Thursday, August 21, 2008

Bill Drummond – ‘17’

Momus has it that in the age of information (i.e. now) everyone will be ‘famous for fifteen people’. Instead of Beatlemania and T-Rexstasy in the 1960s and 1970s, big bands with big budgets and big audiences, what we now have is a far wider choice of recording artists with far smaller fan bases. Bill Drummond, another pop star drawn to the art world in recent years, has the figure at 17. Or rather, in reacting to the same situation, he has come up with alternative future, in which performers and audience merge, and in which no more than 17 people will ever hear the same piece of music. It’s as though he has taken things as they are (or as they are likely to become), and shifted them around a bit, so that the same thing happens by design. Putting the svengali back at the helm of pop, or – now that it has broken up – making his proxies the coxes of a million different rowing boats. Is this beginning to sound contradictory yet? Good.

Drummond’s idea is that recorded music is finished. Everything’s been done before, it’s no longer exciting; for music to evolve it needs to leave behind recording (i.e. painstaking, multi-track recording, intended for the repeated listens of the multitude) and become spontaneous, site-specific. Being a man of action, he has set the ball rolling with The17, a choir he has dreamt up, of ever changing membership, who have forgotten everything they knew about music, except that it is vitally important to them: when they sing they have to re-imagine it from scratch. He has spent the last few years conducting (if that’s the word) performances by The17, gathering different groups of 17 people, presenting them with scores made up of instructions but no musical notation or lyrics. The scores resemble those of ’60s experimental musicians like (struggles to remember, until Bill mentions...) Cornelius Cardew, and the way they allow for chance ties in with the little I know of John Cage. Actually, they don’t look like any Cardew scores that I can find online, but isn’t this one just beautiful?

It’s interesting that Bill never address the popularity part of pop directly. The closest he gets is the disclaimer in chapter one: ‘If you are hoping this book will investigate the more high-profile moments of my progress, DO NOT read any further.’ (p. 7). Of course, his work has always been about mass appeal, and almost always obliquely: The KLF’s legendarily brattish and noisy Brit Awards performance made sense only because of the large number of records they sold in the previous year. The K Foundation’s full page broadsheet ads, even if no-one understood them, were still full page broadsheet ads. Bill’s love of the spectacle is what makes him brilliant, but in his writing he has an almost fanatical aversion to mentioning it. All his efforts in the direction of telling you what he is like have him visiting libraries and supermarket caf├ęs, scribbling away in his notebook; or concocting stupid rules for himself relating to the CDs he is supposed to have stopped caring about; or driving, driving, driving. Only when he has convinced himself that he has convinced the reader that he is the most boring man in Britain will he lose concentration for a chapter or two and let out the most exciting, populist thing you ever heard. Like meeting Little Richard in the early ’80s:

‘Are you the boy from the record company?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And who am I?’

‘Little Richard.’

‘And what is Little Richard?’

I thought fast: ‘The Real King of Rock ’n’ Roll.’

‘That is correct. And what else am I?’

‘It depends.’

‘It depends? I’ll tell you what I am. I am the most beautiful man in show business.’

And he said that with a bit of a shriek and then giggled afterwards as if to let me know that he is OK and quite approachable really.

Then he says, ‘Come closer. I want to see your face properly.’ I move closer.

‘Closer still, boy.’

I move closer again.

‘Real close.’

My face is now about 18 inches from his. He stares into my eyes and then lets out the loudest non-amplified vocal sound I have ever heard in my life.


Unlike Momus, Bill loves the spectacle. He sees it threatened, and responds with an idea which tries to turn fragmentation into a mass event by combining it with experimental music. No one else would be so stupid. He defends his right to make up what he’s doing as he goes along by saying:

As soon as an artist knows what they are doing and how to do it and why, they are dead. (p. 304)

And he’s right. How can you be an explorer if you already have a map? I think the final chapter here is the best thing he’s written, and I won’t spoil it by saying why, but 17 is an appropriate response to our times: concerned with process over product, trying to find a way back to being a fan, when stardom itself is on the wane. And yes, it’s just as good as 45.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Kristin Hersh – ‘Paradoxical Undressing’, St Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh, 17th August

A man who must be Billy, Kristin’s husband and manager, takes to the low stage in a twilit room with an oval roof and an oval skylight. There is a lectern and a large white screen, which will be used for back projections of paintings (by Molly Cliff-Hilts, says the programme). He does some diffusing, tells us we can clap or laugh if we like, or not if we don’t. Leaving the stage, he attracts some applause himself and puts a stop to it: ‘Don’t clap.’ Which is funny, but I wonder why he feels the need to tell us these things? She’s only going to be reading book extracts, surely? There is a book in the works, with the same title as this show, both being ‘inspired by my teenage diaries’. Something like her appearance on Powell’s Books’ ‘Bookcast’, maybe? Her funny and deliberate prose in her deep and rich voice, some scary songs (I listened to this again at lunchtime today – what is the point of being disarming with people, I thought, if you’re going to lay them out cold with ‘Delicate Cutters’ afterwards? Hanging up my coat as I arrived back, putting my tears away). But no. Nothing like that.

She is dressed in white with a black guitar. Electric, but it sounds deep, warm and half acoustic. She plays the whole way through, more languidly than you’d imagine she could – The Grotto is the closest her recorded playing comes to it. The few repeated chords conjure up a spaghetti western desert. She starts to read: ‘The handmade Jesus on Mr and Mrs Boluc’s living room wall has no face, just a gasping, caved-in head with blood dripping down its chest.’ The online text has ‘jerry-rigged Jesus’, which is even better. Her voice doesn’t take you too far from the western idea, this could be the preamble to some lawless tragedy. I close my eyes for the first few minutes, because I can’t breathe, I can’t leave… but that’s not quite it, it isn’t suffocating. There is something in Kristin’s performance, running through it, the whole thing, comparable to whatever it is that runs through her early records. It’s not something that has been consistently present in her work for a long time, though there have always been flashes. A man made of butter fat careening around on a sno cat. It isn’t the same, it’s older, less fraught. It is placid and it is hurt. It is powerful and affecting but it is not oppressive. This is a surprise: the feeling of being belted around the head by ‘Vicky’s Box’ slowed and withstood, brought under control. It is a good and a positive thing.

Songs are interspersed with the readings, ‘Fish’ first, which as an early song you might expect, also ‘Hook in her Head’, vicious, drained of its pop. Then ‘Slippershell’, a much more recent song (from this year’s series of downloads), but it fits in so well. This was another surprising thing: how cohesive Kristin’s songs are, how well songs from different records go together, given a bit of explanation. She describes various animal hallucinations (her arm as a snake, the wolves that made it into ‘Mania’), including some ‘mechanical bees’, before singing part of ‘Buzz’. There are the people living around and about whilst the Muses got under way – junkies and painters (she prefers the junkies), interchangeable house mates, and an old forgotten film star who was somehow at college with Kristin, comes to her shows with her priest and insists that she must flirt with her audience. There is a dream-like description of a car crash, in which her foot falls off and her face becomes a hamburger (‘I’d ask her to help find my foot, but who would want to help someone with a hamburger for a face?’) The biggest laugh of the evening goes to the line ‘Camel shit shoes – don’t wear them in the rain!’ It’s a funny show. Also surreal, sad, spooky. 24 hours later I’m still tingling. And feeling for the first time that I have witnessed something as uncontrollably great as those early Muses records. Totally fucking unmissable – you have until next Saturday to catch the Edinburgh run.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Happy Birthday Beano: The Official 70th Anniversary Exhibition, Lamb Gallery, Dundee University

You hear some strange things about Beano publishers D. C. Thomson, living in Dundee. A colleague at an old job remembered seeing their office in the 1960s: clerks standing at sloped desks with inkwells, straight out of the nineteenth century. And a question to be filled in at a job interview I once had there: ‘Which church do you attend?’ Why on earth would they want to know something like that? A couple of things which make me uneasy about revisiting The Beano now, on the occasion of its 70th birthday. More generally, I can’t help being slightly suspicious of the corporate side of things: The Beano isn’t one artist or writer’s vision, or even an editor’s, it is an accumulation, a movement by trial and error towards the conclusion that naughty kids are what nice kids want to read about. Once it arrived at this very successful idea, some time in the 1950s, it stuck to it, and hadn’t shifted by the time I was reading in the 1980s. Laura Howell’s website describes her current Beano strip Johnny Bean as ‘ASBOs come to Trumpton’, which suggests that not much has changed since then, either. Another part of me – the ten year old boy, who adored the comic – is delighted to go back for another look.

Howell’s short talk at the exhibition opening fuelled my suspicions somewhat: the writing for Johnny Bean is done ‘in house’, she said. By an individual? A committee? It just sounded a bit needlessly secretive. Perhaps the company is slowly becoming less so: artists can now sign their work, at least. When I was reading, you had to identify signed work by the same artists in rival publications (Whizzer & Chips, Buster – the IPC comics) to find out who had drawn what. Beano-only artists (like David Sutherland, who drew Dennis the Menace and The Bash Street Kids) remained anonymous. Howell’s talk was really good, giving a rounded account of what it’s like to be a Beano artist: sketching a set of characters into existence for her own strip, ‘ghosting’ other artists when drawing theirs (‘if the ghosting is well done, the reader shouldn’t be able to tell the difference’), and trying to establish a happy medium between convention and her own drawing style when taking on old favourite Minnie the Minx. She showed us a Manga-influenced updating of Billy the Cat which looked great, made perfect sense.

The exhibition itself is almost entirely comprised of mounted original artwork. It’s fascinating to see the way some strips were put together: drawings cut out and glued on to the main sheet of paper, then drawn on some more to make them fit the boxes*; lettering carefully following ruled lines. As you walk in you have Roger the Dodger, Dennis the Menace and The Bash Street Kids to your left: this is all I saw for some time, in fact, being slightly overawed in their presence. The Bash Street Kids strip is one of Leo Baxendale’s: two pages, one drawing on each, masses of detail as the Kids first look through the glass of an aquarium, then jump in and get a hiding from the creatures within. Dennis is riding a stagecoach pulled by a bull in his strip, and again this takes a whole page. On the gallery tour D. C. Thomson archivist Morris Heggie pointed out that Dennis’ face is drawn on top of several layers of white-out, explaining that artist David Law was something of a perfectionist. Which was unexpected, because his lines are always so shaky. A little further on, into the ’70s, we came to a large Dennis drawing from an annual cover – still shaky, but less so. David Sutherland, also present, explained that this was him ghosting David Law, and contrasted it to the far surer line he used (and still uses) to draw The Bash Street Kids, which – initially at least – found him ghosting Leo Baxendale. This quiet old gentleman has drawn the strip for almost half a century and lives just along the road from here. He didn’t want to give a talk, but agreed to accompany the group around, and answer questions.

As we moved on to the 1980s, the lines in the art became surer still – too much so, perhaps. Particularly in the Grandpa and Tom, Dick and Sally strips (both on show), which were never really up to scratch, being too clean cut. Lettering was replaced with type, stuck to the page with glue, and this reduced the hand-made feel still further. Still, it made the impact of Tom Patterson’s more chaotic style all the greater, of which there is one example on display (not Calamity James, sadly). There is much else in the exhibition to love: some fantastic World War II Lord Snooty strips, some early Dennis the Menaces, an incredible Leo Baxendale Minnie the Minx which verges on war itself (rival gang destroys most of Minnie’s gang’s hut but have to pause for lunch; before they come back, Minnie equips herself with a castle). Standing next to the latter, Heggie told us something of the tensions between Baxendale and the editorial staff: the artist wanting to produce outlandish set pieces the whole time, his editors arguing that the strips should be a bit more normal, that kids didn’t want to have their minds blown every week. He likened the appeal of comics to that of soap operas: people like to be comforted. Which I’m sure is right, but it’s the more ambitious stuff which steals the show here.

The exhibition continues until 20th September.

* Apparently this wasn’t typical: the Roger the Dodger strip shown above was drawn for the weekly comic, then re-sized for an an annual. Each individual frame was slightly enlarged.

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