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By Laurence Phelan (27 February, 2000, The Independent)
Laurence Phelan on the unreliable autobiography of Bill Drummond, a situationist prankster who had a hit, burned pounds 1m and exploited Tammy Wynette
Bill Drummond, pop star, artist and prankster, is 45. He grew up in Scotland, although he did spend a summer in Iceland after hitching a ride there on a fishing trawler. He went to art school in Liverpool in the late Seventies, and formed an unsuccessful punk band, Big In Japan, with Ian Broudie and Holly Johnson. Then he managed two rather more successful Liverpudlian bands, The Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen. In 1986, aged 33 1/3, he recorded a solo album entitled The Man and decided to give up making pop music to concentrate on writing. "I promised myself I would not have any further involvement with music until I was 45, when I would make one 45rpm seven-inch record." In fact, he waited about six months before forming a partnership with Jimmy Cauty, and before long they were at the top of the charts with their Dr Who and Sweet sampling, Gary Glitter collaboration "Doctorin' the Tardis". Then they wrote a book called The Manual (or, How to Have a Number One the Easy Way). With the proceeds from "Doctorin' the Tardis", Drummond and Cauty set about making a film, The White Room, of which only the soundtrack was ever completed. They released it as the KLF and it spawned several hit singles. In 1992 they won Brit Award for best British band, and although they didn't carry out their initial plan to cut up a dead sheep on stage and throw buckets of blood over the audience - because the thrash metal band they were performing with were vegetarians - Drummond did fire machine-gun blanks into the audience before they stormed off stage to the announcement, "The KLF have left the music industry." They left the sheep's carcass outside the hotel where the post-ceremony party was taking place.
The following year, they set up a bogus art foundation - the K Foundation - and announced in a series of full-page newspaper ads that they would be awarding pounds 40,000 to the worst artist of that year. It was awarded to Rachel Whiteread, also winner of the pounds 20,000 Turner prize. The K Foundation's first art-work consisted of pounds 1m in pounds 50 notes, nailed to a board. They valued this work at pounds 500,000, but when they couldn't interest the Tate in exhibiting it, they took it to the island of Jura and set fire to it. This is possibly the act for which they are most notorious.
As well as The Manual, Drummond has written two books in collaboration with Mark Manning. A Bible of Dreams was published by their own vanity press in an edition of 200, hand-printed and bound in blue Nigerian goat- skin, and priced at pounds 500. Bad Wisdom charts their pilgrimage to the North Pole, where they planned to save the world by burying an icon of Elvis. It was published by Penguin but is currently out of print.
Actually, by my reckoning, Drummond is 47 now, but I didn't want to spoil the symbolism of his title. I think everything else above is true, but like the rest of his work, the autobiographical stories that make up 45 are wilfully misleading and perversely contradictory. Whether you enjoy them will depend on whether you see Drummond as a dull and childish attention-seeker, or an interesting and sophisticated one. Overall, 45 is pretty much what you'd expect from a man who's made a career of taking half-baked ideas and instinctive, barely worked out philosophies to illogical extremes. It's also informed by the same high level of insight into the pop music industry that was evident in The Manual. Which is why it's believable when he writes about the making of the KLF's hit "Justified and Ancient", "I felt truly ashamed hearing [Tammy Wynette's] voice, the voice of poor white American womanhood, struggling to find some emotional content in our banal, self-referential lyrics."
Drummond claims that the writing of several pieces in 45 was therapeutic. "From the Shores of Lake Placid" about Echo and the Bunnymen "laid at least seven ghosts to rest" and he hopes that "Great Expectations", in which he recounts his purchase of the sign outside a poster shop ("In stock pounds 7.99: Klee, Klimt, Matisse - Fuck Duchamp's pisspot, this is the greatest ready-made the 20th century has thrown up"), will cure him of the need to spend all his money on art. So, despite all the half-truths and self-effacing irony, and what Drummond calls "the incessant self- mythologising vanity", the stories in 45 strike me as peculiarly and sometimes painfully honest. It appears that, after all this time, he's decided it would be nice if his motives were understood. By himself at least.
And if I'm wrong about that, 45 is still worth reading for the daft aphorisms - "Down escalators are one of the greatest inventions ever" - and all the situationist pranks involving dead cows, Stonehenge and money that never quite made the transition from Drummond's imagination to the real world. n
[Illustration] Caption: Bill Drummond at the Brit Awards, 1992, shortly before firing blanks into the audience
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