Entry points into pop’s foremost subversives…In the early 2000s back in Bournemouth a friend and I had an idea. We decided to form a fake band.
The idea was simple. We’d come up with a name and doctor some pictures of us. In six months’ time we’d make our live debut, at a gig that we’d put together. During that time, we’d claim there was a single out on some impossible to find label in Europe. We’d fake some clippings, and gigs in London, and start to build up some local hype about us.
A friend ran a music website, and we would convince him to run an interview with us to build some notoriety. On the day of the gig, one of us, probably me, would take to the stage and say the band were running late and would be on second. When our slot would eventually come no one would be on the stage. After a few minutes one of us, probably me, would explain that we couldn’t make it due to another booking in London. The next day we would announce we had broken up and would be destroying any copies of our single that we had.
A few months after that a bootleg of our single would be released and reviewed. Before you start to roll your eyes, this was 2003. The internet was a very different place to what it was now. MySpace wasn’t really a thing and it was very easy for bands to exist without a lot of people hearing the music.
Yes, the idea was stupid, but so are all the best ones. – If it hadn’t been for The KLF then we would never have dreamed up the whole thing in the first place. And this is the power of The KLF’s legacy. The music doesn’t really matter as long as you have a great idea. And great ideas Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty had plenty of.
On New Year’s Day 1987 Drummond decided he’d make a hip-hop album. Once of the few people he knew who would help make this a reality was Cauty. The resulting album – ‘What The Fuck is Going On?’ – was filled with uncleared samples, from The Beatles and ABBA. ABBA kicked off and the album was pulled from the shelves. Drummond and Cauty went to Sweden with the remaining copies of the album with the hope of meeting ABBA and trying to get them to come on-side.
Sadly, this never happened and Drummond and Cauty burned most of the copies in a field, then threw the rest over the side of a ferry on the way home. Right from the start the duo cherished their artistic ideals and aspirations, affirming that they’d rather make a loss than compromise.
A few months later they re-emerged as The Timelords with the smash hit single ‘Doctorin’ The Tardis’. I remember seeing ‘Doctorin’ The Tardis’ on Top of the Pops when I was in school, and it was a fantastically surreal experience. Cardboard Daleks shuffled about the stage while two blokes dressed in capes and top hats, one white while the other black, played bass. This was interspersed with footage of their music video.
It still makes me smile due to its catchiness and utter ridiculousness. One thing was certain it was all I could talk about for the next week, and as I can still remember it vividly over 30-years later, it’s firmly wedged in my psyche.
When I hear it now, I’m knocked back by how brave it was. The song is built around a sample of glam anthem ‘Rock And Roll Part Two’, Dr. Who vocal samples, and a massive klaxon. While the main sample has taken on a problematic tone ‘Doctorin’ The Tardis’ is still a huge, charming, pop song that immediately makes me want to jump off the sofa onto my Dad’s back whenever I hear it.
Before there was The KLF there was Space. Originally Space started out as a collaboration between Dr. Alex Peterson and Jimmy Cauty and was intended to be The Orb’s debut album. Cauty left The Orb in 1990 so he could work with Drummond and took the recordings with him. He removed all of Peterson’s bits and released it through the KLF Communications label. It is mostly an interstellar ambient chill out album, but it is luscious in its design. While not an official KLF release it did lay the foundations on what was to come next.
After the bombastic pop vibes of The Timelords the pair slowed, and quietened, things down with their next big release. ‘Chill Out’ does exactly what its title suggests. The album is a concept album that takes the listener through a late-night journey from Texas to Louisiana. Throughout ‘Chill Out’ the music has a lucid vibe to it, but at times it feels more like a mix than a studio album as the music of KLF is interlaced with aspects of 808 State, Elvis, Acker Bilk, Van Halen, and Fleetwood Mac. Rumour has it that the whole thing was recorded in one take and took two days to put together.
What is evident is how layered and nuanced the album is. It starts off more minimal sounding but gradually as the album progresses it becomes a fuller bodied experience. Hit single ‘3am Eternal’ and future shame ‘Last Train To Trancentral’ make appearances in the second half, hinting at where the group was going in the not-too-distant future.
For some, the peak of KLF’s recorded output was the single ‘Justified And Ancient’. While ‘3am Eternal’ bettered it in the charts by reaching No. 1 there was something about ‘Justified And Ancient’ that lingered in the psyche longer. Was it the initial vocal hooks of “all bound for Mu Mu Land” or “bring the beat back!”, or even the ridiculously catchy backing track? That rap? The audacity of getting Tammy Wynette to deliver one of her best vocals ever and getting her to sing “They called me up in Tennessee, they said: Tammy, stand by the JAMMs…” parodying her signature song, or was it the surreal imagery of ice cream vans that made so memorable?
Earlier in their career the KLF’s ideas were scuppered by sample clearance, but here they managed to get an artist to not only sing their lyrics but also subvert their biggest hit too. It felt like the culmination of everything Drummond and Cauty were about.
‘The White Room’ album was dubbed an instant classic and still holds up pretty well today, too. Yes, bits of it sound dated in a way that cutting edge pop always does, but lots of it doesn’t. ‘Build A Fire’ and ‘The Church Of The KLF’ still sounds as great as it did when it was first released.
The success and critical acclaim led to four BRIT award nominations; their performance at the 1992 BRIT Awards was seminal. They teamed up with Extreme Noise Terror and deposited a dead sheep at the steps of the after-party. The KLF then retired from the music industry. And why not? After firing fake machine guns into the crowd, spraying them with fake blood, dumping a dead sheep at a party, where else is there to go?
After the dust had settled, Drummond and Cauty still had a lot of money in the bank from their music. Everything they made while the band was going went back into the band. After they retired, they had about a million pounds in the bank. Unsure of what to do with they formed the K Foundation. Initially this was meant to giving to up and coming artists. The duo eventually reasoned that the point of being a struggling artist was the struggle and they decided to make art with the money instead. Nailed To The Wall’ consisted of the million pounds nailed to a wooden frame.
The problem with this was as it was actually a million pounds no art galleries could/would pay the insurance to exhibit it. Frustrated by this Drummond and Cauty decided to burn the money instead. On August 23rd 1994 Drummond, Cauty, journalist Jim Reid, and long-time collaborator and conspirator Gimpo aka Alan Goodrick, went to the Isle of Jura in the Hebrides and burned the money in a disused boathouse. Gimpo filmed everything, Reid wrote about it for the Observer, and two days later the footage was destroyed. Then almost a year later Gimpo revealed he had kept a copy of the tapes.
Out of everything that the KLF/K Foundation did, this is probably the thing they are remembered for the most. It is something that still feels like a hoax but is also very true. The reasons for burning the money is still unknown, but in Drummond’s book 45 and K Foundation Burn A Million Quid the reasons are explained… except the explanations don’t feel that valid other than “we wanted to make a statement”.
But this is what we love about the KLF, isn’t it?
In 1995 the charity War Child released the compilation album ‘Help: A Charity Project For The Children of Bosnia’. The concept was for the musicians to write/record music on one day, get it mixed the next, and in the shops a few days after that. The album was brilliant, possibly the best charity album of all time. Originally it didn’t come with the full tracklist, just an inventory of who was on it. It meant listening to it was also a musical puzzle. Most of the artists were easy to spot. Some weren’t, but that was the fun.
One of the artists was The One World Orchestra featuring The Massed Pipes and Drums of the Children’s Free Revolutionary Volunteer Guards aka The KLF. This was the first new music the duo had released in over two years and was a drum ‘n bass cover/remix of the theme from ‘The Magnificent Seven’. It featured samples of DJ Fleka from the underground Serbian radio station B92 saying: “Humans against killing. This sounds like a junkie against dope”. It stood out on the album due to it frenetic pace and actually being about the cause. It was putting a voice to the people in the middle of the conflict. It grounded the project in reality.
Yes, Oasis and Friends, Massive Attack, The Stone Roses, The Smokin’ Mojo Filters, Suede and more all delivered covers/reworkings of existing songs, but it felt disingenuous after you heard ‘The Magnificent’. Sadly after ‘Help’ a new album never materialised, though it was much rumoured at the time.
In 1997 Jeremy Deller conceived Acid Brass. This was a project where acid house songs were played by a traditional brass band. Think Brassed Off at the Hacienda and you’re on the right lines. One of the songs Deller picked was ‘What Time Is Love?’. To capitalise on this, and the Millennium, Drummond and Cauty released ‘Fuck The Millennium’ under the 2K moniker.
The single also marked the 10th anniversary of the first time the duo started to make music together. It feels like a 13-minute megamix that distils their career to date. It is littered with samples from the KLF, Justified Ancients of Mu Mu and culminated with the Liverpool Dockers singing a version of ‘K Cera Cera’. This is the last new music the KLF/K Foundations/K2 have released.
It feels a fitting end to a career filled with miss information, confusion, delirious music, and that feeling of mischief that has been miss since they pulled the shutters down and vanished from the public eye.
That is until now. On January 1st 2021, their music appeared on YouTube and Spotify. This has sparked much discussion about whether they are about to return, whether the appearance of these songs is because they need some cash, or if they are making another statement about art and music. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, as they have reminded us of when two guys with a head full of ideas, mischief in their eye and an ear for a killer melody took the musical world by story and added a delirious distraction from normality.
So, let’s all stand at the alter at the Church Of The KLF and take their communion once again.
– – –
The KLF are now on streaming services.
Words: Nick Roseblade
Join us on the ad-free creative social network Vero, as we get under the skin of global cultural happenings. Follow Clash Magazine as we skip merrily between clubs, concerts, interviews and photo shoots. Get backstage sneak peeks, exclusive content and access to Clash Live events and a true view into our world as the fun and games unfold.
Buy Clash Magazine