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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

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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