How KLF Communications Killed the Music Industry (the Easy Way)
Following the announcement that Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty are reviving their Justified Ancients of Mu Mu project, Tom Watson traces the subversive legacy of pop’s arch-provocateurs
It takes just one minute for a facetious Bill Drummond to encapsulate the moment when the punk movement destroyed itself. In a video entitled The Death of Punk in Sixty Seconds, Drummond stands in front of a hand-drawn rectangle, as if to imitate a makeshift television screen projecting images directly back at its audience, and speaks with cartoonish force. He highlights a tectonic moment in late October 1977, when – during a rehearsal with his then band, Big In Japan – the group’s guitarist Ian Broudie presents a first pressing of Never Mind The Bollocks. It would be the first time the group would hear the record. “By the time it gets to track three, I sense something wrong,” recalls Drummond. “Then I realise. The Sex Pistols are nothing but a rock band. Just a bunch of beery lads with turgid riffs. All their gestures, hollow. All their postures, pantomime. There was no revolution. Just albums to promote and sell… That night, I go home and listen to I Feel Love by Donna Summer.”
In all of Drummond’s recorded acts of commercial nihilism, this ostracism of punk may pale in comparison to the public schisms he and artistic partner Jimmy Cauty caused at the zenith of their careers. But what Drummond’s vignette aims to convey is that the 70s movement, renowned for its insubordination, was a farcical PR friendly product that appealed to the masses and ultimately alienated its creators. Punk swiftly became the mainstream darling of the music industry; feeding its consumers with the idea of rebellion and yet void of any rebellious backbone. With this message alone, Drummond highlights the illegitimacy of punk’s media savvy footing, yet hints at a subculture’s ability to infiltrate the minds of the hoi palloi by manipulating the press through shock and nonconformity.
The mainstream press salivate over this concept of guerrilla radicalism. It fuels their addiction for mass public hysteria. So when Drummond and Cauty’s sample-based electronic project, The KLF, mimicked the DIY aesthetic of the drunk and disorderly punks that came before them, the world was swiftly stunned. Unlike the lucid, A&R-devised attempts for media attention by their peers, The KLF were not just genuinely shocking in their approach to ‘anti-advertising,’ but their brand of precocious misanthropy would completely alter how artists marketed their products. Their goal was to be wholly self-governed. To take our money and burn it like a musical reenactment of Slaughterhouse Five. How did they achieve this? How did they retain their creative autonomy while scoring four Top Ten singles? How did their self-founded platform, KLF Communications, neglect archetypal promotional pushes and yet assist in their ascension to be reluctantly crowned the biggest-selling singles act in the world in 1991? And really how has their gonzo zero-fucks-given ethos stretched into the 21st century?
Despite its distribution agreement with a Rough Trade subsidiary, KLF Communications was established in 1987 by Drummond and Cauty as an independent platform from which the duo could release their records directly to the British public. It’s debut single, All You Need Is Love, was a politically ballistic hip-hop track concerning the UK media’s bigoted coverage of the AIDS epidemic that mired topical broadcasting throughout the duration of the 80s. It was heavily sample-based with Drummond and Cauty practically stealing segments of popular songs and re-appropriating their original form like modern-day Andy Warhols (a technique that eventually earned them their first number one single in 1988 as The Timelords with novelty Dr Who themed production, Doctorin’ The Tardis).
At the time, the duo were performing under the pseudonym Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (The JAMMs); named after a conspiratorial group based around a trilogy of novels entitled The Illuminatus! The record itself failed to chart and was declined for widespread distribution due to fears of prosecution over both its lyrical content and potential copyright infringements, it was made ‘Single of the Week’ by Sounds Magazine, who later described the act as ‘the hottest, most exhilarating band of the year’. Promotion for the record was entirely unorthodox with Drummond and Cauty refusing to opt for the standardised press junkets. Instead, The JAMMs defaced billboards with ‘promotional graffiti,’ bought advertising space in major magazines and filled it with ‘fake art’ and published cryptic information sheets outlining KLF Communication’s intentions. “The trouble is The JAMMs can never be killed,” they wrote in 1988, “If you are confused then so are we…”
The KLF were not just genuinely shocking in their approach to 'anti-advertising,' but their brand of precocious misanthropy would completely alter how artists marketed their products
And it was through these initial means of guerrilla communications that the group founded their most lauded and scandalous enterprise under The KLF. Having already seen chart success with the offbeat sci-fi gimmickry of Doctorin’ The House, Drummond and Cauty transformed their political zaniness into something far more perverted and derisive. Drummond’s intentions especially were to dismantle the idea of a big business music industry in total control of its creative output. He co-wrote The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way) with Cauty with Doctorin‘ as a case study for achieving the chart’s pole position without any money or musical skill. “Firstly, you must be skint or on the dole…” they famously wrote in one of the most prophetic and lambasting accounts of how the music industry worked. “If you want to do something, go and do it! Don’t wait to be asked…” A notion championed by The KLF whom, throughout the early 90s, refused to wait for anyone or anything.
What was prevalent in the pages of The Manual was Drummond and Cauty’s nous for exploiting mainstream trends. Their pop-centric acid house singles, What Time Is Love? and 3 a.m. Eternal surfed on the crest of an embryonic rave culture and yet maintained the chart sensibilities heralded by the likes of Pet Shop Boys. ‘Stadium House’ they called it; another uncompromisingly honest definition of what the pair were achieving as ticket demands for KLF performances sky rocketed. Royalties accrued from their 1988 joke record was distributed directly back into KLF Communications. Drummond and Cauty were both the record moguls and the record makers without a single middle man to interrupt their cash flow. They haemorrhaged success, which ultimately led to their inevitable demise.
It’s almost the stuff of fiction how The KLF retired from an exasperated music industry. At the peak of their fame in 1992, following years of media confrontation and mocking the alternative music press, Drummond announced the dissolution of The KLF over a P.A. system at the Brit Awards. Set to perform their number one single 3 a.m. Eternal, the group appeared alongside crust/grind act Extreme Noise Terror. Drummond finished the performance by firing blanks from a sub machine gun into the awestruck audience. Later that evening, a dead and bloodied sheep was found outside the entrance of a Brit after party with the note saying,”I died for ewe – Bon appetite” tied to its corpse. The band followed this act of violence by burying their statuette for ‘Best British Group of 1992’ in a field near Stonehenge.
Drummond and Cauty were both the record moguls and the record makers without a middle man to interrupt their cash flow. They haemorrhaged success, which ultimately led to their inevitable demise
Today, the KLF Communications back catalogue remains deleted in the U.K. The label was superseded by the KLF Foundation, an anti-art foundation where Drummond and Cauty continued to expose the bureaucracy of Britain’s creative industries. Stunts, now infamous, including the recorded burning of a million pounds (KLF Communications’ remuneration) and the establishment of ‘The Worst Artist of the Year Award,’ created to mock the Turner Prize for best British contemporary artist. Ironically, the year’s £20,000 award winner for best artist, Rachel Whiteread, also won the K Foundation’s £40,000 award for worst artist. The event was covered in all major media outlets in the U.K. acting as a testament to Drummond and Cauty’s headline-starved scorn.
One constant remains with The KLF; nothing was accidental or unplanned. Just when everything appeared to be teetering of the edge of collapse, Drummond and Cauty revealed the punchline to their joke. It’s a tactic seldom utilised successfully by many big names today. Death Grips taunt their fan base with consistent live no shows, indecipherable interview clips and deeply esoteric thread posts. In more recent times, Los Angeles band YACHT tried and desperately failed to replicate The KLF’s commercial stunting by fabricating a story regarding a ‘stolen’ sex tape that was subsequently published online. The prank’s insensitivity backfired, further highlighting that without the revolutionary intellect, you become as delusional as the mainstream industry The KLF so vigorously rallied against.
It’s now 2017 and the K Collective’s Justified Ancients of Mu Mu are set to return. And we can only hope that Drummond and Cauty’s incredible knack for cultural sabotage has only ripened in time. As the duo have teased in the past, “If we meet further along be prepared… our disguise may be complete.”