“This is what the KLF is about – also known as the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu -furthermore known as the JAMMs”
Listening to Last Train to Transcentral back in 1991, I had no idea what the lyrics were going on about; but this was obviously not a regular dance track. But I didn’t have the clues to interpret it, didn’t know to read the NME rather than pop magazines. It would be a little while longer before I was given a copy of the KLF annual and started to figure things out. And a little after that I read the GURPs: Illuminati book and had a clearer explanation of Illuminatus! and discordianism.
The band were a mass of pseudonyms and aliases. The two main members, King Boy D and Rockman Rock were actually Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty. They’d even had a massive number one record with Doctorin’ the Tardis as the Timelords in 1988. The following year they published a book, The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way), which laid bare the secrets of the music industry. Few people followed it all the way through, but one example was what wikipedia refers to as an “Austrian Eurotrash band”, Edelweiss, who sold 5 million copies of Bring Me Edelweiss. Do not listen to this track as it will stick in your head forever.
In 1991 the KLF were the biggest-selling singles act in the world. They performed at the Brits in 1992 with Extreme Noise Terror, firing machine gun blanks at the crowd. In May 1992, deleted their entire back catalogue. They then tried to subvert the art world, including an attempt to sabotage the Turner Prize. Then they burned a million quid before signing a contract preventing them from talking about the incident for 23 years. This is not your average pop band.
(While burning a million quid is the more obviously nihilistic act, deleting the back catalogue and disbanding the group probably cost them more money in the long run).
I loved the KLF. At university, someone had the older records, introducing me to 1987 (What the Fuck Is Going On?). At 18, wandering through a newly opened HMV at Lakeside in Essex, I found a copy of Chill Out. I don’t know how they’d stocked that record shop, but I found a load of rarities on the racks, things that I’d been hunting for years. Chill Out is an ambient record, a 45 minute journey across America, with different sounds fading in-and-out, and still one of my favourite albums. It’s now easy to find online.
In December 2012, twenty years after the KLF disbanded, I read John Higg’s book The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds. I’d read his first book, a biography of Timothy Leary, and was excited to read his take on one of my favourite bands. But, rather than tell a simple story about record sales and Top of the Pops appearances, Higgs took a path through the magical and counter-cultural networks linked by Cauty and Drummond.
Last year, the contract Cauty and Drummond signed, banning them from talking about the KLF, finally expired. While the JAMMs returned last year with the Welcome to the Dark ages event and the novel 2023, and there was some discussion of the burning money, the KLF has never really returned. I like the idea of keeping the legend intact, and the strange shapes that legend has taken over the last few years.