Film-maker Paul Duane was following Bill Drummond around Kolkata in India and Lexington, North Carolina, when he told the sixty-something artist what he’d heard some people say about his work. The former stage designer turned band manager turned pop star turned artist was on the latest leg of his twelve-year world tour. During this time, he aims to travel to twelve cities in twelve different countries, spending three months in each.
Having begun the tour beneath Spaghetti Junction in Birmingham in 2014, Drummond has proceeded to paint over twenty-five already existing paintings with text pertinent to each stop. With missionary-like zeal, he will also commit a series of actions that engages with the local community. This includes building beds, baking cakes, making soup and shining shoes.
Drummond’s Kolkata and Lexington sojourns feature in Best Before Death, Duane’s portrait of Drummond over a two-year period, which screens at Edinburgh International Film Festival this week. As one might expect of Drummond, tomorrow night’s premiere will feature something a little more than a standard pre and post-show Q and A with cast and crew.
Following on from the points raised by Duane, Drummond and actor Tam Dean Burn will precede and follow the screening with the first and third acts of a short play for which Best Before Death will form the second. As penned by Drummond’s sometime alter ego and arch nemesis Tenzing Scott Brown, the evening’s drama will go under the name, White Saviour Complex. This gives away some of the more sceptical attitudes towards the former member of stadium house duo The KLF and Turner Prize baiting, million quid burning K Foundation’s very personal global quest regarding his art.
“I think, fundamentally, there’s an instinctive desire in Bill’s personality to question, to change the conversation and to make connections,” says Duane of the Newton Stewart raised son of the manse.
“Maybe because I know Bill better now than when I first emailed him with the idea of doing the film, I can see the big dichotomy between his Scottish Presbyterianism, that’s about sticking with things and getting things done, and this huge aspiration to change. He welcomes and seeks out disappointment, and in a world where everything is based on being right, he’s one of probably very few people open to the possibility that he might be wrong.”
Best Before Death isn’t the first film to focus on Drummond’s wilfully singular path. In 2015, Imagine Waking Up Tomorrow and All Music Has Disappeared followed Drummond in his quest to erase recorded music by way of his ever-expanding choir, The 17. Having given up doing press interviews, more recently, Drummond has made a series of one-minute films with associate Tracey Moberly. In each, he stands, arms outstretched, while performing motor-mouthed auto-biographical monologues to get his message across.
Nor is this the first time Burn will have acted alongside Drummond. The pair recently appeared together onstage in Liverpool, where they performed Go Places – Do Things. This formed the first annual Roger Eagle Memorial Lecture, founded in honour of the man who arguably kick-started Liverpool’s punk scene when he opened Eric’s club, where Drummond’s band, Big in Japan, rehearsed and played.
Prior to Go Places – Do Things, Burn played Drummond in a series of short plays adapted for radio by Johny Brown, the driving force behind The Band of Holy Joy. The five pieces were broadcast live on digital radio station, Resonance FM, as part of Brown’s Bad Punk show, with each accompanied by a different live soundtrack each night.
“Bill has a real sense of theatre,” says Burn, who first worked with Drummond in the 1990s. “Coming from a theatre background, he’s developing this whole concept of the plays, and how they can represent him. Towards the end of the film he explains why he thinks film and photography are no longer the best way to show his work, and there’s this debate between him and Tracey about how he’s going to do plays instead. As ever, he’s very honest, and he lays out all the ramifications of what he’s saying, and it’s another brilliant example of how conceptual he is.”
Things seem to have come full circle in terms of Drummond’ relationship with theatre. Prior to his adventures in music and art, Drummond worked as a carpenter at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre, and later designed a much praised set for Ken Campbell’s epic nine-hour staging of Illuminatus!, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s sprawling trilogy of hippy science-fiction conspiracy of novels. Campbell’s Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool production went on to be the first play staged at the National Theatre’s then Cottesloe Theatre on London’s South Bank.
The influence of Campbell and Illuminatus! on pretty much everything Drummond has done since has been well documented, primarily by Drummond himself. This includes how he stepped out of rehearsals for the show’s commercial run at the Roundhouse to pick up some Araldite, only to carry on walking to Euston Station and catch a train back to Liverpool to join the punk rock explosion.
Theatrical spectacle of one form or another has been at the heart of everything Drummond has done. This culminated in Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s twenty-third anniversary ‘reunion’ in their guise as the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu for a three-day event in Liverpool in 2018 called Welcome to the Dark Ages. This was overseen in part by Campbell’s theatre director daughter Daisy, who staged the sequel to Illuminatus!, Cosmic Trigger, in 2014. Drummond and Cauty's event was also documented by Duane as What Time is Death?, and was screened at the Dublin International Film Festival in February.
Both Welcome to the Dark Ages and Drummond’s other plays and actions are imbued with a ritualistic dimension on a par with those of Joseph Beuys by way of a character in a Samuel Beckett play. This has been evident during recent appearances in Edinburgh curated by the city’s premier spoken-word and music night, Neu! Reekie! Both aspects reveal an inherent seriousness of purpose in Drummond’s ongoing quest for enlightenment.
“For me he’s a huge figure,” says Duane, “but sadly he’s probably not going to be recognised for that until after his death. His life is his art, and that won’t be complete until then, and only after that will be recognised for everything he’s done.”
Best Before Death premieres as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival, Filmhouse, Thursday, 8.45pm; Vue Omni, Friday, 6pm. Thursday’s screening will form part of White Saviour Complex, which will also be performed at Mull Theatre, Tobermory, Mull on Saturday, and Stonehaven Town Hall on Sunday. Friday’s screening will be followed by a post-show Q and A with Paul Duane and cinematographer Robbie Ryan.
The Herald, June 25th 2019