Buying ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ as your first ever record must be like visiting Venice—everything else is a bit of a letdown. And maybe like Bill Drummond you’d come up with the conclusion that in 2008 ‘all recorded music has run its course’. Perhaps it might have been better if that initial purchase had been ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’ by Wings say, the sonic equivalent of being brought up in East Kilbride. After that, everything else can’t help but be fantastic. Poor Bill, a tin Pol Pot who craves a year zero for music; he remains the quixotic iconoclast embracing his ambiguities, openly fessing up to being ‘an unreconstructed post-modern man’ who ‘cannot help all that looking back’.
As with Michael Landy’s ‘Breakdown’, 2001, Drummond trashes once treasured possessions that now seem oppressive. He hates nostalgia but can’t help peppering the text with examples of old flames like The Shangri-Las or Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother . Time is against him and he demands The New, hence The 17 choir project this volume is framed around. The17 are various audiences of 17 people, who Drummond records in vocalisations that are played back to them, then deleted. If you haven’t heard it then you can only imagine.
Written in the form of a journal akin to Brian Eno’s A Year with Swollen Appendices, Drummond is more ill-disciplined than an old glam rocker, as Jerry Sadowitz is to Frankie Boyle perhaps, but still sharper, funnier, if not as ostentatiously cerebral. Drummond is only too aware of the risk of not being taken seriously. He recognises his reputation for dead sheep and signage-stealing ‘high jinx’. Disarmingly he reprints an online critique that his work is ‘conceptualism lite’ or that it is (ouch) ‘Derek Hatton does Fluxus’.
Several scores for The17 are illustrated here and in their fixed-but-open instructions and bold fonts they are really examples of Word Art, art as text—weeny Weiners if you will. Drummond is nothing if not honest in admitting his debt to Yoko Ono, and if his work chimes with the likes of Gavin Bryars’ Portsmouth Sinfonia, he’s accepting of his accidentally absorbed influences.
Drummond’s critical judgements are as refreshingly robust as ever. Badfinger’s albums are ‘dreary tosh’ and U2 are shite. He thankfully turns down Celebrity Big Brother . Somehow, somewhere, long lost Liverpool band the Yachts get a mention. And then, the killer confession—‘maybe I should jack in The17, forget about thinking about music and where it should be going, and become a novelist instead’. He quotes Stewart Home paraphrasing Freud saying that autobiography is a fictional genre. So that’s what he’s up to here then! His long term Zoo associate Dave Balfe accuses him of coming up with a sprawling mass of words which might be as good as any definition of a novel. And suffice to say this is a novel, a Swiftian gag of a novel about a project most of us will never get to hear.
If 17 the novel were an album, then it might be David Bowie’s Lodger —digressive, flitting, it’s a book that hastily packs a bag, anxious to move on to the next thing before there’s any chance of dust settling. Drummond takes in Vienna, Moscow, Stockholm, Tyneside, Kos, Derry and Skye amongst others. Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning gets a fleeting though one suspects highly meaningful mention in a peripatetic tale-cum-travelogue that tells us Drummond is still restless, still chasing after a musical utopia and a yearning for what is foreign.
There is poignancy here as evidenced by Drummond’s mydeath.net website, the joker now playing with what appears to be a straight deck. Adorno writing about Benjamin says, ‘to be near him was like being a child at the moment when the door to the room where the Christmas presents lie waiting opens a crack and the abundance of light overwhelms the eye to the point of tears, more moving and more assured than any brightness that greets the child when he is invited to enter.’
This is what this book suggests Drummond feels about music. Or in less prodigal company the words of Bill’s pet bête noire Bono that will make him groan even if true —deep breath—he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for.
John Quin is a writer based in Berlin and London