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The People's Pyramid: Paul Duane On KLF Film 'Welcome To The Dark Ages'
Patrick Clarke , January 29th, 2021 10:25

A new documentary by Paul Duane chronicles the attempts of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, aka The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu, aka The KLF, to build an enormous pyramid in Liverpool

A brick of Mumufication, photo courtesy of Paul Duane

On August 23, 2017, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty ended the 23-year moratorium they had placed on their era-defining musical duo The KLF, aka The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu, to host a bizarre three-day event in Liverpool. Billed as Welcome To The Dark Ages, it began with the duo careening through the city in an ice cream van before launching an ultra-meta sci-fi novel called 2023 - 23, you’ll gather, is something of a significant number.

In the days that followed, 400 people who had bought tickets without knowing what to expect were each assigned ‘jobs’. Some were ordered to form a band called ‘Badger Kull’ who later performed a 23-second gig. Others were assigned to be Badger Kull super-fans – I know of one who had a tattoo done. Others were made to commandeer as many trolleys as they could from the supermarkets of Liverpool. The days that followed brought bizarre rituals and displays of devotion, as well as an in-depth debate between academics, writers and KLF fans in order to permanently establish just why the pair did burn £1,000,000 in their infamous 1994 performance art piece.

Eventually, it was revealed in a quasi-religious ceremony that the point of the event was to announce that Drummond and Cauty had opened up an undertaker’s business in partnership with Claire and Rupert Callender of Devon’s The Green Funeral Company, through which they plan to gradually build the 23-foot-high ‘People’s Pyramid’ in the Liverpool district of Toxteth, made out of bricks which will each contain 23 grams of a deceased person’s ashes.

Those who sign up and pay a £99 fee will receive a brick in which the ashes will be placed when they die. Every November 23 from thereon out is the Toxteth Day Of The Dead, on which those who have passed in the previous year will be placed into the pyramid. The whole process is known as 'Mumufication'. It will be long after everyone currently alive on earth has died that the pyramid will be completed. A hectic and, in the eyes of Merseyside Police, completely unauthorised parade through Liverpool followed, with The 400 dragging the ice cream van and the shopping trolleys to a funeral pyre on the docks, where two coffins representing Drummond and Cauty were burned.

The inaugural Toxteth Day Of The Dead, photo by Patrick Clarke

I, then a 23-year-old intern at tQ, was among ‘The 400’ as they came to be known, writing reports for the site and trying to make sense of what was going on. My role as assigned by The JAMs was to be a part of a security team led by long-time KLF associate Gimpo. Those three days have stuck with me in the time since. I’ve spent the last three and a half years trying to work out if the entire thing was far-reaching genius, a pretentious rip-off, pure provocation or possibly all three, and have failed to reach a conclusion.

Filmmaker Paul Duane, who had previously worked on the film Best Before Death about Drummond’s ongoing ‘World Tour’ for his show The 25 Paintings, was also a member of The 400. His assigned job was to be a part of a choir who would sing with Jarvis Cocker for a quasi-religious new version of ‘Justified And Ancient’ during the big reveal that The KLF had become undertakers. He had not gone there to make a film, but afterwards became fascinated by The People’s Pyramid, and began work on his new film, also called Welcome To The Dark Ages. The result is a documentary as strange and as provocative as the pyramid itself. We caught up over Zoom to discuss it at length.

tQ: Where did your relationship with Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s work begin?

Paul Duane: It goes back further than The JAMs. I was listening to the bands Bill Drummond was managing in the 80s, Echo And The Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, the Zoo Records stuff, where Bill provided an ongoing soap opera for the NME to write about. In [Drummond’s essay collection] 45, there’s a really beautiful long essay called From The Shores Of Lake Placid. It’s kind of a mea culpa where he says ‘I was treating the careers of these bands as if it was an art project.’ No band would be too thrilled to discover that the reason they were being sent to do a gig in some remote backwater is because Bill had decided it’s on an important ley line. I found it really fascinating and as a teenager he was a larger-than-life figure.

When he appeared with the music stuff, I browbeat a friend of mine into getting hold of a copy of the first JAMs album 1987 (What the Fuck Is Going On?) and it was unlistenable! When the whole rave thing came along it passed me by. The KLF didn’t make a huge impact on my life, I’ve got to say. It was the stuff around it, the conceptual art framework.

Jimmy Cauty in Welcome To The Dark Ages, photo courtesy of Paul Duane

When they announced they were returning after 23 years, what made you want to sign up to be a part of The 400 if you weren’t a huge fan?

By that time, I’d already been working with Bill Drummond for a few years [on Best Before Death]. We’d shot half of it, then he called me and said ‘I’m not going to do anything for the next year, except the end of the Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu hiatus.’ I thought ‘Fuck it, if I’m not going to be filming, maybe I’ll go to the event and see what happens, see if I learn something interesting.’ It was my first encounter with Jimmy.

Did you read the book, 2023?

I did, actually, they sent me a manuscript of it quite early on. I really liked it. It’s the most meta thing imaginable, a rewrite of The Illuminatus! Trilogy filtered through 1984, using a lot of Beatles references and references to Yoko Ono and her conceptual art book Grapefruit, yet also a rewrite of The JAMs’ own story but gender-swapped so everyone’s female. It’s a Jenga tower of meta-referential obsessive madness.

I seem to remember the press getting sent copies without words in them…

The narrative of them being manipulators of the media misses the point, that they’re really shit at manipulating the media! They really wanted the book to come out on 23 August, so as a result they couldn’t put out any advance copies.

Had Bill given you any indication of what to expect from Welcome To The Dark Ages?

All I knew was that he’d formed a company! The guys are extremely careful, it’s a need-to-know basis. I know an awful lot about what’s going on but then I’m totally taken by surprise by things like that, or by the recent reissue of their music.

We only found out that the point of those three days was that they’d formed a funeral company and were building a pyramid on the very last day, at that strange ritual at The Florrie where Jarvis performed the new version of ‘Justified And Ancient’ with a choir made up of members of The 400. Was that when you found out too?

I knew nothing because I was in the choir! We were standing in the fucking hall of the Florrie for about an hour and a half with Jarvis! Then there was the whole procession down to The Invisible Wind Factory where the pyre was lit. Then Bill realised that everybody who’d been in the choir hadn’t been told. There’s a clip in the documentary of Bill telling everybody in a minute and a half or less, the basics of what Mumufication and the People’s Pyramid were. ‘We’re undertakers now, we’re gonna build a pyramid, we send you a brick, then when you die you send it back to us with 23 grams of your ashes. Got it?’

You didn’t get the bells and whistles then…

We were the bells and whistles! I wouldn’t give up being a member of the choir for anything, it was really fun to be up there singing, and to be on the recording of the new version of ‘Justified And Ancient’…

So that new version was recorded?

In the documentary we mix it into a studio version which Bill and Jimmy kindly shared with us. Hopefully [the whole song] will turn up on one of their new releases because Jarvis did it brilliantly. There were other people that might have been there instead, but I’m not allowed to say who.

You didn’t go to Liverpool with the intention of making a film, though. When did it become clear you wanted to make Welcome To The Dark Ages?

I flew back to Dublin waiting for the papers to run with the story about how The KLF are now undertakers, and absolutely nothing happened! All the time I was working with Bill on Best Before Death and in the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if this led in some way to me being able to do something around the legacy and history of The KLF?’ At that stage I’d become fascinated by the band, the mystery and the grandeur of their strange five-year plan.

That lack of publicity for The People’s Pyramid gave me the ‘in’. I said, ‘Don’t you want to reach outside your little pool of 400 people? Let me make this film.’ They said OK reluctantly, even signed a little piece of paper, then as soon as I started making it decided they don’t want to be in it. That’s why we love Bill and Jimmy!

Bill Drummond, photo courtesy of Paul Duane

Has it had any effect in terms of getting the word out?

I sent it to a fellow film director, Peter Webber who made The Girl With The Pearl Earring, and he was so moved by it. Unfortunately, his brother died and is now in the next batch of people to be Mumufied. I sent him the film and he’s on board. The film does seem to work as a propaganda exercise, which is good! I think you can only do that kind of thing if you really believe in it.

[I followed up with Peter Webber, who says Duane's film "completely" persuaded him to sign his late brother up for Mumufication. "I thought it was rather wonderful, this bonkers idea of building a people’s pyramid in Toxteth. It was super intriguing and it really touched me. My brother had been a big fan of The KLF and by the time I’d finished watching the film I was moved emotionally by what they were doing. I was grappling with my own feelings of mortality and my grief at my brother’s sudden and unexpected death. I hadn’t had a chance to come to terms what had happened with my brother. I had repressed it, I had buried myself in work. Paul's film enabled me to reconnect with the loss of my brother and to do something ceremonial. This time last year my mother died, and I am tempted do to the same for her, and also to buy a brick for myself and my father so we can all be reunited in death in some small corner of Toxteth. I do have to discuss that with my father!"]

During the Welcome To The Dark Ages event, I snuck a friend in who wanted to know what was going on. We made him a wristband out of a tonic water label. He thought the whole thing was bollocks, that people had paid a great deal of money just to do Bill and Jimmy’s bidding. Is there a bit of you that wonders if we’re being taken for mugs?

The Welcome To The Dark Ages event was in some respects shambolic. People compared it to a college RAG week event, all those things are valid and true. I personally focused on the People’s Pyramid element of it, that was the part that fascinated me. It struck me as the most remarkable thing an ageing pop group could do. A lot of the things Bill and Jimmy do are incredibly funny. The idea of monetising their ageing fanbase by selling them a memorial of their own deaths is kind of hilarious. Their fans are all in their 50s now, so you’re thinking about death and the disposal of your remains. So building a pyramid and selling them a brick for £99 each that they will be memorialised in in the people’s pyramid, on one level is a hilarious ploy on an ageing fanbase.

But on another level, one of the things that illuminated it to me was when I was talking to Bill about something completely different. I sent him a text message and happened to include the line ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.’ He texted back and said, ‘How do you know I’m obsessed with that poem?’ I started thinking about that poem and about Ozymandias. I think part of the drive in Bill and Jimmy is to create something mythic that doesn’t have their names on it. It’s not a monument to The KLF, or to Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty. If you imagine it in 200 years time, nobody will know what it is, there’s not going be a sign on it. There’s something happening longitudinally throughout history and into the future that attracts them, rather than something that’s based on ephemeral things happening right now. So yeah, it’s bollocks, but it’s also not!

Claire Callender, Rupert Callender and Jimmy Cauty, photo courtesy of Paul Duane

Have you signed up for Mumufication?

I haven’t signed up for it. Are my friends organised enough to take care of this for me after my death? Does it mean I have to be cremated? You do have to think about these things! At the premiere, one member of the audience asked if he had an arm chopped off and incinerated would they accept that. Ru Callender said, ‘Yeah sure, certainly.’ So, you could theoretically be a living part of the pyramid too…

The film begins and ends with this striking image of the pyramid towering over a post-apocalyptic Liverpool, can you tell me more about the structure of the film?

At some point I figured out that the best way of structuring it was like Citizen Kane. I used the template. It’s a way of using a bunch of different people in an episodic manner, each of whom has a different slice of the story, and it builds up not into the complete story but it does give you a bigger picture you had than when you started. So, like in Citizen Kane, we start in a kind of dream world, we move into a newsreel section that’s patterned on TV journalism, then go into these different points of view about the JAMs. We don’t have a rosebud moment at the end, although when we were filming in Liverpool at the very first Toxteth Day Of The Dead I was standing beside Jimmy and I said to the cameraman, 'Well I guess we’re wrapped’ then Jimmy said ‘Oh, I wanna be in it now!’

He reveals that the ashes of his late brother are going to be in the pyramid, as well as a brick made from the ashes of the million pounds they burnt in 1994. It suddenly becomes incredibly personal…

I think the entire interview we shot is in the film, it’s only two and a half minutes long. It’s really crucial and it ties the whole thing together, that’s when you realise this isn’t just an abstract concept, it’s based on this feeling of kinship, that his brother’s death had to be commemorated in some way. The fact the whole pyramid evolved from Bill and Jimmy’s thoughts about mortality. Bill didn’t wanna speak, he said, ‘I’ll just build a coffin in the background.’ That’s why Jimmy keeps turning around and laughing.

Jarvis Cocker performs at the Rites of Mu in 2017, photo by Patrick Clarke

It looks like The KLF are making a return this year on the music front, having ‘un-deleted’ some of their tracks and uploaded them to streaming services. What do you think’s coming next?

I’m not privy to the information! I was sitting at home on New Year’s Eve in the early hours of the morning when I started getting messages from people saying, ‘Have you seen what’s happening with the KLF?’ I was replying saying, ‘Don’t be stupid, they’ll never put their music on Spotify’ and then the next morning they did! Did I tell you what they were originally planning to do with [their music] when I was working with them?

Please tell me now!

You see in the film that they have all their multi-track masters stored in a metal box in a field. They were going to put them all through a shredder, then mix them in with clay at the brickworks, bake them into bricks and sell them to fans as The Ultimate KLF Boxset. They were falling around the place, pissing themselves laughing as they were telling me, and I thought, ‘We’ll never see a remaster or a reissue.’ I’m not sure what thought process led to them actually reissuing the music but I’m glad they did. It’s good to see it out there.

Paul Duane's film Welcome To The Dark Ages is out now. You can purchase and rent it for online streaming here. You can follow Duane on Twitter here. You can sign up for Mumufication here and you can find out more about Claire and Rupert Callender's Green Funeral Company here