Monday, 19 March 2012

Bill Drummond & The17 - Damascus In London

A few days ago I received an email inviting me to take part in Bill Drummond's latest project. Here is an excerpt from the email.

"Bill Drummond was supposed to come with us to Damascus in 2011, where he was going to lead a performance around the Old City Walls there. Due to the ongoing repression in Syria it was not possible. Therefore he will recreate this performance here in London. He has drawn a map of the Old City Walls of Damascus onto a map of London. He will place all of us around the city of London to recreate these, and then we will pass one musical note around the circle, signifying the links.

From Bill: ‘To make a performance of SURROUND happen, you first take a map of a city, draw a circle on it, so that in reality the circle would have a circumference of five kilometres. Find 100 locals willing to become members of The17. Place each of these 100 members of The17 at 50-meter intervals around the circumference. Once they are all in position, you get the first one to cry out at the top of their voice ‘Way-Ho’ at his/her clockwise neighbour. The neighbour repeats the cry to his/her clockwise neighbour and so it goes on until the cry has been passed all the way around the 5K circumference, this takes between ten and fifteen minutes. After this the performance is over. Or the physical aspect of it is, if done properly it will continue in your imagination for years to come. I wont go into how great it feels to take part in this and what its musical qualities are. You will just have to instigate a performance of SURROUND yourself to find out.
I will instigate the performance of SURROUND that was to happen in Damascus here in London.’"

I've been a fan of Bill Drummond for many years since his days in The KLF, through The K Foundation burning a million quid, to some great books, such as "45" and "The 17". The 17 explores Bill's relationship with music and he tries to imagine what it would be like to start creating music all over again as if it had never existed in the first place.

The score that I and 99 other people would be performing was Score 328, called "Surround". This was conceived as being a trilogy with it being performed in Scotland, Lebanon and Syria. The Scottish and Lebanese pieces have been done, but obviously it is impossible to do in Damascus at the moment so Bill has recreated the city walls of Damascus in London.

I do hope I don't get placed south of the river though, and that I'm not in a busy shopping street. I am quite nervous about this as it does involved standing in a position, waiting, and shouting, then waiting again till the call travels right round London (aka Damascus) and shouting again five times.

This is the score we will be attempting

Well, I am going to get ready and head to the London School Of Economics where Bill will explain this in more detail. I'm also boyishly excited to get the chance to meet Bill Drummond as well!


The17 - Me kneeling beside Bill Drummond at the bottom right!!

Well it is now the next day, and what an exciting day it was. I followed my map and arrived at Tower 1 of LSE where there were already7 or 8 others hanging around. A few knew each other, but most had arrived by themselves. We stood around and chatted awkwardly for a bit before eventually being led up to the 10th floor where the chatting soon got less awkward and we were soon discussing how we heard about this project and swapped various takes of art, music and comedy.

Bill arrived and addressed us all so we all knew what was going to happen, He spoke of previous performances of this piece and explained how we may feel both while we were doing this, and afterwards. He said it was common for people to try and run away, but when this happened the guilt would draw them back, because if one link in the chain goes, the whole circle is broken.

We were given our T-shirts and gathered downstairs for a photo or two. Then we were off. This was the longest part of the process: making sure everyone is in position. As we started walking I was at the front with Bill. I told him I was quite excited about this and also rather nervous. "Not as nervous as I am" he said as he chuckled!

We started at Victoria Embankment and Bill explained that he was going to pace out 50m intervals and each time he stopped he expected one person to stay there. This was where I made my mistake. I volunteered 2nd. I should have kept walking with everyone and tried to be last, as it meant that I had to basically stand there for an hour.

I had to keep number 1 and number 3 in my sights (we were self policing and had to make sure no one tried to leave.) I was nervous and excited all at the same time. I was glad I wasn't standing outside a Tesco, but I was standing in quite a touristy area and I really didn't want to bellow as a nice family were going past.

The girlfriend of number one kept coming up to see if I was getting lonely. I was. It was both a communal and very lonely experience. My phone battery had died. This meant that my brain had to think. I asked this lady how she found out about the performance and she explained she had links to the Syrian community. I asked her if she knew anything about Bill Drummond. She hadn't, and was quite surprised when I told her he used to be a pop star.

After a long wait, I saw number 1 waving at me and saw Bill running towards her. The circle was complete. Without pausing, both number one and Bill loudly called out:


I turned to number three and repeated the cry:


I heard this maybe 3 or 4 more times before it faded into the distance as it started to circle Damascus in London. I went back to the number one position and bid number one and her girlfriend farewell. Bill and I walked the 100m or so to the final place and we waited.

Courtesy of @Littlepixel

I asked him how long it would take to get round. He said that usually it is about ten minutes. Our small talk was soon interrupted though. I thought I could hear it across the river, but put that down to an overactive imagination. But I was right. Across Waterloo Bridge came the calls: "Way-oh!" They were getting louder and closer and eventually got to the final position. Bill had ran further on to receive the last call: "Way-oh!" he cried with a huge beam on his face.

We slowly started to come together again, and even though this was a very public display (I wonder how many people were on the route round London that heard it) it was also very private. No one who heard it knew why we were doing it. Even now, I don't really know why we did it. But everyone was happy. A hundred people united at the start and at the end, and soon we drifted our separate ways and will never come together as The17 again.

And I even got my copy of "45" signed. What an uncool way to end a very very cool day!


  1. I'd really appreciate it if you were to remove all audio and filmed recordings of Bill Drummond and The17 from your site. I'm sure the posting is well-intentioned, but such a thing defeats the idea and concept of what The17 is all about.

    You can contact Bill or me on the address below should you wish.

    Thank you for your understanding,

    Penkiln Burn

  2. Cally,

    I have removed the audio and video content of Bill's introductions and the video of preparations before the performance. I deliberately didn't take any footage of the performance itself as I knew that would go against the spirit of it. However I didn't realise there would be an issue with the footage that I published.

    I am, of course, happy to correct this. Please thank Bill for creating such an uplifting project, and all the best for all future performances. It was an absolute blast being part of The17.


  3. Nice to see you found my hipstamatic pic of Bill on Twitter; I wondered if you could fix a typo - I'm Littlepixel not Littelpixel. Great day. Wishing I'd got my copy of 45 signed now too!

  4. Yup! It was a great day. I was pretty nervous about it at first but rather excited when I knew my "bit" was coming up! Yes, I've fixed it for you. It's turning into a blog of corrections!

  5. Great review of the day, mine is here

  6. Just seen this link. Great write up - Summed it up neatly - And you and your mate were just 1 and 2 after myself!