In the early ’90s, a UK acid house duo called The KLF briefly became the country’s biggest act. Then, they threw it all away and burned the money for art.
(Image credit: Flickr user Martin Snygg)
The early Counting Crows hit ”Mr. Jones" was a lie. Take that back—the incident was real, and Adam Duritz did hang out with a guy with the last name Jones, but the song’s whole plotline about how they were gonna be happier when they were famous didn’t come to pass. If you go to a Counting Crows show these days, in fact, the lyric is now “we all wanna be big, big stars, yeah, but then we get second thoughts about that.” Duritz should’ve talked to the British acid house duo The KLF before they released that song as their first single. Around the time when Counting Crows were becoming famous, the duo was in the midst of destroying their fame and fortune essentially for kicks. Sorry for the red herring, Counting Crows fans—this is the tale of The KLF, the most amazing midlife crisis in music history.
Bill Drummond decided to leave the comfortable confines of the music industry at age 33⅓. The year was 1986, and Drummond had been working on the business side of the music industry for much of the ’80s, after a stint in the early punk band Big in Japan. “There is a mountain to climb the hard way, and I want to see the world from the top, these foothills have been green and pleasant but I want to smell the rock, touch the ice and have the wind tear the shirt off my back,” he wrote in a press release around the time. Soon, he released a solo album, but it was what he did after that made him infamous.
The novelty song that set the stage for The KLF’s takeover
Bill Drummond, like John Lydon, had a perfectly acerbic view on fame by the time he was in his 30s, and had just enough knowledge of the music industry to basically exploit it for his own purposes.
And exploit it he did: Within two years of his “retirement” from the music biz, he managed to top the charts in the U.K., creating a crass novelty record called ”Doctorin’ the Tardis,” which took a hugely popular TV theme (the Doctor Who theme) and wedded it to two incredibly well known songs in a fairly obvious way.
"In our case, we used parts from three very famous songs, Gary Glitter’s 'Rock ‘n’ Roll,' 'The Doctor Who Theme,' and the Sweet’s 'Blockbuster' and pasted them together, neither of us playing a note on the record," the duo once explained.
The tune was a fruit of Drummond’s work with Jimmy Cauty, a musician Drummond had once managed. Soon after Drummond announced that he was leaving his A&R job he teamed with Cauty to launch a rap group called The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu.
Inspired by a book series called The Illuminatus! Trilogy, the duo came up with a strategy that basically was constantly sneering at both authority figures and the general structure of society. Eventually, they came up with a basically genius strategy to take over the pop charts: They called themselves The Timelords and bashed a bunch of well-known songs together, taking advantage of the British public’s love of one-off novelty records.
In a completely different way from Jarvis Cocker and Pulp, the duo hit the right notes at the right time.
After The Timelords’ one-hit-wonder success faded, they wrote a book called The Manual (How to Have a Number One Hit the Easy Way). Dripping with cynicism, the manual takes a deep look at the group’s bizarre creative process—from the idea to the time in the studio, to the process of recording it.
“Although a Number One single cannot sound like an indie trash record, they do not have to sound like they have cost a million to make, unlike a Number One LP,” the duo wrote in their masterwork.
Soon, rather than simply creating cheap hits off of clever mashups, the group took advantage of the growing popularity of acid house music and created a series of massive hits that took over the pop charts. Oh, and they changed the name yet again.
Now, they were called The KLF.
The KLF charted four singles in the UK Top Ten in 1991, including three tracks off the band’s most popular album, The White Room. The group topped the British charts with “3 a.m. Eternal” and hit the top 20 in the U.S. twice in a year. The group was the biggest-selling singles act in the world in 1991—beating out such luminaries as Michael Jackson and Nirvana.
Four bizarre ways The KLF defied music industry norms
1. Rather than doing press tours and interviews with major newspapers and magazines, the group created “information sheets” that published communications to both fans and the media.
2. The group was an early advocate of guerilla-style communications, promoting themselves using cryptic full-page ads in British newspapers and through acts of vandalism.
3. Already having reached a level of success in the U.S., The KLF could have worked with basically anyone on a single. But rather than pick someone who was on the radio at the time—say, Paula Abdul or Janet Jackson–the group chose to have American country crooner Tammy Wynette sing the vocals on the their final major single, ”Justified & Ancient (Stand by the JAMs).” The result was Wynette’s highest-ever appearance on the Billboard Hot 100, just barely missing the Top 10 and charting above her legendary ”Stand By Your Man.”
4. When their career was over, the duo deleted their catalog in the United Kingdom, ensuring that they wouldn’t get any royalties from sales of their songs after their time was up. (You can still buy their The White Room in the U.S., however.)
The moment The KLF destroyed its own career
For most artists, winning your country’s most prestigious musical award would be a cause for celebration or even a few tears.
But The KLF had other ideas when they walked out on the stage at the Brit Awards in February 1992. Having scored major chart success with an array of acid house hits, they took advantage of the stage that had been afforded them to … uh, well, fire a semiautomatic gun over the crowd.
To be fair, the weapon was full of blanks and wasn’t a real risk to the audience. The experience, however, was a bit over the top for the audience, which was treated to a death-metal version of “3 a.m. Eternal.”
At the end of the song, the group announced they had broken up over the loudspeakers. After the performance, music industry insiders found a large dead sheep waiting for them at an afterparty, with this note attached: “I died for ewe—bon appetit.”
The media basically didn’t know what to make of the incident. In an article co-written by Piers Morgan two decades before he lectured the American public on gun control, The Sun brushed off the stunt with the headline “KLF’s Sick Gun Stunt Fails To Hit The Target.”
“He has taken over pop music and it has been a piece of piss to do so. And he hates that. He wants to be separate from a music industry that clasps him ever closer to its bosom,” NME wrote at the time.
But while the KLF was gone, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty were far from done working together. Six months after winning their Brit Award, Cauty and Drummond went to Stonhenge and buried the award on the property.
At that point, they founded The K Foundation, which was essentially all of the antics without any of the music. They offered up awards for the worst art. They ran more newspaper ads. They created more grafitti. And they had a helluva time doing it.
What was it about?
“But it wasn’t about burning all the money. And it wasn’t about cleansing anyone’s soul. In this context, a million is a lot more than 2 million. A million is the icon. It’s what we talk about, dream about. It has the power.”
— Bill Drummond, speaking to The Observer in a 2000 interview that largely focuses on his work after The KLF was done. The most infamous work the duo created after band’s end was a 1994 film called ”Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid,” in which the duo, under their K Foundation monicker, burned £1 million of their own money, all of which was earned from the duo’s KLF days. He later admitted in the Observer interview that he was no longer financially stable.
The odd thing about The KLF is that Americans don’t really remember them. Despite having two songs that were huge radio hits in the early 1990s, their music sounded like a different variation on other songs that were popular during the era, such as C&C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat.” (I blame the radio programmers, who should have done a better job de-anonymizing house music.)
While their antics played well to British cameras—particularly on Top of the Pops—Americans didn’t get nearly as good of a close up as they should have of Cauty and Drummond.
Bill Drummond in 2009 (Image credit: Shervin Afshar)
Perhaps now’s a good time to start looking. Drummond still gets in the news from time to time for various antics—including, in 2014, painting over a mural for the U.K. Independence party with gray paint that he himself created.
Someone who burns a million pounds is a little crazy, but if he keeps telling himself it’s crazy like a fox, it’ll become true eventually.