Review: 45, Bill Drummond (2001)

4img_07375 is a collection of essays written during Bill Drummond’s 45th year. It’s a mix of autobiographical sketches and anecdotes, and autobiographically inspired musings on a theme.  These range broadly from his early years of managing Echo and the Bunnymen, through to pre-publication of this paperback edition – the last three essays are a foreword to the book, and two on getting the foreword written and accepted for this edition.
At the beginning Drummond thinks of the title as linking his age to a 45rpm record, with the end of his music career and the beginning of his writing career having come at 33 1/3 years old (in fact, he kept making music. Pictured).  However, midway through he recollects asking his dad when the best period of life is, and his dad answering ‘45, son’. Who knows if this is true, but the answer and Drummond’s thinking around it – about the benefits of less hormones, less desperation – clearly informs this work. Drummond seems to battle throughout with what he knows is a childish need for attention and applause, for public approbation.  The lessening of this desperation allows him more space here.  
This is partly why I liked this book so much:  the underlying theme of being (more) content at 45. As a mid –life autobiography it works well as a counter to Miranda Sawyer’s Out of Time, which I read last year.  There youth itself is the thing. Of course, for her a lot is finding the loss of freedom from family responsibilities stifling (who doesn’t, at least sometimes), but the over-riding sense is that she just misses being young.[1] Here, for Drummond, youth was certainly good for the lack of commitments allowing more time for doing things, for getting out and following ideas, but the possibilities are not over (amusingly, he mentions a couple of times that he now has a familial curfew of midnight for his ‘art-terrorist’ activities, which rather undercuts their anarchic intent). As he writes at the end of ‘Towers, Tunnels and Elderflower Wine’, where late flowering elderflowers serves as a metaphor for mid-life possibility:

At my stage in life the last thing I need is tempting opportunities to disrupt the order of my days.  Especially those tempting opportunities I would have relished in my younger years.  I had already arrived at a comforting acceptance that it was all too late, and nothing could be done.  But no, even at this late stage there is still time to make elderflower wine.  I push my foot down on the accelerator and pull out into the speeding traffic.

There is though a sadness as he is forced to accept he has ‘lost it’ as far as pop-music production is concerned.  At the early stage of making Fuck the Millennium, there is a crisis of confidence and an awareness of shifting priorities as he and Jimmy Cauty ‘are jointly coming to terms with the fact that we’ve lost it, haven’t got a clue, and should be back on our respective farms bringing in the hay’. At 11.30pm they give up and ‘climb into our respective rusting family saloons, each littered with debris left by young children.  Young children who don’t give a shit what their dads do, as long as they are at home to play with.’
They persevere, and the Fuck the Millennium debacle unfolds. Drummond is brave enough to include a long excerpt from a painful review of the show by Johnny Cigarettes in the NME, asking ‘[h]ave they actually done anything of any consequence or meaning as a creative partnership except make four hit records?’.  The assessment is brutal, and I tend to agree: their other activities don’t stand on their own as discrete art projects, but only work, albeit powerfully, as myth making supporting the music. Drummond does not seem to have quite grasped this. Early on he talks of bringing the tricks of the art world – limited editions and so on – into the music world.  Having been forced to reflect on it through reading this book, what gave the KLF and its surrounding mythos such power was their unusual hybridity – the unusual way it brought an art school sensibility into the music, making it more integral to the work than usual (and it is the depth of the integration that was important – god knows there is no shortage of pretentious art school wanker music). But the surrounding activities have little independent value (are mere ‘pranks’ if you’re feeling cruel).
Regardless, he went out there and did it.  The bracing spirit that made The Manual such a great book is present here throughout – and considered explicitly and well in ‘In Praise of Council Homes’: one of my favourites, alongside the later sequence set around Aylesbury library.
Drummond accuses his book of ‘incessant self-mythologizing vanity’.   He also admits to casting himself more lone hero than is reality, largely ignoring the role of relationships in his life (‘maybe it’s because, like many of us, I only ever feel truly alive when I’m out here on my own.  Wandering unnoticed, invisible as can be.’), and to being a not entirely reliable narrator.  I did not mind any of this at all – reading him reflecting on and discussing his work and projects was fascinating.  Even the way he narrates his everyday routine around Aylesbury library is fascinating: what starts as a sideways thought experiment en route to work – an homage to the trainspotter tendencies of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman – develops into an engaging reflection on habit and working practice.  Despite the occasional deliberate mis-direction (later confessed to) one of the strengths of the less autobiographical essays is his honesty as he works through an issue, attested to by the role the essays play in exorcising issues that trouble him – he mentions several times the cathartic effect of writing on Scottish nationalism.  He can then be forgiven these confessed flaws.
Drummond writes well.  Some of the episodes here are pointless (driving round the M25 25 times) or self-indulgent and childish (suspending dead cows from a tree) but taken together they give an invigorating insight into a mind it was a pleasure to watch at work.

[1] To avoid misunderstanding – I enjoyed Sawyer’s book and recommend it to anyone who is as similarly middle aged as me.

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