At least one good thing has already happened in 2021: the KLF have released Solid State Logik 1, which brings together their commercially best-known singles as the KLF, the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu and, of course, the Timelords, to streaming sites.
For the uninitiated, the KLF may be pop’s greatest-ever pranksters and provocateurs. In the late 1970s, Bill Drummond was a fixture in the Liverpool punk scene, playing guitar in the band Big in Japan. A pretty short-lived group with only a single, an EP and various compilation appearances to their name, Big in Japan are nonetheless legendary for the people who passed through their ranks. As well as Drummond, that includes Jayne Casey (Pink Military/Pink Industry), Ian Broudie (Lightning Seeds), Budgie (Siouxsie and the Banshees), Holly Johnson (Frankie Goes to Hollywood), David Balfe (the Teardrop Explodes) and Clive Langer (notable producer of Elvis Costello, Madness and others). Drummond later worked in A&R and as manager of the Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen.
In 1982, he began managing an ambitious new band called Brilliant. Formed by former Killing Joke bassist Youth, the group were savaged by the British music press and failed to make much of a splash commercially. However, it was through Drummond’s involvement with Brilliant that he began working with the group’s guitarist, Jimmy Cauty.
After Brilliant’s demise, Drummond and Cauty started making sample-heavy, hip-hop-influenced records in a South London squat under the name the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (the JAMs), scoring an underground hit with the Beatles-sampling All You Need is Love. They had the audacity to marry their Beatles lift with Samantha Fox samples and children singing Ring a Ring o’ Roses, with Drummond yelling in a hoarse Scottish accent about the ravages of AIDS. “Subversive” doesn’t really begin to cover it. Plus, of course, there were all the allusions to the Illuminatus! Trilogy – the duo’s name being only the most obvious.
Drummond and Cauty followed it with two more epochal singles. Whitney Joins the JAMs repeated the All You Need is Love formula, this time fusing the chorus of I Wanna Dance With Somebody with samples from Mission: Impossible, over which Drummond beseeched Houston to save popular music by hooking up with the JAMs. His repeated bellows of “Whitney! Whitney!” are among the most joyous sounds in popular music.
The other landmark record was of course Doctorin’ the Tardis, which Drummond and Cauty released under the name the Timelords. A mash-up avant la lettre, which sutured together the Doctor Who theme, Gary Glitter’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Part II and the Sweet’s Block Buster, it reached number one in the UK, and was followed by The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way), a book in which the pair sort-of revealed how they did it. “Sort-of” because it’s wise never to take anything Drummond and Cauty say in public entirely at face value. They’ve always been in love with the power of self-mythology, and seldom let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Doctorin’ the Tardis is a record whose joke may only bear only a few repeats, but it rightly begins Solid State Logik 1, as it was the base from which the duo launched the KLF, their most famous guise.
The KLF was initially a vehicle for sample- and rap-free pure dance music, reflecting the acid house movement of the late 1980s. Along the way, though, the pair acquired pop ambitions for their experiments in dance music. 3am Eternal, Last Train to Trancentral and What Time is Love were all duly issued in their “stadium house” incarnations, with rap verses by Ricardo da Force, sampled crowd noises, an increasing refinement of and concentration on their instrumental hooks and a panoply of vocal chants (“Justified!”, “Mu Mu”, etc.) drawn from their previous records as the JAMs. They promoted the singles in videos and on Top of the Pops dressed in hooded robes, King Boy D (Drummond) and Rockman Rock (Jimmy Cauty) reborn as high priests of an Illuminatus cult.
The stadium house trilogy, plus America: What Time is Love, It’s Grim Up North (released under the revived Justified Ancients of Mu Mu sobriquet) and Justified and Ancient, with its lead vocal by a perplexed but up-for-it Tammy Wynette, is the early 1990s’ best run of pop singles in any genre, in any country, no questions, no arguments, no exceptions. On one level, they’re pop music as pure event and spectacle – one put together on a shoestring (that train set in the video for Last Train to Trancentral!) – but they were put togther by people with an evident love of euphoric pop and a wide frame of reference, so they absolutely work simply as pop music, without the visuals. Drummond and Cauty never condescended to their audience, they never sniggered at the music they played or at anyone who liked it, which is how they managed to combine their roles as pranksters and pop stars without ever acting like they were in any way above it all.
In May 1992, a few months after an appearance at the BRIT Awards during which the band played a hardcore punk version of 3am Eternal with Extreme Noise Terror, Drummond fired blanks into the audience, and the band dumped a dead sheep at the after-party (with the message “I died for ewe”), Drummond and Cauty retired from music and deleted their catalogue. They then burned a million quid in royalties on the Scottish island of Jura. Since then, hearing their music on anything other than YouTube has been somewhat tricky, or at least expensive.
My sincere recommendation, then, is that you enjoy Solid State Logik 1 while you can – there are no physical releases, and you can’t buy the tracks from iTunes. The KLF could pull their music down any day, and they just might. Solid State Logik 1 is only a sampler of their work (it contains no Pure Trance mixes of the stadium house trilogy, no B-sides like the sombre, anti-war America No More, and no Whitney Joins the JAMs or All You Need is Love – sample clearance may preclude the latter two getting a new official release), but further volumes are promised, so we await with interest.
The Rites of Mu on the Isle of Mu (oh fine, the Isle of Jura), midsummer solstice, 1991