Bill Drummond and The17 – Northampton Fish Market

On Saturday I took part in a performance in Northampton, England of the17 organised by Bill Drummond. It began in the Northampton Fish Market Gallery.

Bill Drummond is an art agitator in the UK that has been involved in a number of psychologically challenging projects (burning a million quid, taking an effigy of Elvis to the north Pole) and has a musical history that began with his management of Echo and the Bunnymen which he then left to form his own band – The KLF. Check out more about Bill here. His main output appears to be writing now but one of his ongoing music projects is a ‘post nuclear’ choir where Bill imagines that all music has dissapeared and we begin again from year zero.

What is The 17?

Bill has some simple manifesto posters that he uses to explain it – I don’t need to paraphrase

Having read Bills book about this project it prompted me to check out this event which was only an hours drive from where we were. As ever, leaving the house with my girlfriend can sometimes take longer than preferred and we left ourselves with 20 mins to get to Northampton fish market to register. Only the 1st one hundred people were to be allowed to register and take part. We broke the speed limit and got there to discover that the Northampton Fishmarket Gallery wasn’t so busy and we were numbers 7+8 on the registration form. My agitation at missing out dissipated but my girlfriends agitation at my agitation took a little longer to leave.

The gallery was big and open. We had some nibbles, a cider and waited. I bought a nice artwork made by cutting out paper. It showed a sad man with his feet dangling over a hole and at the bottom of this hole in the forest there was a red heart. All cut out of paper on yellow, black and one splash of red. We watched the mechanical pigeon on the rafters drop out it’s fake poo periodically and people slowly assembled.

Awards for top three outfits
1. The lady with a Vivienne Westwood stylings replete with bright red ’17 t-shirt’ and red hair.
2. The denim jacket with “Bring me noise!” in primal white daubs from a big brush
3. The chique Nouvelle Vague t-shirt. I bought their record recently after trying on a tweed suit in Scotland and in some ways this was the most punk thing to wear to such an event. Nouvelle Vague are a band that ‘do’ classic songs from dark 80’s rock bands like Echo and the Bunneymen and further, do it in a latin lounge style with a succession of singers that never jump out but merely smoulder in the background. It’s a derivative of a derivative of a derivative. It’s the ultimate anti-the17 statement here.

The Surround Score
My girlfriend and me were taking part in a score called ‘Surround’. The full version of SURROUND will be performed in Beijing, China in August 2009 – we were at the English trial-run.

Rather than use notation for scores Bill uses the everyman approach of plain text to describe how the choir should perform each score.

The idea in Northampton was to position 100 people around the streets of Northampton at intervals of 40-50m around a 5 kilometre circumference of a circle. Each spot was marked by a spray painted 17 logo on the pavement/wall/pole.

The score was to pass on a throaty shout descending to the note A from note C around the circle 5 times among the 100 people. The complication of having each 10th person begin the shout simultaneously and then pass it on clockwise was jettisoned when the logistical difficulty of having them notified at the same time became tricky. I guess that would need either a firework or 10 mobile phones calling another 10 mobiles of every 10th participant.

Quickly it was opted to have it begin with one person who would get a phone call to start.

We got Bills inspiring intro to the concept and the piece Surround and he got us all to practise the ‘Hey Ho’ shout so we were confident. It had to be loud as not everyone had line of sight with one another. My girlfriend was relieved she didn’t have to sing ‘professionally’ or know what the note of C was but I was a bit disappointed that the only post-music expression I could input would be the volume or character of my shout. Other scores have called for chanting, free utterances or meditation on skylarks ascending. No matter.

100+ of us trooped out of the fishmarket following Bill.

Each person was dropped off at their point. I wangled to get us dropped off early as I needed a pee and spotted an early 17 in spray paint outside a working mans club. A photographer took shots of everyones foot next to their spray painted 17 but mine was on a wall and I was full of pee so they had to take one of my face for safety. Being dropped off early meant there was time to kill until the other 85 people had trooped the 5km and been dropped off. We hung about and got to know our new neighbours dotted behind and in front of us. Ten minutes later the bloke near me decided to abandon his post as he needed to get his bus. This was a bit of frustration as the magic line and number had been broken. Bill was obsessive about there being exactly 100 otherwise it ‘wouldn’t work’. I spoke to our line and said to ask passers by.

This stand-in job is a difficult sell to someone in 2 mins and I got a variety of responses including

  • I’ll do it if your girlfriend up the road there gives me head (from someone on the way to see their girlfriend)
  • I’ll do it – I’m just away home to get my Elvis costume
  • How much will I get paid?

One of the girls two numbers up the line managed to call a friend and get her down. She would be here in 10 minutes.

Passers by in cars were hooting and noticing the pattern of people on the street. It was fun in the build up.

The replacement member of the 17 choir arrived 4 seconds before we had to do our thing. Destiny called out and we were not found wanting.

We all shouted ‘hey ho’ five times to one another and passed our energy around the circle. Shout number 3 seemed to be far too quick after shout number 2 and I susepct that a mis-fire happened somewhere along the line.

We trooped back to the Fishmarket Gallery to get our photo taken – drunkards from the pub were shooed out of the shot which would be only of the 100 with the photo being displayed on the wall of the gallery. I’m the one with the coffee cup and glasses.

Thoughts on my ‘the17’

  • I love the concept but not the one I was in. The realisation of the score didn’t touch on the new concepts of music I was hoping it would. I wanted a less mechanised shout and something that could evolve further and go deeper.
  • The ‘piece’ was too short. Short burst versions of the17 (i.e. less than 3-4 minutes) don’t prompt the participants to reveal more of themselves to one another. This score didn’t require anything other than good natured but ultimately distant participation.
  • The group camaraderie was fun – there are definitely not enough reasons for small dynamic groups to bond and have a connection – this project has this shared experience at its core
  • For most of the other Scores Bill did an audio recording of the event and then played it back at the end. Importantly, for Bill, the recordings were always deleted when the participants had heard it only once – the only remnant being in memories or Bills book notes. For events that didn’t take place in the same temporal timeframe (i.e. recording 4 different schools on four different days) he collated and layered them on top of one another for playback and subsequent deletion. I would have liked to have seen an attempt to record our piece – it could have been done on a) our mobile phones b) an omni directional from a silent helicopter or kite;) or c) from 5 or 6 strategically positioned mics. I miss the ceremony of playback and deletion that the book pimped.

At the end of the piece I said a quick Hello to Bill and told him I’d mail him about Electroraga.

Check out, take part, challenge your thoughts about music.

“Bill Drummonds fundamentalism is the roar of the universe – lang may his lum reek.”

Why I Love Captain Beefheart

Here are some reasons why I love Don Van Vliet or Captain Beefheart as he was otherwise known.

His musical work was mainly conducted with a rotating assembly of musicians called the Magic Band, which was active from the mid-1960s through to the early 1980s. Van Vliet was primarily a singer, but played harmonica and very nutty saxophone. His compositions are characterized by their odd mixtures of shifting time signatures and by their surreal lyrics, while Van Vliet himself is noted for his dictatorial approach to his musicians and for his enigmatic relationship with the public.

Here are my reasons…..

1. He Helped Get Me Into Indian Music

I think most of us under-estimate the influence of rhythms in our lives or rather the lack of variety in them.

Capn Beefheart used to say that all the rock and roll music and pop (4/4 rock beat or Waltz mostly) was hankering after being back in the womb and hearing the consistent thud thud of your mothers heart. He said that it was appeasement music …boom cha boom boom cha… predictable and that we were kids for feeling happy and comfortable with these simple first rhythms – we hadn’t moved on. Actually most rock, soul, funk, blues is the same too.

The Captain used to say of Frank Zappa, his alleged mentor, that

“Frank believes in time and we could never get it together. He writes all his music and gets sentimental about good old rock ‘n’ roll, but that’s appeasement music”.

I’ve mentioned this rhythmic philosophy of the Capn to a lot of the musicians I’ve met and it’s some hard shit to hear for the first time. The whole appeasement thing and sucking on your mothers tit bit I mean. It’s true though – we are addicted to the head nod and the foot tap like mental patients in the corner next to the radio set. The good musicians get this revelation and others don’t wish to hear it at all. Understanding the approach and taking the approach are two different things however.

That’s not to say the Captain didn’t use simple head nod rhythms occasionally – his roots were in Blues and in particluar he took alot from Howlin Wolf and those are of course simple rhtyhms but wonderful expressions of those rhythms. However, over time, Beefheart began to develop a new technique althoghther and developed his patterns around the words and odd phrases of piano…he didn’t truncate the sentence to fit the bar – he just pushed the bar out and that was just the length of the phrase.

Most rhythms we hear are quite predictive – you know what’s coming next. I’m sure we all know when the drum fills come in or the last chorus. Our euphoria gland has been pimped this past long while with the same patterns over and over – we all know the templates and the shapes. Often it’s the only the atmosphere of the instrumentation or the vocal that differentiates the music in any fundamental way.

With unpredictable rhythms they often appear like a cacophony to the listener at first but once you become familiar with the approach you can zone right in. This isn’t 4/4 or a rock beat or a waltz – it’s something else. Indian rhythms and music are often thought of like Captain Beefheart in the West –– initially cacophonous and unmusical – we don’t know where the beat is or what’s going on with the melody – we can’t tap our foot so easy but with practice it comes. It’s like wine or riding a bike – you don’t give up on your first try and I’m glad that I stuck with the Captain and kept listening until I wasn’t listening on the outside of the music I was inside the music and those rhythms seemed like the most natural thing in the world.

Grooving on the strangely structured rhythms of the Captain made me accept rhythm as having a melodic route or structure and not just a backbeat in a traditional form. To be able to break away from existing patterns was the Captains genius and our lesson from him. Ok – that’s reason number 1.

2. Great Songs

Even though Trout Mask Replica is mooted as the Capn’s best or most outlandish work it’s not my favourite album. My favourite album is somewhat ironically one of his most mellow and accessible albums – ClearSpot Kid. A lot of Captain Beefheart albums have some tracks that stand out more than others so I prefer to look at the body of his work and luckily he was quite prolific in his time.

(Get full album list here from the Radar Station – easily the best Captain reference on the web and it’s been running for years 🙂

Diddy Wah Diddy (A+M Sessions) – Bo Diddly cover. Raw and from prehistory.

Electricity (Safe As Milk) – I don’t think another song, other than maybe something by the Chemical Brothers, that conveys electricity so well. The Captains voice is such a rasp here – it sounds like a dropped pilon cable.

Beatle Bones and Smokin Stones (Strictly Personal). Even though I love the Beatles I also love the fact the Captain was irked into having a pop at them on this song.

Ella Guru + the Blimp (Troutmask Replica) – proper leftfield weridness..the Blimp lead vocal was recorded down a telephone.

Lick My Decals Off, Baby + Space Age Couple (Lick My Decals Off Baby) – Beefheartians tend to say this is their favourite album and with good reason – even though the band using their odd-rhtyhms to the full this record is accessible and much fun.

I’m Gonna Booglarize You Baby + Blabber’N Smoke (The Spotlight Kid)

Nowadays a Woman’s Gotta Hit a Man + Sun Zoom Spark + Big Eyed Beans from Venus (ClearSpot). Great record – Sun Zoom Spark is a great chorus and it’s like a guessing game as to when the Captain is going to drop the beat again.

Run Paint Run Run (Doc at the Radar Station). This is one of my all time favourtie Captain songs – A while back in Kerala India (during the Scale sessions ) I did a version of this track. I used a temple instrument called a Nadaswaram which has a reed like a clarinet. The only part that is really the same is the lyric “Run Paint Run Run” because sometimes it’s just too difficult making out what he’s saying or what the band are playing. Of course – if you cover a Beefheart track you daren’t copy it and luckily the Capn builds that shit right in – they are unrepeatable by anyone but him.

3. Nutty Composition Process and Great Guitarists

For some reason the Captain used to attract all kinds of hot and avante garde guitarists who would float around the whole Zappa and Bowie kingdom. These names included : Doug Moon, Alex St. Claire, Ry Cooder, Moris Tepper, Richard Redus and Gary Lucas and more.

The guitarist that stuck with the Captain for the longest time was a fella called Bill Harkleroad who joined the band first for the album Strictly Personal. The Captain used to Christen every body in his band with a new name and low and behold Bill became Zoot Horn Rollo – which is easily better than Bill … see the liner notes for Trout Mask Replica :

ZOOT HORN ROLLO: glass finger guitar, flute

ANTENNAE JIMMY SEMENS: steel-appendage guitar

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: bass clarinet, tenor sax, soprano sax, vocal

THE MASCARA SNAKE: bass clarinet & vocal

ROCKETTE MORTON: bass & narration

DRUMBO: drums

The Captain preferred younger guitarists because they could be moulded more easily. At the mouth of the river would be Beefheart hammering a piano and the drummer (John French or Drumbo) transcribing parts for the other musicians. The parts weren’t all playable but for the most part the guys kept to this ‘score’. Initially that might seem cruel but it undoubtedly made the music unique.

The sound of twisted, spiky and angular guitar was pioneered very heavily by Harkleroad and as his relationship with Beefheart developed he was given increasingly more freedom. Bill said of those crazy early years with the Captain.

“I was 19, my two favorite artists were Zappa and Beefheart, and I was just glad I didn’t have to go to college or join the army and die.”

John Peel said of Beefheart :

“If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in the history of popular music, it’s Beefheart…I heard echoes of his music in some of the records I listened to last week and I’ll hear more echoes in records that I listen to this week”

During the rise of Punk many of it’s leading lights praised Beefheart and claimed influence including John Lydon, The Sex Pistols and the Clash. Many popular modern groups also draw heavily from his well including Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, dEUS, the Pixies and The White Stripes to name a few.

4. Frank’s Philosophy

Here are a few of the great quotes from the Captain

  • “I think nutrition is very important. If you eat bad, you feel bad. If you feel bad, you do bad things. Most of modern rock and roll is a product of guilt. People cop licks off of dead people, like stealing pennies off a dead man’s eyes. The movement needs a bowel movement.”
  • “I don’t believe in time, you know, 4/4 and all that stuff,” Beefheart says.
  • “I guess the reason I use lyrics is because I’m a singer and the record companies and everybody would think I was ridiculous if I didn’t use the English language.”
  • “Don’t wipe the sweat off your instrument. You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.”
  • “A carrot is as close as a rabbit gets to a diamond.”
  • “Everybody’s colored or else you wouldn’t be able to see them.”
  • “I’m not really here, I just stick around for my friends.”
  • “Old Delta blues players referred to guitar amplifiers as the “devil box.” And they were right. You have to be an equal opportunity employerin terms of who you’re brining over from the other side. Electricity attracts devils and demons. Other instruments attract other spirits. An acoustic guitar attracts Casper. A mandolin attracts Wendy. But an electric guitar attracts Beelzebub.”
  • If you’re guilty of thinking, you’re out. If your brain is part of the process, you’re missing it. You should play like a drowning man, struggling to reach shore. If you can trap that feeling, then you have something that is fur bearing.

5. Recording Lore

The story of recording Trout Mask Replica is fantastic ….

For the rehearsals of Trout Mask Replica – the captains most famous album. – the Magic band were holed up in a house in the the Woodland Hills. Only one of them was allowed out once a week to get the basic supplies of lentils and stuff and then back onto the rehearsals – which lasted a month.

Bill the guitarist for Troutmask replica recalls his memories of the time:

“the side of the music that most people don’t want the hear about is how manipulative this older guy was with these 19-year-old kids. It was only ten yards short of a Manson situation. We would play 12 to 16 hours a day, fall on the floor, and them wake up and do it again. Our hero was a brilliant person with half his energy running on extreme paranoia. He’d talk to us for 36 hours straight, telling use that our hand position in the air wasn’t artistic enough.”

The band played the whole record until they knew it inside out. They went to the studio ran by Frank Zappa, set up and got a sound. Frank hit the record button and the band played it to the end. Frank said “great rehearsal” guys let’s do some more takes. The Captain said “that’s the record Frank” and then they packed up and left.

6. He Also Painted

Now Beefheart lives out in the Arizona desert. He retired from music after the album Ice Cream for Crow and lives with his wife and cat. He paints a lot of the time and although there is nothing officially released about his current health he is suffering from a long term illness.

The Captains paitings come at the right time in his life….no running around the music business madness and time to be private in the desert that he loves. The paintings contain the same spirit that the music. Beefheart was a real artist and not a Xerox copy like so many others.

See this link for an index of his paintings


So that’s why I love Captain Beefheart.