The Wikipedia entry for events due to take place in 2023 is bare, currently. London is due a new, £4.1 billion ‘super-sewer’ by that date, while ‘the Compact of Free Association between the United States and the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands expires’. Otherwise, no Olympics, no World Cup, not even a Commonwealth Games.
In Bill Drummond’s new novel, 2023, the year is the peak of a new techno-corporate utopia, a time of peace when prisons are abolished, famine is ended, the planet is powered by natural resources, hate crimes have fizzled out, and even ‘Litter is a thing of the past’. A reader aware of Drummond’s past as a pop strategist, art-world antagonist, money-burner, beard-tugger and tail-puller could guess that such a world is an anathema to Drummond, and, indeed, the novel proceeds to unravel this future paradise as swiftly as it’s conjured.
I say Drummond is the author of 2023, but it’s credited to ‘The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu’. Music fans of a recently middle-aged vintage may recall the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu was Drummond’s band in the late 1980s, from whose ruin Drummond and bandmate Jimmy Cauty launched another band, the far more successful KLF, whose ‘stadium house’ singles, ‘3am Eternal’, ‘Last Train to Transcentral’, the still-thrilling ‘What Time is Love?’, hogged the top end of the charts in 1990 and 1991, to the extent the KLF was awarded the 1992 Brit Award for ‘Best British Band’. In the same year, the KLF announced their retirement from the music industry, which most assumed was a publicity stunt. It wasn’t.
Fans of American Seventies sub-Pynchon anarcho-lit will recognize the source from which Drummond lifted his first band name. ‘The Justified Ancients of Mummu’ are a secret society dedicated to the promotion of chaos and the nemesis of the authoritarian Bavarian Illuminati, secret rulers of the world, in Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy, a patience-testing epic that wove together every conspiracy du jour into one macro-theory.
To get anything out of 2023, not only must you be acquainted with the life and works of Bill Drummond, a fresh reading of The Illuminatus! Trilogy would be helpful. The titles of the first two ‘books’ that make up 2023 are spins on Shea and Wilson’s titles (‘The Blaster in the Pyramid’ for ‘The Eye in the Pyramid’, ‘The Rotten Apple’ for ‘The Golden Apple’); characters like Celine Hagbard are gender-reversed revamps of Illuminatus!’s Captain Nemo-ish Hagbard Celine, while one location, Fernando Poo, a West African island, reappears as Fernando Pó. There’s barely a page in 2023 that isn’t a callback to Illuminatus!
The other work of fiction Drummond feeds into the meat-grinder of his imagination is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. ‘It is a bright warm day in April 2023, and the clock is striking thirteen,’ the main section of the novel begins. The star of Drummond’s own future hell is ‘Winnie’, an unhappy programmer who works for Celine Hagbard, gender-reassigned head of one of ‘the Big Five’, corporations (AppleTree, WikiTube, AmaZaba, FaceLife, GoogleByte) whose funds are so great, they’ve bought the world’s countries and dispensed with politicians. Like Orwell’s Winston Smith, she lives at ‘Victory Mansions’ and keeps a secret diary; unlike Winston, she fancies a bloke at work called ‘O’Brien’.
Drummond’s fondness for reworking and re-contextualising other people’s work dates to his JAMMs / KLF days. One explanation proffered for the KLF’s name was an acronym for ‘Kopyright Liberation Front’. The JAMMs first single ‘All You Need is Love’ sampled, without permission, the Beatles and Sam Fox, and was swiftly the subject of three record label injunctions. The avant-plagiarists’ subsequent album 1987: What the Fuck is Going On? (a title more relevant to 2017 than it ever was thirty years ago) was sued out of existence by Abba, who Drummond and Cauty pirated. Thanks to YouTube, you can hear those tracks today, but, word of warning: don’t. Not unless there’s a gap in your life you think can only be filled by hearing a man pretending to be a Glasgow docker badly rapping over ‘Dancing Queen’.
In addition to Illuminatus! and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the well-prepared reader will have an above-average knowledge of Drummond’s storied past. 2023 takes place in a through-the-looking-glass parallel dimension where Drummond’s biography is remixed. Drummond is an actual character, both in the plot of 2023 and the novel’s meta-scaffolding. For there is a book-within- the-book: Winnie’s struggle is annotated by end-of-chapter reports; here, we learn that ‘The Twenty Twenty-Three! Trilogy’ is being written in 1984 on Jura by ‘George Orwell’, the pen-name of ‘Roberta Antonia Wilson’.
Drummond was born in 1953 in South Africa, the son of a Church of Scotland minister. His parents returned to Newton Stewart, where he lived from the age of 18 months until he was 11. Newton Stewart, as far as Drummond is concerned, is notable as the filming location for 1970s pagan-schlocker The Wicker Man, Drummond going on in 1991 to burn his own 60-foot wicker effigy in 1991 for a publicity stunt, an incident referenced in 2023. After living in Corby, and studying in Northampton, Drummond washed up in Liverpool in the late 1970s. Aged 23, he landed a job as set designer for Ken Campbell’s legendary nine-hour production of, yes, The Illuminatus! Trilogy. Drummond was to make his mark first in another form of live entertainment, in Liverpool’s incredibly fruitful music scene, which was centred on the legendary nightclub, Eric’s. After playing in bands, Drummond ended up managing the two greatest British post-punk bands of the era (after Joy Division, that is): Echo and the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes.
Drummond belongs to the Tony Wilson-Malcolm McLaren school of rock management, which is to say, big on concept; contractual obligations, not so much. Such managers tend to be praised by fans and journalists; musicians, on the other hand, have more mixed feelings, and little wonder, for its their earnings financing their manager’s Big Idea. Drummond and the groups would eventually part company, but not before some memorable wheezes. In 1984, for example, he sent Echo and the Bunnymen on a British tour determined not by commercial sense, but where ley lines intersected. To be fair to Drummond, he did, in the end burn through a million pounds of his and Cauty’s own money, non-metaphorically; the KLF burned £1,000,000 in wads of £50 notes on Jura in 1994. Drummond and Cauty’s uncertainty as to why they roasted their savings didn’t dent the act’s reputation as the only genuinely punk gesture by a band ever.
Drummond’s next move is perhaps his most surprising, because so ordinary: he joined A&R at WEA. A company man. At least he got to keep wasting other people’s money. He spent £300,000 of WEA’s money on an album by high-profile duffers Brilliant, which flopped, but did lead to him meeting the band’s guitarist, Jimmy Cauty. I’ve been referring to Drummond as the sole author of 2023, for the same reason I suspect Cauty was, largely, responsible for the JAMMs / KLF’s music. Cauty was in several bands, pre-KLF. After resigning from WEA at the symbolic (for vinyl connoisseurs) age of 33 and a 1/3rd, Drummond made, with help, one album, the eccentrically folky The Man, on which he sounds like Ivor Cutler.
Since retiring the KLF in 1993, Drummond had moved into writing. In fact, his writing debut precedes the KLF’s mothballing. In 1988, Drummond and Cauty published The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way), which purported to tell readers how they could piece together a novelty chart-topper, as they did earlier that year. Under the moniker ‘The Timelords’, Drummond and Cauty fused the Doctor Who theme and Gary Glitter’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and scooped a surprise number one. In his fiction, Drummond sits comfortably with psychogeographers and graphic novelists, underground filmmakers and situationist saboteurs; one might raise at this point names like Andrew Kötting, Alan Moore (who appears in 2023 as a character) and Iain Sinclair. Drummond appears as himself in Sinclair’s 2002 non-fiction record of his circumnavigation of the M25 orbital ring, London Orbital. Sinclair describes him as ‘an interestingly complex mix of artist and anti-artist, performer and hermit, scholar, iconoclast, polemicist, prankster and well-grounded human. More than most, he honoured the past – particularly his own – even when he had to invent it. His Scottishness was important to him, although he’d lived for years in England: Corby, Liverpool, Buckinghamshire.’
His early books were preposterous fictions posing as literature vérité. Bad Wisdom (1996) charted a supposed journey to the North Pole to bury a statue of Elvis to ‘radiate good vibes down the longitudes, bringing about world peace’; nine years later, he published an account of a Werner Herzog-style trip to war-torn ‘Zaire’ in The Wild Highway. More profitable, I think, are his forays into non-fiction, 45 (2000), a collection of autobiographical essays prompted by attaining the titular age, the self-explanatory How to Be an Artist (2002), and 17 (2008), a chronicle of the choir he formed to perform improvised music scores, a reaction to the iPod.
Like that choir, one is never quite sure whether the message of 2023 is revolutionary or counter-revolutionary. We learn early in the story that the world of 2023 is about to fall thanks to something Winnie does, or rather, doesn’t do; her failure to act leads to the internet crumbling irrevocably, never to return. Drummond demonstrates how his utopia doesn’t work for people at the very bottom of society and has induced an artistic and cultural inertia – but is that enough to tear down a frictionless global polity? Especially when his animus is largely powered by a wish to turn the clock back to a time before the web and mobile phones, when Doctor Who was worth watching and the Christmas number one mattered. As the last season of, of all things, South Park brilliantly explored, there is a direct line connecting the nostalgia that led to the making of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the political atavism that juiced Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan. When Drummond writes, only partly impishly, ‘This is how things start. You need things to fall apart for new things to grow. Things need to be out of control’, one suspects a significant portion of Trump’s supporters could get behind such sentiments.
More problematic for this reader at least, is Drummond’s Brechtian disruptions, the diary entries at the close of each chapter. Here, Roberta Antonia Wilson includes her agent’s and her own thoughts on how the novel is going. ‘Reading back through the stuff this morning, it feels like it has been written for an audience of less than half a dozen. It feels like I was just trying to layer the whole thing with all sorts of reference points to impress…’ ‘Right now, the story has to move along, before readers who are not of a certain age and did not grow up in the UK get totally bored with these knowing references to icons of a very localized popular culture.’
Commenting on your novel’s faults does not neutralize them, but is of a piece for the contempt the author shows for the literary novel. ‘The canal towpath is always popular with runners, but what they are thinking about we do not know or even care about because they are not in this book.’ Drummond’s chutzpah extends to inserting whopping anachronisms into the text. Remember, Roberta Antonia Wilson is meant to be writing ‘The Twenty Twenty- Three! Trilogy’ in 1984, yet includes in her story Harry Potter, the Gherkin, Twitter and Lady Gaga. He just doesn’t care and a reader’s response to 2023 will depend, finally, to the extent they care that he doesn’t.