The rhymes and reasons of how, after becoming the biggest band in the world, The KLF swiftly vanished
As a Brit, growing up in the 80s, I was well aware of The KLF. The sounds and sights of this eclectic duo on Top of the Pops, the headlines in the papers, and ‘some’ of the controversy that swirled around them. A disruptive presence that I equated with something akin to The Sex Pistols, but later found to be something far more distinct. Many stateside might be unfamiliar with the duo. Comprised of Bill Drummond and guitarist Jimmy Cauty, they dominated the charts from 1987 to 1992 as the biggest electronic music act in the world with tracks such as Last Train to Trancentral, 3 A.M. Eternals, and Justified & Ancient. At the height of their powers, The KLF pulled their records, deleted their entire catalogue, and after a subsequent year making waves in the British arts establishment, disappeared in a puff of smoke. Literally. One created by their burning of a million pounds in a Scottish cabin.
After taking on tabloid journalism with his 2009 documentary Starsuckers, director Chris Atkins began his dive into the rhymes and reasons of how The KLF rose to such heights and set in motion their own demise. The pair being notoriously button-lipped about the whole endeavor made things difficult, but a series of recordings became available (in the Q&A, Atkins wasn’t exactly forthcoming about the source of the tapes nor the identity of the interviewer) of the pair engaged in a rather frank conversation about their lives and careers. The documentary uses the audio from these tapes, interviews with journalists, friends, and other witnesses (some having waited for years to be asked about what they saw), to tell this story. Brought to life with archival footage, animations, and live reenactments, Atkins does sterling work to outline what drove The KLF, in terms of their music, their madness, and their enduring mystique.
The film largely unfolds in a largely linear manner. Beginning with the punk scene in 70s Liverpool, and how after hopping around a number of bands, Drummond and Cauty met and felt a kinship with each other. Over the years we’re introduced to the various guises they adopted in their time as they evolved their approach, or changed the target of their ire. As The Timelords, to the JAMS aka the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, the K-Foundation, but predominantly The KLF. Something they claimed to stand for Kings of the Low Frequencies, King Lucifer Forever, Kopyright Liberation Front, or something else, depending on when you asked.
From a musical point of view, their beginnings were in sampling existing musical tracks, reworking them, mashing them up with others. A common concept now, but something relatively unheard of back then. This progressed into kickstarting the British rave scene. Warehouse concerts fueled by loudspeakers, lightshows, and ecstasy, followed by hit record after hit record, at home and beyond the borders of the UK. What added to their impact were political statements and stunts that feel closer to artistic installations or satirical comedy. Mirrors of their temperament than their musical output. Building crop circles, weird pagan rituals, writing a manual on how to get a #1 record (which totally worked), plunging journalists into a Pagan ceremony, pissing off ABBA, collaborating with country star Tammy Wynette, writing a contract to the public on a car and pushing it off a cliff, and much much more. All added to their impact and aura.
This disruptive element gets appropriate focus in the film. It’s fundamentally the reason The KLF existed, and the reason it ceased to as well. Working on a stage production in Liverpool in the 70s, Drummond encountered a trilogy of books called The Illuminatus! Rooted in Discordianism, essentially a treatise on chaos, order, and all manner of conspiracy theories. Tomes that seemed to spark something in Drummond to sow disorder as best he can. The books are also the source of many of the more baffling names and lyrics put out by the group over the years. The 80s/90s were a time of wealth, consumerism, and mass production. Musically, this was the era of Stock, Aitken, and Waterman. A trio of producers that were nicknamed the “Hit Factory”, for their conveyor belt of chart-topping songs and musical talent. The KLF served as a rebuke to this system, to the control and homogeneity that pervaded culture. They did it their way, with no PR firms, managers, or record labels. A lack of anyone to reign them in also set them on a course to plateau out in some ways, and reach a breaking point in terms of palatability. The aforementioned burning of a million pounds not sitting well with a working-class audience still struggling after the Thatcher years. Immense popularity also entwined them with the industry they so wanted to keep a distance from, something the duo found incredibly distasteful.
The documentary certainly answers the question “who killed the KLF?”, but leaves some things unanswered or unexplored. Being tied to the tapes does limit some of the content, the much vaunted and never released album The Black Room isn’t even mentioned. Crummond and Cauty’s claims to not always have a reason for the things they did might also frustrate some looking for more reason. But, Who Killed the KLF? is certainly a resounding success in reinvigorating their mystique. It will undoubtedly bring new fans into the fold, while reminding existing ones as to why they continue to hold such reverence for them. Small wonder given our current state of affairs, mired in a turgid time of reality TV driven music, social media stars, and mass produced entertainment. We’d all be enriched by another resurrection of the KLF.