THE KLF – WERE THEY JUSTIFIED?
“If Steffie had learned about déjà vu on the radio but then missed the subsequent upgrading to more deadly conditions, it could mean she was in a position to be tricked by her own apparatus of suggestibility.”
(Don De Lillo, White Noise, Viking Penguin Inc., 1984, chapter 21)
“When Oldspeak had been once and for all superseded, the last link with the past would have been severed. History had already been rewritten, but fragments of the literature of the past survived here and there, imperfectly censored, and so long as one retained one’s knowledge of Oldspeak it was possible to read them. In the future such fragments, even if they chanced to survive, would be unintelligible and untranslatable…Pre-revolutionary literature could only be subjected to ideological translation – that is, alteration in sense as well as language.”
(George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd, 1949, Appendix – though in reality a disguised happy ending – “The Principles of Newspeak”)
“The misrepresentation succeeds to the point of making possible the appearance of the progenitor.”
(Lou Reed, from his sleevenotes to Metal Machine Music, RCA, 1975)
What would Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond make of The Church of Me if it were sold to them as a website about music? Probably less than nothing; it would, to minds concerned more with means than ends, to gestures rather than achievements, be indistinguishable from the millions of other music websites available. Better by far for them to assimilate it as the continued justification of an obsession which also doubles as a justification for prolonging the writer’s existence, or an attempt to construct a beautiful world for someone who can no longer live in it. Therein lies the reason for calling this website “The Church of Me” rather than “Amor Liberis” or “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” or “Lock Me In The Garage For All The Difference It Would Make.” What is the writer really saying; and never exclude the possibility that beneath the veneer, there may exist only a ghastly, unviewable sub-nothingness.
If popular music has broken down systematically into its individual components or compartments, then the KLF (Kopyright Liberation Front)/JAMMs (Justified Ancients of Mu Mu) may well have fired the starting pistol, more so than the inventor of the CD, or MTV, or even Foucault. But the shot was not fired in ire; the primary function of the KLF appears to have been the examination of, not just what comprises the elements of music and our responses to it, but the exact points where pop can coincide/cross over into people’s lives; and from there it is only a short step to asking oneself what exactly comprises “life.” Look at/listen to that song; is it still “your song” when reprocessed in a different, alien(ating) environment? Were Cauty and Drummond just mucking about? The possibility is never to be occluded.
They were never more than funny, never less than serious. For a good many years they were regarded as a momentary possible pop pulse which rapidly descended into sub-post-Debordian prankery. Ageing music biz ambulance chasers on the skids. One-joke wonders. Actually it was all preparatory work for when they decided to turn the theories into populist practice. Should they have dared to come back from the popstar precipice unscathed – or would they have done better to hang in there rather than in Tate Britain?
Neophytes to the KLF will have to make an effort to collect their music; in 1992, already at that time the biggest-selling UK single chart artists of the decade thus far, they suddenly declared the pop experiment over and deleted their entire back catalogue, prior to the alleged burning of a million pounds on the Isle of Jura. None of it appears on compilations; a few albums remain available as expensive and unsatisfactorily packaged US imports; a box set is surely long overdue.
Consider, however, that the starting point needs to be Fried, Julian Cope’s bitterly sane second solo album from 1984, and his gleeful paean “Bill Drummond Said.” Drummond released his response in a 1986 album on Creation, Bill Drummond: The Man, which essentially comprises Drummond ranting in splenetic Lowlands spittle against the world in general and Cope in particular. Both had been part of post-punk Liverpool; Drummond in Big In Japan, alongside other future pop stars Holly Johnson and Ian Broudie; Cope in the Teardrop Explodes. By 1986 Drummond had handed in his notice as A&R man at WEA Records, and was looking for something scampier and scanter to do. Teaming up with Jimmy Cauty, who had been associated with WEA recording artists Brilliant – the band of the future for about five minutes in the autumn of 1985 – and with an ear cocked to what was coming out of Rick Rubin’s student dorm at the time, and an eye cocked at Channel 4 News, they decided to deconstruct the reconstructive art that is hip hop. A 12-inch single “All You Need Is Love,” with generous use of samples from the Beatles, MC5 (“kick out the jams motherfuckers”), Samantha Fox (“Touch Me (I Want Your Body)”) and the ludicrous Government Aids public information advertisement, with its phallic iceberg, portentous voiceover and DX7 sounding the “Dies Irae” (a further indication of the darkness which engulfed much of 1986, along with the British Gas privatisation campaign, Test Dept’s Unacceptable Face Of Freedom, Janet Jackson, Diamanda Galas’ Divine Punishment, Mel and Kim’s “Showing Out” 12-inch, burning lorries at Newport Pagnell service station), and a cover photo showing the Today newspaper billboard ad having a jibe at “Son of God” Greater Manchester Police supremo James Anderton, it slipped rather too idiotically (through no fault of Cauty or Drummond) into the then-popular non-genre of “sonic theft merchants,” a kind of desperate attempt to regain the British nowness of punk a decade earlier, as if M/A/R/R/S sampling James Brown for three seconds were an aesthetic gesture equivalent of the Chippenham/Maida Vale squat/graffiti existence in 1975 which acted as progenitor for the Clash.
While much of this was asinine and dated very quickly (the Age of Chance? Nasty Rox Inc?) – and pretty well set the template for the recent and shortlived bootleg craze - the KLF/JAMMs don’t, I think, quite deserve to be categorised in the same way. “All You Need Is Love” is of course a song about Aids, and specifically about how media attitudes towards/attempts to sell sexuality might eventually kill us. More of an impromptu Speakers’ Corner of a record than a song, really; but beneath all the superficial japery and DIY breakbeats/samples is the female chorus which, over and over, sings “My child is dying and there’s nothing I can do/Just wait and watch and pray to God for a miracle to break through.” On the seven-inch version, there appears only an adaptation of a Vietnamese folk song “Me Ru Con,” sung by Zuy Thien over a sinister, if slightly distant, drone which anticipates Jeff Buckley’s “You & I” musically, and Fleetwood Mac’s “You & Me 2” philosophically (the jaunty children’s TV theme tune of the latter, set against “hoping tomorrow will never come for you and I”). Deadly serious, and thankfully never competent.
(Brief digression #1: Morley’s essay about “thickness” in the October 1985 issue of Blitz rightly damns “competence” as an ultimate aim in music or indeed in any art. Eulogising “Running Up That Hill” he observes that there is no qualitative difference between the melodies of Nik Kershaw and those of Rolf Harris; but did not “Sun Arise” lead directly to “The Dreaming,” and equally did not Miles see what was salvageable from “Wouldn’t It Be Good” and distil it into Tutu? One has to remember that, in The Language of Morals, Hare says “It should be pointed out that even judgements about to past choices do not refer merely to the past” and also “When we commend an object, our judgement is not solely about that particular object, but is inescapably about objects like it”)
An album, 1987: What The Fuck’s Going On?, quickly followed and was generally given a muted reception in the music press, essentially for not being Proper Hip Hop (by that summer, the clock had already moved on to Paid In Full and Yo! Bum Rush The Show) or Proper Anti-Capitalist Pop Deconstruction (as opposed to the ill-begotten Ciccone Youth or the rather more substantial Culturcide, whose contemporaneous Tacky Souvenirs Of Pre-Revolutionary America, with its blend of AOR cut-ups – especially “We’re Not The World” – and improv guitar/trombone blasts – Gail, did you ever hear this? – remains a highly listenable album and the exact US counterpart to what the JAMMs were doing at the time). I think this a rather unfair assessment; forget, perhaps, that both Cauty and Drummond were already well into their thirties by the time the KLF was started (I mean it never hindered Alex Harvey, did it?) and you can discover an extremely simple and childlike joy at pulling music apart and reassembling their components in a more amusing or more profound order. Audibly it’s like two kids playing with their stereo in the bedroom, but with a crucial eagerness to find out more about the music/about life. “Rockman Rock” mashes together an assemblage of vintage rock guitar riffs with hilarious incompetence, throwing in Hamilton Bohannon and Fiddler On The Roof for no good reason, which as I have said on many occasions is more often than not the best reason. In fact all the elements for the KLF template as we know it – indeed, all the songs – are in place. The “we’re justified and we’re ancient” leitmotif will echo right through their career.
Side two is demonstrably better than side one: opening with the aforementioned “Me Ru Con,” just to remind you that there’s more to this music than just mucking about, we dive into “The Queen And I” where, over a Donald Duck backdrop of Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” Drummond muses about taking control of the country (“What about Charles?” queries Cauty. “No, I like Charles!” replies Drummond). Inevitably the Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” enters the fray at the song’s conclusion. Abba of course took umbrage at this and their lawyers compelled the album’s quick deletion. The KLF requested that all purchasers of the album return their copies so that they could be ceremonially burned in Sweden (or at least in Hemel Hempstead). No one of course did. A substitute version was released with meticulous instructions on how to replicate the samples yourself. Power to the people; inflated £145 price tags on second-hand copies of the original).
The quality of silence is important to this album; there are long stretches where the breakbeats are simply allowed to proceed unhindered, as if recorded live; Cauty and Drummond musing over what to put in/say next. Following “The Queen And I” we get an extraordinary long sequence which consists of edited highlights from an edition of Top Of The Pops (the Top 40 w/e 27 March 1987, by the sound of it) which nowadays serves to remind us of what a barren wasteland the UK singles chart, shortly to be rejuvenated by hip hop and house, had become by that time (“Over 25% of the chart consists of old songs for the first time ever” comments co-presenter Mike Smith, including the top four, “Look! A new song! Billy Idol’s “Don’t Need A Gun” is a chart entry at 38”). Occasionally interrupted by channel changeovers (ITV adverts – “Headaches/Can turn a four-hour tape into an eight-hour tape" - , Channel 4 News, BBC2 golf) Smith and Steve Wright move the passive listener into thoughts of homicide with their studied banalities – introducing the Beasties’ “Fight For Your Right To Party,” they comment with public schoolboy chuckles “This video is not a BBC Board of Governors meeting” – Boy George is eventually revealed as number one, at which juncture Drummond screams “Fuck that, let’s have the JAMMs!” before launching into “All You Need Is Love” (did he know, or did he plan, that they would indeed be top of the pops one year hence?). Yet there are, as I say, long stretches where nothing much happens; the closing “Next” welds together The Sound Of Music, Scott Walker, the Fall, Wild Man Fischer and Stevie Wonder before petering out into tepid Kenny G-type jazz-funk. The question of where to go from here is very palpable. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend going out and paying a ton for this record in second-hand shops, but would note in passing that I have recently seen pristine vinyl copies for a couple of quid apiece in the Upper Tooting Road Oxfam Shop and in the Scope charity shop in West Croydon…
Indeed, it’s questionable whether Cauty and Drummond knew what they wanted to do next. Subsequent singles attempted to continue the “sonic theft” schtick to no great effect: “Whitney Joins The JAMMs” yanks together “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” to “Theme From Shaft” – yes? and? - whereas “Downtown” mucks about with Petula Clark and the London Community Gospel Choir, this time genuinely for no good or useful reason. A second album, Who Killed The JAMMs?, is wittering without any wit. In 1988 they lucked upon a number one, as the Timelords, with an ancient Ford Galaxy police car as their leitmotif, performing an ungainly weld of Gary Glitter, the Sweet, Harry Enfield, Steve Walsh, Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire entitled “Doctorin’ The Tardis.” No more than a novelty record (one mix, and one TOTP appearance, involved Glitter himself), Drummond nevertheless wrote a book after the event – The Manual: Or, How To Have A Number One Hit, Delia Smith meets Lacan – though one suspects that his “plan” was all written with the benefit of hindsight. The only act to adopt his advice, to my knowledge, were Austrian one-hit-wonders Edelweiss who scored a top five hit in early 1989 with “Call Me Edelweiss,” this time marrying New Order, Lynn Anderson and Abba. Otherwise…well, Stock Aitken & Waterman, Tennant & Lowe, and New Order themselves, were dominating the charts of the time without any notion of a “plan,” and it was difficult for Cauty and Drummond even to retain this slender foothold, as evinced by their 1989 flop “Kylie Said To Jason” which simply sounds like bad, lo-fi SAW divested of any “pop” content or context. Time, obviously, for the next plan…the ascent of stadium house.
For once they dropped the Situationist/COBRA Group prankery and concentrated on making straight house/techno/trance records. The original mixes of “What Time Is Love?” and “3AM Eternal” were great, propulsive and danceable records – influenced more than somewhat by Belgian New Beat, but with a desolation only hitherto hinted at. A more cynical observer might comment that at this point Cauty took over control of the KLF’s music from Drummond; a realistic commentator would observe that this was when their music began to become great.
The key record in the whole KLF canon is the 1990 album Chill Out. By default one of the most important and influential records of the last 15 years – it led to Moby, to Groove Armada, maybe even to Dido, and lots of other operatives who similarly could not grasp what Cauty had achieved here. It’s structured almost as a parody of vacuous Windham Hill-style New Age muzak with its references to travelling in the Deep South – track titles include “Brownsville Turnaround On The Tex-Mex Border,” “Six Hours To Louisiana, Black Coffee Going Cold” and “The Lights Of Baton Rouge Pass By” – but look again at the cover; a photograph of a flock of sheep relaxing in a field which is emphatically British, and specifically Northern (is that Hadrian Wall running behind them?), such as might be seen on the M62 going through the Pennines. The sublime pedal steel guitar commentary throughout is provided by an Australian – Graham Lee of the Triffids, whose 1986 masterpiece Born Sandy Devotional remains one of the great sticky, sweltering summer soundtrack records – but the track title “Dream Time In Lake Jackson” gives it all away; this is a British fantasy of Deep South travel (compare with Chris Rea’s “Texas” on the previous year’s Road To Hell, a sorely underrated record which is very nearly Chill Out’s blood brother), a Northern Britain fantasy about America (without which, of course, no British pop music). The frog chorus on the aforementioned “Dream Time” only sound like frogs if you don’t listen to them at close range; the slowed-down human/synthesised voices they actually are turn sinister on headphones, very much like those in the opening section of Escalator Over The Hill (“Bullfrogs are having their throat cut”). In the album’s centrepiece, the much-sampled “Madrugada Eterna” (we remember that Tyndale was burned at the stake), an excitable Deep South DJ preaches and hollers at us through the radio over the Brian Wilson organ drones, but eventually gives way to a news report about a fatal car crash. Everything exists at the surface. Memories of somebody’s past begin to filter through (“In The Ghetto” floats like a cloud over “Elvis On The Radio, Steel Guitar In My Soul”). Side two is more or less a disguised preview of the KLF’s future repertoire; “3AM Eternal” with its submarine/life support machine bleeps, appears here, beatless, as “3AM Somewhere Out Of Beaumont” – but listen to those samples of the Fleetwood Mac of Peter Green which come into reception; first and last “Albatross,” and, in the middle, the middle of Green’s nervous breakdown “Oh Well”; and compare with the way in which Oldfield remembers Green in the centre of side one of Tubular Bells. Remember also that the first, and by far the best, record by the Orb was one in which Cauty was directly involved – “An Ever-Pulsating Brain…,” the first 22 minutes after Tubular Bells dies. Similarly, “Wichita Lineman Was A Song I Once Heard” turns out to be a long and languid prototype of “Last Train To Transcentral.” By the time “The Lights Of Baton Rouge Pass By” beats make themselves explicitly known for the first time on the album: “Pacific State” appears briefly – but see how the music is becoming weirdly submerged, filtered, not quite on station. And look how it all converges on “A Melody From A Past Life Keeps Pulling Me Back” where the unmistakable tones of Acker Bilk’s “Stranger On The Shore” enter distantly (“Minnow On The Say”!). But the clarinet is warbling more than it should. Pulling me back from what? From drowning, clearly (“The Water Babies”!!). Now the music becomes subtly more agitated, subtly less and less clear, as if Kate Bush/Tennyson’s “Ninth Wave” is irrevocably pulling the listener/musician under; as oblivion looms, the idea of America vanishes and is replaced by the distinctly British tones of Tommy Vance: “Rock Radio Into The Nineties And Beyond.” Finally, we are “Alone Again With The Dawn Coming Up,” back in the reality which the skidding tyres and motors have been telling us all the way through the album; an illusion – you are actually on the M62, in the rain, might have crashed. The music refuses to settle and mutates into a jagged 16/16, amelodic, guitar-sample-heavy minimalism, which oddly enough (or not) segues very comfortably into
METAL MACHINE MUSIC: A SHORT CONSIDERATION, OR AN ARTICLE WITHIN AN ARTICLE
Jonathan Ross is underrated. On his Radio 2 show yesterday morning his special guest was Lou Reed. I fully expected sneers and jibes, or perhaps no mention whatsoever, of anything apart from Transformer - but no, he asked Reed with genuine interest and enthusiasm about Ornette Coleman (and even played some Ornette, for the first time on Radio 2 with the exception of Humphrey Lyttelton) and Metal Machine Music. It would be very wrong to lump Ross in with the Hornbyised lad culture with which we are still sadly encumbered; while undeniably connected to it, and even more undeniably a Ziggy Stardust fan to his boots, he is honest, open-minded and actually enthusiastic about what is happening and has happened in music, even if he does regard it as an oddity or curio. What caught my ear was when Reed started talking about the “masculine” aspects of traditional rock or heavy metal and the “feminine” aspects which he introduced into MMM. Recall the instruction on the sleeve: “Rock orientation, melodically disguised, i.e. drag.”
New listeners may listen to MMM and, like Ornette for the previous generation, will probably wonder what all the fuss was about. Those expecting four sides of undifferentiated feedback expect in vain; in fact, it is, as it always has been, an eminently listenable record which should present no difficulties to those familiar with the intervening quarter-century of No Wave or dronerock. It is also, of course, the missing link between Mike Oldfield and Glenn Branca – and thanks to Mark Sinker for pointing that out apropos my CoM piece last week – maximalist/minimalist guitar music which squares the melodic and rhythmic contradictions.
As with Welles, Reed tends to adapt his opinions/views to whichever journalist he’s talking to; you take his word for gospel at your peril. As such I am not sure whether Lester Bangs’ over-exuberant championing of MMM didn’t do the record more harm than good (“it’s so unlistenable only kooky old Lester/Creem magazine can get into it hyuk hyuk!”), magnifying its unjustified reputation as a cynical contract filler. In keeping with this particular aesthetic road map, Reed was eager to lead Bangs up a blind alley (the two, of course, made a lifelong sport of it; the same superficial emnity which really disguises the deepest of friendships – see Ahab and Starbuck) and was keen to state that the symbols and lists on the rear of the album sleeve were gibberish (which they aren’t), that there were quotations from multiple and very obvious classical pieces – Bangs was sceptical about this, but the fact is that Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony are easily recognised on sides one and three respectively. A superficial (and superfluous) facileness to disguise the underlying seriousness of the work?
Certainly that rear sleeve starts rather like a Queen album (“No synthesisers! No Arp! No instruments?”). But the “drone cognizance and harmonic possibilities” are undoubtedly inspired by LaMonte Young’s Dream Music. Though it’s not quite true that there is “avoidance of any type of atonality” this doesn’t come apparent until very near the end of the album. In fact, the album itself, cut not quite strictly into four roughly equal sides (16 minutes apiece, with abrupt cut-offs at the beginning and end of each side), is largely harmonically and rhythmically anchored. Essentially it’s a more propulsive variant on what Fripp and Eno were doing on No Pussyfooting - guitars drone on each channel (and there is indeed “strict stereo separation” though channels are faded in and out almost randomly at times) though they are supporting highly complex melodic lines, all related to the same basic drone chord. Rhythmically an agitated 16/16 pulse remains constant throughout the work. The first two sides are the more approachable and accommodating, though side one is more flowing in its pulse and side two more pointillistic, with greater emphasis on the interplay between left and right channels. On sides three and four the music becomes more troubled and disturbed, and the textures become more varied; guitars are echo-delayed to sound like pianos, or are speeded up to reproduce the saxophone overblowing of Ayler or Sanders. In the second half of side four atonality begins to make itself known (though on the previous three sides there is much bitonality evident) and the music palpably begins to scream and plead. It finally cuts off with standard abruptness as the feedback reaches a climax, the massed guitars start to rise like the golden pylons with which Bangs compared the closing moments of the Stooges’ “L.A. Blues” and the whole thing is about to boil over. It could not be played in any other order, and has to be listened to from start to finish. Morton Feldman would have been proud of its matrix; one could even say that from here are beget the Ramones with their Barnett Newman art minimalism (and thence to Wire, and thence back to the ambient Eno to square the circle).
Of ambience, it’s now time to go back…
TO THE BEAT, TO THE BEAT, TO THE BEAT YEAH! THE KLF’S NON-STUDIUM HOUSE – A PEAK IS REACHED
Cauty did a similar, but less impressive, exercise in 1990 with the album Space, but this was all preparation for the KLF’s immaculate series of Stadium House 12” singles; the greatest unbroken sequence of pop singles in the 1990s. “What Time Is Love?” as it appears in its Top Five-conquering form, is almost like a rebirth for the KLF; the same “kick out the jams” intro, but now the ideas have turned into colour, can now breathe; and when they appeared on TOTP, both Cauty and Drummond appeared far more relaxed and far more sublimely insolent than they did as the Timelords. They were still questioning how we were responding to pop, but crucially this was now of secondary importance; the magic of the unforced pop punctum overcame any theory. And how much more glorious was their second, and this time deserved, number one: “3AM Eternal” with its cover shot of a blurred, drunken Ford Galaxy careering through Westminster at midnight, its “This is Radio Freedom”/gunfire intro, its canny adaptation of the same structural formula as Snap’s “The Power,” Zuy Thien’s E-flat clarinet returning to cement the bonds with “Me Ru Con.”
There was no stopping the KLF now unless they wanted to stop themselves. Simon Mayo screamed at the TOTP camera: “This is the most SPECTACULAR performance we have ever seen on Top Of The Pops!” as the massed monks, divas, drummers and fire-eaters prepared to launch into “Last Train To Transcentral.” And now, instead of Whitney just being sampled by the JAMMs, Tammy Wynette came and stood by the JAMMs for the ludicrous but great for precisely that reason “Justified And Ancient,” as if to stamp the approval of Pop Music on what they had started four years previously, to legitimise it, to celebrate its madness. It was her biggest UK hit since “Stand By Your Man” and very nearly the last thing she did of any consequence. There are worse ways to go. This time, the Deep South came straight to the M62. “They drive an ice cream van” sang Wynette, entirely straight of face, said van now having superseded the Ford Galaxy.
But there was also the true sequel to Chill Out: “It’s Grim Up North,” the reverse of the sunlit dream, credited pointedly to the JAMMs rather than the KLF, and dressed in a plain grey sleeve with morbid Iain Sinclair sleevenotes wherein sodden sheep coexisted with decomposing cigarettes, and there is “a dirty sun setting over where Liverpool used to be.” A constant thud is heard which could be either an old Victorian mill/factory, or a distant techno rave in a wet field, where someone is attempting to construct a future. This track is perhaps the most unsettling in the KLF’s discography; the beats are as hard as they ever got, rain, grease and decay are all around them, as if the ice cream van were touting for customers in a cemetery in mid-Winter. A heavily-echoed, bass-voiced Drummond intones unemotionally the names of Northern English towns in the same way that Tom Clay intones the lists of war casualties in “The Victors.” The music eventually collapses into chaos; techno beats clash at the crossroads with a synthesised orchestra and choir ironically (or not?) playing “Jerusalem” before giving way to an emotion-filled, windy, peopleless landscape as poignant as that which concludes Flux of Pink Indians’ “Tube Disasters.”
It may well be that the KLF decided to call a halt here for purely aesthetic reasons. An album, The White Room, was released and went platinum, but it’s a curiously and disappointingly flat affair; the album versions of the singles are extremely pale and uninvolving. At the same time a parallel album entitled The Black Room was supposedly recorded with the aid of Extreme Noise Terror, but the only fruit of this was the 7” single thrash version of “3AM Eternal” which both the KLF and ENT memorably performed at the 1992 Brits, though they were dissuaded from climaxing their performance by cutting open a sheep and drenching the audience in its blood (the black flipside to the cover of Chill Out?). A Black Room CD briefly appeared in record shop racks, but was entirely blank – as was doubtless the intent. Elements of “art” were now making themselves known and their pop was beginning to suffer as a result. Furthermore, following the success of “Justified And Ancient,” they were beginning to field calls from other veteran acts hoping for an easy ticket to a comeback. There were allegedly talks with Neil Sedaka and Brian Connolly, among others. But this wasn’t what Cauty or Drummond had desired or intended.
Almost their last word was also perhaps their finest – “America: What Time Is Love?” This was a self-explanatory “rock” take on the now venerable WTIL riff, with “Ace of Spades” guitar and Glenn Hughes, formerly of Deep Purple, then freshly out of rehab, billed to his delight as “The Voice Of Rock.” Conceived to satirise the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery, the orchestra and choir are ZTT-esque in their pronounced irony (though some critics, including John Lydon, observed that they were getting a little too close to Frankie Goes To Hollywood-second-album overkill for their own good), but the record is amazingly punchy and propulsive; certainly their best “rock” record. At the end, Melissa of Voice of the Beehive deflates the balloon: “I mean, what’s with all this Justified Ancients of Mu Mu shit?”
But it’s impossible to appreciate the track fully without listening to the B-side which echoes, and indeed justifies, it: the KLF’s finest moment – “America No More,” an astonishing piece of unironic anti-war protest fit to stand beside Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. Gunfire and explosions are generated by “Rockman Rock” playing “Atari,” and these are accompanied by cut-ups of voices and action, initially from Vietnam; but there’s no disguising the genuine terror which seeps through the track as the voice of Bush Senior comes into the left channel, detailing his plans for Iraq, Kuwait and the Gulf, while a bagpipe chorale starts up on the right. A Scots Guards battle hymn is played while American voices prepare to kill (think Peter Watkins’ Culloden, think Pontecorvo’s Battle Of Algiers), sometimes barely making itself heard above the gunfire. Then the hymn dies out and we are left counting down (the same countdown heard on Space and on “What Time Is Love?”) until the world ends. US cavalry bugles jostle for space with Eastern strings; and finally the same drone we heard underlining “Me Ru Con.” Above it, a less sympathetic voice: “If Jesus Christ were here tonight, he would not dare drop another bomb.” There is no more music. Nothing to say or add. Except gunfire. And whatever hell is left thereafter.
Is it a cliché to say that the track sounds as though it was recorded two months ago? Or less of a cliché to say that it examines and finally deflates Baudrillard’s tired theory of “it’s all a TV illusion?” It may well ask you to decide what the point of pop music is; whether you can believe anything that it says, or whether you choose to do so. “No known cure.”
In any event, it certainly qualifies as far greater art than anything else the KLF were subsequently to produce. Was their attempt to be artists a deliberate walking away from a pop treatise which they had no further need or wish to expand or modify? They set up their alternative £40,000 Turner Prize in 1993 for the worst British artist and foisted the money (or that amount which had not been snaffled by journalists) upon Rachel Whiteread. As Sinclair notes in Lights Out For The Territory, Whiteread’s “House” and Drummond’s unsolicited £40,000 gift were compatible mirror images, though they probably hated each other’s guts. The whiteness and involuntary impermanence of Whiteread’s house speak with as much repressed emotion as the closing synthesised crows in “It’s Grim Up North.”
Thereafter, there were some pointless books and portfolios. There was the burning of a million quid in a shed on Jura, though the real figure was probably nearer £40,000. That would still have left Cauty and Drummond with £960,000, and one cannot imagine that that was all the money the KLF made. Coupled with their near non-existent work rate in the intervening decade, we can safely assume that they are not financially wanting.
Yet would the KLF catalogue speak so forcibly to us were it still available like any common or garden Greatest Rave Album Ever package? We have to ask whether the deliberately limited timescale of the music’s availability, and the philosophy behind it, did more to destabilise the charts, and perhaps pop music itself, than any number of limited edition Wedding Present monthly 7-inchers? Was it that easy to get into the charts, to become popular? Was it enough just to exist? That dilemma of course makes everyone from Madonna to Jade Goody possible, gives them a reason to continue existing. Was it the greatest triumph of the KLF to tell us what pop music could be capable of, and then demolish the entire structure? After that, with all best intentions, British pop music went back to 1978, then to 1966, ultimately doubling back to 1982 where it still remains. Even the Prodigy retreated to a virtual 1971 (all those “real” guitars!).
Or was it the final triumph of the KLF to give music back to the consumer? The fallacy that anyone can do it means that everyone does, even though the same 45-year-old puppetmasters are found in Pop Idol and Fame Academy. Nevertheless there is a vaguely admirable, less vaguely repulsive notion that it’s now enough just to exist, not even having to turn up. Get a number one? Release the single for one day only. Get your grandma to buy an extra copy and you might be there for two weeks. Cauty and Drummond perhaps finished what punk started; yes, we’ve exposed the wires, now what?
I prefer to think of the KLF as a not necessarily disinterested, and more often than not, camera turned upon us with a determination to make us decide what we are, who we are, how we relate to life, how we listen to music, how we consume music – but could we turn to them for advice on how to live?
As it turned out, their decision to quit pop was a wise one. A reunion was attempted in 1997 at the Barbican; for 20 minutes Cauty and Drummond, dressed in pyjamas as grumpy old men in wheelchairs, accompanied by Jeremy Deller’s Acid House Brass Band and sundry striking Liverpool dockers, revamped “What Time Is Love?” yet again as “Fuck The Millennium.” The idea was apparently to start a scrap on stage which would end up with the entire audience fighting; but the execution was vague and despirited, and the audience did not rise to the bait. Released as a single, it crawled to #28 (by that time, too low even to get them on TOTP) and disappeared without fanfare or regret. Compared to Scooter’s immeasurably smarter “Fuck The Millennium” (also composed in accordance with The Manual, yes?) it seemed flabby and self-satisfied.
The last time they were in public, Drummond and Cauty appeared separately as part of Iain Sinclair’s M25/London Orbital event at the Barbican. Drummond came on looking very old, and rather like Michael Palin, to deliver an unremarkable homage to KLF roadie Gimpo (and, in his section of the London Orbital book, he is essentially a slightly less grumpy Victor Meldrew); whereas Cauty strolled on with guitar, band and deafening motorway tapes to deliver a “Battle Hymn Of The Republic”–goes-Hard House tribute to Gimpo which caused half the audience to rise to their feet and yell for more (“KLF – the real Britpop!” someone exclaimed). In his Wire review of the event, Ben Watson commented that it was Cauty’s “Keith Moon-style ruthlessness” which “made Chill Out and The White Room such abiding classics.” But even if we cast Drummond as a can’t-be-arsed variant on Pete Townshend, it has to be recognised that, in order to be(at) pop, each needed the other. Theirs may well be the pivotal career in pop music, the one which swung the pendulum back towards an unknown extreme.
posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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