Hello from a train somewhere between London and Liverpool! I thought I’d fill you in on what I’ll be doing for the next few days, partly because it looks like the four-day (sort of) pop event I’m about to attend will be something truly extraordinary and partly because as details start to emerge I’m starting to wonder if I’ll make it out alive.
The very short explanation is that about 25 years ago The KLF — or The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu as they were initially and are now once again known — were a band whose huge tunes were matched with really huge ideas. They split up, and now they’re back.
Which doesn’t sound very exciting in itself because all bands from the olden days come back eventually even if they say they’re never going to, but this particular burst of activity is exciting because it’s as elaborate, ludicrous and funny as both the music the band once made and the way they once chose to promote it. Actually maybe the music was just their way of promoting the other stuff. Either way, it was all very good.
Why were/are The KLF actually quite good?
It mostly boils down to one thing: whether you can take a look at the picture below and think of any other act who’d use it as a press shot. Like, a band who’d release a single and send this out to media and go “hiya here you go, if you’re writing about us feel free to use this”.
If you missed the band’s original chart career the best way to describe The KLF is: well, you remember how there was that period a few years ago when you’d have absolutely no idea what Lady Gaga would do next, or how, or when, or even why? And how each thing she did felt like it was impossible to second guess, as well as being quite brilliant?
Well you’d be halfway there if you were to combine all that with the way Daft Punk built a world around and through their music, the way Lana Del Rey created an is-she-actually-for-real myth around her existence, the way PC Music seems to involve artists who don’t even really exist and in whose music and imagery no idea is considered too ridiculous, and the way Arcade Fire decided to promote their new album. And if you combined all those artists’ music. But you really would only be halfway there.
Here’s what they did
- In 1987 two men decided to make some music. One had been a part of Liverpool’s punk scene but he’d also been involved in fringe theatre and managed bands (and sent one of them on a tour whose route, plotted on a map, looked like rabbit ears) but had now moved into A&R. One of his acts was an early Stock, Aitken & Waterman-produced band called Brilliant, among whose members was a guy who, as a teenager, had created one of the biggest-selling posters of the 1970s. Let’s call these men Bill and Jimmy because those were and in fact still literally are their names. The important thing here is that their combined history included the spontaneous, visceral spirit of punk, music industry knowhow, musicianship, an art background, and a sense of humour.
- They called themselves The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu, taking that name from a sci-fi book Bill had previously helped adapt for the stage in Liverpool. The JAMs sampled The Beatles, Abba, Led Zeppelin and a Top Of The Pops chart countdown, among other things, and recorded an album called ‘1987: What The Fuck’s Going On’. When Abba objected to the sample The JAMs took all the unsold copies of the album on a ferry to Sweden to sort it out; when they couldn’t meet up with Abba they set fire to the albums in a field. Then they found a final five copies, took out a magazine ad offering them for sale at £1000 each, and sold three.
- The next year they decided to make a credible dance track out of the Doctor Who theme, realised it wasn’t going to work and created a novelty monstrosity instead. They decided Jimmy’s customised US cop car, renamed Ford Timelord, would front it. That single went to Number One and made them a pile of cash — they ran their own record label, managed themselves and for a long time their studio was Trancentral, Jimmy’s south London squat. ‘Doctorin’ The Tardis’ also allowed them to publish a book: The Manual (How To Have A Number One The Easy Way).
- Also in 1988, as The KLF, they made a series of ‘Pure Trance’ dance tracks called things like ‘What Time Is Love?’ and ‘3am Eternal’, as well as spending most of their ‘Doctorin’ The Tardis’ cash on the partial shooting of a motion picture. The film was never finished and its soundtrack album was never released, but the Pure Trance series took on a new lease of life when a remixed version of ‘What Time Is Love’ became a global hit. (For its video, they created a crop circle with their band’s logo in the middle.)
- More big hits followed: a new version of ‘3am Eternal’ went to Number One in the UK and became a hit in America. ‘Last Train To Trancentral’ came with a video depicting a fictional musical festival on a huge scale model of The Lost Continent Of Mu.
- During 1991, swerving a conventional album launch, The KLF essentially kidnapped the world’s media and transported them to a remote Scottish island where they dressed everyone in yellow robes then blew up a 60ft wicker man.
- That Christmas The KLF teamed up with country music legend Tammy Wynette for ‘Justified & Ancient’, a song about how The JAMs drove an ice cream van, while The JAMs themselves released ‘It’s Grim Up North’, an electro-orchestral dance track whose lyrics were a list of towns in the north of England.
- In 1992 The KLF won a Brit for Best British Group; at that Brits ceremony they performed a thrash metal version of ‘3am Eternal’ but in May announced that they were leaving the music business. It’s worth bearing in mind that all this (plus a girl duo, a pioneering ambient house record, several unreleased projects, numerous other music releases, a video set on a longboat and a claim to have discovered America half a millennium before Christopher Columbus) all took place in just a five-year period. Anyway, they stropped off, deleted their entire back catalogue — simple enough, as they were still signed to their own label, KLF Communications — and that was that.
- Except that wasn’t quite that: by 1993 they’d renamed themselves The K Foundation and recorded a song with the Russian Red Army Choir. In the years that followed they hijacked the Turner art prize, set fire to a million pounds, reappeared as 2K, and founded K2 Plant Hire Ltd. Independently Cauty and Drummond would also later involve themselves with literature, high-concept art, poetry, music and soup-making, but it didn’t seem like they’d make any sort of comeback. Which is why…
This is quite exciting
Look, some of it’s got to do with the fact that they were my favourite band when I was twelve. And some of it’s got to do with the fact that a KLF fanzine I did when I was 15 is almost entirely responsible for the last 22 years of so-called music journalism.
But it’s still quite exciting in its own right, right?
I’m in Liverpool now by the way, I ended up having a sleep on the train. But here’s why I’m in Liverpool, and here’s what might happen over the next few days.
- Earlier this year Bill and Jimmy, as The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu announced a book, a film and a multi-day event in Liverpool. 400 tickets would be available for £100 each; no guest-list, no media, no exceptions.
- Preview copies of the book were sent to media containing a preface, an afterword and blank pages in between.
- Tonight, just after midnight, they’ll be doing a book signing at an independent Liverpool book shop, except they’ll be rubber stamping books instead of signing them, no idle chat is allowed and you’re not allowed to kiss them with tongues. They’ll arrive at the book shop at 23 seconds past midnight, and they’ll arrive in an ice cream van.
- The next few days will include a public hearing in which speakers debate the topic of The K Foundation’s money burning.
- Thursday and Friday will involve some interesting/terrifying events which I and the other 399 attendees will apparently be part of.
- The hub for the whole ‘shebang’ is a warehousey sort of bar thing called the Dead Perch Lounge, which is where I’m writing these words now. I don’t want to get you excited but I’ve already bumped into two people who used to work at Xenomania.
(During the registration process I went for option four from the above list because that is just the kind of guy I am.)
Oh, and there’s merch. THERE IS DEFINITELY MERCH. (In a move that echoes the best ever joke about Prince merchandise stands everything costs £20.23 because the JAMs book is called 2023, do you see.)
And yes. Yes I know what you are thinking. Yes in one sense we have all paid £100 to attend a book launch that spans five days.
But at the same time:
a) Bros were charging £150 for a decent ticket to their O2 shows at the weekend. Those shows went on for considerably less than five days and were frankly ‘not great’.
b) Don’t tell me this whole thing doesn’t sound, at the very least, extremely amusing.
c) Seriously though guys WHAT A FUCKING BAND.