let the music STOP
Author, prankster and founder of the KLF Bill Drummond explains why he won’t be listening to any music at all on 21 November – and why you might want to try it too
All music is shite.’ Discuss.
Some years ago I walked into HMV Oxford Street. I wandered around rack upon rack of thousands upon thousands of CDs. There must have been every form of music that ever existed there. I wanted something new. Something that would make me go, ‘Yeah, this is it. I’ve never heard anything like this in my life.’ There have been so many times when I have read a review of an album telling me how great it was so I would go out and buy it, only to get it home to find it sounded like something I had already heard. There was nothing in HMV Oxford Street for me.
So I went home and searched every corner of the web for something new, fresh, exciting. Something that would make me hear music in a different way. Something that would open a door to a room in my head which I had never been in before. But even in those furthest corners I could find nothing that did this.
Maybe it’s just an age thing. Maybe it is just that my palate is jaded. So many men, and I guess women too, who get to my stage in life are happy enough slating all modern music, happy to press the nostalgia buttons. But I can’t stand that. And it’s not because the new artists don’t mean what they play, it’s just that, to my ears, they all begin to sound like vaguely updated versions of something that has gone before. Do I just accept this as a part of the ageing process? The sagging flesh, the thinning hair I have to accept, but this? No! No! and NO!
Although I stopped making music, to all intents and purposes, in 1992 and have even stopped listening to it for great chunks of time since then, I have never stopped thinking about music. Thinking things like ‘All music is shite’ or that we are in this rut so deep with music, it’s like we have spent all our lives at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, unaware of the world beyond.
I have tried different tactics to re-engage with music. In 2002 I decided to listen only to albums made by artists who had never released an album before. As soon as a second one came out, I would stop listening to them.
My old CD collection was stacked up at one end of the bench in my workshop, hundreds of them. There they sat, all alphabetically ordered, ready, waiting and willing to be played, an arm’s length from where I was sitting. At times over the months while I was trying to get on with work I would hear them in my head: ‘Bill, Bill, just one listen. You know you want to. What harm would it do?’ In January 2003 temptation got the better of me. Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys broke my resolve. I put it on. Music never sounded so good. I was defenceless in the face of the emotions triggered in me. After that it was the Byrds’ Greatest Hits. At full volume.
I had a problem that needed confronting. There was no 12-step programme to deal with stuff like this. I would ditch the old regime, replace it with an equally hardline one: for the rest of the year I would only listen to music by bands, soloists or composers whose names began with B. I assumed I would work my way through the alphabet finishing off with A in 26 years. Come the following Christmas, I had developed the idea. Using a home-made lottery system of a carrier bag containing 25 scraps of paper with a letter of the alphabet written on each one, minus B, the next year’s listening was decided. It was artists beginning with P. This year, 2006, is my fourth; the letter is G. This approach, I assumed, would give music a value no price tag could ever do. If I didn’t listen to Beethoven’s late string quartets – or whatever – in the chosen year, I might not live long enough to have another chance. I have ended up listening to a lot of music that I would have never otherwise listened to, but something is still missing. That said, I’m committed to working my way through the alphabet.
It was in 2004 that I began to suspect that my problem lay not so much with the music as the form in which all music now seems to exist. Almost every piece of recorded music since recorded music began 110 years ago is just a click away. And once we have got it we can listen to it where and whenever we want. We can have this non-stop soundtrack as we sit on the bus, do the shopping, go on holiday. And whether it’s music from Bali, Bach’s Cantatas or the latest R&B, the experience is somehow the same. Yeah, I know we have had Walkmans for 20-odd years, but back then it seemed liberating; now it seems constricting. It has nothing to do with the genre and everything to do with the fact that it’s just there on tap. Maybe I want music that is to do with place and time and occasion; music that we can only ever hear if we travel to one specific place at one special time. This does not mean Pink Floyd at Live8.
Live music, too, has had the same effect on me. The experience is one-dimensional. You buy a ticket, go to a place, watch it performed on a stage, you clap, or even scream, enjoy yourself, you get your money’s worth, you go home. But you weren’t part of the music; you were just consuming it in bite-size chunks as defined by those who have decreed how these things should be done.
I know these traditions are as much determined by the economics of bringing musicians from all quarters of the world to your local club or concert hall but that doesn’t stop me from wanting more, something else in a different shape. There were all sorts of other things going on in my head about music and experiments. I wanted to take in the making of music itself in the hope that it might exist away from the consumable formats of recorded music and away from the concert platform. I even have fantasies about waking up to find that all music has disappeared from the world. We can’t even remember what it sounded like. We knew we had music, we knew it was important to us. In my fantasy we would have to start making music again from a year zero situation, with nothing but our voices. As I said, just a fantasy.
I decided I needed a day I could set aside to listen to no music whatsoever. Instead, I would be thinking about what I wanted and what I didn’t want from music. Not to blindly – or should that be deafly – consume what was on offer. A day where I could develop ideas. This day I would call No Music Day.
St Cecilia is the patron saint of music. I have no idea why and I am not interested in finding out. But her Saint’s Day is on 22 November. This is the day we are supposed to celebrate music, thank God for its existence. I decided that No Music Day should be on the day before St Cecilia’s Day, using the same principles as having Halloween the day before All Saints’ Day or Mardi Gras on the day before Lent kicks in.
I registered the domain name nomusicday.com and then put together one of the posters I do. The website was up and live a couple of weeks before 21 November 2005. Its format is simple. It exists mainly as a place where people can register that they will be observing No Music Day and to document how, and why, they will be doing so. I did next to nothing to promote the site, but it seemed to hit a nerve and a few thousand people stumbled upon it and many left their comments. This year I wanted to raise awareness a notch. I approached the art radio station ResonanceFM (resonancefm.com) to see if they would observe it. They were eager for the challenge. The other thing I’ve done is to write this text you are reading.
Maybe my perceived impasse about what music can be, and how we can experience it, is something singular to me caused by where I’m at in my life and what I’ve been through. But if the idea of No Music Day resonates with you in some other way that reflects where you are at in life and in your relationship with music, make use of it. Where this will lead to and what purpose it serves, I am still unsure. But from now on, 21 November this and every other year will be No Music Day. Visit http://www.nomusicday.com/ and register your observance.
· Postscript. As for all music being shite, if that’s the way you feel, we’ve only ourselves to blame.