Vikings in the Rear-View Mirror, Humming from the Back Seat

There’s this man, Bill Drummond, who tells us to Imagine Waking Up Tomorrow and All Music Has Disappeared. All instruments and all recording devices, too. We wouldn’t even know what music was, and we would have to re-invent it by using our voices. That is Drummond’s mission. He has fun with the concept, but he is also utterly serious – driven, almost. He gathers people all over the world (prayer groups, schoolkids, construction workers) and tells them that they are part of a choir called ‘The17’. He tells them what to sing and records them. He arranges people in a huge circle, for instance in Berlin, calls the project ‘Surround’, and has them shout at each other like in Chinese Whispers. He has become a performance artist, using print, graffiti and paintings in his latter years, but music and sounds are at the center of what he does, at least in this documentary.

If the name of Bill Drummond does not ring a bell, then maybe you might remember an inventive British pop duo called The KLF. That was him, together with Jimmy Cauty, another Scotsman, who were behind such hits as What Time is Love? or 3 a.m. Eternal or Doctorin’ the Tardis or Last Train to Trancentral. They released one maxi-single after another, refusing to gather their hits on a proper album. When they released the album The White Room, it contained different versions of their hits. Now seeing Drummond in that documentary, which really is called Imagine Waking Up Tomorrow and All Music Has Disappeared, released in 2015, shot and directed by German filmmaker Stefan Schwietert, is like trying to cope with the fact that Kylie Minogue and Andy Galsworthy are somehow the same person.

But of course, there is an unquenchable thirst for music and sounds at the root of what Bill Drummond did and still does. At one pointin the doc, he admits that he is looking for the point zero of music. He decided, just before receiving his Brit Award at the age of 39, he wanted to do something else than yet another KLF track when he turned 40. He did. Jimmy Cauty and him made huge headlines when they burned a million British pounds in cash and filmed the whole thing. Drummond still doesn’t give a reason for that, but I think it served as some kind of very strong catharsis, leaving their disposable pop tunes and the commercial buzz of KLF behind and doing something else. They were brave or crazy enough to sit down with enraged audiences to discuss what they had done with their money, becoming easy targets for abuse. Drummond released MANUAL: How to Have a Number One Hit the Easy Way and a number of books about art, some of them about his own paintings.

Drummond is not an iconoclast or a superficial fool; he does not mind new music technologies such as the iPod, but he is worried about how the music industry presents its perfected, professional products in a way that makes its audience think that they are not up to those standards and really better keep quiet. Drummond actively encourages you to sing, shout, hum and warble. Imagine… is, in parts, an exercise book, inviting you to do simple exercises: Wake up. Don’t get up, don’t turn on the radio. Listen hard. Is that your neighbor getting up? A dripping faucet? A blender, a lawnmower? There is no wrong way of listening, nor of singing. He walks through one city and then the next in his long coat, looking a bit like a musical wizard, trying to find enough people to make a small choir. Drummond works solo, but is one of the most collaborative artists at that.

There is a warning early on in the movie: the choir will not be recorded for posterity. You can only know what The17 sound like if you are part of it. Come on, I thought while watching, the movie will end with the finished piece or an excerpt of it. No, it doesn’t. We get to hear some of the recording, not the finished Garage Band product. It once existed, now no more. We see Drummond and his sound engineer high up on a promontory near the ocean, listening, but we hear only waves and wind. Then we see how the engineer deletes the sound file. Done. This is, of course, in Drummond’s spirit: make your own stuff, listen to your pulse and make a performance out of it. It’s for you and for anybody who is there to listen. Posterity? Let them make their own thing. To Drummond’s mind, music and sound and singing and other forms of art – they’re spontaneous and fleeting – and then on to the next thing. No need to record it.

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