the state of womanhood and the world in 2018. 

I'm really pleased that so many artists have tapped into their inner rage this year. It would be nice to live in a utopian world, or at least a more restful one, but that seems remote and, as with all art, music reflects that. And provides a source of inspiration and solace in a fucked up world.

Image is the cover image for Laura Gibson's new album Goners. It is out now. 

Monday, 22 October 2018

Analogue introspection, part 2, over on Medium...

On Saturday I published what I like to think of as part two of the writing generated during my week without my laptop. Or, my analogue introspection period...

The new piece is about vinyl, the peaks and troughs of vinyl sales and production, the vinyl revival, and 1990s cultural myths. 

It's actually quite a hard piece to sum up in many ways, and I'm glad I wrote it for Medium instead of trying to pitch it to a publication because, frankly, I think it would have been utterly un-pitchable.

It's the kind of piece that wouldn't fit into a music magazine because it's a bit too quaint/weird, but it also wouldn't fit into a women's magazine because it's too specialist/niche interest. It also wouldn't have fitted into a fanzine because I didn't write it in a fanzine style. About the only other place it could have found a home is in a section of experience based writing in an academic publication I think and, even then, it wouldn't have been published in its current form.

I think what I'm trying to say here is:

It's not that writing is hard in itself.

It's finding a home for what you want to write about that's the hard bit.

In that regard, I'm glad Medium exists.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

Friday, 19 October 2018

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Florence + The Machine, Tiny Desk session

To see a different side to Florence + The Machine, and stripped back treatment of some of the songs from High As Hope,  it's worth checking out the recent Tiny Desk session the band did for NPR.

I do like a Tiny Desk session. It's such an intimate environment and, while you can see that Florence is operating very much outside her comfort zone, she bears up well and the gig is great.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Florence + The Machine: Missing links, missing songs

Back in 2016, still very much on a giddy high from seeing Florence + The Machine headline British Summertime, I stumbled across three songs on YouTube by the band that I had never heard before.

The songs in question had clearly been uploaded illegally by fans and, mistakenly it seemed to me, flagged as being songs from the How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful album.

I scoured the internet looking for clues that the three songs - 'Pure Feeling', 'As Far As I Could Get' and 'Conductor' - might have been released as extra tracks on deluxe or international editions of the album, but I never found any trace of them on track listings.

I've always got the impression, from the scant amount of information I've been able to find online, that the three songs do date from the recording sessions for the How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful album. I did, eventually, track down 'As Far As I Could Get', which had been the B Side to the 2015 Record Store Day 12" of 'What Kind of Man', but I was never able to establish the origins of 'Pure Feeling' or 'Conductor'.

As is well known, Florence Welch was emotionally and mentally very unhappy at the time that the album was recorded. She later said that the incredibly beautiful, but harrowing, 'Various Storms & Saints', was a song that she campaigned to have taken off the album because she felt it was "too sad".

If she felt that 'Various Storms & Saints' was going to be too sad for fans, it's easy to see why 'Pure Feeling', 'As Far As I Could Get' and 'Conductor' didn't make the final cut: While the three songs are sonically amazing, they are also - emotionally - the sound of a woman in absolute turmoil.

'Pure Feeling' is an incredibly catchy piece of guitar led pop, in which Welch is singing towards the higher end of her range throughout. The lyrics seem to concern an almost obsessively intense heartbreak that is haunting her to the extent that she is in mental and emotional freefall, the overall effect of the song being to showcase a particularly naked form of vulnerability which makes for a distinctly uneasy listen.

Similarly, the sprawling 'As Far As I Could Get' begins with Welch singing softly and sadly before upping the tension and unleashing the full power of her voice. This is total romantic devastation wrapped up in the stylings of post Patti Smith stream of conscious, with Welch trapped in California, surrounded by sun and palm trees, struggling to come to terms with a particularly traumatic break up.

There's a photo of her in her recent book, Useless Magic, that seems to really sum up this period: Welch is pictured lying by the side of a swimming pool that is lit by brilliant sunshine, far too bright and glittering for the picture to have been taken in the UK. She is dressed scruffily in shorts and a t-shirt which bears the slogan 'HELL'. Her face is turned away from the camera, gazing at the blue water in the pool, her hair is tied back, one hand trails in the water. She looks both haunted and absolutely miserable.

This sense of being haunted is perhaps at it's strongest in the song 'Conductor' which seems to go beyond sadness into anger and, finally, to reach a sort of rueful acceptance. As with it's two sister tracks (I can't help but think of them as interconnected...) the sheer naked honesty draws you in, even as it makes you feel slightly uncomfortable.

Welch has always been a refreshingly honest performer. That this is combined with a love of privacy and tendency towards anxiety can't help but, I suspect, make her professional life difficult. It doesn't seem to stop her though. Just as the How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful album was the child of Lungs and Ceremonials, 2018's High As Hope very much builds on the work begun by How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. Not just sonically, but also lyrically and thematically.

I can understand why 'Pure Feeling', 'As Far As I Could Get' and 'Conductor' were not more widely released, just as I can understand why 'Which Witch' didn't go beyond demo stage. Those songs are jaw droopingly good but they're also incredibly dark and there comes a point, it's to be suspected, when a move towards the light feels a saner option in the long term for any performer. That doesn't mean that darkness is no longer a part of Welch's work - clearly it is - just that there are points when it feels right to say 'No'.