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Your guide to The KLF, pop music’s original pranksters

They’re justified and they’re ancient, and they’re coming back after a 23 year hiatus – take a deep dive into the world of the music industry subversives

TextJack NeedhamIllustrationClaire Lewis

2017: What the fuck is going on? After embarking on a 23 year, self-inflicted hiatus, The KLF are back in an attempt to answer that question. Formed in 1987 by Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, The KLF made destroying the mainstream music industry their mission, and – perhaps inadvertently – became the embodiment of a country gripped by rave culture in the process.

Many a time The KLF attempted to be the undoing of their own success without ever really achieving it. Instead, intent on self-destruction, they somehow became untouchable. To some, they were artistic visionaries, to others, a novelty act – but that’s where their beauty lied. Extraordinarily self-aware of their place within music and the wider art world, The KLF’s mission was to confuse, and whether you loved or hated them you can’t dispute that that’s exactly what they did.

In a time when reality has become stranger than fiction, Drummond and Cauty’s return may be the reminder we need to realise just how absurd things can really become. With that, all aboard to Trancentral as we run down 26 ways The KLF are a band who should never have existed.


August 23, 1994. In the escapade that would become the go-to example of the KLF’s lunacy (or idiocy, depending on who you ask), Drummond and Cauty chartered a plane to the Scottish Isle of Jura with the sole intention of burning one million pounds in the name of art. In the days where artists were still able to make a healthy living from record sales, the burning was a provocative statement on the fleeting fortune that mainstream pop affords (although their reasoning for the burning changes from day-to-day). Mostly though, people saw it as just plain stupid – even the band themselves, at times. Cauty and Drummond were described as being ‘haunted’ by the burning, and when asked in a BBC News interview in 2004 if he regretted what he’d done, Drummond changed his answer from the simple “...No…” to, “Of course I regret it – who wouldn’t?” For perhaps the first time in their career, a band who were known for being famously unapologetic became almost, well, apologetic. And besides, they didn’t even burn the full million – according to Drummond, around £100,000 flew up through the chimney and ended up scattered across the Scottish Hebrides.


Named by the Liverpool Echo as a supergroup whose members “only became super after they left”, Big In Japan were Drummond’s first musical outing. Formed in 1977, the band included Budgie (Siouxsie & the Banshees), Ian Broudie (Lightning Seeds), Holly Johnson (Frankie Goes to Hollywood), and around six other rotating members along the way. Big In Japan only lasted around 14 months before their eventual demise, but they still managed to drum up some hard earned hatred along the way from a young Julian Cope of The Teardrop Explodes, who created a petition urging them to split. Drummond said they would if the petition gained 14,000 signatures. It managed nine – mostly from the band themselves.


In 1987, The JAMS (aka The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, The KLF’s first incarnation) released 1987, What the Fuck is Going On?, an album that revolutionised the use of sampling. The problem was that all of the music sampled was done so without any approval – most notably from ABBA, whose “Dancing Queen” was used on “The Queen And I”. Ordering The JAMS to destroy all copies of the record, the band travelled to ABBA HQ in Sweden in an attempt to convince the band to let them release the record – it failed, so instead they gave their gold record for the album to a Swedish sex worker and burned thousands of records in the Nordic woods. The band later released a censored version of the LP with all of the samples replaced with instructions on how to recreate the original yourself.


Much has been spoken about The KLF’s 1992 BRIT awards ceremony antics. During their closing performance (a version of their hit “3 a.m. Eternal”, as performed by metal band Extreme Noise Terror), they fired machine gun rounds of blanks into the audience and dumped a dead sheep at the door of an aftershow party with a message around its waist reading ‘I died for you – bon appetit’. Those are two famous stories from the night, but they wanted to go further: in an interview with The Observer in 2000, Drummond spoke about his initial plan to chop his own hand off on-stage and claim the music business for himself by throwing it into the audience. Having thankfully been talked out of the self-mutilation by Cauty and his wife (who relieved him of the meat cleaver he was planning to use), they then planned to shower the audience in sheep’s blood – the sheep replacing the ‘symbolism’ that Drummond’s decapitated hand would’ve represented. However, thanks to Extreme Noise Terror’s equally-as-extreme veganism (not to mention a band of BBC lawyers) that plan was also thwarted.


You can be forgiven for wondering why Edelweiss’s biggest hit “Bring Me Edelweiss” is included here, but the Austrian band’s five-time platinum selling smash is the most successful song ever to be inspired by The KLF’s 1988 book The Manual (How To Have A Number One The Easy Way). As the title suggests, The Manual is the KLF’s step-by-step guide to achieving chart success with no musical talent, production prowess, industry contacts, wealth, or any other skill or attribute needed – just instant musical gratification in its purest, most artistically void form. Promising “no endless wealth”, the surprisingly still-relevant The Manual became an almost prophetic artifact of fleeting musical careers, with the likes of Chumbawamba, Klaxons, and The Pipettes all citing the book as having a direct influence on their often short-lived chart successes.


Never one to shy away from attention, after their split, The KLF have always remained in the public eye – whether through their artistic and musical projects or, erm, shoe shines. After speaking at a Flattr conference in 2011, Drummond ‘surprised everyone’ by offering up free shoe shines to willing industry bods and tech creatives with titles like ‘Social Guru’. Each to their own, I guess.


Prior to… well, everything, The KLF had a pretty close relationship with disgraced glam icon Gary Glitter. Firstly, their 1988 hit “Doctorin’ The Tardis” (the inspiration behind The Manual) was essentially a mash up of Glitter’s "Rock and Roll (Part Two)” and the Doctor Who theme tune, a formulaic ode to the mundane which was loathed by critics yet tugged on the nostalgic heartstrings of the British public who sent it to number one. With the success of “Doctorin’ The Tardis”, Glitter and The KLF continued their relationship by performing on Top Of The Pops and appearing the cover of NME together in front of Stonehenge (it was a more innocent time). Years later, their 1992 BRIT Award for ‘Best British Group’ would be found buried next to the sacred site.


While potentially thousands of pounds could still remain scattered across the Hebrides thanks to The KLF’s cash cremation, the Scottish islands have a much closer relationship to The KLF than just that. Before finding fame with The KLF, Bill Drummond was a Liverpool-based manager and A&R, becoming an important figure in the city’s post-punk scene of the late 70s. After managing Echo & the Bunnymen, Drummond described their time together as a combination of “lies, deceit, hatred, hotel floors, cocaine dealers, transit vans, acid trips, broken amplifiers, American girls, service stations, loss of innocence, corrupt road crews, missed opportunities, vanity, broken promises, shit gigs, bad sex, crap mixes, late VAT returns, petulance, incompetence, petty rivalry and Pete de Freitas dying.” Nevertheless, he still thinks fondly of the band, saying in a 2008 The Telegraph interview that “Echo & the Bunnymen still have a huge hold on my emotions... a week doesn’t go by without me dreaming about them.” Fuelled by a fascination of the standing stones at Callanish on the Isle of Lewis, Drummond arranged a tour for Echo & the Bunnymen across the Hebrides that would follow a route shaped like a rabbit’s head. A good PR stunt for the band, yes, but there was also a greater purpose in the tour for Drummond: behind closed doors, he also associated the word ‘Bunnymen’ with “the scattered tribes who populate the northern rim of the world” and “followers of a mythical being, divine spirit, prime mover who takes the earthly form of a rabbit.” At the time, however, he thought best not to mention that part.


On the May 18, 1980, Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide. One somewhat macabre side-effect was that the band’s album sales skyrocketed in the aftermath, and encouraged by Curtis’s sad fate, Drummond aimed to emulate this posthumous success with Echo & the Bunnymen by urging lead singer Ian McCulloch to do the same. Surprisingly, McCulloch didn’t particularly warm to the idea. Drummond’s interest in killing off members of the bands he managed didn’t end there: in Drummond’s “Julian Cope Is Dead”, taken from his 1986 album solo album The Man, he speaks in quite specific detail about killing the-then frontman of The Teardrop Explodes, another of Drummond’s clients, thus earning the band legendary status in the process. “We'll have platinum records, not gold,” Drummond sings. Unfortunately for him, due to Cope’s stubborn insistence on staying alive, The Teardrop Explodes achieved neither.


Before Drummond and Cauty became The KLF, they were known as The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, or The JAMS for short. The name is based on a series of science-fiction novels called Illuminatus!, which tells the story of the Illuminati as they battle against their sworn enemies The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. Representing “the primeval power of chaos,” The JAMs are engaged in a secret war against the Illuminati to stop them from bringing closer the end of the world. After helping to build the set for the first ever stage performance of Illuminatus! in 1976, Drummond became fascinating with the story’s concepts, and once the ten-hour, five-part rock opera moved to London, so did a young Cauty. While much of their greater successes came under The KLF moniker, they never really left the Mu Mu persona behind, instead using it to fuel their tirade against mainstream music culture and their attempts to dismantle it from the inside.


After The KLF’s post-BRITs disbanding in 1992, the duo continued as an arts collective called the K Foundation. The burning of the million pounds and Rachel Whiteread’s Turner prize hijacking (described in ‘P’, below) were both done as the K Foundation, but their inaugural outing came with a series of full-page ads taken out in national newspapers. Cryptically encouraging readers to ‘Kick out the Clocks’, they adopted a similar method to announce both their 23-minute Barbican performance in 1997 and their most-recent return via a poster found, conveniently, by Drummond’s manager in Hackney. The poster also debunked a KLF ‘documentary’ released a few days prior which rumoured their return, stating that “The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu have zero involvement with any video clips, films, recorded music, documentary productions, biographies, West End musicals or social media chatter relating to the letters K L or F, now or at any other time over the previous 23 years.” I mean, the poster could be a hoax too, but we won’t concentrate on that...


Taken from the EP of the same name, “Last Train to Trancentral” was a 1991 single by The KLF that reached #2 in the charts. While the stories may differ depending on who you ask, to some, ‘Trancentral’ refers to the spiritual home of The KLF. While that may sound somewhat ethereal, the reality is that Trancentral was the band’s Stockwell recording studio and squat, known to host ‘really brilliant fuck-off parties’ throughout the late-80s and early-90s rave heydey.


Judging by their combined antics, you’d think that Drummond and Cauty’s meeting – and The KLF’s subsequent formation – would be a tale for the ages, one of those iconic ‘rock stories’ that middle-aged men enthuse over at any given opportunity. The reality, however, is disappointingly pedestrian: having taken a job as an A&R at Warner Music after a particularly disastrous PA mishap with Echo & the Bunnymen, Drummond began recording Cauty’s old band Brilliant at a studio owned by Pete Waterman. The band never actually recorded anything and Drummond spent a lot of Warners cash in the process, but a friendship was formed between the two nonetheless.


13 years after becoming bored enough with music to disband The KLF, Drummond became bored with music all over again and decided to make November 16 (one day before the feast of Saint Cecilia, patron saint of music) ‘No Music Day’. For what was described as a ‘five-year plan’ by Drummond, on No Music Day ‘no hymns will be sung, decks will not spin, conductors will not take the podium,’ and many other music related activities just wouldn’t happen. While it didn’t exactly take the world by storm, in 2007 BBC Radio Scotland honoured the day by playing no music whatsoever on its stations, while in 2009 the Austrian city of Linz took part in the celebrations – with the full backing of the mayor – as shops, restaurants, schools and radio stations played no music whatsoever throughout the day. Why Linz you ask? Well, that’s another mystery, really.


Before moving to the Scottish town of Newton Stewart when he was 11 months old, Bill Drummond lived in a town called Butterworth in South Africa, where his father was a minister for the Church of Scotland. In 1953, the year of Drummond’s birth, his mother had to drive 50 miles to the nearest hospital across off-road terrain and dirt roads. Born one month overdue and weighing 10 pounds, 10 ounces, this rocky start to his life perhaps explains a few things.


In 1993, artist Rachel Whiteread won the Turner prize award with her work House, and the £20,000 that came with it. On the same day, Whiteread won perhaps a more unique award in ‘Worst Artist of the Year’, presented by the K Foundation, who doubled the prize money to £40,000 under the proviso that Whiteread would have to accept the cash outside the Tate during the Turner party – otherwise it would be burned. She ended up donating the bulk of it to Shelter. “I would have been blamed for having £40,000 burned in front of me so I had to accept it,” she said in 2007. And who would want to have burnt money on their conscience?


Before the band cremated their million pound effigy, they originally planned to nail the money to a wooden board and sell it to the Tate for £750,000. While the band pointed out they would immediately make a profit of £250,000, ‘which they could use to buy some real art’, the Tate decided it would be too much of a security risk to house the piece in their gallery and passed.


In 1974, a local entrepreneur named Peter O’Halligan rented an abandoned fruit warehouse on Liverpool’s Mathew Street. Believing that Mathew Street was ‘the Pool of Life’, having been described as such by psychoanalyst Carl Jung in his 1927 book Memories, Dreams and Reflections, he turned the space into the Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun. While living in Liverpool, Drummond not only shared O’Halligan’s spiritual belief in Mathew Street, but expanded on it. Obsessed with ley lines, the perceived alignments of significant places in the geography or culture of an area, he believed that a line of energy existed which came from space, bounced off Reykjavík in Iceland, and hurtled through a manhole cover on Mathew Street before exiting Earth through somewhere in Papua New Guinea. Testing this theory, Drummond booked Echo & the Bunnymen to play in Reykjavík while he stood on the manhole cover. Did anything happen? No.


In the late 80s, Jimmy Cauty teamed up with a then unknown DJ and producer called Alex Paterson and embarked on a side-project called The Orb. While their later works would take influence from the ambient works of Brian Eno, The Orb’s first release came with “Tripping on Sunshine”, with a follow up, four-track EP called Kiss coming shortly after. After hosting a six-month residency in the second room at Paul Oakenfold’s Land of Oz clubnight at Heaven and various releases along the way, Cauty and Paterson parted ways. Paterson kept the name and The Orb lived on, going on to pioneer ambient house and gifting us incredible tracks like this along the way.


The number 23, or specifically the ‘23 enigma’, refers to the belief that events of global interest are linked to the number 23. For example, 9/11 occurred on September 11, 2001, and 9+11+2+1 = 23. That sort of thing. Conspiracy theorists believe that the number 23 is somehow tied to a centuries-old plan devised by a ‘higher power’ (ahem, Illuminati) to commit acts which will change the course of history. And, as we’ve established, the enemy of the Illuminati are The JAMs. There are perhaps hundreds of ways The KLF have incorporated the number 23 in their back catalogue and their performances. After they burnt a million pounds on August 23, 1994, they then went on to release the film exactly one year later, while their one-off return at the Barbican in 1994 saw them perform a live show for just 23 minutes. Two more examples include how ‘Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu’ is made up of 23 letters and that a model car in the “Last Train To Trancentral” and “Stadium House” videos have ‘23’ painted on its roof. Plus, their return in 2017 marks 23 years since The KLF “announced a self-imposed and self important 23 year moratorium.” The list really does go on though, so get digging.


Having originally planned to host a free bar at their Brick Lane showing of Watch The K Foundation Burn A Million Quid in 1995, due to cramped conditions the screening was cancelled halfway through. With that, the band were left with over 6,000 cans of Tennent’s Super, so in true festive spirit on Christmas Eve, the band distributed the 9% rocket fuel to the homeless sleepers of London. In his 2001 book 45, Bill Drummond describes how a Crisis worker at the time described this act as ‘utterly irresponsible’.


Drummond’s book 45 was described as “a series of loosely related vignettes forming the rambling diary of one year” by The Times. Heralded as a sort of method behind The KLF’s madness, it contains a selection of short stories written by Drummond between 1997 and 1998, describing the life and times of The KLF in extraordinarily flippant detail. One of the stand out moments from the book revolves around a then-unreleased KLF track called “The Magnificent”, which he played on a Serbian radio station in 1995. The track went on to become the radio station jingle, but in 1996 it was co-adopted by the Serbian people as a protest song against Slobodan Milošević and his ruling government party the Socialist Republic of Serbia. And the track in question? It’s a drum’n’bass version of The Magnificent Seven theme tune...


In one of their stranger collaborations – somehow even stranger than Gary Glitter – The KLF hooked up with country music icon Tammy Wynette for their 1991 track “Justified and Ancient”. The “Stand By Your Man” songstress provided standout lyrics such as “they’re Justified, and they're Ancient, and they drive an ice cream van” for the track, which reached #2 in the UK and US charts respectively. Despite its success – possibly the most lucrative ‘country-rave’ song of all time – “Justified and Ancient” would be their last official release before retiring The KLF name at the BRITs one year later.


When the K Foundation marked their emergence with full page newspaper adverts, the ads offered news of a new track called “K Cera Cera” amongst cryptic messages. What was essentially a polished mash-up of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” and “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” , “K Cera Cera” was only meant to be released once world peace had been achieved. They released the track in 1993, in Israel and Palestine only, when the two respective governments signed the Oslo I Accord agreement, which intended to set a framework for peace in the region.


When Drummond is called ‘controversial’, you know he’s gone some way to earn that title. In a 2002 exhibition he hosted at Liverpool’s St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, Drummond showcased a guestbook which asked visitors the age old question of ‘Is God a Cunt?’ The book was, perhaps inevitably, stolen. In response to his own question, Drummond said he would answer ‘no’, stating (possibly sarcastically) that “God is responsible for all the things I love, the speckles on a brown trout and the sound of Angus Young’s guitar…” He later retracted his answer in a 2004 interview with the The Guardian, saying that “if God was the ultimate mum then we'd all be born through the ultimate cunt. In fact my latest thinking is that God is all cunt. In a positive sense.” Whether God is or is not a cunt however, has not been proven.


In November 1992, Drummond and his friend Zodiac Mindwarp (aka Mark Manning of the band Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction) set out on a quest to the North Pole. Their mission? To bury a picture of Elvis Presley at the most northern point of Earth and “lay to rest his pagan spirit and carry his blaze forward into eternity.” Cancelling the trip early after nearly freezing to death in Lapland, Drummond and Manning gifted the picture to the keeper of the most northerly lighthouse in the world before returning home and chronicling the whole experience in Bad Wisdom: The Lighthouse at the Top of the World.