Post-Rock - Then What? Bill Drummond Says...

Some ten years ago Bill Drummond – a pretentious stain who's successfully post-moderned himself into almost total obscurity – did something utterly unforgivable. He took his midlife crisis and attempted to turn it into an art movement.

Upon realising that he didn't like music as much as he used to, he transformed what was most likely a dopamine release failure into a much wider “problem” with music itself and attempted to instigate an international day of “no music”.

He wrote:

“All recorded music has run its course.
It has all been consumed, traded, downloaded,
understood, heard before, sampled, learned,
revived, judged and found wanting.
Dispense with all previous forms of music and
music-making and start again.
Year zero now.”

And, with all due respect, the moment I read that I immediately lost all respect I could ever have harboured for Mr. Drummond. What a tedious embarrassment of a piss-artist.

Anyway, Mr. Drummond just turned 60, and he spent 17 hours of his sixtieth birthday stood on a manhole cover at the bottom of Liverpool's Matthew Street (because he's Bill Drummond). It turns out that he's been training a choir, and he didn't want to unleash it upon the world before turning 60 (because he's Bill Drummond).

In his words:

“People who have ever had any success within popular music (which I guess includes me) should never think their success gives them the right to do other art forms. The history of pop being littered with examples of highly regarded musicians who then go and embarrass themselves and compromise their achievements by attempting to mount exhibitions, publish novels, compose concertos, or even save the world.

"I did not want to be one of those.”

If his ethics make doing anything such an immense problem, surely he'd be much happier not doing anything at all? I for one would applaud his quiet retirement, so long as it was as quiet as it could possibly be. Silent, even.

But this is interesting. To quote Carrie Bradshaw, I got to thinking...

Specifically, I got to thinking about the subsequent careers of those “who have ever had any success with popular music”. It's fascinating, isn't it? If you've spent a significant portion of your young life playing chords, singing songs and giving interviews, what then?

I'm always keen to find out.

I once read that an ex Boo Radley now teaches IT, and that someone from The Thrills is now quite a whiz at LinkedIn.

And whilst those two fates are, in themselves, quite interesting, I have a couple of case studies which I find to be almost inspirational. As in, despite what Bill Drummond insists, creative minds need not be consigned to a single medium. Everyone's got a “right” to do whatever they want with their lives – not just “other art forms”, Bill.

For starters (and, you'll soon see, that that was a very clever pun), let's look at Sam Herlihy.

Sam used to sing and play in The Hope of the States. Now he writes about food. Sam Herlihy is a food writer. I don't read many food writers, but I don't think I've ever read better.

Sam Herlihy can write. His lyrics for The Hope Of The States could tend to be a bit overwrought, but Jesus Christ, his food writing's incredible. It's tangled, rambling, caustic and utterly delicious. It's like haggis served atop a bed of green spaghetti washed down by cheap wine that tastes expensive.

Some choice excerpts:

“Quorn is to food what Japanese-porn is to porn; weird, the best bits blocked out, really grim and miserable.”

“I have been forced to change my cooking style. Out with my usual spicy Asian Szechuan hipster fatty nonsense and in with plainer food. More simple food? No, I can still render our kitchen as downtown Nagasaki if a fridge had exploded instead of an atom bomb. Quicker food? Nope, I can still take four hours over the cooking. Nicer food? Nah, it’s not my world this butter and potato and rosemary planet. My food is trying to be ‘Bladerunner’ and Raiden from ‘Mortal Kombat’ and this stuff is all period drama Keira Knightly and Mr Darcy britches or something.”

Not only do I want to eat that man's food, I want to listen to him – all night – talk about whatever he wants to talk about. Having read just one of his articles, Sam Herlihy instantly leapt to the top of my fantasy dinner party guestlist. He's not only the guest of honour, though. He's now also the chef.

What makes his writing so compelling is its very groundlessness. His tangents, his anecdotes, his crazy ideas and the impression you get – probably accurate – that he's writing this in one sitting and has something of a cavalier attitude towards editing.

He's apparently burning up with bitterness and resentment (he doesn't have a lot of nice things to say about Morrissey, for example), but never is his writing more engrossing than when he hates on himself. This one, where he talks about finding his first ever restaurant review, is priceless.

But it's never more fascinating than when he veers wildly from the topic of food to talk about what must be his deepest passion – music. This one, on the discrepancy between skill and technique, is truly one of the finest, most compelling pieces of music writing I've ever read.

So that's Sam Herlihy. The Hope Of The States were brilliant, but I do believe that in food writing he may have found his true calling. Take that, Bill.

And then comes Crispian Mills. It may not be wholly accurate to talk about his latest endeavours as a “post” musical career, as Kula Shaker still seem to be an ongoing concern, having released an album as recently as 2010. But again, as much as I enjoy Kula Shaker, I do believe that Crispian Mills was always supposed to be a writer/director.

His debut film is A Fantastic Fear of Everything. It didn't appear to make much of an impact upon release, but having just watched it, I believe it to have all the trappings of a future cult-classic.

It's a strange film set in a strange world. Like the films of Wes Anderson, it's not exactly a period piece, but nothing's new. This is a terrifyingly oppressive world in which bookshelves turn into skulls, launderettes are the scariest places imaginable and you're still allowed to smoke in restaurants. Everybody's dressed like it's the 70s and they listen to gangsta rap on cassette.

Simon Pegg plays Jack, an accidental children's author with a carving knife glued to his hand. He's driven himself to the point of insanity through researching Victorian serial killers, and his life becomes unbearable when he learns that he'll have to visit a launderette.

Jack is like a cross between Withnail and I, and it therefore comes as no surprise that the film's based on a Bruce Robinson short story. But what's truly remarkable was the look and feel of the film. Crispian Mills, responsible for such lyrics as “you're a wizard in a blizzard”, directs like Edgar Wright and Michel Gondry collaborating on an episode of Psychoville. It's unhinged, hysterically stylised and absolutely beautiful to look at. Best of all, though, are the periodic forays into stop motion animation by co-director Chris Hopewell (who was responsible for Radiohead's There There video).

A Fantastic Fear of Everything is one of those films that's “not for everyone” (but what film is?), but it left an indelible mark on me. I won't stop thinking about this film for some time. It's imperfectly structured and, at times, somewhat clumsy in its execution, but credit where it's due - this is a directorial debut. I'm just...stunned that the man who wrote Govinda should go on to create a film that pays tribute to both Michael Mann and The Hedgehog in the Fog. Incredible.

Bill Drummond wouldn't like A Fantastic Fear of Everything, and he'd probably find Sam Herlihy's writing a little tough to swallow. But then, Bill Drummond doesn't actually like anything (because he's Bill Drummond).

Personally, I find it quite wonderful that these two musicians (who were, in the grand scheme of things, “also rans”) should have avoided disappearing completely. That their subsequent work is, in some ways, a lot more appealing than their music perhaps ever was should be a real “egg on the face” moment for old Bill.

I hope for similar changes in direction for all of the stars of Britpop and its immediate aftermath. Maybe Shed Seven could open a holiday camp!


There's No Messing With Doris Lessing

I'm not likely to ever appear on Desert Island Discs, but of the three things they ask of you – seven records, one book and one luxury item – I think I'd have the greatest difficulty in deciding upon a single book to satisfy me for the rest of my days.

Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook is exactly the sort of book to which you could dedicate a few lifetimes and still uncover fresh layers on subsequent reads.

Yes, this book is layered. But it's not layered like an onion – neat, even and stacked – it's layered like a scrunched up ball of paper – violent, overlapping and chaotic. Less than 100 pages in I understood that this – my initial reading – wouldn't be enough. Having finished it this afternoon I was gasping for breath. It's now been added to a pile – alongside James Joyce's Ulysses – of books that I'll need to read again at some point.

And that pile could act as a shortlist for the sort of books that I could happily take to a desert island, though I doubt that even a few decades in the sun would be enough to uncover all that could be uncovered. These aren't Desert Island Books. They're Eternity Books. Afterlife Books.

Like everything written at any point before today, The Golden Notebook is, in parts, a little dated. It's also utterly, horribly overwhelming. It's about so many things that it would be disingenuous to say that it's “about” any one thing, but it can be broadly summed up as an exhaustive exploration – in extreme close-up – of one woman's nervous breakdown, one thought at a time – over 576 demanding pages.

And in detailing this descent, it touches on so many themes that reading The Golden Notebook is like simultaneously reading five heavy novels at once in the back row of a particularly demanding socio-economic lecture.

Art, literature, identity, humanity, creativity, motherhood, communism, race, sex, gender, betrayal, writer's block – you can't describe this book without sounding like David Bowie describing his latest album.

I was very, very pleased to finish, because every single second spent with The Golden Notebook eventually felt unbearably heavy – just like, I imagine, would every single second spent with depression. I'm glad to have come out from the other side, but I don't regret, for one second, having picked up the book in the first place. Maybe I'll return to The Golden Notebook when I've more time on my hands, more experience under my belt and no tempting pristine copy of Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas – freshly donated by a friend. But until then, I feel drained.

But what a wonderful, indispensable draining experience it was. Because Doris Lessing! This was my first exposure to Doris Lessing, but even if I just had the text of The Golden Notebook to go on, I'd already have enough evidence to suggest that even a word as magnificent as “genius” doesn't even begin to describe her.

Because bookending The Golden Notebook was an preface from Lessing – recently written – and an interview. On this initial exposure, I took much more from her non-fiction than I did her fiction, simply because her words and her ideas are nothing short of inspirational – perhaps even life-affirming.

I've been thinking a lot, recently, about the position of critics in our society. Do we need them at all? Probably not. But Lessing puts their role – their responsibilities – in a most intriguing light:

“...writers are looking in the critics for an alter ego, that other self more intelligent than oneself who has seen what one is reaching for, and who judges you only by whether you have matched up to your aim or not... But what he, the writer, is asking is impossible. Why should he expect this extraordinary being, the perfect critic (who does occasionally exist), why should there be anyone else who comprehends what he is trying to do? After all, there is only one person spinning that particular cocoon, only one person whose business it is to spin it...It is not possible for reviewers and critics to provide what they purport to provide – and for which writers so ridiculously and childishly yearn.”

So according to Lessing, critics have an unrealistic idea of their position in society, and writers have nobody but themselves to blame for this, for it was they who placed critics on their pedestal.

But it apparently goes further than this. Lessing believes that, from a very young age, we're conditioned – even brainwashed – to refuse to recognise the true value and intent of what we read.

“It starts when the child is as young as five or six, when he arrives at school. It starts with marks, rewards, “places”, “streams”, stars – and still in many places, stripes. This horserace mentality, the victor and loser way of thinking, leads to “Writer X is, is not, a few paces ahead or Writer Y. Writer Y has fallen behind. In his last book, Writer Z has shown himself to be better than Writer A.” From the very beginning, the child is trained to think in this way: always in terms of comparison, of success, and of failure.”

Lessing extrapolates political connotations from this – children are conditioned to respect authority, to not think for themselves – but when I read this I also applied it to every other kind of criticism – especially music criticism, the obtuse nature of which has given me so much gripe in recent years.

“These children who have spent years inside the training system become critics and reviewers, and cannot give what the author, the artist, so foolishly looks for – imaginative and original judgement. What they can do, and what they do very well, is to tell the writer how the book or play accords with current patterns of feeling and thinking – the climate of opinion.”

When I read that, I wanted to shout: “Ha! Take THAT, every critic with whom I've ever taken issue.” I wanted to reach through the page and give Doris a high five. 15 pages into my first ever exposure to the writing of Doris Lessing, and I already wanted to marry her.

Critics aren't nearly as important at they think they are – or as they want us to think they are. Instead, due to inherent weaknesses instilled from childhood, they are nothing more than, as Doris so brilliantly puts it, “litmus paper”. They're not arbiters of taste and opinion. They're products of taste and opinion – just like everyone else.

Critics – and writers too – could learn a thing or two from Doris. It seems that the relationship will always be codependent, but there's nothing stopping it from being healthier.

Less cynical and pessimistic – but infinitely more poignant – is the interview included at the end of my copy of The Golden Notebook. Asked if she stops reading other people's books when writing her own, she replies:

“ I have stopped with my current book, because my time is running out. I'm 87 [she's now 93], I'm not going to live forever and I want to finish this book I'm writing now. I'll go back to being a good reader when I finish it.”


Finally, she offers a very good reason for good people - “boulder pushers”, as they're called by The Golden Notebook's protagonist – to remain optimistic. She's asked how living through “one of the most tumultuous centuries in our history” has affected her.

“Well, I've lived through Hitler, ranting and raving; Mussolini too; the Soviet Union, which we thought would last for all time; the British Empire, which seemed impregnable; the colour bar in Rhodesia and elsewhere; the heydey of European empires. It was inconceivable to think that these would disappear. They seemed permanent. Now not one of them remains – and I think that is a recipe for optimism!”

So to sum up, I think I'm in love with Doris Lessing.

Wrapped Up In Books

No friends, no money, no daylight. My first semester at university was terrible.

The closest thing I had to a social life were weekly meetings of the Warp and Megalomaniac societies, both of which were all-but filled with embittered third-years and mature students - hardly conducive to the wild and boundless hedonism that I had expected university to be. Warp was the science-fiction society, where no discussions of science-fiction ever took place. Instead we sat in a bar designed for mature students that was lit like a dentist's office and smelled a bit funny. Still. The jukebox was good.

The Megalomaniacs described themselves as “the political satire society”, and I think the only way you could have met a more unpleasant bunch of people would be had you attended a meeting of the University of Manchester Young Tories, Facists and Football Fans Society. Cynical by default, they never smiled, only sneered. They weren't all bad. Indeed, one of them would later help to secure victory for Manchester in University Challenge. But as a group they were set in their ways and about the exact opposite of the sort of people I wanted to meet.

No money – well. No student has much in the way of assets. But I was, for some reason, particularly poor – to the extent that I was surviving almost exclusively on a diet comprised of three staples – brown bread, crunchy peanut butter and Lidl's own-brand 8p instant noodles – with the odd pint of Fosters boosting my weekly calorie intake every time I did a load of laundry. I was very likely in a state of malnourishment – evidenced by the sores that appeared on my face, the cluster migraines I got at night (that would only intensify when I closed my eyes) and the fact that I blacked out when I went home for Christmas and ate some turkey and vegetables.

And no daylight. This was because my ground-floor room looked out onto a concrete parade ground that students often used as a football pitch. They had a tendency to stare into my room, so I took to shutting my curtains every time a game started. Eventually it got to the point where I wouldn't bother opening them again.

My first semester at university was terrible.

But I read a lot. It was, to all intents and purposes, all I had. Reading filled time. I had a lot of time to fill, and not much of it could be filled with studying. So I read and read and read – knowing, at the back of my mind, that I'd be at a genuine loss as to what to do with myself were I to run out of books to read. I was therefore really quite frightened of running out of books. It didn't bear thinking about.

Now that I've a lovely circle of friends and family, three more jobs than I deserve and plenty of sunlight, I don't have nearly so much time for reading – but I wouldn't have it any other way. But I find myself buying books all the time, to the extent that I've already acquired more books than I could possibly read in a lifetime.

Having such an immense backlog – combined with my tendency to compel myself to do a set amount of things in a set amount of time – has, I now realise, made me develop a less than ideal approach to reading. Rather than considering that I have the remainder of my natural life to devote to reading as many books as I want, I've found myself, on a few occasions, only reading a book for the sake of reading a book – so that it could be removed from the pile.

This is the exact opposite of the position I was in during that first terrible university semester. Back then I learned to appreciate the immense importance of books through convincing myself that, without them, I would die. These days I'm trying to recapture the ability to read one book at a time – and to grace that one book with every ounce of appreciation I'm willing to give it.

But still. It's nice to know that no matter how bad things should get, I will never, ever, ever run out of things to read – which is possibly about as close as you can possibly get to ensuring lifelong happiness.

At the very least, I'm never going to get bored.

So I'm here now, with an immense guilty groan of books next to me, most of which are just waiting - quite impatiently - to be read. I don't necessarily structure my reading habits, but I have certain rules. As a new year begins I find myself reading colourful genre fiction – possibly in reaction to the relentless drabness of that time of year. Over the summer, I want plot and I want as many pages as possible – the sort of story in which you can really lose yourself. Towards the end of October I'll turn to ghost stories, because who doesn't? As Autumn decays into winter I'll see through the change with some Victorian Gothic, and then, come Christmas, it's time for Dickens. I read one or two Dickens each year over the extended Christmas period, and I like to think that once I've finally read through his oeuvre, I'll simply read it all again. And again and again, until I die. Yeah!

Books are inexpensive, lovely to look at, lovely to hold, and whether they're ordered or cluttered, when you have a lot of them in your life your life feels more complete.

Books, then, are your friends for life. They even smell nice. Go hug a book now. NOW.