Bringing the beat back: The KLF in 2021 (What the fuck is going on?)

While we struggle to cope with the “new normal” of lockdowns, quarantines and curfews in a Covid world, one of the very few plus points is that various musical artists have looked to their younger selves as a way to keep busy as their vital income stream of touring is held in indefinite suspension. 

Pet Shop Boys have been revisiting their old video films, Toyah’s had a boob job, and even Madonna, the narcissistic queen of never looking back (probably because the mirror’s in front of her), has started putting her long deleted singles out for streaming, while simultaneously working on a movie of her life (hilariously directed by herself, naturally). Heck, even renegade warriors the KLF are back, making a virtual reality return with a host of cleverly curated digital releases and still no masterplan. KLF? Back? WTF more like.

It was thirty years ago today when a couple of brilliantly idiosyncratic artpop pranksters released their landmark album The White Room, having sat atop the British singles charts with the pop-sampling ‘Stadium House’ anthem 3 a.m. Eternal the month before. It may have been their only No.1 record as the KLF per se but the always the sardonic, satirical duo — a.k.a. The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu (“furthermore known as The JAMs”), The K Foundation et al — comprising of ex Brilliant guitarist Jimmy Cauty (alias Rockman Rock) and former Echo & The Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes manager Bill Drummond (alias King Boy D), were still 1991’s biggest selling musical act, sharing the record for the most top ten singles of the year with the ubiquitous Madge.

Of course, it wasn’t to last: the conceptual art terrorists assaulted the music industry with a barrage of absolutely tremendous records and then signalled their departure from the music industry in a hail of machine-gun fire at the Brit Awards. They then did the obvious and deleted their entire back catalogue, took the money and…. burnt it. The bastards.

Drummond and Cauty’s career zenith of a year also happened to be the time when I became ever so slightly obsessed with them, though no one was more surprised than me. Seriously.

It’s hard to remember today the bitterness of the cultural war being fought in the charts around the start of the 1990s. This was the new musical decade that exploded dance music into the stratosphere, though to begin with the genre (house, techno and rave) was often underground and anti-establishment and in stark contrast to the ‘proper’ pop music favoured by the music industry establishment. That battle echoed the arrival of punk rock a generation before, and even the birth of rock’n’roll itself. Some of you may even be old enough to remember records by Little Richard or Motown hit factory fodder like The Supremes being dismissed as primitive, repetitive and content-free… exactly like nineties dance music.

The early 1990s were a strange, transitional time in my orbit too. I was a hotel chef in a profession I loathed and would soon junk. But even worse, this avalanche of faceless dance acts with indistinguishable big lunged diva guest stars, superstar house DJs and rave ‘happenings’ appealed to me about as much as a Pinky & Perky convention in a mosque. Hardly my onion-smelling finger on the pulse then.

In fact, I’d switched off from contemporary music to such a degree that I’d gone completely the other way. Ever the contrarian, my taste in music had markedly diverged from my peers, who, in the main, were listening to either Public Enemy and NWA (the boys), or Erasure and the chronic Technotronic (the gays and the gals). Techno, techno, bloody techno indeed. 

Me? I cared little for rap and hip hop but I didn’t mind NWA for their comedy value (“Gosh, they’re swearing on their record!”) but most of the time I was winding backwards and discovering ‘heritage’ acts such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Abba. In other words, I was turning into my parents and I was still only 21.

Then, something strange happened on the day Maggie cried.

On 28 June 1991, two days after my twenty-second birthday, I chanced upon a maxi single in the Central Milton Keynes branch of Virgin Megastore. It was a five-track US import CD of which the bulk of the tracks were variations of a track that had gone to No.1 in Britain there years earlier. It was Doctorin’ The Tardis by The Timelords, replete with cheeky purloining of Sweet’s Blockbuster! and Gary Glitter’s Rock & Roll Part 2. Over to a nerdily descriptive scriptwriter then.

“I’d like to point to that Time Lords is technically spelt as two words, so they got it wrong by spelling it as one. This was the oddest thing; this was like my favourite thing in the world, Doctor Who, going to the top of the charts with a video in which the Daleks are very inaccurately portrayed, and I could never work out ‘Is this song taking the mickey out of it?’ Actually, it’s like Doctor Who described to a child in Paraguay and then turned into a video. It’s kind of many removes away. And for that reason I love it.” — Russell T Davies, BBC Sounds Of The 80s, 5 February 2021 

I was hardly a Whovian like RTD, but even I vaguely knew the reason for the DIY Daleks was their creator Terry Nation wouldn’t licence his tin-pot Nazis for the clip. Perhaps he knew the duo were more than ‘taking the mickey’. That they also referenced Harry Enfield’s obnoxious capitalist Loadsamoney just added to their thinly veiled admission that artistic value was irrelevant when you were that focused on ripping up the charts. I guess the clue was emblazoned on the credits of the disc itself, wherein it bore the immortal legend

“Probably the most nauseating record in the world.”

It was a claim also repeated in a KLF Communications information sheet (a press release to you and I), where Bill Drummond added that “We also enjoyed celebrating the trashier side of pop. But you don’t have to worry, there will not be a Timelords follow up.” In the same communication he also described Gary Glitter as a “diamond geezer.”

I wonder if he regrets that now.

Not half as much as me though. Before he was outed as a prolific kiddy-fiddler, Glitter recorded new vocals on an additional comedy retwizzle of the Tardis track, which they subsequently performed on the Christmas 1988 edition of the BBC’s long running chart show Top Of The Pops. I know I’ll never live this down, but having immersed myself in Gary Joins The JAMS (sic) as the fourth track on the CD, I plucked up the Dutch courage and bought tickets for my sister and I to see the portly pervert in concert at Wembley Arena that December. By the nineties, Gary Glitter’s Gangshow had become a bit of an annual event, a tin foiled festive frolic that was almost as synonymous with Christmas as Brussels sprouts and the Queen’s speech: a potty party for adults and kids, but mainly for office types wanting an old fashioned hammy knees up before the holiday season.

And yes, of course it was so bad it was good. Sort of.

What was even stranger is why I bought Doctorin’ The Tardis three years after the event. Though I’d been an avid watcher of Doctor Who in my pre-pubescence, I hadn’t seen an episode of the then cancelled show for years, though I did still have a great affection for Ron Grainer’s spine-tingling theme tune. So, subconsciously, maybe this gimmicky glamtastic mash-up was obtaining it by proxy.

Looking for a reaction, I took the CD into work and once the diners had scrammed I replaced the genteel piped wine bar music of George Michael and Simply Red with my batty new purchase. 

“You like these funny, quirky records, don’t you,” said Vanessa the waitress politely. That’ll be it then. I bought it because it’s different, novel(ty) and a bit silly. Sinfully, six years later the Teletubbies’ masterpiece somehow found its way into my collection, so I do have form. Eh-oh.

Then something even stranger happened. 

Incongruously placed as the odd one out piggy in the middle — i.e. the only piece of music on the Timelords CD which wasn’t a corrupted version of the Doctor Who theme — track three happened to be a seven minute instrumental version of a piece entitled What Time Is Love; credited, variously, as the KLF Original Mix or the 1988 Pure Trance Original. Having little interest in dance or house music, to my ears it was repetitive, monotonous and musically completely out of place. But before long, I found myself completely won over by this sinister techno anthem, its hypnotic quality a potent concoction that wormed the ear like a duck to water. Or should that be sheep to the slaughter?

In other words, I was hooked.

In a mainstream pop world so thoroughly emptied, mostly by constant, unimaginative replication, KLF were an incredible, wildly inventive breath of fresh air. Though inspired by the hip-hop revolution of the late 1980s, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty always had that anarchic Malcolm McLaren vibe of “destroy, subvert and undermine expectations…” and of simply improvising their strategy in response to each new idea or opportunity as it cropped up.

Gratifyingly, I welcomed the duo’s punk militancy and disruptive, maverick gaiety with flapping open arms, though, truth be told, theirs was not necessarily a huge musical talent. The KLF’s ramshackle artistic surprise was a brilliant ability to not take themselves seriously at all in the middle of general superficial commercial mayhem; to manifest a sense of occasion, however preposterous, in parody and pastiche. And as renegades of British talent they were masters at parading their own self-appointed iconography – self-promotional skills that, in retrospect, anoint the group as contemporary as anything. But that’s not to say the tunes weren’t good. Far from it.

With the benefit of a huge dose of hindsight, 1991 was hardly a vintage year for album releases from ‘current’ acts, though I must have played The White Room way more than the collective spins of Blue Lines, Foxbase Alpha, and — crikey — even the epochal grunge of Nevermind put together. 

The KLF weren’t even that new. Their catalogue is messy and confusing, but taking into account the releases credited to The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, to the surprise of many a new kid on the block feverishly buying anything bearing the KLF legend, The White Room was actually the duo’s fourth LP proper, having kicked off — literally and figuratively — with 1987 (What the Fuck Is Going On?) a year before the Timelords aberration. And that’s why the album – far from stemming from some cunning master plan – was the almost accidental result of several years of failed projects, dwindling cash, and creative dead ends.

Nevertheless, Bill and Jimmy well understood that making mistakes and being prepared to wander up blind alleys is an essential part of the creative process. They continued to defy conventional music industry wisdom, went their own sweet way – and kept trying stuff and chucking it at the wall to see what would stick.

Then, suddenly, a radical retooling of their now legendary signature dish propelled the KLF into the commercial stratosphere. With its anthemic “mu-mu” chants, self-proclaiming cod gangsta rapping, and insistent demand that they “wanna see you sweat”, a pop vocal remix of What Time Is Love? reached No.5 in September 1990. It was the first of the ensuing ‘Stadium House’ trilogy of singles that would dominate the charts in 1991, crystallising the piecemeal sample-laden approach they’d been edging towards all along. 

The subsequent 3 a.m. Eternal and Last Train To Trancentral went even further, reaching No.1 and No.2 respectively; the unexpected success of the singles allowing the JAMs to revisit a failed White Room movie soundtrack and transform it into the landmark album we still know and love 30 years later. 

“This is Radio Freedom,” announces the arrival of 3 a.m. Eternal’s revolutionary zeal in a hail of gunfire. Liberation Zulu? Thatcher would have denounced the heavily accented call to bear arms as crypto-Communist. In fact, she wouldn’t have been far off: it’s sampled from a broadcast by Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, portending a future filled with widespread mangling of the English language. Clearly, this was the twilight zone intended to foreshadow the emergence of George Bush and Donald Trump.

With a whistle-stop gusto of its own, the sheer frantic rush of Trancentral’s “All aboard, all aboard” mantra sounded like it could be an outtake from Holly Johnson’s Love Train, though on closer inspection turned out to be the reggae artist Black Steel from Brockley. The track’s boastful insistence that “This is what KLF is about” was voiced by rapper Ricardo da Force, without ever letting on what “this” actually was. 

The band were fond of allusions to spiritual terminology (c.f. Church Of The KLF), and employed high-sounding words like justified, ancient and eternal, but they would be the first to admit they had no real message, expressed no coherent beliefs. Still, the constant self-referencing foreshadowed the rise of the “Me, me, me, look at me!” self-obsession of the social media age we now live in. And how.

The KLF’s major achievement with The White Room was it squared the circle and appealed to both sides of the chart divide at once. Here was brilliantly made radio friendly dance music with monster hooks derived of myriad sources performed by comic book larger-than-life yet anonymous personalities under the cover of a collective that are the very hallmarks of conventional pop stardom. Their success was sudden and staggering, and pre-dated Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz concept by an entire decade.

The duo saw out ’91 as a trio — one of the unlikeliest trios in pop history in fact — with the transcendent Justified And Ancient, taking The White Room’s mellow manifesto and transforming it in to a full-blown ice cream anthem featuring an achingly brittle vocal from country legend Tammy Wynette as the datum heart earth mother. They were all bound for Mu Mu Land, see (For the less well read, the JAMs took their name from Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s conspiracy theory-laden Illuminatus! book trilogy in which The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu are a subversive sci-fi cult who have been hovering around the dreamland since pre-history.)

The Independent thought Justified And Ancient “perhaps the oddest modern-day pop pairing,” but, brilliantly executed 45 aside, they were merely following in the now familiar footsteps of old-time diva meets electronic upstarts — c.f. Heaven 17 & Tina Turner, Pet Shop Boys & Dusty Springfield — and it worked: the idolatrous confection closed out the old year and marked the new by rising to No.2 in the UK, having been denied the top spot it achieved overseas by a reissue of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody in the wake of Freddie Mercury’s AIDS-related death. With the harbinger of doom circling, the KLF’s days were similarly heading towards the exit.

Exploiting the old maxim that there are no original ideas left in music, while simultaneously capitalising on the hype surrounding the half-millennium anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of The Americas, 1992’s America: What Time Is Love was, for me, an overblown, unnecessary remodelling of the KLF’s crowning glory, even if it featured evermore incongruous vocal chops in the shape of Deep Purple’s Glenn Hughes, David Bowie’s one-time Los Angeles housemate during his pharmaceutical Young Americans era.

Equally of the moment is their unashamed conclusion broadcast just weeks before the uncaring cutting Tory government of Thatcher-then-Major were awarded five more years. The KLF’s notorious Brit Awards performance with Extreme Noise Terror included a limping, kilted, cigar-chomping Drummond firing blanks from an automatic weapon over the heads of the crowd. Poor Sir Georg Solti stormed out, presumably clutching his Best Classical wotsit trophy tightly. NME writer Danny Kelly observed that “compared to what’s preceded it, this is a turbo-powered metallic wolf breaking into a co-op full of particularly sick doves… And the noise? Well, the noise is hardcore punk thrash through a disco techno hit played by crusties. All bases covered, brilliantly. Clever, clever bastards.” 

As the curtain closed on their jaw-dropping performance, Drummond and Cauty ramped up the outrage by refusing to accept their Best Group gong (inexplicably shared with the insipid Simply Red) and dumping a dead sheep at the aftershow party, but not before their publicist Scott Piering twisted Elvis Presley’s usual end of show announcement and told a stunned/bemused/outraged crowd that “The KLF have now left the music business”. Within a few months, they did just that – their records were deleted and Drummond and Cauty removed themselves from the entertainment industry.

Anarchic to the last, for me, the mark of the JAMs’ true greatness is that acclaim and money completely failed to seduce them. Bill and Jim stuck to their situationist principles and walked away from the entire circus at the very pinnacle of their fame. Before long, their art and propaganda arm the K Foundation popped up again, funnelling KLF cash into outrageous stunts — like their signature subversive statement in 1994: conceived as a symbolic exorcism of what the KLF had become, they burned a million quid in banknotes on an island off the coast of Scotland and filming it. I repeat, the bastards.

Though they’re still brilliantly belligerent, the now sixty-something enfants terribles have remained broadly true to their word of May 1992, albeit pursuing a series of small-time side projects within the visual arts under a variety of guises: popping up occasionally with a novel here, a wacky fan event there, even rebooting an earlier campaign to build a “People’s Pyramid”. Like Prince, Bowie and Dylan, the JAMs are surrounded by myth, legend and rumour, and appeared to have little interest in revisiting the past. Other than a handful of new tracks as the K Foundation, The One World Orchestra, and in 1997, as 2K, for all intents and purposes the KLF were musically dormant, not a going concern. Until the first day of January 2021 that is. 

The complete withdrawal of the KLF catalogue meant that obtaining their albums and singles was nigh-impossible to get, at least legally, and usually for ridiculous sums of money. With the advent of the internet, the process became simpler, but official access remained an issue the duo had little interest in revisiting.

Then out of the blue, on New Year’s Day the first digital collection from KLF Communications, the steadfastly independent label the guys created to release their music, was uploaded to a plethora of streaming services including Apple Music, Spotify, and even slave labour exponents Amazon. 

What would drive the duo to not only undelete their catalogue, but also, if the rumour mill is accurate, be preparing to unveil a cache of discarded material that wasn’t supposed to see the light of day? Some dastardly Discordian trick? A subversive attempt to stage a second coming? 

The timing of their recalcitrant comeback doesn’t seem totally coincidental given that far-right authoritarianism has risen again in the West, vaguely echoing the early eighties of Reagan and Thatcher. The austerity and rampant capitalism of Britain during Thatcher’s reign was where the KLF germinated. The duo was an albatross of the online culture to follow — weird, humorous, sadistic, conspiracy-addled, fixated with shadow government agencies and corporations — so maybe, just maybe, they have a vision for a post-truth world. 

Announced via two fly-posters put up under a railway bridge in London’s trendy Shoreditch, the release of series of cleverly curated compilations under the collective title Samplecity Thru Trancentral began on 1 January 2021 with a 30-minute collection of eight 45s entitled Solid State Logik 1 (7” Hit Singles 1988–1991). The set is based around the duo’s seven biggest hits, including The Timelords’ Doctorin’ The Tardis and, with its ominous rumbling bassline over punishing industrial techno, It’s Grim Up North, the only chart entry under the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu moniker.

An accompanying set of high-definition videos were published for the first time on the band’s official YouTube channel, marking the first activity of Cauty and Drummond as the KLF for 29 long years… and 30 years since 3 a.m. Eternal had been released.

On 4 February came the second collection, a re-edited version of their third album, 1990’s ambient masterpiece Chill Out, the day before its 31st anniversary. Amusingly retitled Come Down Dawn, several previously unauthorised but prominent samples from the original release have been removed (Elvis, Fleetwood Mac, Earth Wind & Fire and even a BBC Radio 1 jingle among them),  and integrated into the new sonically superior remix is a rare Virtual Reality Mix of What Time Is Love? and a few FX from The White Room movie OST. Just think, if the potty pair hadn’t burned a million quid they could’ve paid the licensing fees for copyright clearance. Perhaps KLF now stands for Kopyright Litigation Front, rather than the more familiar Kopyright Liberation Front.

Having said that, with its sparkling audio upgrade, Come Down Dawn’s blissed out spartan soundscape sounds magnificent, portraying as it does a mythical night-time journey through the American Gulf States, from Texas to Louisiana. And so it is: the album transmits the delirious feeling of a thirty-hour car ride, as felt in that special sensory area between sleep and brainless acceptance of random stimuli. Though it wouldn’t be the KLF without a random urinary extraction exercise, which in this instance has resulted in the renaming of the tracks to signify, according to the band, subsequent stages of their 43-hour journey from 1990, that run “from the Reverend Doctor Wade’s tabernacle in Brooklyn to the Mesoamerican Pyramids near Mexico City.

And while we’re on the subject of travelogues and rebirths, a cover of Born Free, the Grammy-winning sixties ballad written by James Bond film composer John Barry was supposed to close the unreleased original version of The White Room. The album was originally conceived as Tunes From The White Room — a soundtrack for a road movie featuring Drummond and Cauty on another of their legendary surreal quests — which the KLF were forced to abandon due to a chronic lack of funds

A single, the summer of ’89 45 that was Kylie Said To Jason, was intended to act as the film’s trailer, and a top 10 record which the duo were hoping could help bankroll the movie and rescue them “from the jaws of bankruptcy”. It failed to even make the Top 100, forcing the curtailment of the project and leaving the Pet Shop Boys-go-Stock Aitken Waterman cheese pastiche an orphan. (For the record, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, tongues firmly in each other’s cheeks, were suitably intrigued to commission KLF remixes of both sides of their next single, So Hard.)

On top of that there’s an entirely different – darker and harsher – version of the band’s swansong called The Black Room which may finally see the light of day in some form in 2021. Just a thrash rendition of 3 a.m Eternal with grind core merchants Extreme Noise Terror has appeared thus far, itself a studio version of their incendiary Brits finale. 

With four more “non-consecutive chapters” of reissues promised, one wonders if the Black and original White rooms may feature in reconfigured fashion. The posters mentioned outtakes, so a smattering of previously unreleased material looks likely. However, in typical JAMs style, at the time of writing nothing has been revealed except the titles.

A Solid State Logik 2 may possibly collect the duo’s remaining ‘flop’ 45s, Kick-Out D’Jams sounds White Room related, Pure Trance Series would almost certainly be a collection of their own in-house instrumental mixes, and Moody Boys Selected sounds pretty self-explanatory, suggesting a cherry-pick of remixes by the KLF’s close associate Tony Thorpe. With any luck it might even include a personal favourite, the Kraftwerkian robotic splendour of Kylie Said Harder, which omits the original’s Aussiecentric reference to another now disgraced entertainer, Rolf Harris “singing Sun Arise.” (To be fair, the mix excises most of the song’s lyrics.)  

Sadly, it looks like interminable rights issues preclude a collection of third-party outside mixes from being considered, which is a shame as I’ve always thought Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch-less reinterpretation of What Time Is Love? deserved a wider audience, having only ever been briefly available on a rare 12” single in 1990.

Where that leaves the first two bootleggy Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu albums, 1987 and Shag Times, is any one’s guess, though it’s possible 1987: The JAMs 45 Edits — ostensibly a cheekily condensed version of the debut minus unauthorised Abba appropriations that resulted in the lawyers for the Swedes ordering the enforced deletion of the album —may feature on the second singles set.

When you take into account the pittances the streaming giants pay, the one-size-fits-all music streaming might seem antithetical to the JAMS’ anti-establishment mentality, though the irony of succumbing to streaming, itself the end product of a knee-jerk reaction by the major labels to combat music piracy won’t be lost on Drummond and Cauty.

This newly configured online series serves as a pyramid scheme of its own, a step at preserving their paradigm-shifting experiments for the future. Either way, three decades on, the dynamic duo’s myth-making is proving as enduring as they are audacious. But remember the KLF are no longer a pop group, but quixotic new age undertakers more concerned with bricks and mortar than Spotify royalty streams. After all, they have money to burn.

Steve Pafford

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