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Bonfire Of The Sanities: KLF - Chaos, Magic, Music, Money
Cay McDermott , February 3rd, 2013 06:22

Cay McDermott probes the occult underbelly of the KLF - one of music's most enigmatic and provocative acts - via JMR Higgs' recently released and all together different biography of the band

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Hunter S. Thompson was once famously quoted as saying, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” And when Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond - the duo who have been known, among other things, as the JAMS, the KLF and the K-Foundation - decided to burn a million quid on the Isle of Jura in 1994, the chaos coiled around the trajectory of their career wound itself even tighter.

To most people, this very expensive bonfire looked like nothing more than sheer wanton destruction. It was two ‘attention-seeking arseholes’, who had spent the majority of their career winding the music industry up, incinerating a vast amount of money; a life-changing amount of cash that could have gone to charity, art galleries, hospitals or schools. Jimmy and Bill themselves admitted they weren’t entirely sure why they’d done it. “I don’t know what it is, what we did. Some days I do. Bits of it”, Drummond is quoted as saying, “But I’ve never thought it was wrong.” Their inability (or unwillingness) to justify their actions culminated in them creating a very KLF-esque pact - they signed a contract (“on the windscreen of a G-reg Nissan” - the banal details are everything here) stating that they wouldn’t talk about the incident, before sealing the deal by pushing the car off a cliff into the Atlantic Ocean.

Of course, nothing ever quite worked out as the duo planned. While the most sympathetic of biographers might have written the infamous incident off as an extravagant publicity stunt, author, designer and TV producer JMR Higgs decided to take an alternative, somewhat more opaque, view. In KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money, he uses it as the departure point on a wild romp through the career of one of the most subversive musical acts of the past few decades. His argument is that burning a million quid wasn’t a political or artistic statement, rather an invocation of chaos - a magical act inspired by the edicts of Dadaism and Discordianism that kindled the modern world into being. As this should make evident, this is not your typical rock biography. If you’re looking for a torpid hagiography full of Q Magazine clippings, linear chronologies and glossy colour photos, then why are you a KLF fan?

If you’re thinking all this sounds entirely bizarre - and more than a little outlandish - for a music book, then you would be right. But this is a story born out of chaos, one that encourages the reader to enter the realm of ideas and question everything. Higgs’ skill lies in taking the story of the KLF (the facts of which most of the book’s target audience will probably already know) and using it to lead the reader down a number of mental rabbit holes, from Alan Moore’s concepts of magic and ‘ideaspace’ to rave culture and the lack of original ideas in modern music. Along the way, we’re introduced to a diverse cast of characters, including Ken Campbell, Carl Jung, Julian Cope and the Discordians - a group of puckish pranksters who specialise in fucking with people’s minds (including their own), writing bizarre letters to Playboy and hinting at involvement with the Kennedy assassination among other things.

But the main prism that the story is refracted through is the Illuminatus! trilogy, Robert Anton Wilson’s drug, sex and magic(k)-laden trek through the world of conspiracy theories (and the source of the name ‘Justified Ancients of Mu Mu’). Its mischievous influence empowers Cauty and Drummond to become high lords of discord, channeling forces that we’re never entirely sure they understand - or are even aware of. Over the course of their quest to royally fuck with late 20th century culture, they manage to save Doctor Who from the clutches of cultural obscurity, sell their souls to the devils of the music industry and make some really good pop records in the process. In fact, Higgs argues, if it wasn’t for the malevolent influence of the discredited pop svengali Jonathan King - a man who, in the early 90s, personified the music industry, they may still be making music today. Supposedly, when asked what he thought of the KLF’s performance at the Brit Awards with Extreme Noise Terror, where a machine gun-wielding Drummond sprayed the audience with blanks, King said that he “enjoyed it”.

Was Drummond and Cauty’s decision to burn a million quid on the Isle of Jura in 1994 influenced in some way by magic? That’s for you to decide. But, along the way you’ll find yourself drawn into what might well be the best music book of the 2010s so far, into a world where you are encouraged to ‘accept the contradictions’ and see where they lead you. Like the KLF themselves, KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money is eccentric, bizarre, confusing, hilarious and more than a little pretentious but utterly irresistible and totally brilliant.

KLF: Chaos, Magic, Music, Money is out now, published by The Big Hand

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Julian Bond
Feb 3, 2013 1:58pm

The question is not whether they burned a million quid, but what is our reaction to the idea that they might have.

I have listened to one insider claim that the stunt involved a certified Bank of England courier, a briefcase full of retired banknotes due to be pulped, and a signature on a document that legally witnessed their unorthodox destruction. No "money" was actually destroyed. There's enough truthiness in this that I've always thought it was a masterful piece of performance art rather than some chemically fuelled madness.

Clearly the myth has some legs and still resonates decades later.

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John Doran
Feb 3, 2013 5:03pm

In reply to Julian Bond:

Which insider? This is clearly... I mean, absolutely 100%... not true.

You only have to think about it. Why don't you phone up the Bank Of England yourself now and try it. Hello. I'm a pop manager turned pop star turned conceptual artist. Can I have £1million of money that's about to be taken out of circulation to burn hundreds of miles away in the remotest part of the British Isles on Jura? Maybe you could send the money up by one of your couriers for us even though it takes the best part of a week to do the round trip because of ferries.

Let us know how you get on. (One look at the video clearly shows that the money was crisp and new.)

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Julian Bond
Feb 3, 2013 6:59pm

In reply to John Doran:

Ah, well, perhaps then the only truth is that I did spend an afternoon in a pub with an Irishman who claimed to know Bill Drummond and told that story to me.

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Jonathan King
Feb 3, 2013 9:01pm

"Malevolent influence" indeed. Load of bollocks. Bill asked me to manage them. I declined despite loving them.

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steve57
Feb 3, 2013 10:07pm

@ John & Julian
Wait, what? There are KLF Truthers? MY GOD This Changes Everything.

Looking forward to getting hold of the book - I've always used it as a rule of thumb, if you think that 'The KLF Burn A Million Pounds' is stupid/crazy/wasteful/anything other than... 'Pretty Fucking Cool' then sure, whatever, you can think that, but your opinion on ANYTHING ELSE is always going to be suspect to me. Sorry.

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John Doran
Feb 4, 2013 12:51am

In reply to steve57:

What are you talking about?

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BenM
Feb 4, 2013 1:37am

The great thing about the KLF is that their story shows the astonishing power and reach of pop music.

Both Drummond and Cauty have laboured ever since as conceptual artists without ever capturing anything approaching the power of their work in the band.

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Chris
Feb 4, 2013 9:51am

Let's be honest, the music was always a bit shit.

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Stavros P. Leibowitz
Feb 4, 2013 10:44am

In reply to Chris:

Was it bollocks. It was fucking brilliant.

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Smirnov
Feb 4, 2013 11:05am

In reply to Chris:

Honestly... The music was ace. Honest.

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Arthur Elletson
Feb 4, 2013 6:11pm

In sure that the idea of burning a million quid has been though of by legions on first year art school students who think that it will show off their "artistic" personalities and will generate the attention that they mistakenly believe that they deserve. However anything less than a million is no good as nobody will give a shit, luckily no art student can come up with this kind of cash as they are preoccupied with pretending that they are pennyless and don't want to show off their trust fund to their other art school friend.

The KLF were the first two "conceptual" artists who could come up with the cash (real or not) in a legitimate mannor. The fact that none of their other "work" has come close to this act proves that they are not credible artists and that they should be dismissed as pedalers of bullshit.

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cod cod
Feb 5, 2013 12:15pm

In reply to Julian Bond:

I never believed they did- i agree i think they were retired bank notes but that's situationism for you. It pissed a lot of people off at the time.

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Dadda Dada
Feb 5, 2013 6:46pm

Very much looking forward to reading this. I disagree that burning a million quid is the only artistic success KLF achieved, but even if so, it does not refute its brilliance. Just because many people may have "thought of it" doesn't mean much at all, since with an act like "burning a million quid" it's really about having the temerity to execute the idea.

Just because they can't explain it entirely means nothing. The very notion of "a million quid" or dollars or anything is totemic in a modern capitalist society. It means power, success, the ability to make change for others, security, etc... any number of things. If the act were readily explicable that would diminish its power.

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Julian Bond
Feb 6, 2013 8:52am

In reply to steve57:

Apropos of nothing much, tickling the back of my memory was a paragraph in The Illuminatus Trilogy. And we know the KLF were big fans of Wilson and Shea's magnum opus. Pg 82.

===
"He's one of the best allies we have against the Illuminati," Dillinger said. "Besides, I want to exchange some hempscript for some of his flaxscript. Right now, the Mad Dog bunch won't accept anything but flaxscript —they think Nixon is really going to knock the bottom out of the hemp market. And you know what they do with Federal Reserve notes. Every time they get one, they burn it. Instant demurrage, they call it."
"Puerile," Simon pronounced. "It will take decades to undermine the Fed that way."
"Well," Dillinger said, "Those are the kinds of people we have to deal with. The JAMs can't do it all alone, you know."
===

And steve57 don't be hard on John, he was keeping me in line, not agreeing with me.

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