What The KLF Burning A Million Quid Means In 2017

Ahead of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty's plans to do what ever they're planning to do in Liverpool later this month, Phil Harrison looks back to their infamous money burning incident and argues it has a lot to say about the times we live in now

“We all have issues with our dads”. That was Bill Drummond’s hilariously precise and perfunctory dismissal of Joe Corre’s rather theatrical 2016 burning of a pile of apparently valuable punk memorabilia that he’d inherited from his father Malcolm McLaren. Putting aside the fact that these weren’t, strictly speaking, his creations to destroy, the essential problem with Corre’s burning was that it was all rather too neat. He claimed to know exactly why he was doing it but his explanation (some trite, clichéd platitudes about punk nostalgia representing ‘conformity in another uniform’) simply suggested that he’d never truly understood punk in the first place.  

On August 23 1994, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty – trading under the name The K Foundation – burned a million pounds in cash. In contrast to Corre’s oedipal temper tantrum, this still feels like one of the most striking and extreme artistic statements of the last 50 years. Crucially, in contrast to Corre, The K Foundation never really claimed to know why they’d burned the money – indeed, a year later, they went on a somewhat self-flagellatory tour of the UK in the hope of uncovering their own motives, during which they screened their film Watch The K Foundation Burn A Million Quid and went on telly a few times – where they received a bewildered and occasionally hostile reception from people who couldn’t understand why they hadn’t either given the cash to charity or spent it on drugs and hookers like proper rock stars. They then retired the name and resolved not to return to the subject for 23 years.

The full story of the events surrounding the burning and much, much more can be found in John Higgs’s magnificent 2013 book The KLF: Chaos, Magic and The Band Who Burned A Million Pounds. But Drummond and Cauty have been as good as their word; 23 years have now passed and right on cue, the K Foundation will be re-entering the cultural fray at exactly 12.23am on August 23 2017. What form the Liverpool: Welcome To The Dark Ages event will take is predictably, anyone’s guess. But it’s probably safe to say that half-assed run-throughs of ‘What Time Is Love?’ and ‘3am Eternal’ won’t be on the agenda. It’s testimony to the fascination the pair continue to elicit that anything so straightforward would be a huge disappointment. Their early 90s dalliance with pop stardom doesn’t feel like a career as much as the priming of a series of philosophical depth charges. Accordingly, the memory of the 1994 money-burning has bubbled away insistently underneath the events of the past two decades, feeling simultaneously like a reproach, a beacon and a promise. But why does this act retain such potency? And what does it mean in 2017?

There are still a few people who cast doubt on the idea that the burning actually happened. This, in itself, is extraordinary. If we assume that it did, how remarkable to leave even the slightest room for doubt. Wouldn’t most burners of a million quid – like, for example, Joe Corre – be summoning the world’s TV cameras, inviting several busloads of journalists to the party and generally shouting it from the rooftops?

But this ambiguity – and the fact that it was so sparsely witnessed – is an essential part of the act’s power, confirming it to be, at heart, a gesture borne out of personal confusion as much as public exhibitionism; entirely at odds with the always wrongheaded notion of the KLF as master media manipulators.

The film of the event has a beautifully dingy and blurred quality, lending itself to enigma and speculation. And this is a common thread running through subsequent years. The KLF – or someone close to them – seem to guard their legacy extremely carefully. Their 1992 Brit Awards appearance with Extreme Noise Terror is regularly removed from streaming sites. And only last year, a wonderful little clip of the pair DJ-ing at an outdoor rave in the late 80s (during which they showered the crowd with pound notes!) appeared on, and then promptly disappeared from YouTube. It’s as if they’ve reacted to our current era of infinite cultural profusion by withdrawing their consent, rendering themselves samizdat.

This self-policed scarcity adds to the sense that theirs is a career that has gathered weight over time. But it couldn’t have been much more at odds with the era whose birth pangs coincided with the burning. The money burn was, both temporally and figuratively, the filling in the sandwich of two pivotal cultural events; the suicide of Kurt Cobain and the disappearance of Richey Edwards. These two anguished icons were, in a sense, throwbacks. Both seemed too sensitive for the roles they’d created for themselves; both found the contradiction and compromise in the success they yearned for, achieved and then hated was too much to bear. It’s not a phrase that has been heard much since but the notion of ‘selling out’ still had a certain currency in 1994.  

As the KLF/K Foundation ceased trading, Cobain and Edwards (and indeed, the notion of rock stars like Cobain and Edwards) were replaced by purveyors of larky homage and pastiche. However you feel about Britpop, it’s hard to argue that it was anything other than emotionally and politically detached. If Oasis had burned a million pounds, it would simply have been in order to prove that they could afford to do so.

Elsewhere, the young British Artists of the era – several of whom had been goaded by the K Foundation Art Award at the end of 1993 – were demonstrating a distinctly entrepreneurial edge which indicated that they weren’t remotely uncomfortable with the notion of harvesting cash from chaos.

These currents found a perfect political representation in 1997 when Tony Blair won his first landslide General Election victory. Nominally Labour but essentially post-ideological, Blair presided over a period which saw the consolidation of capitalist realism, the thorough marketisation of ‘subversive’ pop culture and the birth of the everything-all-at-once, on-demand paradigm of music, culture and consumption which we inhabit to this day. Money has, during this period, become our collective raison d’etre, even perhaps our god, to an extent that feels entirely new. Perhaps, In that context, the only truly subversive gesture is withdrawal, refusal, even self-sacrifice.

And this is where, once again, we find Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty. The money burning is of a piece with their repeated urge to offer up something of themselves. The KLF famously deleted their back catalogue when they ceased operations – a decision which may eventually have cost them more money than the small conflagration on the Isle Of Jura. Then there was the suggestion that Bill Drummond might sever his hand and hurl it into the audience at the 1992 Brit Awards, thus ‘claiming’ the music industry just as – according to one version of the Red Hand of Ulster myth – the first King claimed the land of Ireland. This sense of sacrifice has considerable moral weight but it’s had an aesthetic effect too. Now, it feels like the occult power we attribute to money has conferred itself upon Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty. In terms of the various agents of cultural subversion who arose loosely from the punk era, they are pretty much the last men meaningfully standing.        

Which brings us to the present. The 23rd anniversary of The K Foundation’s money-burning is, of course, happening at an incredibly febrile moment in world history; at a time when many people are wondering whether art, music and culture has anything to say about the extraordinary times. And now it feels like rather than burning that money, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty actually did invest it after all. The aesthetic value of the piece of art they created has, like the interest on an astutely-placed million, compounded over time.

All artworks cost a certain amount of money to make – and clearly, this one cost more than most. They then generate profit – whether financial or reputational – for a closed loop of people. However, by burning their money, Drummond and Cauty were effectively sharing it. According to the standard process of retail transaction, the money was ours as customers, before becoming theirs as successful artists. But suddenly, via the pair’s remarkable act of communion; their uncompromising rejection of the arbitrary values with which the market codifies and reduces art, we all had a stake. By sacrificing that million, they effectively gave it to everyone from that day forward, who despaired at money’s monstrous, bullying power. And in the process, they created an infinite, galvanising resource; something from which we could all draw strength when we felt the need. It’s a gesture that will only lose its power when the social and economic conditions which made it such a transgressive, aberrant act disappear too. Viewed from that perspective, not only was the burning a mythical act, it was also an extremely generous and even rather moving one.

Much of the best art has the quality of a thought experiment. What would happen if I created these characters? If I removed or imposed these boundaries? If I made this argument? If I used this sound, this word, this idea? If I destroyed this sacred cow? What would happen if I burned this money? Questions like these imply confrontation rather than consensus and over the past two decades, much creative activity has, in its more mainstream incarnations at least, drifted away from this purpose. It has ceased to force its followers into picking sides and accordingly, make a firm statement about themselves in relation to society. But this divisive quality is crucial and now, we need it back. If anything good can be said to have come out of the last few wretched socio-political years, it’s surely the death of knee-jerk irony as a cultural default setting. At the moment, nobody can really distance themselves like that without simply looking a bit stupid. The times are suddenly too serious to pass without response.

When the K Foundation destroyed a million quid they created something else; an idea whose worth would only become clear over time. Great art has a long life span and the K Foundation’s money burn may prove to have a longer span than most. It’s still sufficiently daring and extreme and visionary to enrage as many people as it thrills and this is the root of its compounded value. It’s a negation but it’s an affirmation too – of the very notion of art having an innate, exploratory value beyond the creation of wealth and status. However personal its motivations, it remains very public; emblematic of two artists wrestling desperately with the absolute, fundamental purpose of what they’re trying to do. Their personal confusion was rendered universal and if that isn’t a hallmark of great art, it’s hard to say what is. By returning to it in 2017, Drummond and Cauty are making it clear that it remains an itch that they, and we, still need to scratch. And, more than ever before, they’re right. Whatever their reasons for doing it in 1994 and however they respond to it 23 years on, the K Foundation’s money burning still feels like the beginning of a conversation that hasn’t finished yet.

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