Reappraising The KLF on the Event of Their Return
One of the more unexpected and exciting events of 2021 so far has been the appearance of the music of The KLF on streaming services. The duo of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty have been both notorious and beloved for many years for their artistic yet mystical pranksterism—ask someone at random what phrase they associate with The KLF, and “burning a million pounds” is more likely to crop up than any other.
That stunt, along with pretending to gun down a music awards show and dumping a dead sheep outside, getting country legend Tammy Wynette to perform next to men dressed as ice cream cones, and many others besides, were brilliantly deranged and brilliantly executed, so it’s no wonder they’re what people remember. But maybe, with the re-emergence of their music, it’s a good time to remind ourselves that none of that tomfoolery would have meant anything if their music—created in a period of furious intensity lasting barely over four years—wasn’t great too.
It’s impossible to separate the brilliance of The KLF from the acid house and rave explosion that swept the UK in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Their previous manifestation, The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu (JAMMs), saw them experimenting with sampling—again mischievously, shamelessly cutting up Abba and The Beatles with industrial and hip-hop beats—but this was pretty clunky stuff. When they connected to the sensualism and hedonism of the acid house scene though, an instant and dramatic change happened.
The minimalist “Pure Trance” series of DJ 12-inch singles from 1988 and ‘89—which includes the original versions of “What Time is Love”, “3am Eternal” and “Last Train to Trancentral”—are some of the most genuinely moving music of the time. Along with Orbital and Adamski, The KLF were at the epicentre of creating a uniquely British dance sound, laying the groundwork for mega acts like Leftfield, Underworld and The Chemical Brothers.
At the same time, along with allies Youth (who had been in the alt-funk band Brilliant with Cauty) and Youth’s sometime roadie Alex Paterson, they were pioneering the chill-out room at Land of Oz club run by Paul Oakenfold, now one of the world’s biggest DJs. The dreamy collages of sound they built for relaxing ravers would birth The Orb (originally Paterson and Cauty), ‘Space’ by Space (Orb material that became a Cauty solo project), and The KLF’s epochally great 1990 album, Chill Out. This is now on streaming services, shorn of some of its more illegal samples (large sections of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’ and Van Halen’s ‘Eruption’ guitar solo), and remixed with a few extras. Nonetheless, it is a sublime document of the pastoral bliss of driving home from raves in the early morning during a time of delirious optimism. It’s one of the most blissfully dreamlike records ever made, and hugely influential to this day.
Then came the “Stadium House” singles, and this is where it became ludicrous. Assembling a team including Tony Thorpe aka Moody Boys, and Manda Glanfield of The Beatmasters, they reworked “What Time...”, “3am” and “Last Train” to ridiculous proportions through 1990 and 1991. Crowd noise, belting soul divas, and even rap verses were added. Everything was bigger and bolder, and they were rewarded with top positions on the UK and worldwide charts. Indeed, in 1991, The KLF were the biggest selling singles act in the world. These songs still sound truly immense and are now collected on the ‘Solid State Logik’ compilation.
Right in the middle of this mania came The White Room album. Ostensibly the soundtrack to a never-finished road movie (bootlegs of this exist online), it centres around much mellower takes on the big singles—repeating the same motifs over and over in radically different forms was a vital part of The KLF’s process. Added to this were other dreamy, soulfully sung songs like “Make it Rain” and “Build a Fire”, which incorporate the duo’s love of Americana with spacious dub, and Drummond’s sonorous Scottish narration. Again, it was ahead of its time—a precursor to trip hop and records like Leftfield’s Leftism that set the tone for the decade.
The White Room also serves as a reminder of how much The KLF showcased Black British talent, having been defined massively by Tony Thorpe’s breakbeat editing and dub techniques, and by the voices of UK reggae singers Maxine Harvey and Errol "Black Steel" Nicholson, who are not tacked on as “guest singers” but a vital part of the fabric of the album. Harvey crooned cryptic lyrics like “Rockman, he's just made of bricks / And King Boy lost his screws.” (Rockman Rock and King Boy D are Cauty and Drummond’s respective aliases in their hermetic mythology.) It is as oddly affecting as it is nonsensical.
Then, in mid-1992, following a raging metal version of “What Time is Love” (recorded with grindcore band Extreme Noise Terror), the machine gun stunt at the Brit Awards, and the total deletion of their catalogue, The KLF were gone. They would continue on and off with art pranks and occasional singles as The K Foundation, but the career of The KLF as such was a perfectly brief, dazzling explosion. Despite being one of the biggest acts in the world for a few months, their songs stopped being played, and it was almost like the whole thing had been a fever dream.
It’s not clear yet from the typically cryptical announcements whether ‘The White Room’ will be part of the reissues—though it looks as if a ‘Moody Boys Collection’ of Thorpe’s truly extraordinary remixes of KLF tracks will. It’s almost impossible for the reissues to be comprehensive given how many strange and obscure versions of each track they made. Yet, if your interest is piqued by what’s available now, it’s really worth digging around online to see what else is available on YouTube and elsewhere. Not just for the strangeness, not just to join the dots through their self-created mythos—but because they were responsible for so much genuinely great music, without which the landscape of electronic music, and UK music more widely, would have panned out very differently.
Cover Image: KLF Communications
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs