As The KLF seem set to make a comeback later this year, Getintothis’ Gary Aster examines what made them unique and considers whether they are now needed more than ever.
On New Year’s Day a 46 minute film was posted on YouTube by person or persons unknown using the pseudonym Cale Leth. It told the story of The KLF and had the look and feel of the sort of fan-produced mash-up that’s rife on the platform – a collage of clips sourced from old VHS cassettes. It was full of copyright infringements ‘sampling’ from a wide variety of sources alongside KLF footage, including Withnail and I, Doctor Who, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Day Today, Donnie Darko and others.
The clips were cut together so well that it led some to speculate that it was the work of The KLF themselves, but this proved not to be the case. However, rumours of an imminent KLF re-union were almost immediately being whispered here and there, then later confirmed (sort of) although the film was removed from YouTube within days.
To those familiar with The KLF’s activities, and the individual artistic pursuits of James ‘Jimmy’ Cauty and Bill Drummond, the sudden disappearance of KLF-related work should come as no surprise – indeed it’s been something of a recurring theme from the outset of Cauty and Drummond’s collaboration, the 30th anniversary of which passed by on New Year’s Day.
Their first album, 1987 (What the Fuck is Going On?) (issued under their original name, The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, or The Jams for short) met with a similar fate. It also included multiple samples used without the original copyright holders’ permission.
Abba’s lawyers got in touch, incensed by The Jams’ use of Dancing Queen which they’d sampled and mashed-up with the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen for the track The Queen and I (in which Drummond raps about breaking into the palace and persuading Her Maj to step down from her throne and abolish the crown). Despite their best efforts to convince Abba of the purity of their motives, which involved a failed trip to Sweden with a music journalist and photographer in tow in order to plead with Abba, the lawyers remained resolute.
Drummond and Cauty were compelled to recall any existing copies of the album and destroy them. Not for the last time in their career, they set fire to their creation in a field. In fact they weren’t entirely successful in this first elemental act of ritual destruction, being chased out of this particular field by a farmer with a loaded shotgun firing warning shots over their heads. Beating a hasty retreat, they had to settle later for burial at sea, chucking the remaining copies overboard on the ferry journey home. At least one of these remaining copies was spared from being drowned or sacrificed as a burnt offering however, and it was still clearly visible propped up in the rear window of their ice cream van several years later.
Fortunately for posterity’s sake a further few copies of the album, perhaps as many as several hundred, were already in circulation in the UK, where it had received glowing reviews in the music press. But this wasn’t, it has to be said, for any musical qualities it possessed. Melody Maker called it “an admirably ugly record”.
What the critics were praising was its pioneering use of samples, the obvious wit and intelligence at work behind it and the provocative move of releasing it without troubling to clear so much as a single sample. This was a bold, attention-grabbing gesture at the time, but one that ultimately cost them their first album.
Of course, it also garnered lots of curious attention and vital publicity, and the pair quickly became adept at cultivating their own myth. They were astute media players, even manipulators who took the piss magnificently. Inspired by contemporary art, magickal thinking, Discordianism and the esoteric Illuminatus! novels, they employed anarchic, situationist techniques, elevating music business bull-shit PR stunts to the level of works of art.
What enabled them to do all of this was the total artistic and commercial control they enjoyed as their own producers, managers and publishers. It allowed them the freedom to indulge their every whim or bonkers idea to the full. But total creative freedom paradoxically includes the freedom to destroy; in the case of The Jams/KLF, with hindsight it seems inevitable that this was where it would ultimately lead. And of course, despite their repeated insistence that they had “no masterplan”, it’s entirely possible that they planned it that way all along. They must, for example, have anticipated the result of their efforts to plead with Abba. Why else had they travelled to Sweden with all the remaining copies of their first album and the materials required to burn them?
The band seemed determined to court with controversy from the very beginning. They repeatedly resorted to legally dubious practices, especially graffiti, in the practice of their art and have continued to use it in their individual works ever since. Drummond has certainly been prosecuted for this on several occasions. To draw attention to the release of their first single they added graffiti to a billboard newspaper ad showing Greater Manchester Police Chief Constable, James Anderton, later ridiculed as God’s Cop by Happy Mondays.
Anderton was an outspoken public figure praised by certain sections of the media for his views about single mothers, beating young offenders and the re-criminalisation of homosexuality amongst other things, which of course the rabidly right-wing press lapped up and amplified. When this particular Jams’ graffiti first appeared, Anderton had just recently uttered some particularly contemptible and unsympathetic remarks about HIV/Aids sufferers. His image was scrawled over with the words “shag, shag, shag”, then photographed and used as the cover for The Jams’ debut single.
That single was also the opening track of their first album and it serves as a good example of why the band have been described as “pioneering” in their use of samples. What was new were the types of samples they used, and the way in which they used them. Their first single, All You Need is Love, begins with a sample from that particular Beatles song. We hear the record beginning, then the turntable is switched off almost immediately and the music grinds slowly to halt just as the Fabs reach the final repeated “love” from the intro.
This is interesting because it depends on the listener’s prior knowledge of that song and its place in pop culture as the anthem of 1967 and the Summer of Love. In 1987 (“20 years ago today”) The Beatles had come to be seen by many as the foremost practitioners of a ‘golden age’ of pop and there’s an interesting contrast to be made between them and The Jams/KLF as a sort of anti-band, eschewing the values of the past.
The Beatles’ apparent naïve sincerity is subverted by The Jams as an ironic statement. When The Beatles recorded All You Need is Love they had ceased performing live and existed only within the confines of the recording studio, which was also true of The Jams at that point. But whereas The Beatles were spending months fine-tuning and carefully crafting their recordings, The Jams’ initial offerings were rushed, unpolished and decidedly lo-fi.
The Jams’ choice of samples was determined not by any particular musical qualities, such as an irresistible beat or groove, but for what those samples signified. Those used in All You Need is Love demonstrate this clearly. The song is an angry response to the sort of bigoted scapegoating and victim-blaming then being levelled at HIV/Aids sufferers in the tabloids. The extent of intolerance and homophobia in the gutter press are, today, shocking to recollect. Calls for HIV/Aids sufferers to be sectioned or quarantined, and for the re-criminalisation of homosexuality could all be found in the pages of our biggest-selling newspapers.
James Anderton’s shrill voice was just one among many others, and a natural target for The Jams’ righteous ire. Their track also includes samples from the AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance public information broadcasts, Ring a Ring o’ Roses (chosen because of its erroneous association with the plague) and the song Touch Me by former page 3 girl turned pop star Samantha Fox. Samantha Fox, of course, was perhaps the most familiar public-face of the tabloid press at that time. Newspapers were taking a strong line against perceived sexual permissiveness, while publishing half-naked photographs of teenage girls like Samantha Fox every day. There’s a further irony in The Jams’ use of this sample because the track was obviously intended to appeal to gay clubbers every bit as much as Sinitta’s So Macho.
1988’s follow-up album, Who Killed the Jams? contained yet more lawyer-baiting samples but a shift in style from the brutal punk/hip-hop of their debut to a more contemporary sound much more reminiscent of pre-rave dance floors and chart pop. That same year saw them score their first international number one hit single, Doctorin’ the Tardis, released under another pseudonym, as The Timelords.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about their activities at this point wasn’t the so-bad-it’s-good novelty hit single but the accompanying book, The Manual – How To Have A Number One The Easy Way, which describes their “Zenarchistic method” to achieve chart success. Long since out of print, it’s now a highly sought-after collector’s item written in an accessible style that, by turns, combines a pure and uncritical love of pop music with a hard-nosed cynicism about the music industry. It also came with a money back guarantee for anyone who followed its instructions (which involved amassing tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt) but failed to achieve a number one.
Unexpectedly flushed as The KLF coffers were with the proceeds from their recent hit single, in 1989 they opted next to make a road movie, The White Room, in which Drummond and Cauty played themselves and cast Paul McGann in a key role. It told the story of how the band had been contacted by unknown and threatening figures who warned of the dangers they were getting into through their use of Discordian techniques and symbols (such as their use of the letter K, and the frequent incorporation of the number 23 into whatever they were doing) and urged them to sign a contract providing them with access to the mysterious White Room on certain unspecified conditions…
Although an early version of the film was apparently completed it no longer survives. It was reportedly only ever shown once. To an audience of sheep. In Germany. Then for reasons undisclosed the duo once again destroyed the fruits of their labour. Years later, an incomplete rough cut emerged on youtube and apparently authentic copies of the script have been changing hands on file sharing sites ever since, although the source of these remains unclear. The film’s soundtrack did survive however, and after extensive re-recording and remixing it later went on to become their most successful album.
The early days of acid-house, ecstasy, warehouse parties, illegal outdoor raves and the attendant moral panic of the second summer of love presented new and exciting possibilities, and The KLF, of course, were early adopters. The original 1988 pure trance version of What Time Is Love? was surely one of the biggest, bangingest choons of those early, revolutionary days. Other Pure Trance releases followed in 1989 and 1990. Bliss it was to be alive at that time, but to be young then was very heaven. I’d like to say more about it of course, but for some reason I find that my memories are a little hazy.
I do remember hearing of one rave where the band showered a thousand one-pound notes onto the dancing throng below, each of which they’d inscribed with the message “we love you children”. On another occasion at the close of their set they began handing out their equipment to the audience until all the gear had been ‘liberated’. Then there was that time they played an entire set from inside their ice cream van…
The KLF provided the soundtrack not only for the dancefloor, but also the long, other-worldly come down afterwards. 1990’s Chill Out is for many, this writer included, their best work from a purely musical point of view, and surely their most influential. Alongside The Orb, The KLF could arguably claim (but didn’t) to have invented a whole new sub-genre of music. Cauty had been DJing with The Orb’s Dr Alex Paterson and the two of them had originally formed The Orb, though Cauty soon left, quite amicably.
Taking his contributions to the Orb’s first album with him, Cauty used them for another ambient-house album, Space, on KLF communications. That same year Drummond and Cauty made their first visit to the Isle of Jura as The KLF. Here they made a 40 minute ambient film, Waiting, with a new, ambient-house soundtrack. It was available only by mail order on VHS. The film consists largely of shots of the pair at various locations on Jura, typically near the shore, occasionally with an abandoned boathouse visible in the background. Shot in a style reminiscent of a video installation at the Tate, we see the pair simply waiting by a fire…
Towards the close of 1990 they remixed and re-released What Time Is Love? It swiftly became an international smash for The KLF. More hits followed, promoted by ever more bizarre and costly means as the singles became increasingly eccentric and surprising, elevating novelty records (long considered the least artistically credible and most annoying songs to gatecrash the singles charts) arguably to new artistic heights.
At a time when eccentricity in pop music was much more common-place, even expected of it, The KLF were a uniquely strange proposition and they waved their freak-flag high. They got Tammy Wynette to sing “They’re justified and they’re ancient and they drive an ice cream van”; they made huge crop circles depicting The KLF Pyramid Blaster logo; they made a record and then took out expensive full-page adverts in the world’s media declaring that it would not be released until world peace was achieved. By the end of 1991 they were the biggest selling singles act in the world.
One likely influence on their activities was Dadaism; Mu Mu is surely Dada. On the June 23 1991 for example, The KLF arranged for a host of international, carefully selected journalists to join them in celebrating The Rites of Mu. The journalists were met at Heathrow, where they all caught a chartered flight taking them to the Isle of Islay. Here they boarded a ferry which they were told would transport them to the lost continent of Mu – actually a return to the Isle of Jura for Drummond and Cauty, where they had been making secret preparations.
Upon arrival the assembled journalists were dressed in KLF robes and led in procession to a location seen previously in the ambient film Waiting. This time they led a bizarre mock pagan ceremony – The Rites of Mu. It concluded with “the four handmaidens of Mu” rising from the sea and walking amongst the gathered journalists collecting offerings. A few handed over small sums of money and other flammable materials. This was then placed in the midst of a giant wicker man and the whole thing was burned. As the handmaidens of Mu passed among the crowd, Bill, in the role of high priest, improvised an incantation in a made-up language. It was all nonsense on stilts of course, but it was entertaining, thought-provoking nonsense reminiscent of Hugo Ball’s recitation of Karawane at the Cabaret Voltaire on June 23 1916.
The story of The KLF’s demise is still spoken of in hushed tones by those who remember it. It happened at the Brit Awards in early 1992. The band were due to open proceedings with a rendition of their hit 3AM Eternal in collaboration with hardcore thrashers Extreme Noise Terror. In a chaotic performance Drummond fired blanks from an automatic weapon into the massed ranks of music biz insiders as a pre-recorded announcement declared that “The KLF have now left the music business” before the pair left to dump a dead sheep on the red carpet at the aftershow party.
The band won two Brits accepted on their behalf by a stooge dressed as a motorcycle courier who ran up on stage and grabbed one of their trophies from a surprised-looking minor celebrity. A few months later an even more surprised metal-detecting enthusiast discovered it buried in the vicinity of Stonehenge. There were some reports that Bill Drummond experienced some sort of ‘episode’ around this time – disappearing eventually to turn up on top of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan in Mexico, shortly before he phoned Cauty to let him know that he was OK.
For his part, Cauty exorcised his demons with a series of apocalyptic paintings depicting the band locked in chaotic struggle with sinister occult powers, only one of which still survives. The other canvasses were sanded down and Cauty stored the paint dust from them in jam jars. By that point the band had deleted their entire back catalogue, which was likened to setting fire to at least a couple of million by several different figures from the music industry speaking to the press at the time.
On the August 23 1994 (1+9+9+4=23, by the way) Drummond and Cauty returned once more to the location where they had filmed much of Waiting, and where they had later celebrated the Rites of Mu – to the Isle of Jura, with a suitcase containing £1million. According to Drummond this was the lion’s share of the money still unspent from their earnings as The Jams/KLF. In the early hours of the morning, inside an abandoned boathouse, they burned the lot. A camera was handed to one of two witnesses, and an hour long film, Watch The K Foundation Burn A Million Quid documents it.
The ashes of this expensive bonfire were swept up and taken to a brick-maker who used them to forge a single brick. They have received various offers to buy the brick, and it has been, if not exactly exhibited as such, then at least made visible on occasion, but when asked about it the pair have only said that they have “other plans for it”. In 1995 the pair signed a contract daubed in paint on a hire car, vowing not to discuss their reasons for doing any of this for a period of 23 years. The car was then pushed over the cliff edge at Cape Wrath.
On the August 23 2017 (2017-1994=23, by the way) we’re told that the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (and explicitly not The KLF) will return. Who knows what they can possibly be up to, but it seems very unlikely that it could be anything as dull or predictable as merely recording a new album. But then again, perhaps they will. They have unfinished business.
Shortly before they split-up, operating as the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, they began to record a sequel to the multi-million selling White Room album. It was to be called The Black Room and was reportedly a heavy metal record of sorts. Writing in Bad Wisdom, a travelogue published in 1996 which tells the story of Bill Drummond and Zodiac Mindwarp’s pilgrimage to the North Pole to sacrifice an icon of Elvis Presley, (probably best not to ask why) Drummond recalls:
“standing…in the recording booth, the microphone in front of me, Jimmy’s magnificent metal guitar riffs roaring in my headphones, [when]a voice came out of me that I had never heard before, words flowed that I had never written and a precipice appeared before me. I crept forward and looked over the edge: the abyss.
“The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu’s LP, The Black Room, was never finished…But maybe Jimmy and I should wait until we are both over fifty before we record the sound of us as battle-scarred veterans of a hundred mercenary campaigns, when the music would not be drawn from our fading libidos but from the horror of life spent confronting that abyss – kinda like Milton backed up by Megadeth.”
Official confirmation that they plan to return later this year as the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu came in the form of a poster issued by K2 Plant Hire, one of the more obscure pseudonyms they have used in the past and also a limited company registered in Drummond and Cauty’s names at Companies House. It’s a name they adopted for certain, so far unfulfilled, “building contracts”. In 1997, K2 Plant Hire announced several ambitious plans including repairs to/demolition of Stonehenge, and the construction of a “people’s pyramid” made entirely from recycled bricks to commemorate the millennium.
These projects are now almost 20 years overdue, but that’s builders for you. They did produce some nice hi-vis jackets and hard hats though. The date of their return – the 23rd anniversary of the money burning – and a hint from Drummond that they plan to complete a “sculpture” both suggest that completing The Black Room album probably isn’t what they’re up to. Yet the pseudo-legalistic phrasing of their announcement implies that they may be working in a recording studio. If they abide by the terms of the Cape Wrath contract (and really, what is the world coming to when you can’t rely on the words of a contract written on a car and shoved off the edge of cliff?) then it also seems unlikely that they plan to break their self-imposed silence about the money-burning. We’ll find out soon enough.
Is the world ready for them? Are they needed now more than ever? At this great distance can they really avoid disappointing us?
In a world where all kind and decent folk are looking around aghast asking ‘It’s 2017; WTF Is Going On?’; where U2 touring The Joshua Tree again with Noel Gallagher in support is considered good news by the NME, a world of Kardashians (who, I’m reliably informed, are not a race of bad guys from Star Trek), a world of Kanye for 2020; a post-truth world of Brexit and Trump, then the answer can only be an emphatic yes.
It’s important that at least some of those in the public eye behave in a sane and rational manner.