Is Bill Drummond our greatest living artist?

Richard Anderson offers an overview on Bill Drummond as artist whilst trying to figure out if Drummond is playing us or merely playing himself

Richard Anderson offers an overview on Bill Drummond as artist whilst trying to figure out if Drummond is playing us or merely playing himself

Emilia Pennanen 2017 © Cannot be used without a written consent by the artist.

Perhaps. Perhaps not. The question itself only invites further questions, so that soon any real attempt to define the man, let alone to define ‘art’ itself becomes so bogged down that it begins to implode under its own gravity. But one thing we do know – Bill Drummond is equally parts unknowable and entirely dull. Bill Drummond is a player of games of his own invention. Often solitary games, with little or no comprehensible meaning to outsiders and just as often games on a global scale – invites, unconditional or otherwise, to join in and fuck with the formula. Or don’t. Drummond doesn’t care, as long as one way or another, he is able to play you, turn you into something or inspire you to think. For all of his chosen media – canvas, music, film, numerology, the blank page – Drummond’s real love, his most prized material of all, is time and culture itself – resistance is futile.

Having cropped up in the wake of the first explosion of punk in Liverpool, armed only with a guitar and a paintbrush, Drummond quickly began releasing records and involving himself in handyman work with local theatre groups. Call it a muse, call it luck or simply call it ‘ease’ – whatever it was – it quickly found him and Bill Drummond found willing mountains to move. There were willing people to lift and willing bands to manage, leading everybody’s careers in unwanted directions as he slavishly pursued a quasi-spiritual path of his own conjuring via their work. Eventually, he found his way into the belly of the pop beast – the nice comfy office at Warner Brothers’ London HQ, the house in the country and the trans-Atlantic flights as and when – all the while being quite plain that this was all, until somebody could prove otherwise, a stunt. A joke? Not quite – there was big money involved and people looked to him for guidance – but not a real job either, not by a long shot. In the early-mid 1980s, Drummond was a puppet master of renown, able to make or break deals and dreams at will. But at any moment – he was clear – he might get up and fuck off. Which is precisely what he did.

In the early-mid 1980s, Drummond was a puppet master of renown, able to make or break deals and dreams at will. But at any moment – he was clear – he might get up and fuck off. Which is precisely what he did.

On then to The JAMs – a Drummond-fronted hip hop outfit from whose sampler nobody was spared. ABBA? Bollocks to ‘em. The Beatles? Shit after they went weird. Sly Stone? Nope. The JAMs came, they sampled and they were sued. All the while, guided and bankrolled by this six foot plus Scotsman who knew the industry and every law he was flouting inside out. But nobody had done this before, and somebody needed to. Just as he’d promised to be The Manager for the entire industry on quitting his office gig in 1986, so Drummond took one for the team again in generating hit after illegal hit with The JAMs. Along with his partner Jimmy Cauty, they developed a taste for billboard defacing proclamations, print media statements and notices, wild promises of intent, non-existent releases and industry baiting leaps from genre-to-genre. From hip hop to trance and rave anthems, unfinished Spanish road movies, an often-promised science fiction novel, a novelty Number One single and accompanying guide book and an endless trail of clues and references tracing back to Robert Anston Wilson’s ‘Illuminatus!’ books. Drummond left no stone unturned in the zen garden of late ‘80s and early ‘90s popular culture. Soon, his KLF brand was selling millions of singles and albums, whilst The JAMs simultaneously released pummelling techno and tried – and failed – to promote their own female offshoot outfit, Disco 2000.

Then he and Cauty burnt a million quid. Just like that, Drummond changed tack. Pop music was out, art foundations were in. The leap caught everybody off guard as they tried to piece together a pop group and the contemporary art world. But this wasn’t a pop group playing at contemporary art, this was the latest canvas of an artist who had been playing the late 20th Century itself like a virtuoso fiddler for fifteen years and who was now turning his attention back on the art world. They didn’t want to know, of course – various attempts to sell and exhibit works of unpredictable quality failed to ignite the imagination – until money – the big dollar dollar – swung into view. Drummond was by now incredibly rich. He had climbed more mountains than he could possibly have imagined, every step fuelled by imagination and creativity of a kind rarely seen and the rewards had been bounteous. But the moment he dipped his toe into the mundane – the gallery, the critic and so on – the magic, and the magi, dried up. What to do but throw money at the problem? Full page advertisements were taken out across the press – each of them, it must be said, brilliant in their hubris and their simplicity – forty thousand pounds was nailed to a piece of wood and the Turner Awards were muscled in on. Money! It never fails to catch the attention, and here it was presented afresh, as a plaything. As a child might throw a pot of paint around the nursery, so Drummond hit his savings and began to throw money around. He gave it away, he burnt it, he tried to exhibit the remains. He toured the country discussing all of the above and still, besides the great ‘Why did you do that?’ nobody cared.

 

He gave it away, he burnt it, he tried to exhibit the remains. He toured the country discussing all of the above and still, besides the great ‘Why did you do that?’ nobody cared

So he retired and began writing books. Was this the same guy who’d been prancing around countless pop promos with a horn on his head and a chainsaw to his guitar a few years beforehand? It says so here… By the mid-1990s, Drummond had established his own vanity publishing imprint, Penkiln Burn, and begun issuing his own small books, pamphlets and, finally, memoirs. Sure, there were a few KLF related anecdotes, but they were footnotes in the main to the history of a bigger, larger body of work. From that point on Drummond became, in a sense, his own canvas, his life itself ‘the piece’. Always armed with the cash to quickly realise his ideas (money, by now, his established means of manipulating any chosen media), he embarked on a series of projects. Ranging from the ingenious The 17 for example, for which recorded music was abandoned and forgotten in favour of a spontaneously scored live choral performances – to the excruciatingly self-important and dull – sweeping the streets, making beds and so on. As the 20th Century’s spark went out and we disappeared into the post-cultural question mark that is the 21st Century, so too did Drummond’s vigour seem to desert him. Still he plays with the everyday – you might pass him at any moment making soup for some vaguely stated reason or taking part in a long ago plotted, but still strictly-adhered to tour of somewheres that once meant something to him. Drummond has developed the air of an artist in retirement, entertaining himself for his own sake. Keeping the old marbles ticking over and resisting the pull of daytime TV.

And now this.

Liverpool, August 2017. The JAMs are, so to speak, ‘back’. Keeping to one of those long-forgotten promises that meant nothing to anybody but himself, Drummond – with Cauty at his side – has returned after a twenty three year moratorium to discuss the burning of a million pounds. He’s also back to sell a book and an array of indulgent merchandise, all of it emblazoned with the legend ‘2023’ – and If I’m being truthful, all this has been done before, not least by Drummond himself. As ever, there are questionable irritants – rumours escape the city of the pair’s disinterest in anybody else’s opinion on why they burned the money. Having gathered everyone there with the express purpose of discussing it – and their remarkable highs – their instructions are that attendees to the three day happening should enthusiastically discuss and promote a non-existent pop group.

As the 20th Century’s spark went out and we disappeared into the post-cultural question mark that is the 21st Century, so too did Drummond’s vigour seem to desert him

Whether or not anybody outside of Drummond and the four hundred attendees at the event care, or whether it will be forgotten the moment he returns to his sweep’s brush, is anybody’s guess. But he will without doubt go about whatever else he does next with the same gusto. You may well find yourself involved, knowingly or otherwise. You may be asked to contribute or to buy something, or you may be told what to do, against your better judgement. All of these things Drummond will continue to do for years to come, until eventually he dies alone and penniless, slumped over a pile of illuminating and enlightening diaries which, at last, explain just what the fuck was going on.

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