So this afternoon I toddled happily down to my local Waterstone's (bookshop) to purchase a ticket to attend a talk and book signing by Bill Drummond on 18 September. I only saw the sign go up last week, and I spent a little while contemplating whether I wanted to come down from Cambridge just to see Bill Drummond give a talk. Then I decided that...yes, I did. Thus fortified with certainty, I went to buy my ticket. And they were sold out! Bill Drummond was sold out at the Gower Street Waterstone's!!
To get some sense of how unlikely this is, you have to know who Bill Drummond is. Simply put, Bill Drummond is a Scottish rock star and eccentric. But simply just does not do the trick in this case. Bear with me.
Okay...a long time ago, there was a band called Echo and the Bunnymen. They became hugely popular in the early eighties, and at one point they went on a tour of the British Isles (I believe) that included many bizarre destinations. Those covering and following the tour were puzzled by the itinerary, and in the end asked the band manager, who'd designed the tour, what was up with the destinations. Whereupon he explained to them that the tour was in the shape of a pair of bunny ears. That manager was Bill Drummond.
Scotland, it seems to me, has a long history of eccentrics. As I believe I've said here before, there are Crazy Scots and there are Sensible Scots. Drummond definitely comes under the heading of Crazy Scots. After he finished working with EatB, he became one half of music duo called the KLF. Let it be said here, I loved the KLF. But the thing about them was, there was a lot to love. The KLF were CRAZY. Let me make that clearer: the KLF were cuh-RAzy. But in a fascinating and absolutely purposive way. How to explain?? Well, Bill Drummond (and Jimmy Cauty, who was the other half) was fascinated by the Illuminatus! novels, which contained a group of political and cultural disruption artists called the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. And he and Cauty took this idea and ran with it. In addition to calling themselves the JAMMS on a number of their songs (including, most obviously, the excellent and supremely double-entendre-ish "Last Train to TransCentral," which includes the immortal command, "Lie down for me and keep looking for the last train to TransCentral"), they created a whole elaborate otherworld in which the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (which is to say, them, only not exactly, since although they dressed up and played the role of the JAMMS the JAMMS were supposed to be real) had complex rites and a whole mythology. There were robes; there were long horns; there was a ship which seemed to be a combination of a Viking longboat and The Flying Dutchman.
I told you they were crazy.
Now, all of this would be really irritating, and I would have little patience with it (having as I do almost no time for pretension or self-indulgence, and this rather dopey film contains a good deal of both), were it not for the music. Ah, the music! Because although Drummond and Cauty had created this bizarre world, they were also samplers and mixers extraordinaire. They did techno dance music of a goodness and intensity so visceral and so immediate that it still slams you in the head. And they had wit. Yeah, yeah, there were robes and horns, but come on! Drummond called himself "King Boy D" (this is a white guy in his mid-thirties); they employed self-referential samples in best ghetto style (including this wittily relevant one by the MC5 in "What Time Is Love?"); for their final extravaganza on Top of the Pops they had two giant dancing ice cream cones. Two giant dancing ice cream cones! And Tammy Wynette singing "Stand by the JAMMS"! The KLF could make you have a hallucinogenic transcendental experience without taking any drugs at all. And they recorded a song called, "It's Grim Up North" - and you know what? It was. (This title, incidentally, runs second only to one by the long-gone Irish post-punk group Fatima Mansions, who called a song "Only Losers Take the Bus.")
Plus, the elaborateness of their mythology, and their mental vision, coupled with their absolute belief in their own system and acts was fascinating to me then. Now I think it has a certain connection to William Blake and his attitudes, so I may admire in it what I admire in Blake (although what that is would be difficult to articulate - certainly the commitment to one's own vision has something to do with it), but then I simply found it an intriguing example of folie a deux, or of the power of popular music to create a rigorous mythology.
In 1991, they were the biggest-selling singles band in the world. If you're anywhere between, say, 30 and 40, and you went out dancing, you danced to the KLF. And, as is the way with huge-selling acts, they were nominated for awards and invited to perform at Britain's major awards ceremony, the Brits. This was, in fact, their farewell performance. It began with Drummond, wearing a long leather coat and a kilt, saying into the microphone, "This is Television Freedom." Then they performed 3 A.M. Eternal with "crusty punk" band Extreme Noise Terror, in what can only be described as a godawful racket. At the end, Drummond whipped out a machine gun loaded with blanks and fired it at the audience. But wait! That's not all! They then dumped a dead sheep outside the afterparty (the KLF have a thing for sheep. That might be another reason why I like them...I seem to have a delight in livestock of all kinds), with a note that said, "I died for ewe." Anarchy, mayhem, leather, AND a bad pun: what's not to love?
And here you really deserve a picture of Bill Drummond, all 6'4" of him, at the Brit Awards:
Drummond was, in short (or in tall), one of music's great provocateurs. Now, you may well be saying at this point that one person's provocateur is another person's moron, and you'd be right, because the next thing the KLF did was burn a million pounds. Yep, that's right - they set it alight and burnt it to cinders as a piece of conceptual art. And that's right where they lost me, because, you know, why not give a million pounds to poor people as a piece of conceptual art? (Or even just give it to one poor person - say, me?)
Then they deleted their back catalogue and vanished for a bit.
Now, however, Bill Drummond is back, back, back. He's started a project called 17, which grew out of his hatred of current mainstream music (which is pretty sucky, let's face it), which in turn seems to have metamorphosed into a hatred of recorded music generally. What he does is travel from place to place, getting (often quite obscure) "choirs" of 17 people to perform a song. Initially, only 17 people were allowed to attend each performance (did I mention he was eccentric?) Finally, it took the form of his recording many of these
performances, mixing them together (I think), playing them in public, just once, and then deleting them forever. Oh, and he's written a book about the whole project. Drummond believes, I'm guessing, that the ephemerality of music is essential to its effect and integrity. Which is okay, but, still, does it seem like the sort of thing that would sell out a bunch of tickets in central London a month before the event? All right, Gower Street is right at the heart of University College London, so I suppose there are a lot of intellectuals about - or maybe they only had, like, ten tickets. Or is the UCL area filled with devoted, long-nursing, fans of the KLF? Or those committed to concept art and postmodern radicalism?
Before I went and didn't get my ticket, I was musing upon Bill Drummond, and it struck me, after listening to a good deal of the KLF and reading about the project, that Bill Drummond is an angry man. A lot of the KLF's music verges on the violent, and certainly is driving and intense - of course, this is true of any heavily beat-driven music, and they did a good deal of ambient trance, too. But, still, it's propulsive and, well, violent. And this project seems to be driven by a kind of rage, too: rage that the world is less than it used to be, that it can't be the way it was - or never was but is remembered as being. Curious.
Well, the short (or, not at all tall) version of the story is that I got a ticket for the talk at the Piccadilly Waterstone's. If he takes questions from the audience I might ask him if he feels his worldview stems from Calvinism in any way, although I'd have to do a bit more thinking before I could articulate what I meant - perhaps that I hear in both of them an intense anger that people can't be the way they should be. Or maybe I'll just ask him if he likes William Blake...