A rock rebel starts music all over again

Refusing to ever play the same music twice, Bill Drummond credibly promises unpredictability during his ‘performance lectures’ here.

bill drummond_311 (photo credit: courtesy)
bill drummond_311
(photo credit: courtesy)
Anyone planning to attend one of the performance lectures this week by Scottish musician/author Bill Drummond had better be aware of two things – they will be part of the show and there won’t be taking home any recorded mementos of the evening.
The iconoclast artist whose career has ranged from 1980s pop star with Big in Japan and KLF, to record producer, conceptual artist, cult author and avant-garde performance artist (he infamously publicly burned a million pounds of KLF record royalties in 1994) no longer believes in the institution of recorded music.
“Through the 20th century as the technology to record music evolved, it seemed to seduce every form of music. As a result, music became something for us to consume, and as result has lost much of its meaning,” said the 57-year-old Drummond from his London home last week.
“Then around the beginning of the century, when we got the iPod in our pockets, we could be walking around theoretically with every piece of recorded music you could ever want to listen to. I enjoy technological innovation and usually find it inspiring, but this development of having music on tap any moment has changed our relationship with recorded music. This ubiquity of recorded music was a sign of its turning point of it evolving into something worthless.”
In 2006, Drummond decided to bring value back to music in an offbeat way by founding The17, an everevolving musical choir that never performs the same material twice, never includes the same performers and is never, ever recorded.
Among the ten items Drummond wrote for The17 manifesto are: ‘The17 makes music using no words, rhythm or melody,’ and ‘The17 will never be heard on TV, radio or the Internet.’
“It sounds like a cliché, but I wanted to start music all over again, and for me that means making music that celebrates time, place and occasion," said Drummond.
“We’ve gotten used to consuming music as entertainment. In The17, there is entertainment involved but sometimes it works the other way. I’m not trying to drag people back to the ago before recorded music, but back then music had different functions – it was used to go into battle, or to mark the death of somebody. I guess that’s what in some ways I’m trying to embrace.”
For those who were expecting to sit back and enjoy Drummond this week during his visit to Israel – on Monday, at Levontin 7, in Tel Aviv, Tuesday at an afternoon performance to students of the Bezalel Art and Design Academy Jerusalem, Har Hatzofim Campus, which is open to the public or Wednesday night’s show at Yaffo 23 in Jerusalem – they may want to glance at the ninth item on The17’s manifesto: ‘The17 has no audience, other than those taking part in The17.’
“Everybody’s who’s there at the lecture becomes The17 – there’s never an audience. It’s not like ‘there are performers and there’s an audience’ – everyone is there,” said Drummond, adding that the number of members is irrelevant. “Sometimes The17 can be 17 people, sometimes it’s 1000, and sometimes just one person.”
And the results can vary from the sublime to the silly.
“Sometimes I’m surprised or delighted and sometimes I’m devastated,” said Drummond.
“Sometimes it s a thing of beauty, but another show can go completely wrong, but that’s all part of it.”
THAT ARTISTIC tightrope walking has reflected Drummond’s career ever since he left art studies at the Liverpool School of Arts in 1973. When his short-lived career in Big in Japan along with future stars Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood imploded in the late 1970s, he became a music mogul launching Zoo Records and managing the careers of British post-punk bands Echo & the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes.
That led to a stint in the 1980s in the mainstream music business as a Warner Brothers Records executive, which he famously curtailed in 1986 on his 33 and a third birthday by issuing a press release stating: "I will be 33.5 (sic) years old in September, a time for a revolution in my life. There is a mountain to climb the hard way, and I want to see the world from the top...”
Inspired by modern hip hop and techno, Drummond hooked up with musician Jimmy Cauty, and after a number of permeations, debuted as KLF in 1988. The next few years were pop star heaven for Drummond, with hit singles like “What Time is Love” and “Stadium House” as well commercial success and critical acclaim. Even while riding the wave of fame, however, Drummond said he never bought into the idea of living like a pop star.
“I’ve often thought of pop stars and lead singers especially as being the type of people who never learned to drive because they gain power by having to be driven,” said Drummond.
“I hope I’ve never been like that, I like to think I’ve always been the person that is loading the van driving it, getting there on time, making things happen, getting up and seizing the day. But that’s annoying in it own way,” he added with a laugh.
Impulsive as he had always been, Drummond abruptly pulled the plug on KLF in 1992 at the height of their success and deleted the group’s entire back catalogue. He and Cauty founded the K Foundation, ostensibly a foundation for the arts, but establishing ‘worst artists of the year’ awards and creating headlines for outrageous behavior – none more so than the 1994 burning of one million pounds of KLF royalties on a boathouse off a Scottish island which they filmed and took on a lecture tour.
Drummond has never officially explained why he destroyed the money instead of giving it charity, and when asked if he now regretted the decision, only said, “You better ask my children, they could be the ones to answer that. It’s obvious to them, but not to me.”
Following the controversy which had the British press calling him everything from a “cultural magician” to a “high-concept joker” and a “madcap Scottish genius,” Drummond backed away from the music business, writing a number of books including 45 in 1996, Bad Wisdom in 2000 and How to Be an Artist in 2002. It wasn’t until The17 that he turned to music again.
“I never really thought of myself as a musician, I didn’t spend my teenage years dreaming about being a pop star. I went to art school and that experience informed everything I’ve done since then,” said Drummond.
“I write books as an artist, not an author, and I make music as an artist, not a musician.”
And just like he ended his record exec career at a specific time in his life, Drummond already knows when the last performance of The17 will take place – April 28, 2013.
“It’s the day before I turn 60,” he said.
“It’s a time limit that I set and it’s pushing me to explore all the areas I want to within that time frame.
“It’s the same reason why there’ll never be a KLF reunion – it was of its time. It was right or wrong then, but now it could never be right. Some people are musicians for life, they have a hit and people will come to see them play it for years. Jimmy and I never viewed ourselves that way. We felt that was a piece of our lives, it was done and we wanted to get on with other things. There are other things I want to do, and life is short.”
But for Bill Drummond, it’s never dull.