Caught by the River


Bill Drummond | 10th May 2013

This is a foreword for the 2013 Japanese edition of the book 45 by Bill Drummond.

BillPhoto: Tracey Moberly

Today is my 60th birthday. The first day of my old age.

Yesterday I spent 17 hours standing on a manhole cover at the bottom of Mathew Street in Liverpool. From 7am through to midnight (piss breaks excluded). The reason that I gave for standing on this manhole cover was to spend the time contemplating what it would be like to wake up the following morning and all music had disappeared. This being the essence of the first score published for a choir known as The17. For the past ten years I have been leading this choir called The17. That said, this choir may have existed in my imagination in some form or other since my teenage years, but it was in 2003 they started to become a reality and I wrote the following text:


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

The17 is a choir
Their music has no history, follows no traditions,
recognises no contemporaries.
The17 has many voices.
They use no libretto, lyrics or words; no time
signatures, rhythm or beats; and have no knowledge
of melody, counterpoint or harmony.

The17 struggle with the dark
And respond to the light

The first half of the above text was very much written in response to the dawning century where the entire history of recorded music could be held on an iPod in your pocket and listened to anywhere at anytime while you did almost anything. To me this was both very liberating and scary. All the rules were changing.

I like it when the rules change.

It was not until early 2006 that The17 were a full and functioning choir. In between then and now, The17 have performed hundreds, if not thousands of times. Performances in both hemispheres and on each of the five continents. But there were stipulations: first The17 were never recorded for posterity, thus you could never buy a CD or download of The17, secondly The17 never performed concerts for members of the public. To hear The17 you had to be in The17. This may sound elitist, but the way it worked was that The17 was always made up of different people from wherever The17 were performing. The other thing is that The17 did not require you to have had any previous experience of singing in a choir, or any other type of singing. This meant that I could just walk into a market in Beijing and enlist a bunch of unsuspecting market stallholders and the performance would happen there and then.

For me, The17 celebrated time, place and occasion. Between 2003 and last night, hundreds of scores had been written to be performed by The17. The vast majority of them not by me, but written by various members of The17 around the world. These scores did not use musical notation, they were written using text. I wanted to keep them as clear and as simple as possible, in the hope that near enough anyone who could read them could then lead a performance by The17. Thus it didn’t need me.

A number of the scores could be performed solo and these ones more than often required the performer to not make a sound with their mouths but to listen to other sounds that already existed.

Even if the sounds they were listening to were only in their head.

Back in 2003, I had done a deal with myself. I would not go public with The17 until I turned 60. My thinking being: 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.

So by waiting until I was 60 before going public with The17, I hoped people would have forgotten I had ever been involved with popular music, thus it would not matter. Or, by the time I had turned 60, I would have grown bored of the idea of turning my fantasy choir into a reality.

The flesh may be weak, but my resolve is even weaker.

In 2004 I compromised and renegotiated the deal that I had done with myself. I would allow The17 to go public, but I had to stop doing it on the eve of my 60th birthday – as in midnight, last night. Of course, The17 could carry on without me. I mean you can go out tomorrow and lead a performance by The17 wherever you choose.

But what has me going on about The17 got to do with this book 45, that these words are supposed to be a foreword for? As yet I am not too sure. But seeing as the book 45 was written around me being the age of 45 and somehow acted as a way of taking stock of my creative life at the time, I guess what I was doing for 17 hours yesterday was also me attempting to take stock of things. There is also another reason: the manhole cover in question features in the book 45. More to the point, it features in the story From the Shores of Lake Placid that is contained in the book.

Before starting to write this foreword, I maybe should have re-read 45 completely. I haven’t. The most I have done is re-read the story From the Shores of Lake Placid. For me that was always the core of the book. It was the one story that I knew I had to write to get any idea of what it is I had been doing over the previous twenty-odd years. On re-reading it this morning, other than the odd embarrassing adjective, there is very little I would change. It all still rings true, it is all how I remembered it to be.

The one thing that has changed since then is the idea of the manhole cover in my imagination. For me, I now see the manhole cover to very much symbolise the gateway between the known, out-there physical world and the unknown, internal, imagined world.

Spending 17 hours standing on this particular manhole cover was not really about trying to imagine waking up tomorrow to find that all music had disappeared, but to somehow to make contact with the hidden forces that we all have within us.

But there is one paragraph that I would like to quote in this foreword. It is what I made up on the spur of the moment to a question asked by a journalist back in 1981. He wanted to know why I thought so much music and creativity came out of Liverpool. Instead of giving the usual type of answer about “dole queues, sea port to the world and the Celtic soul of the city,” I said:

It is the interstellar ley line. It comes careering in from outer space, hits the world in Iceland, bounces back up, writhing about like a conger eel, then down Mathew Street in Liverpool where the Cavern Club – and latterly Eric’s – is. Back up, twisting, turning, wriggling across the face of the earth until it reaches the uncharted mountains of New Guinea, where it shoots back into space. Deep space. You know what ley lines are? Those things that hippies are into, imaginary power lines across ancient Britain, lines that can be traced by Saxon churches, stone circles, burial mounds that sort of stuff. But just boringly straight and static. Well, this interstellar ley line is a mega-powered one. Too much power coming down it for it not to writhe about. The only three fixed points on earth it travels through are Iceland, Mathew Street in Liverpool and New Guinea. Wherever something creatively or spiritually mega happens anywhere else on earth, it is because this interstellar ley line is momentarily powering through the territory.

And this manhole cover is the very fulcrum of this interstellar ley line.

I am not going to write about all of the things that I thought while standing on the manhole cover, that is something that I hope to write about in my second book about The17 that may be called FORTY.

But there are two things that I would like to say now. The first being that a man came up to me sometime halfway through the day, he handed me a CD. Being handed CDs comes with the job; as I have nothing to play CDs on at home, they hardly ever get listened to. But there was something about the intensity of this man’s eyes that got to me. He introduced himself as Ian Prowse and explained that there was a track on the CD called Does This Train Stop On Merseyside? In fact it was the title track. He explained to me that one of the couplets in the song was something inspired by something that I had written in the book 45.

The couplet in question was:

Now there’s a ley line runs down Mathew Street
It’s giving energy to all it meets

He also told me the song had been covered by Christy Moore. Now it is honour enough to have something you have written inspire a songwriter, but to then have that song covered by Christy Moore, who has been one of the great uncompromising singers of the last 40 years, is a major accolade in my head.

The exchange between Ian Prowse and myself maybe lasted no more than 30 seconds, but I did learn that he had been the singer in Pele and subsequently Amsterdam, both Liverpool bands of note. But the truth is I do not think I had previously heard the music of either band or had any idea of what they may have sounded like. Over the past half hour I have been on You Tube listening to various versions of this song, both as sung by Ian Prowse and Christy Moore. It has moved me to the point of almost having to hold back a stray tear. Ian Prowse is definitely a songwriter I should’ve known more about.

It is a strange feeling to discover something that you had written in a book fifteen years earlier, based on a story that you had made up without much thought 15 years earlier, taking on a life of its own, where the ley line in question almost becomes a lived reality. Something from below the manhole cover enters the physical world.

The second thing I wanted to tell you is, later in the day, my colleague John Hirst turns up. He said: “I thought you were going to have a manhole cover made especially to replace this one. What happened to that idea?”

I said. “Originally the manhole cover had been round. But at some point the round one has been replaced by this square one. As far as I am concerned, manhole covers should be round. Any time you see someone disappearing down or appearing from a manhole cover in a film, it is always from a round one. There is no way I was going to make a square one. Anyway, holes have to be round, especially ones into the ground that lead to the underworld, everyone knows that. Ask the White Rabbit.” John Hirst sort of accepted my point and the conversation moved on.

mathew stMathew Street, 1980. Photo from the collection of RF Lewis 495.

After listening to various versions of Does This Train Stop On Merseyside? on You Tube, my vanity got the better of me. I wanted to see if there was coverage of what I had been doing the previous day out on the blogosphere. In doing so I came across a photograph taken looking up Mathew Street circa 1980. It was all very much as I remembered it then – the tatty posters on the walls, the Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream & Pun to the left, the car park where the original Cavern once was. But more importantly, I could just make out the manhole cover, as it was back then, the one that I would have stood on originally. But it is not round, was never round, or at least never round in my time? But my memory very clearly remembers it as a round manhole cover. This begs the question, what else might you read in 45 that might not bear up to this sort of scrutiny?

As the clock was crawling towards midnight and my 17 hours standing on the manhole were nearly done, I could feel one last SCORE, to be written and performed by The17, coming on. It was a very simple one, just one line of text. A score you could perform right now before reading any further. This is it:


Poster 497

I did it there and then. What I heard from below that manhole cover might take the rest of my life to interpret. It was within a very few feet of this manhole cover that many of the incidents and conversations that have shaped my life happened. When Ian Prowse sings about a ley line running down Mathew Street, giving energy to all it meets, he sings the truth.

A couple of minutes ago, just after I had been writing about the train not stopping on Merseyside, I took a break to put the kettle on and see if the postman had arrived with some birthday cards for me. On sitting back down at my computer I went to the to see how many SCORES I had written for The17 over the years. This last one, the put-your-ear-to-the-ground one, turned out to be the 60th.

Now, as Shannon would say, Let The Music Play.