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 cafés, 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.


Tim Footman said...

Have you read Little Richard's biography? He's quite strange?

Tim Footman said...

Sorry, ignore that second ? I've not fallen prey to Australian rising inflections.

Chris said...

No worries. I haven't read it, but I'd like to think it contains an equivalent scene which Bill was too modest to write up in his own book. Something like:

Bill: Are you the ageing rock 'n' roller they booked for our HI-NRG follow-up to 'Justified and Ancient'?

Little Richard: Might be.

Bill: And who am I?

Little Richard: A chancer who had a number one hit and pretended it was on purpose?

Bill: Correct. What else am I?

Little Richard: I don't have time for this. Let me tell you again, A WOMP-BOMP-A-LOO-BOP, A WOMP-BAM-BOOM!

Bill: MU MU!


Bill: MU MU!

Etc. Anachronistic, but hey.

Seventy Days said...

Thanks for transcribing that quote!

Chris said...

You're welcome. I'm curious about why you burned his letter now. Part of a Bill-style art stunt perhaps?

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