Justified & Ancient Seems A Long Time Ago: The JAMs In Liverpool

Is music just a lifestyle soundtrack? Does life require chaos? Why is Jarvis Cocker here? Novelist Adelle Stripe visits Liverpool to witness the return of the KLF

I could write a review of this weekend’s events in a conventional sense. What happened, in which order, who was involved. Or the significance of the symbols and signs. The occultist roots. Mysticism and allegory. The chaos and the waiting around. The big bonfire of coffins, the ice cream van or the enchanting hardback edition of 2023, a book which will take its place alongside Pikhal and The Illuminatus! Trilogy on the shelves of bedsit psychonauts the world over.

This review could tell you about Bill Drummond’s soup kitchen, his threat to paint Henry Moore’s Reclining Woman a shade of green, his failed shoe-shine experiment on Beverley Road, and how he has a warehouse full of unwanted books that he’s planning to tip off the Humber Bridge one day. Maybe you want to hear about The Foundry, his Old Street bar which resembled a cyber-punk squat more in keeping with Bradford’s 1-in-12 that housed a tank of live grasshoppers and Gimpo’s cellar – a dungeon of vile videos, a revolving dancefloor and experimental art. Perhaps you’ve read Bad Wisdom, Drummond’s novel with Zodiac Mindwarp about two Zenarctic pilgrims sacrificing an icon of Elvis at the North Pole. Or his back catalogue of polemics, which contains some of the finest music writing ever committed to paper. (If you haven’t, then find a copy of 17. This is a man who clearly understands pop music and all of its silliness to a level which most of us mere mortals will never reach. Apart from Julian Cope, that is.)

But of course, you can find out about this stuff elsewhere.

What is clear right now, after a weekend of following the pied piper of pop, is that Drummond is a shrewd operator. Perhaps one of the finest ad-men that has never worked in advertising. The imagery and message of his output – be it in musical, literary or visual form – has the power to convince. Even if there’s often little behind the thrill of the concept, his words instigate action. In his hands, belief is a tool.

His KLF partner, Jimmy Cauty, first found success by designing a Tolkien Athena poster. This was way before the music. But it is to this point we must return. The key to the KLF’s power is in its use of imagery. Liverpool was flooded with it this weekend. Pyramids, skulls and ghetto blasters. K2 Plant Hire in canary and black. All expertly printed by L-13. The merchandise stall at Dead Perch Lounge (the hub for this weekend’s events) sold each item for £20.23. Mugs and T-shirts and posters. Even more interesting was the lack of music. Drummond and Cauty deleted the KLF back catalogue years ago, thus preserving its mystique.

Perhaps the KLF are right after all in suggesting that music is a redundant artform. The internet killed it, you see, and only the thrill of live performance has any genuine value now. When Napster first arrived, Drummond thought “it was the best thing that had happened to music in 100 years. Who would pay for CDs when you could get it all for free?” The digital age would put an end to the gluttony of concept albums, but the result in 2017 – any song ever recorded available at your fingertips for nothing – makes you wonder if the magic has been lost somewhere along the way. Youtube is the accelerator. Music becomes too popular far too quickly and is immediately discarded. The listener is impatient. There is too much choice. This idea, that there is no effort in 21st-century music, that it’s just a disposable lifestyle soundtrack, again leads us towards Drummond’s theory. Only the live experience has worth.

Which makes it even more curious that the KLF have decided to return. If we followed their advice, we’d be smashing up copies of Chill Out with a hammer and refusing point blank to visit this revival in Liverpool. As a paid-up member of the grumpy old cow club, I couldn’t quite bring myself to follow the instructions to volunteers set out by the KLF. In many ways it was an exercise in how to create a religious cult, something which I have an aversion to. 400 people bought tickets for £100 and ‘volunteered’ (translation: ‘worked’) for the KLF for four days. No bad thing for devotees of the band, and now each one will be immortalised in the back of the paperback edition of 2023.

At The Florrie in Toxteth faces were painted with Los Dias De Los Muertos masks, all black eye-sockets and white pancake. Some wore original T-shirts, proving their allegiance to all things Mu, or fusty hot-rocked versions of Samantha Fox, Jamie Reid’s Queen, or Hawkwind. Even Jeremy Deller was there, wearing a William Morris Says Don’t Relax T-shirt. The assorted volunteers were given shopping trolleys of ragwort (a weed fatal to livestock and malevolent at this time of year) to push through the streets, and the ice cream van would be pulled on large ropes with the procession, heading north to the Invisible Wind Factory. We were led upstairs to a concert hall with a lectern and projections, and a smoke machine belched out dry ice, which in turn set off the fire alarms. I took this as a cue, after three hours of waiting around, to walk out of the building and jump on the first bus which arrived. Randomness was far more interesting than instructions. By buggering off I missed Jarvis Cocker doing a turn with the Justified Ancients of Liber Null, where a robed choir sang from the steps behind him. Apparently Haitian Loa were invoked and the congregation sang from a hymn sheet. But what happened afterwards confirmed why I was right to leave when the smoke began to rise.

I stood at the bus stop and waited. There was no plan other than to ignore the KLF’s plan. I paid a fare to take me into the city. The bus moved forward and three young stoners stumbled across the road. One stepped right out in front the bus and the bus hit him. The driver slammed on his brakes. And then the lad stood up from the road, wobbled, and punched the bonnet of the bus with superhuman strength. "He’s got a death wish, that one," said the woman behind me. She told me he meant to do it. "Why would anyone do that?" I asked. "Because he causes chaos if it doesn’t exist. Some people do, don’t they? A few weeks ago him and his mates attacked a man with a machete." I looked at the scrawny lad with long hair, who looked like he needed a good wash and decent meal. The sort of lad who’d smoked too much but was harmless. "What, him?" I said. The woman laughed. "The kids nowadays are wrong in the head, he got stabbed in the neck you know, and survived. So now he thinks he’s cock of the north."

The streets of Toxteth flashed by, I ate a handful of pistachios and a couple of painkillers to numb the ache in my spine, which had dogged me for the past week, and floated down to Tate Liverpool for an exhibition of Otto Dix’s war etchings. Where skulls crawling with maggots, horse skeletons and ghoulish faces from the Battle of the Somme adorned the walls. One showed a soldier raping a nun. Others were patterns of shell craters from Dix’s memories of fighting in the trenches. Another image, ‘Sex Murder’ showed the violent aftermath of a crime of passion, a woman splayed on a bloody bed as two dogs fucked in the foreground. The real, pulsating, bleeding mess of Weimar Germany and the grotesque imagination of its leading degenerate. Fuck, yeah. It was as though a storm had blown through my innards. This was proper art. The good stuff.

I re-joined the KLF as the sun began to set across the Mersey. We basked in its splendour, a burning giant orange globe, the likes of which we rarely see in Yorkshire. It reflected on Albert Dock as crowds wearing yellow ponchos and bearing flags cantered along the pavements. A police van followed and the crowds spilled out onto the road, much to the chagrin of local drivers. Onwards we marched, with fire torches and exquisitely crafted Deller-esque banners, to a bonfire where a ritual was performed at dusk as a bagpipe player led Drummond and Cauty towards two coffins. They wore ivory helmets and took decisive steps as if there might be some sort of styled sacrificial Lord Summerisle event. The fire was lit, it blazed and raged and a collie ran loose through the scrubland, its coat glowing with embers.

Pete Wylie had been working with Badger Kull for the evening’s show, a band of four bassists (all volunteers) who rehearsed a three-minute set for midnight at the Invisible Wind Factory. The pinnacle of the entire weekend was the DJ playing ‘Light My Fire’ before Badger Kull took to the stage. The Doors were another band who knew the power of their own myth, a skill that Morrison harnessed to great effect. Yet the KLF have never bettered ‘Light My Fire’. I sincerely believe that the most important part of any live performance is in those few moments of anticipation, the silent seconds before it kicks in. The Psychedelic Sinatra led us into five minutes of rumble-thrash and a strobe machine silhouetted the shapes of four badger-masked bassists. They repeated "Toxteth Day Of The Dead" over the mics and at that point I ran off howling into the night.

So what did I learn? That ignoring instructions leads you to a far better place. That the KLF are an exercise in design, propaganda and dogma, from which many younger bands could learn a thing or two. That the art of suggestion is an underrated skill. That many people thoroughly enjoy being told what to do. Even if it means paying £99 to have their ashes turned into a brick and built into a pyramid which may never see the light of day. That maybe Drummond and Cauty are having the last laugh after all. And actually that their music is irrelevant. It’s the myth that counts. And maybe, just maybe, by happily indulging them we are all complicit in the joke.

Adelle Stripe is the author of Black Teeth And A Brilliant Smile. 2023 by The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu is now available on Faber. Otto Dix: The Evil Eye is part of Tate Liverpool’s Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-1933. It closes on 15 October.

For our day-by-day reports from The JAMs in Liverpool, click here.

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