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In Their Own Words

At The Age Of 59, By Bill Drummond
The Quietus , April 17th, 2012 06:43

Bill Drummond's excellent new book 100 was published this week. To celebrate, he talks us through his 59 favourite songs - one for each year of his life. Author portrait by Tracey Moberly

This picture of the author holding a mallet and a sprig of heather was taken on the backbone of England, Froggatt Edge, Derbyshire

A couple of months ago I was asked if I would be interested in curating / presenting a day at the radio station Resonance FM in May this year. This was to be part of their celebrations for them being on air for the last ten years. In theory I support what Resonance FM seem to stand for so I responded in the positive. As for what I would do with my 24 hours was a little bit harder to figure out. But by the time the kettle boiled I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

I am in the process of building 40 beds out of wood at various locations around the world. This is usually done in public spaces and unannounced. It takes me two days to make one bed from scratch. While doing all the hammering and chiseling I chat to any passers by who want to know what I am up to. And I also sell raffle tickets to anybody who might be interested in winning the bed. When the bed is complete I draw the winning ticket from the hat and deliver the bed to lucky winner's home. I am only seven beds into this job, but I have got between now and 2025 to get all forty beds done.

So, I thought, why not make a bed live on the radio and I can raffle it off on air. If I put in a 16 hour shift I could get the bed built in one day. And while I am doing it I can play a piece of music from each year of my life. As I will have just turned 59, that should go some way to filling a whole day with music. A kind of extend mix of Desert Island Discs. I got back to the folk at Resonance and they seemed to be up for it.

On starting to put this list together I was confronted with how mainstream my tastes have been. The vast majority of the 59 pieces I have chosen have been major hit singles bought by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other 'pop pickers'. And most them have been drawn from the popular genres of the day, be it disco to Britpop. As Resonance is an experimental music station I do not know if this will go down well with their core listenership. For a start I know now that the list will include 'When Will I See You Again' by the Three Degrees.

It also confirmed the appeal of the single to me, be that the 7" vinyl I grew up with or the single download of today. I guess the reason that the death of the album as a work of art has never bothered me is that I have never been particularly into albums.

As well as the majority of the pieces of music chosen being hit singles, they are by artists who I would never have been interested in listening to anything else by, let alone buying one of their albums. Added to that I would have little interest in knowing anything about their biographical details or their artistic trajectory. For me it nearly always begins and ends with that one piece of music contained on a 7" piece of plastic.

The other thing is, I have never been a record collector, not even having copies of the records that I have directly been involved in myself.

Most of these records would have just been heard on the radio, on a pub jukebox or in a club. To re-listen to them now, I have had to resort to listening via YouTube through the tiny internal speaker of my laptop. For many of these tracks that was not a problem at all as they were made to work coming out to the tiniest of transistor radios, others have lost much of their impact as they were made as club records to be heard coming out of club sound systems with plenty of bottom end.

Forty Beds, Port Eliot Festival

I have also found myself cheating or at least bending the rules to fit particular songs in. Some records I've squeezed in via the year they were recorded, others the year they may have been re-released. Others again I have slotted into the year that I first heard the song.

As I was not really aware of recorded music until I was about seven (1960), all the tracks chosen before then would have been music that I would have got into much later in life. The first track that I enjoyed at the time of its release would have probably been 'Half Way To Paradise' by Billy Fury.

There were also some years where I could have chosen at least half-a-dozen records. Other years I've struggled to remember one.

As you will see by the time I get to the post-recorded music era of the 21st century, it is what I have been doing with The17 that has held my imagination, that is other than the girl pop of the Sugababes, the pure force of nature that is Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. And lastly before I start putting the list together down on paper and not just as a loose jumble in my head, I have allowed doing this process to evolve into a score for The17 as well. The score is called AT THE AGE OF 59.

Here goes.

1953 – Muddy Waters 'I'm A Man'

Muddy Waters recorded this record on the day I was conceived and it was released on the day I was born. Every word in this song was if Muddy had written the words with me in mind. Or at least that is what I believe. I would have not heard this record until 1968 and it would have been on the Mike Raven R&B show on BBC Radio 1. I listened to Mike Raven most Saturday evenings before going out. He played R&B from the 1920s to the then present day. It was the great introduction.

"All you pretty women stand in line
I’ll make love to you in about an hour's time."

1954 – The 23rd Psalm

In the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland or the Wee Frees as they are known, only the Psalms are allowed to be sung. They are sung unaccompanied and in Gaelic. It is the most spiritually moving music that I have ever heard or am likely to hear. The Wee Frees are found mainly on the Outer Hebrides. As for hearing a recording of this type of singing, it is always pale experience to the intensity of the real thing. There is not one particular recording that I would recommend but if you are ever in the Outer Hebrides on a Sunday do not miss on the chance to experience it.

1955 – Johnny Cash 'I Walk The Line'

If the Muddy Waters track represents my flesh and the 23rd Psalm sung in a Wee Free my spiritual nature then Johnny Cash singing 'I Walk The Line' represents that part of me that aspires to be true. Johnny Cash did not enter my life until 1969 when the BBC broadcast the film Johnny Cash Live at San Quentin.

"I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time.
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds
Because you're mine, I walk the line."

1956 – Elvis Presley 'Hound Dog'

Elvis Presley arrived in my life in 1963 when I went to see Roustabout at the local picture house in Newton Stewart, my hometown in South West Scotland. Elvis has never left my life since. I never wanted to be Elvis, or anything like him, but I did want to be 'Hound Dog', the actual record. This desire to be a record is something that I tried to understand in late 1992, while travelling to the North Pole with my fellow explorer Mark Manning.

Forty Beds: Merchant Taylors' School

1957 – Little Richard 'You Keep A Knocking'

It was not until 1968 that Little Richard seduced me. It was all the confusion and contradictions in him that so excited me. Elvis was trying to be something, Little Richard just was it. Sometime in the mid-80s I spent an evening in a studio with him in Los Angeles. He screamed "A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!" directly into my face.

1958 – Ornette Coleman Something Else!!!!

Any track off this album. But I did not discover Coleman until after Miles Davis. This is what I want jazz to sound like. Wild and free and no electricity

1959 – Miles Davis 'So What'

I got into jazz via programmes on BBC 2 in the late 60s. I saw the Bitches Brew version of his band in 1970, but was not taken by his attempts to embrace rock. It seemed to me he was trying to get a bit of the action that Jimi Hendrix had got. I guess it is the almost easy listening of the Kind Of Blue album that 'So What' is on, that I have listened to most over the years.

1960 – Jim Reeves 'He'll Have to Go'

Jim Reeves was massive with all my friends' mums. I was sort of embarrassed that I was into him as well. It was the beginning of my love affair with Country.

1961 – Billy Fury 'Halfway To Paradise'

I first heard this being pumped through the speakers of the dodgem car ride when the fair came to Newton Stewart. For me listening to pop music at the fairground can only be bettered by listening to it in an indoor skating rink.

1962 – Tornados 'Telstar'

And this is the track that I first heard in the skating rink at Ayr. Joe Meek was my producer as hero before Spector.

1963 – Roy Orbison 'In Dreams'

This was another one first heard at the fair in Newton Stewart. Just thinking about the voice of Orbison brings on the tears. I have never got over listening to him, never will. Not that I own any of his records, you just need to hear them by accident for them to have the most impact on you.

1964 – The Supremes 'Baby Love'

I could never understand why The Supremes wanted to record another record after they had reached such perfection as this. It is girl pop at its zenith, although there have been many more girl pop records that I have loved over the years since.

1965 – Bob Dylan 'Like A Rolling Stone'

Again I was late to Bob Dylan. The first LP that I bought was Nashville Skyline. Over the next few years I bought all the previous records. And although I still love everything about his mid sixties period, I was never able to get into anything recorded post Nashville Skyline. I know it is a cliché, but this record has got to be one of the greatest works of art of the 20th century.

1966 – The Rolling Stones 'Paint It Black'

Big In Japan, only ever tried a couple of cover versions, 'Paint It Black' was one of them. The Stones meant far more to me than The Beatles at this point. Also 1966 is my personal high water mark for pop music. Turning 13 should always be the high water mark for pop music for any generation.

Forty Beds, Rotterdam

1967 – The Beatles 'Strawberry Fields'

But this was the first record that I bought, and is still the one that has had more influence on my life than any others.

1968 – Fleetwood Mac 'Albatross'

By 1968, I was getting into the British blues bands like Chicken Shack, John Mayall and the then Fleetwood Mac. This track was completely different from anything they had done before. I was off school and in my sick bed when I first heard it. Even though it got to number one in the pop charts, it never lost it magic for me. And Peter Green became my guitar hero.

1969 – Fairport Convention 'Who Knows Where The Time Goes'

This is the song that I want played as my coffin slides behind the curtain. The voice of Sandy Denny works on me in a different way than the voice of Roy Orbison, but both are able to reduce me to an emotional wreck.

1970 – Van der Graaf Generator 'H To He, Who Am The Only One'

Although Van der Graaf were the only Prog band that I was ever into, I will with hindsight defend the genre to the max. It was this album that I must have played more than any other in 1970. Any of the tracks on it would do. They all merge into one for me. This was the one year in my life that I listened to albums more than singles.

1971 – Al Green 'Tired Of Being Alone'

It was in 1971 that I tired of white boys making music with guitars and I started to discover all this other modern R&B that was being made in the USA. I believe everything that Al Green says.

1972 – Betty Wright 'Clean Up Woman'

It is not Betty Wright's voice but the three interlocking guitars that are used in her band that I like most about this record. The understated funk of it all. I went to see her and her band a couple of years later when I was living in Coventry.

1973 - The O'Jays 'Love Train'

Most of the Philly records at the time were too produced for me. But in a disco in 1973 this could not be bettered. I would never listen to this sort of music at home. But then again most of my favourite recorded music is not what I would want to listen to at home.

1974 – The Three Degrees 'When Will I See You Again'

But this is the pinnacle of all things Philly. The over-the-top strings, the vocal parts, the relentless disco hi-hat beat and the sentiment of the song. I even pretended that I was heart broken over a girl I had never kissed so I could get into this record even more.

1975 – KC & The Sunshine Band 'That’s The Way (I Like It)'

From Philadelphia down to Miami and the sound of TK Records. In the summer of 1975 I was living in Exmouth working as a carpenter. This was the ultimate night out record. I even got to see them play live in a club in Exeter.

1975 – Hamilton Bohannon 'Disco Stomp'

This year needs two records because both of them are so great. I could not believe records could be as primal as this. John Mears and I would play this over and over again in our flat in Exmouth.

1976 – Television 'Marquee Moon'

Although it was seeing Doctor Feelgood live at the Liverpool Stadium that re-connected me with rock music, it was Television's 'Marquee Moon' that got me to actually buy my first album for over four years.

1977 – X Ray Spex 'Oh Bondage Up Yours'

This above all of the more obvious records from 1977 makes me feel liberated. It has none of the underside negativity that lurked in so much of the records of that year. There was no cynicism. I wish there were more women like Poly Styrene making records.

1978 – Sylvester 'You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)'

But disco had not deserted me. The unrelenting nature of this record was a future echo of so much dance music to come. I do not think I could name another track by Sylvester.

1979 – AC/DC 'Highway To Hell'

Which is not the case with AC/DC, I cannot only name dozens of songs by AC/DC, I have learned to play most of the riffs from them. I keep thinking that I have grown out of or at least tired of rock music, then something like AC/DC happens. My son Flint and I, went to see them a couple of years ago at the O2 Arena and they still convinced me that they meant every last bit of it, even though I might be one of those bores that will tell you it was so much better when Bon Scott was alive.

1980 – Teardrop Explodes 'Treason'

This was the first record that I had an involvement with that actually sounded like a proper record. This was probably because I had no hand in the production of it. The band went down to London to do it with Clive Langer. The first time I heard it was on the answerphone machine in out Zoo office in Liverpool. The answerphone machine was the only sound system we had in the office.

1981 – Human League 'Don't You Want Me'

This is what pop music in 1981 should have sounded like. My only disappointment in it was that I was not involved in any way other than we all stayed at the Columbia Hotel in Bayswater [at the same time].

1982 – Kraftwerk 'Showroom Dummies'

We all know that Kraftwerk are one of the top five bands of all time. Everything has already been said. Dave Balfe and I could only dream of such genius.

1983 – Shannon 'Let The Music Play'

American R&B was making it first great leap since the high water mark of Philly ten years earlier.

1984 – Echo & The Bunnymen 'Ocean Rain'

The title track from "The Greatest Album Ever Made" or so I allowed it to be stated on the adverts for this album. The trouble is, I did not tell the band before I put the strap line on the adverts. 'The Killing Moon', also from the LP, is now regarded as the Bunnymen's one true classic, but for me the perfection of the title track was the one that let me know that they should never ever attempt another recording again.

1985 – Madonna 'Into The Groove'

Madonna understood girl pop and dance music equally. She liberated a generation of girls. And even though her voice was limited it was perfect. She meant every word. It was so much better when she did not spend all that time in the gym and having singing lessons.

1986 – Schoolly D 'I Don't Like Rock & Roll'

I was not that bothered about the novelty hip-hop and rap records that had come out earlier than this. It was hearing this track by Schooly D, that made me believe that rock was finally over. It also made me want to make hip-hop and rap records myself. 1987 (What The Fuck's Going On?) was Jimmy and my response to this. We failed.

1987 – Derrick May 'Strings Of Life' or Todd Terry Project 'Weekend'

And this is what made me want to move away from hip-hop and get closer to pure dance music. Music that had nothing but the linear groove to take you there.

1988 – The KLF 'What Time Is Love?'

And this was Jimmy and my response to the urge to make music that had no message other than how it existed on the dance floor. We wanted to make a minimal masterpiece. 'What Time Is Love?' in its original Pure Trance version is the closest we came to it.

1989 – Black Box 'Ride On Time'

Then we heard this and again all was changing. Could we ever make a record this huge? I was never a fan of the Hacienda, but listening to this there in early 1989 made me wonder if pop music had ever been this good before.

1990 –

1990 passed me by. It all seemed to be spent in the studio

1991 – The KLF 'Justified & Ancient'

And finally I was directly involved with the writing and making of a pop record that I will be proud to play my grandchildren. If I was to ever to write a whole book about one record it would be this one. I will not start now. The only disappointment was that Freddie died thus we did not get the Christmas number one.

1992 - George Jones 'Good Year For The Roses'

In 1992 is when it all started to fall apart in my head. Depression, if not madness, was beckoning. Country music was my solace. And especially the voice of George Jones. This record was originally released 20 or so years earlier but it was made for me in that year.

1993 – George Jones 'He Stopped Loving Her Today'

The need for George Jones in my life carried on, nothing else could soothe the pain and madness. This was originally released in 1980, but like 'Good Year For The Roses', it would have meant nothing to me back then.

1994 – Creedance Clearwater Revival 'Green River'

Things were getting better for me. The madness was receding. I was spending a lot of time sawing wood and hammering nails and listening to Creedence at full volume.

1995 – Pulp 'Common People'

For over ten years I had not been that bothered about modern rock music. As far as I knew it was a dead genre. I had no interest in any of the bands that the British music papers would be writing about, then Britpop happened and I was swept up in it all. It felt like it was 1966 all over again. And I was not even cynical about all the knowing references and rip offs. 'Common People' will be forever. Jarvis Cocker is the only British front man that I have ever been jealous of. I wish I had his way with words and knew how he got his image so right.

1996 – Suede 'Trash'

Suede may have not have had the pop sensibilities of their rivals but they have a searing quality that cuts right through me. It's all in his voice.

1997 – The Verve 'Bitter Sweet Symphony'

This was the last hurrah of Britpop for me. It was obvious it had nowhere left to go. And the rest of the world was not that bothered about it either. But this was great last hurrah record to have.

1998 –

Another blank year when it comes to individual songs. Maybe I was getting too old for popular music. I was beginning to listen more and more to choral music. I had sung in church and school choirs as a child and always had an appreciation of choral music whatever other music was going on in my life. What I was listening to in 1999 and for the next ten years was old stuff like Thomas Tallis and William Byrd along with newer music by living composer like Avro Pärt, Steve Reich and Gorecki.

1999 – Destiny’s Child 'Bills, Bills, Bills'

Destiny's Child almost re-lit my interest, but to be honest it was more of the choral music that I was listening to. But I would have theoretically argued the case for Destiny's Child. I am always for the next generation of R&B.

2000 – Napster

Then along came Napster. Although Napster was obviously not a piece of music, but it had the power to change the world's relationship with music forever. It was far more powerful than punk or any of the other landmark moments that had happened before. At the time I did not have the tools to file share and was not interested in doing it myself, I just loved that fact that this major shift was happening.

2001 – More Napster

More thinking about Napster and what else might be changing. I love change especially when it makes you feel uncomfortable.

2002 – Bill Drummond 'True To The Trail'

In 1996 I had recorded an album for Creation Records called The Man. It was supposed to be my farewell to the world of music before I got on with writing books. It was more a slice of what was going on emotionally in me at the time than an attempt at making some sort of work of lasting worth. But one track on the LP, an instrumental country sounding toe tapper, had begun to take on the roll as my theme song. It was the opening track on the LP and was called 'True To The Trail', which is a line taken from a poem by Robert Service. In 2002 I had this song pressed up as a 7" single. This was done not to commercially release but to use as my theme song when I gave performance lectures. Each lecture would begin with me walking on stage with the Dansette record player that we used to have at home in the 60s. I would put it down on the floor, plug it in. Then put on my 7" copy of 'True To Trail'. And while it was playing I would get everything else together before I started my lecture. It is still and will always be my theme song, although I hardly ever use it today in the way described above.

2003 – All Recorded Music Has Run Its Course

It was in 2003 that I began to recognise the voices that I had been hearing in my head most of my life as my own internal choir called The17. It was in this year that I wrote the 'All Recorded Music' statement that I turned into a poster. It can be read by clicking here.

Forty Beds: Guangzhou, China

2004 – The17 'DRIVE'

This was the first score for The17 that started to evolve as a piece. One that I thought I could actually extract from my imagination. But I did a deal with myself – I would not attempt to make it a reality until I turned 60. The reason for this, is that we all mistrust people that have had some sort of success in popular music attempting to do anything else. I hoped that by the time I turned 60 everybody would have forgotten about The Timelords etc, or I may have got bored with the idea of doing it anyway. The first time that I tried it out was with a bunch of blokes in a studio in Leicester. It sounded like the best music that I had ever been involved with. Sod waiting until I was 60, I mean I might not even live that long

2005 – Sugababes 'Push the Button'

Then along comes this pure piece of girl pop that I could not get enough of and all my theories were out the window. I loved it then and I love it now.

2006 – The17 'Score 1: IMAGINE'

But The17 were becoming real. I was going out and leading performances at various locations across Europe. I knew what I was doing would have no large-scale interest but it totally consumed me like nothing else before. Recorded music was the music of the 20th century. The music of The17 is the music of the 21st century, or it was as far as I was concerned. Why would anybody bother learning to play the guitar or going in a studio when you could do this.

2007 – The17 'Score 4: AGE'

It was a version of this score that I was leading performances of all over Europe. It worked every time. This summer (2012) I will be leading a performance of it in the Curfew Tower, Cushendall, Ireland. This is where I first conceived of it being performed but as yet have not done so.

2008 – Beyoncé 'Single Ladies'

But I guess my appetite for R&B is not completely dimmed, as much as I try to suppress it. And Beyoncé would be a very hard woman to suppress. I just love the stripped down sound and her command of the whole thing. She may not have the most pleasing voice ever to come out of gospel but she sure knows what to do with it and what to do with her body.

2009 – Lady Gaga 'Telephone'

And just when I thought major worldwide artists working in pop music were so last century along comes Lady Gaga. She made all my theories look like just what they were – the confused ramblings of a middle aged white man.

2010 – The17 'Score 328: SURROUND'

This may be the greatest of the scores for The17. I have led performances of it all around the world, from Beijing to Haiti, from inside the Arctic Circle to around the city walls of Damascus (although that last claim needs a bit of qualification). It is hardly music in any traditional sense, but it always works in the strangest and most inspiring of ways. It may be the score by The17 that I will miss the most once I have stopped doing it all once I reach 60 in April 2013.

2011 – The17 'Score 389: LISTEN HARD'

And this maybe the simplest of all the scores I have written for The17 to perform and one that I will carry on performing as long as I live. You should perform it tomorrow morning.

2012 – The17 'Score 398: AT THE AGE OF 59'

And this is the one that I have been writing all of this for and will be performing live on air at Resonance104.4fm on Sunday 27 May this year.

And now it is time for me to start remembering and then regretting all the tracks I have missed out. What no Phil Spector? Or James Brown? Or even Marvin Gaye. Not even the The Dubliners singing 'Wild Mountain Thyme'. But I guess the one record that for me could represent any and every year in my life is 'Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow' as performed by The Shirelles.

By Bill Drummond, April 13, 2012