The bizarre return of the anarchist group is the perfect antidote to the banality and vanity of popular culture in 2017.
When Taylor Swift dropped the seven-second link to her new song “Look What You Made Me Do” on August 24 the world sat up and took notice.
Superfans everywhere had been holding their breath for days after the popstar mysteriously deleted everything from her social media on August 18. The excitement and speculation ratcheted up to unprecedented levels a few days later after Swift broke her silence by tweeting a clip of a snake, which to date has been liked close to a quarter of a million times.
Whipped up into a frenzy, fans went wild when the track finally emerged, immediately identifying the song as a shift towards a darker, more liberated Swift. Much was made of her “edgy” choice to sample the beat from Right Said Fred’s 1992 hit “I’m Too Sexy”. Likewise speculation raged around the video and Swift’s decision to kill off her previous cutesy incarnations and dance with models wearing “I heart TS” T-shirts (now available to buy on her website).
Yes, Swift’s decision to sample a 90s pop track, delete her social media and wear leather in a music video is officially what constitutes artistic expression and risk taking in the music industry in 2017.
And this is why we need the KLF.
Art collective, anarchists and acid house provocateurs the KLF – aka the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (or JAMs) – took risk taking and creative experimentation to the next level.
On the same night that they won the Brit Award for Best British Group in 1992, the KLF ended their performance of their track 3am Eternal by firing machine gun blanks into the audience and dumping a dead sheep at the aftershow party.
Then the KLF’s Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty staged the most audacious rejection of consumerism the music industry had ever seen – burning £1m in cash on the Isle of Jura on August 23 1994.
With that the group abruptly wrote themselves out of popular history, deleting their entire back catalogue and disappearing into the unknown with a vow to return exactly 23 years later on August 23, 2017.
This was not a comeback in any traditional sense of the word. It was teased at the start of the year, when posters emerged from K2 Plant Hire Ltd (another pseudonym) asking the very pertinent question – 2017: What the fuck is going on?
The posters stated that the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu had had zero involvement in “documentary productions, biographies, West End musicals or social media” over the past 23 years, but that their work in light industry would be made public on August 23.
Keeping to their word Drummond and Cauty arrived in Liverpool at 12.23am that morning, driving their ‘Ice Kream Van’ emblazoned with Ukrainian text and carrying a coffin allegedly holding an effigy of James Brown.
So began Welcome to the Dark Ages, a series of events spanning three days and attended by 400 volunteers/superfans, who paid £100-a-head to take part in acts of low level civil disobedience, wear yellow capes, put traffic cones on their heads and sing on stage with KLF collaborator Jarvis Cocker.
The events started with a “non-book signing” for 2023: A Trilogy – a dark dystopian fiction written by Drummond and Cauty. Rather than signing their names, each book was stamped with a diamond skull and a reworked version of the Starbucks logo featuring Yoko Ono as the mermaid and bearing the slogan “Starbucks – War is Over”.
The rules of engagement for the event flew in the face of a typical meet or greet, as fans were not permitted to engage the JAMs in idle conversation or ask them (or anyone else for that matter) for an autograph or selfie ever again.
The three-day series of events ended with the announcement that the JAMs, in collaboration with the Green Funeral Company, were becoming “undertakers to the underworld” and wanted fans to pay to have their ashes made into bricks that would be turned into “people pyramids” in Toxteth, Liverpool. To witness this in real life, the volunteers paraded through the streets for two miles to see Cauty and Drummond burn a pyramid of coffins.
Bizarre yes, but what else would you expect from a group who buried their Brit Award at Stonehenge? Even if it was just for three days, the KLF’s reemergence provided the tonic popular culture in 2017 was crying out for.
You don’t have to remember Drummond and Cauty the first time round to be fascinated by their infamous decision to burn £1m or intrigued by their unique take on performance art, deliberately shunning the narcissism and neediness of social media.
As Swift plays out her soap operas on Twitter and is lauded as being “iconic” for sitting on a golden throne covered in snakes or walking around with a whip in her latest video, it is hard not to feel that we have forgotten how to take creative risks. In the sterile world of 2017, where success is measured in likes and shares, it literally doesn’t pay to be “too different”.
Getting paid was never something that bothered the KLF. Their audacious decision to burn £1m and then disappear for over two decades feels like folklore that could only have existed in a radically different time (like the 1990s).
Twenty-three years on Cauty and Drummond offer no rationale for their decision to burn the money, despite a whole session debating the issue during the first evening of their three-day event in Liverpool. Their response when asked directly? “Whatever.” Not really knowing why you burnt £1m, now that’s what I call taking a risk.