klf

Showing 36 posts tagged klf

The Band That Doesn’t Exist

Twenty years ago, the KLF were the biggest selling singles act in Britain. Nineteen years ago, the KLF “left the music industry”: they deleted their entire back catalogue and stopped making records. And then vanished into legend? Well, nobody manages that these days. You’re a click away from a website on which you can stream everything they ever touched, another away from a video collection and archive of terrifying completeness. This most self-mythologising of pop groups has been dissected and catalogued online with loving rigour, almost from the moment they stopped. Can there possibly be any mystique left? And if so, does anybody still care? Should they?

The KLF, or the JAMS, the Timelords, the One World Orchestra, Disco 2000, whatever they called themselves that record, aren’t quite my favourite pop band. (They remixed one of my favourites, and were sued by the other.) But in the early 90s they seemed important and captivating in a way nobody else did. So they seemed a natural fit for this blog. And they have more than enough nooks and crannies that I won’t go short of material, even if my five-day plan breaks down.

Plan? Well, each day will have a bit of a theme. We’ll start off today with the KLF as a pop phenomenon – the hits, the stardom, the smash pop album that almost was. Tomorrow we’ll look at the KLF’s ambient and trance recordings. On Wednesday I’ll talk about the philosophy of the group, their conceptual side, and the early JAMS work. And on Thursday I’ll talk about their self-immolation and its messy aftermath. We’ll deal with Friday when we get there.

Three important caveats. One: I’m not an expert on the KLF, not remotely. From that one follows the other. Two: I’m assuming that almost everything I read or remember about them is true. This includes stunts they pulled, records they made, motives they claimed, etc. And three: because they deleted their catalogue, I’m not making a distinction between their commercial releases and the various demos and rarities floating around. It’s all equally accessible now, so it all counts!

And finally, thanks to Hendrik for inviting me to be part of this marvellous blog. I hope you enjoy it!

DAY ONE: WE OBEY NO ONE

My first memory of the KLF is seeing a single in the new releases section of WH Smiths. The title stood out – “Kylie Said To Jason” – something satirical I guessed. The sleeve showed a Ford police car driving past a derelict building. The artist I’d never heard of before. I was intrigued enough to pick it up, insolvent enough to put it straight back.

I was hardly alone in this. The single – unbeknownst to me – was a gamble: Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty hoped that “Kylie Said” would bring in enough cash to help them release the film and album they’d been working on, called The White Room. The film was funded initially from the number one hit they’d already had, as The Timelords – “Doctorin’ The TARDIS”, a glorious glam-rave smash stitched together from samples of the Glitter Band and Doctor Who. “Kylie Said To Jason” was an attempt at a second hit. I might have remembered the car on the “Kylie” sleeve as Ford Timelord, front-vehicle of The Timelords. (See The Timelords in action on Top Of The Pops on this clip - the formation guitar-slinging was a recurring feature, nicked off ZZ Top I assume!)

“Kylie Said” flopped. The White Room was shelved. The KLF turned their attentions to making the kinds of records European dancefloors liked. Two years later they were superstars anyway.

Five Things I Learned From Bill Drummond #1: Look As If You Meant It
The KLF story is as full of flops as hits: but they were clever swines, and they played up the conceptual angle to their music, so it’s easy to see it all as one grand masterplan. After they had that Doctor Who hit they wrote a quite famous book about it, The Manual: How To Have A Number One The Easy Way.* It’s a masterpiece of post-facto rationalisation, and admits this from the off. It’s much more enlightening as a guide to the music business of the late 80s than it is as a self-help book for hitmakers. It admits that too. (You should read it** because it’s very funny, and one of the dozen or so finest books about pop music.)
That’s not to say you couldn’t have a hit using the Timelords’ “Golden Rules”, and you would learn an awful lot trying. But Drummond and Cauty’s approach was way more haphazard. When the KLF eventually became stars it was their second or third stab at finding the right formula. Being pop stars was never as easy as they sometimes made it look.
*the copy in the photo is tiny! Aww! My version is a big floppy paperback thing.
**here’s a copy to print out.

Five Things I Learned From Bill Drummond #1: Look As If You Meant It

The KLF story is as full of flops as hits: but they were clever swines, and they played up the conceptual angle to their music, so it’s easy to see it all as one grand masterplan. After they had that Doctor Who hit they wrote a quite famous book about it, The Manual: How To Have A Number One The Easy Way.* It’s a masterpiece of post-facto rationalisation, and admits this from the off. It’s much more enlightening as a guide to the music business of the late 80s than it is as a self-help book for hitmakers. It admits that too. (You should read it** because it’s very funny, and one of the dozen or so finest books about pop music.)

That’s not to say you couldn’t have a hit using the Timelords’ “Golden Rules”, and you would learn an awful lot trying. But Drummond and Cauty’s approach was way more haphazard. When the KLF eventually became stars it was their second or third stab at finding the right formula. Being pop stars was never as easy as they sometimes made it look.

*the copy in the photo is tiny! Aww! My version is a big floppy paperback thing.

**here’s a copy to print out.

What did “Kylie Said To Jason” sound like? As Drummond admitted, it sounded very much like the Pet Shop Boys. This is a good thing: in 1988-9 nobody in Britain was making better pop music than the PSBs. You can trace its vibe back to a specific Pet Shop Boys song – their gorgeous, melancholic, hymn to selfish autonomy “Left To My Down Devices”. Even though “Kylie” is a bit harder-edged and less subtle, the structure is similar – semi-spoken verses leading to a big, bittersweet chorus. And there’s a similar dreaming feel to the tracks, Drummond’s soft burr keeping proceedings on the edge of consciousness. It’s a good record. It could have been a hit, but probably not from a bunch of apparent unknowns acting cryptic about the whole deal.

It’s well worth hearing the album “Kylie Said To Jason” was meant to lead off – you see it mostly as “The White Room (Demos)” but really it’s a complete, scrapped, almost-finished 10-track dance-pop LP. And tinny though it is, it doesn’t much sound like anything else.

Well, no, that’s not true: it sounds like everything else I’m talking about this week, because this particular highway wreck was stripped for parts by the band repeatedly over the next few years. For people familiar with the KLF’s pop career songs like “Go To Sleep” are weird, synthpop incarnations of familiar hits, when actually those hits are dancefloor or ambient translations of the White Room originals. (When the band finally released an album called The White Room, the tracks were mostly remixes of these ones.)

But imagine if this had come out in 1989 – it would have been terrific! A pop album using the musical grammar of house – pianos, big-lunged divas, 4/4 beats – and mixing it up with synthpop riffs and Drummond’s fatalism.  “I could point my fingers at the same old wrongs / The ones that we all know / But all you’d hear is Mummy please / Please Mummy, look at me”

The Stadium House Trilogy: 1

When the KLF eventually became stars it was via their “Stadium House” trilogy of singles – “What Time Is Love?”, “3AM Eternal”, “Last Train To Transcentral” – and these are what they’re best remembered for now. All three are terrific: total pop, high-impact, hook-soaked spectacles, designed and unleashed as pure event. Here’s “What Time Is Love?”, the first of them.

In the context of 1990-1991 pop, these singles were both desperately needed and inevitable. The UK charts at this point were a battleground and the issue was the legitimacy of ‘dance music’ – house, techno, rave, and their (even then) brood of sub-genres. For its fans, this stuff was reinventing British pop culture – it was the most inventive, exciting, utopian thing to happen in their lifetime. For its detractors, dance music was destroying pop – the music was repetitive, content-free, faceless.

For Brit critics and media gatekeepers, dance music created a dilemma. This, clearly, was it, the Big One, the transformative “youth movement” a decade plus of mythologizing punk rock had left them trained and ready for. The ones who liked it fell into evangelical frenzy, some are still living off it now. But a lot of others felt alienated and left behind, and there was another problem, too. Dance music and the support structures of the UK pop establishment – the press, the charts, TV shows like Top Of The Pops – really weren’t adapting well to one another.

Dance fans – huge generalisation here – cared more about going out than about reading magazines, or dreaming about stars, or even buying records. But the rest of commercial pop was pitiably weak. For the 52 weeks of 1991, no fewer than 36 saw a film or TV tie-in top the UK charts. The best –  “The Shoop Shoop Song” – had a bit of gusto but that could hardly disguise a moribund music scene.

Club culture was the only interesting game in town but it was turning off as many as it seduced. So press and TV latched onto anything which promised to translate dance music into terms they could relate to – playing up singers’ star quality, getting excited about fusions with indie, jumping onto hot concepts like a dog on a sausage. The KLF were absolutely beneficiaries of this.

The Stadium House Trilogy: 2

This is an edited version of a longer piece on “3AM Eternal” from my ongoing blog, Popular.

I think Bill Drummond’s insight with the KLF at their (and his) mainstream zenith was something like this: if rave music is always the aftermath of a party that’s already happened, the ideal pop incarnation of rave music needs to be the aftermath of an entirely imaginary party, the greatest party that ever could happen.

So the Stadium House trilogy is all billed as “live” from some imaginary geographies (Trancentral, the Lost Continent… though “SSL”, the cryptic location of “3AM”, is rather prosaically a mixing desk). The group’s work is full of references to a private mythology. The robes and horns and cars looked great, the “ancients of Mu Mu” chants sounded great – the group dressed and acted like nobody else around.

In a way it was pure gimmick, just the Timelords again on an even bigger scale: but they gave the impression of enough going on in the background for deep cult appeal, and there was enough happening in the hits to cross over completely. Because, after all, none of it would have worked if the Stadium House material wasn’t instant pop, thrilling and energising even if you never paid attention to anything else the KLF did.

“3AM Eternal” is the rushiest, most exciting, most modern-sounding Number One since Adamski – but it’s also the weakest of the Stadium House hits for me. “What Time Is Love?” has even bigger hooks; “Last Train To Trancentral” is even more euphoric. What “3AM” does have is the amazing, machine-gun fire intro, and Wanda Dee floating pure and serene over the crowd noises and crunching breakbeats, and an oddly wistful, high synth line picking its way through the bombast and into your brain.

(BTW, I’m using videos a lot this week - there will be daily audio too but the KLF were a pretty visual bunch. If any bring up the dread ‘not available in your country’ I do apologise!)