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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Heroic Explosions and the History of Pop




In 1988 a book called "The Manual" was released by "The Timelords", and concerned the creation and production of successful music hit singles. The subtitle "How to have a number one - the easy way" is an accurate description of the Manuals practical and and dilligent contents. Accordingly, the authors, known eventually to various pseudenyms personally (Rockman Rock, Kingboy D.), and collectively (The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu [JAMS], The Timelords, KLF, The K Foundation, etc), would string together enough hit songs to make them the best selling singles artists on the planet by the early 1990s.

Bill Drummond (ex Big in Japan, former Echo and the Bunnymen manager), and Jimmy Caudy (of Brilliant), known eventually by their most (in)famous project, The KLF, were throughout the five short years of The KLF's existence able to test, expand and destroy the limits of pop music, plagiarism and guerilla art tactics, culminating in the burning of a million pounds sterling on a secluded island, and the deletion of their entire musical back-catalogue at the height of their commercial success.

The due began making music together in 1987 under the JAMS moniker, and making use of the newly created digital sampler, were able to manipulate past hits and mash them together into palatable and dancable hit songs, to make up their first album "What the Fuck's Going On", on their own record label. JAMs would stand as a major influence and catalyst to emerging acid house and trance scenes and would help to popularize the use of samplers in pop music. The record also landed the group in their first bit of trouble, as a sample of Dancing Queen by ABBA resulted in a legal challenge by the band. Infamously, Drummond and Caudy ferried to Stockholm with the entire remaining press of the LP, and a journalist to meet with ABBA. Predictably denied access, in frustration they would burn most of the LPs in a field, and threw the rest off the side of the ferry. An add was taken out in Face Magazine, auctioning off the 4 remaining copies for 1000 pounds each. Drummond was able to sell three, and would later re-release an edited version of the LP, complete with instructions on how to recreate the original.

The next JAMs LP, "Who Killed the Jams", (released on their own label, KLF Communications [initially known as Sound of Mu(sic)]) included the song "Doctorin the Tardis" (later released under the name The Timelords), a mashup of Gary Glitter, The Dr Who theme song, and "Blockbuster" by Sweet. The song would go onto to become one of the most recognized sports anthems of all time, and would land the duo their first number one song. Drummond and Caudy would immiediatly spin the song to the media as a deliberate and crass attempt at creating a number one hit, calling it "Probably the most nauseating record in the world" in a KLF (Kopywrite Liberation Front) info broadsheet. Following the release of "Tardis" the group operated under the KLF moniker until 1992 (while releasing the seminal ambient "Chill Out" record, while Caudy helped form The Orb [recording "A huge ever growing pulsating brain that rules from the center of the ultraworld"]).

Earlier KLF trance and acid tracks were used to compile the first and only KLF LP, "The White Room", which featured what the duo dubbed their "Stadium House Trilogy", outlining their intentions with "What Time is Love", "3AM Eternal" and "Last Train to Trancentral". The chill and dancable acid house tracks that made up the LP had vocals and raps added to them, and resulted in the three biggest singles of the KLF affair, and the LP earned them their biggest successs yet. North American audiences became familiar with the KLF through their pairing with vocalist Tammy Wynette on the song "Justified and Ancient"

After being voted "Best British Group", the KLF was asked to perform at the 1992 Brit Awards. Drummond walked on stage and proceeded to fire blank rounds from a machine gun into the front row of the crowd, while their backing band of choice, Extreme Noise Terror tore into a thrash version of 3AM Eternal. In lieu of showing up themselves, the KLF delivered 8 gallons of sheeps blood and a pig carcass with the message "I Died for You" tied to it, to the after party. They then went to work on "The Black Room", an collaboration with ENT, that remains incomplete and unreleased.
On May 5th 1992 (the fifth day of the fifth month) they announced their retirement from the music industry. As proof it was no marketing ploy, they deleted their entire back catalogue, a discography potentially worth millions of dollars. Releasing a statement, the group explained

"We have been following a wild and wounded, glum and glorious, shit but shining path these past five years. The last two of which has led us up onto the commercial high ground --- we are at a point where the path is about to take a sharp turn from these sunny uplands down into a netherworld of we know not what. For the forseeable future there will be no further record releases from The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, The Timelords, The KLF & any other past, present & future name attached to our activities. As of now all our past releases are deleted.... If we meet further along be prepared...our disguise may be complete."

Select Magazine, called their retirement at the top "the most heroic act of public destruction in the history of pop". The KLF declared that they would release no more music until world peace was declared.

Drummond and Caudy returned a year later as "The K Foundation", an art terrorist organization, taking ads out in papers to announce their intention to award the worst piece of art of that year with $40,000, urging readers to "Abandon All Art Now". The dubious but genuine prize money was awarded to the unwitting graphic design artist Rachel Whiteread, who had won the prestigious Turner Art Award the same year, and who refused to accept the KLF prize and the money. After the K Foundation threatened to burn the money, she accepted and donated the money to charity.

In 1994 Drummond and Caudy performed their most unthinkable and misunderstood stunt, by withdrawing U$1 million pounds (the largest UK bank withdrawal in history), nailed it to a board, presented it as a work of art entitled "Nailed to the Wall" and offered it up for auction at a price of U$ 500,000 pounds. Then, with one photographer and one journalist, they flew to the island of Jura (where they had performed another prank journalistic manipulation years ealier, tricking dozens of journalists into performing fake/sacred Mu rites and burning a wicker man), and burned the entire sum. A recount of the trip written by the accompanying journalist is found here

The K Foundation eventually returned to release an ultra limited single in Israel only to commemorate the peace accord signed by Rabin and Arafat. It was a cover version of "K Sera Sera", sung by the Red Army Choir. They released "Fuck the Millenium" in 1997 as 2K on Mute Records.

Taking obvious influence from The Illuminatus Trilogy book, the intent of the KLF seems to have been simply the gleeful attempt at manipulation on a large public scale. Drummond and Caudy were unique in pop history by the nature of their intent, rather than its outcome. Never before or again has the anarchistic intent of manipulating and derailing an established formula (in the case pop music) been met with such broad and unconcious success and approval. Following the legal spat with ABBA, Drummond and Caudy were never met with legal challenges for the original music they would continue to lift and sample. Their burning of an amount of money that could support thousands of people for quite a long period of time was met neither with outrage or more legal trouble, but with a calm and tame debate amongst the British music and art press. Their imagery and music videos ("Justified and Ancient" intersperced Tammy Wynette crooning along side tribal warriors and men in rhino sex-rite masks, dancing atop a purple pyramid) broadcasted Discordianism to millions of viewers. The process of witnessing the KLF traipse through popular culture was akin to walking into a crack-house and finding the most nonsensical and disturning things after opening the wrong door, but staying to relish in the chaos.

Like a hacker that uses a computer to undo computing, the KLF were able to locate the formula for popular culture, and use undo a part of it using that formula. Their blatantly crass and transparent intentions resulted not only in a string of their own number one hits, but also in the Austrian group Edelweiss, who used the Manual to manufacture their own hits, that topped several European charts.

The KLF remain important and influencial because they were able to locate and exploit the apparent latticework that lies behind popular culture, in this case, behind the music culture. Within a culture so structured and defined by rules, it shouldn't take a genius to figure out easy ways to manipulate the structure for their own ends and intents. The KLF remain the most successful example of an outsiders ability to use this formula to their own ends and manipulation. The KLF took the formula and applied it absolutely, remaining self-aware and in charge. It was if they were able to hold a trance over the entire public during their five year emergence into the culture. Following their initial legal troubles with the first JAMs LP, their constant sample and theft was met with no legal opposition. When they burned enough money to found a town, they were met with no legal challenge, only a calm and tame debate within the British music press. The made their music according to the letter of its law, and walked through society as if in a 4th dimension, where they couldn't be touched, but lay down immense influence. Theirs was a manual for the culture machine - throw a few hooks and beats into one end, and out the other comes money and power.

As culture and science converge so rapidly that we can use computers to write out hit songs, the formulaic nature of the culture economy has never been so apparent. Especially in popular music where songs are frozen and first heated inside our microwaves before consumption. Music is stretching at both ends like never before - at the top into the stratosphere of popular mechanics and tinkering where the pop is so fresh it scalds your face, the sounds so clean they break your teeth, and at the bottom, the sound is so undiscernable and mad it seems to hold music itself over a spit, burning it to a char, and then using the soot only as a reference or a memory. But this swelling and streching has expanded the middle, where there is lots left to chew on. Pop music is dead easy and also dead. But there is plenty of corpse left to fed on, once you've developed the proper appetite.

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