Bill Drummond on his new book '17'

Bill Drummond has a brain full of ideas and an iPod full of songs he doesn’t listen to. His plan? Groups of singers performing for themselves

  • Bill Drummond on his new book '17'

    An archive shot of rarely-seen-on-camera Bill

  • In 1977 ‘Anarchy in the UK’ by The Sex Pistols held a certain meaning for some of my generation. It was a clarion call. Today that record holds a radically different meaning. For those of my generation it may be loaded with nostalgia for a lost ‘rebellious’ youth. For younger generations it may just sound like an old-fashioned boring record or hang heavy with the mystery and allure of a bygone age.

    The meaning any work of art holds – be it music, visual or literary – is always in flux depending on when it is being listened to, looked at or read and by whom. Without meaning, a work of art has no value or function. Luckily, formally valuable art continues to hold some sort of meaning as an historical artefact, and if they’re extra lucky, as part of a canon.

    The above may be stating the obvious, but for me it was as if the meaning contained in all music was not just changing but draining from it, even as I listened. The more tracks that my iPod had the less there was I wanted to listen to. This was alarming – music had always been important to me; I took pride that my tastes had ranged far and wide. I tried various methods to re-engage with the music that was out there on offer. But the more I tried, the less it worked. Everything I heard, even the newest of tracks, was all beginning to sound old fashioned, from another era, already something in that museum.

    A vastly subjective theory started to evolve in my imagination. This is it: as the twentieth century unfolded and the technology to record music developed, all forms of music were seduced by the charms and opportunities this technology offered. Slight compromises by music and subtle changes in our relationship with it had to be made to fit the demands of this technology. For us, the listeners, this mattered little. We now had the opportunity to hear music from all around the world – even music made before we were born. As the decades slipped by we never noticed that all this music was morphing into becoming one overriding genre, that of ‘recorded music’. In the early years of this century one more subtle change in our relationship with ‘recorded music’ crept over a line. With the help of the iPod we could be listening to this recorded music anywhere, any time, while doing almost anything. The Walkman never came close. In allowing this subtle change we had finally cut the vast majority of music off from being about time, place and occasion, thus much of what gives music meaning was being castrated.

    Drummond base: the sexy staff of Domino

    With the rise and rise of ticket sales for concerts and festivals I guessed I was not the only one to be suffering this problem. But for me, most of the live music on offer seemed to exist only in the shadow of recorded music. It was either being produced by those promoting the recorded music they currently had on offer, or to trigger off nostalgia for the recorded music they once made, or in the hope they may get a recording contract.

    A plan started to evolve in how to deal with my problem. For decades I’ve had this internal choir in my head. At times this choir has made massive swirling, almost frightening, music – at other times a beautiful, ethereal whisper. There was never any real melody or rhythm going on and certainly no lyrical content. At some point the choir took on the name The17. There was no rationale behind the name although I have subsequently made some up.

    About four years ago I made my first attempts at dragging The17 out of my imagination and into some sort of shared reality. This was initially done with a bunch of 17 blokes who could sing. It worked way beyond my wildest dreams. From there I experimented with the idea of The17 in different ways. But right from the off I decided that The17 should never be recorded for posterity, thus the music of The17 would never become ‘recorded music’. After one aborted attempt at a performance of The17 in front of an audience, I came to the conclusion that The17 was not to become ‘mere’ entertainment.

    To hear The17 you have to be in The17, and anyone can be in The17, whether they thought of themselves as singers or not. Basic scores performed by The17 were written by myself and others. These were time-, site- and occasion-specific. One to be performed at the top of a mountain, another inside a jail with 17 prisoners. In 2006 I started to take The17 out into the real world, initially within the safety of music or performance-art festivals across Europe. Each time only 17 tickets would be made available for the performance.

    I would do a bit of an introduction, attempt to allay their fears and then we perform a score. For me it has been important that The17 exists outside of the music industry, not beholden to youth, popular or even high culture. The ideal works for everybody who takes part whatever their background.

    Through 2006 and 2007 I explored in writing a lot of the ideas touched on above; this is being published as a book. I’m currently working on a large scale, city-wide performance of The17 in Derby; this involves working with 100 groups of 17. Each of these is made up of a different work or social group, as in 17 taxi drivers, 17 lollipop ladies, 17 Big Issue sellers etc. In September, I will be in Siberia for a performance by The17 and then in October will be in Derry, leading another citywide performance called ‘Birth, Marriage & Death’. But also, throughout the rest of the year, I’m doing ten performances in London. This tour has a title, ‘The Meaning of Music’. Each performance is with 17 workers at a particular music-world establishment. They will be as follows:

    1 A major entertainment retail store.
    2 An independent record shop.
    3 A national radio station.
    4 A world-renowned amplification manufacturer.
    5 A leading classical music ensemble.
    6 A successful record company.
    7 A stadium band and crew.
    8 An international music publisher.
    9 A highly regarded music college.
    10 A global entertainment corporation.

    So far I’ve done HMV Oxford Street (major retail), Warner/Chappell Music (international publisher) and Domino Records (successful record company). The rest are to follow, although sadly Marshall Amps has declined my overtures. Although The17 has not re-engaged my relationship with the thousands of tracks on my iPod, or any of the other recorded music out there, it has re-engaged me with music in a different way to what I was ever expecting. As of right now I do not know what that is or indeed where The17 may be leading me. As for ‘Anarchy in the UK’, it can stay safely in the museum gathering dust.

    Bill Drummond’s 17 is published by Beautiful Books on July 31.

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