Tuesday, 5 April 2011

'Got to teach and everything you learn will point to the fact that time is eternal' - The KLF

'At the moment, he's drawn a big line diagonally across a map of the United Kingdom, and he's travelling along it. Any person who happens to live on that line, he goes into their house and makes them soup.' 

This is the answer I received when, a couple of years ago, I asked my friend and ex-colleague Joe what his uncle was up to these days. Joe's uncle is Bill Drummond, former enfant terrible of the music industry. With his long-time collaborator Jimmy Cauty, Drummond turned the music business on its head for a few wonderful years at the end of the 80s/start of the 90s with his hiphop/acid house outfit The KLF, who mixed genuinely brilliant pop music with a variety of artistic statements. 

The KLF a.k.a. The Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu, further known as The JAMMs (to give them their full name) were formed by Drummond in 1987 after he quit the music business upon reaching the age of 33 1/3 (the very speed a vinyl LP rotates on a turntable) and decided to rail against an industry he felt had become stagnant and staid. Within four short years, and on their own independent label KLF Communications, The KLF had become the biggest selling band in the UK, and it's hard to think of an artist that released a better selection of singles in 1991 than What Time is Love?, 3am Eternal, Last Train to Trancentral and Justified and Ancient (which featured 'First Lady of Country Music' Tammy Wynette). Brilliant rap verses, spat with great dexterity by Ricardo Da Force over huge, punishing beats and melodic refrains, coupled with stadium crowd noises collided and sounded like music from the future. It propelled them to the top of the charts. It was breathtaking stuff.

I feel that part of this story is worth reiterating (especially given the state of the music industry in 2011): in 1991, The KLF had more top ten hits than Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Queen, one of their biggest hits was an acid house song featuring Tammy Wynette, and they achieved this on their own independent label. Note to younger readers: this did ACTUALLY HAPPEN. 

The album that contained these hits, The White Room was and is a glorious affair, linking the lead singles together with a tight overall concept and aesthetic, resulting in something truly imaginative. Unfortunately, whilst it was only their second long player as The KLF, it also proved to be their last. In early 1992, The KLF performed a magnificent version of 3am Eternal with hardcore crust-punk band Extreme Noise Terror at the Brit Awards (again, yes, really) which ended in Drummond firing a machine gun filled with blanks into a stunned audience of music industry executives and other pop artists. As they disappeared from the stage, a PA crackled into life: 'Ladies and Gentlemen, The KLF have now left the music business.' There was only time to drop off a dead sheep at the aftershow party, before disappearing (save a couple of brief reunions under various guises in 1995 and 1997) forever. A further project  with Extreme Noise Terror based around a heavy-metal version of The White Room called The Black Room was also shelved and remains unreleased. 

Drummond immediately set about deleting The KLF's entire back catalogue, undoubtedly costing him and Cauty a fortune, and to this day The White Room and its predecessor Chill Out remain unavailable. And, as if that wasn't enough of a statement, a couple of years later Drummond and Cauty (by now operating under the moniker 'The K Foundation') travelled across to the Isle of Jura along the west coast of Scotland and filmed themselves burning one million pounds; this amount was later revealed to be the grand total of The KLF's earnings. 

But, as impressive a statement as burning a million pounds is, The KLF's clever stunts, set-piece art and controversy just wouldn't have worked had they not been a wonderfully refreshing, interesting pop band. Their innovative way of making music, fusing several genres together to create something fresh and new makes for entertaining and rewarding listening, and 20 years on they continue to be a per'ennially underrated and often overlooked part of British pop music history. Hopefully, this blog posting goes a tiny way towards redressing the balance.

Since the self-imposed demise of his most successful group, Drummond has busied himself with a number of more low-key art and music projects, sometimes with Jimmy Cauty, sometimes not. Indeed, there have even been rumours that they continue to make music as The K Foundation, yet refuse to release it. 

Will The KLF come back to give the music industry a much-needed shot in the arm? It seems not, at least not for the moment. In November 1995, a 23 year moratorium between Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty was agreed and signed prohibiting either man from carrying out or even talking about further KLF/K Foundation activities. So it looks like we've got 7 more years to wait. That's a lot of soup. Until then, treat yourself to what is, in my opinion, their best song.