Tag Archives: reissues

Solid State Logik 1 – The KLF

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

Adrift in the musical multiverse – alternate versions, demos, outtakes, mixes

A perfect, definitive, best-of-all-worlds recording doesn’t exist. Not outside of the imaginations of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, at any rate.

Whatever direction a song is taken by a team of artists and producers during its production, different decisions could have been taken at every single step of the process, any one of which may have in some small way made for a better or worse end result. The crazy thing is how little we as listeners ever really think about that when we listen to our favourite songs.

Even music obsessives only really confront this when we’re listening to the alternate versions, different mixes and demo versions that fill up the second disc of two-CD special editions of classic albums. (And yes, I know you do. You wouldn’t be here otherwise, would you? It’s OK. You’re among friends.)

Let’s enter this hall of mirrors, this musical multiverse, where every decision that is taken could have gone another way and resulted in the world knowing an entirely different end product.

What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye (Detroit Mix)
One of the best tracks off one the best albums ever made. A masterpiece of a song and recording. Surely any competent presentation of it would have resulted in a killer record? And yet.

Listen to the “Detroit” mix of the title track, done in Gaye’s absence by Motown staff engineers at Hitsville USA, Detroit, available on 40th Anniversary “Super Deluxe” version of the album. It’s the same tracking as on the album mix we know and love, it’s still a great song, it’s still a very fine record. The mix is lucid and the key decisions – to place the two lead vocals in opposite channels to allow them to play revealed without the different phrasings stepping on each other, for example – are defensible. But play it against the LA mix that made it to the album and the song seems palpably diminished in its Detroit form.

It’s not just the approach to panning and the general topology of the mix that isn’t optimal here. The LA version is pristine, light and airy in a way the Detroit version just isn’t. The Detroit mix is compromised somehow. It just doesn’t soar. But no console has a “soar” fader  – it was flesh-and-blood people who made What’s Going On as we know and love it. People with good ears and fertile auditory imaginations, and possibly better consoles and equalisers. Hearing this, it’s immediately why Gaye felt more could be extracted from the masters and insisted the Detroit versions be canned.

Everybody’s Been Burned – David Crosby/The Byrds
Everybody’s Been Burned, Crosby’s first great song, had apparently been written as far back as 1962 in Crosby’s folk-club days (the year of the first Bond film, Dr No, so the song’s 007-theme chord sequence may have been a mere coincidence) and was demoed several times before it found its way on to a Byrds album (1967’s Younger than Yesterday – probably their best record).

The band’s recording of it, distinguished by bass playing by Chris Hillman of intuitive genius, is one of the best things they ever did, but having spent some time with this demo version, available on a compilation called Preflyte Plus, I’m basically convinced that this rough recording is the best version that exists, better even that that spine-tingling album take. Everything that would blossom in Crosby’s work is in here, and in a neat historical curlicue, this rough demo weirdly presages the version that would be cut 30 years later by the king of lo-fi acoustic balladry himself, Lou Barlow (on Sebadoh’s wonderfully titled Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock).

Son of Sam – Elliott Smith
Speaking of Barlow… Despite many similarites, and despite the fact that they knew each other and were friendly, Elliott Smith was not Lou Barlow. Barlow has released an absolute ton of material officially, and has given away even more on his website. If you want to hear the drum version of Puzzle from Emoh, Barlow’s cool with that. He made it available on his website. (It’s not got the arrangemental details of the Emoh version, but it’s very nice.)

Smith never did that. There have now been nearly as many Elliott Smith songs released after his death as there were when he was alive, but as for what permission he may have given for all this, who can say? Lawyers’ statements. Rumours. The truth resides in neither.

As a fan, though, much of what has been released since his death in 2003 (on From a Basement on the Hill, New Moon and now the soundtrack to documentary Heaven Adores You) seems to me to be weak: songs that tread the same ground as other, superior songs that we know he was satisfied enough to release, because they came out in his own lifetime. Why wasn’t High Times (also sometimes called Coma Kid) not released on Elliott Smith? Probably because Needle in the Hay used the same 8th-note downstroke strumming, and was much better. Would Smith have wanted us to hear this recording of High Times, given that he didn’t see fit to use it on the album? Depends who your source is.

So listening to this stuff is a morally complicated matter, and an often unsatisfying experience musically, except in an academic sense (hearing the unused stuff does, it can’t be denied, sharpen your appreciation of the work that made the cut). Sometimes, though, a true gem appears, which only makes things worse from an ethical point of view as a fan, as I genuinely have no idea whether Smith would have been cool with people hearing this stuff.

Much of the pre-release buzz about the soundtrack to Heaven Adores You was about it being the first time the song True Love would be appearing on an official release. But True Love really isn’t all that much of anything. Far more intriguing is the acoustic version (it sounds a bit too considered to called a demo) of Son of Sam. Smith’s guitar playing is especially impressive. I’m not sure whether he’s in standard tuning or not, but the inversions and droney voicings he uses for many of the chords make the song sound very different from the way it does on Figure 8. It’s Son of Sam as Smith might have recorded it if it had been written in 1994 or 1995. It’s fascinating to hear a song that became a pretty big production rendered in the simplest way possible, and being equally effective as it was in its studio incarnation.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps – The Beatles
The phenomenon of emptying the vaults in the name of revenue generation began in earnest with the Beatles’ Anthology project.

There were three double-CD Anthology releases, and they were a mixed bag indeed. Much of what was included was banal in the extreme: an alternate take of Kansas City-Hey Hey Hey Hey where the only difference is that the band hadn’t warmed up yet? Hmm, could have lived without that one. But the glimpse into the evolution of, say, Strawberry Fields Forever was stunning. As you listen to John Lennon strumming the chorus hesitantly on a guitar in his house, you realise just what kind of work it took to turn that half-formed thing into Strawberry Fields as we know it; hundreds of hours of combined effort by the band members, the producer and the engineering staff, making one inspired contribution after another, doing things with tape editing that defy belief.

For many fans, though, the greatest treat of all was hearing George Harrison’s demo of While My Guitar Gentle Weeps, with a simple acompaniment of acoustic guitar and harmonium. Taken at a faster pace than the album cut and in a lower key, allowing Harrison to sing higher, it’s a much lighter experience than the White Album cut, which is slower and squarer, and weighed down further by its overly literal lead guitar work by a guesting Eric Clapton. Yes, Eric, we get it. Your guitar is weeping, now kindly be quiet.

If you want to hear how it should be done, click on this, wait three and half minutes and let Prince melt your face. RIP, little dude.

prince-hall-of-fame

Only one image I could post really. Prince, in face-melting form at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2004