negotiations had broken down following their plans to fill a stage with angels and Zulus and arrive on the back of elephants.
With hindsight, it was Jonathan King that killed the KLF. His fatal blow was an innocent-sounding comment. His words may not have split the group immediately, because Cauty and Drummond had too much momentum to stop straight away. But it was only a matter of time, as the implications of what he had said could not be ignored for long. The KLF staggered on for another three months, too stunned to realize that they were already dead.
It was February 1992 and the KLF had just won the ‘Best Band’ award at the Brit Awards. Jonathan King was the producer of the awards show, and he had been asked what he thought of the KLF’s live performance at the show. “I enjoyed it”, he said.
He enjoyed it. There was nothing else for it. It had to end.
King is a music producer, TV presenter and a recording artist who has sold over 40 million records under various pseudonyms, most of them novelty singles. As he busied himself backstage at the Hammersmith Odeon organizing the 1992 Brits Awards, he was forty eight years old and dressed in a garish shell suit and a baseball cap with ‘KING’ stamped in metal across the front. In the coming decade he was named ‘Man of the Year’ by the BPI, praised by Tony Blair and convicted of multiple sexual offences on underage boys, so in many ways Jonathan King could be said to personify the music industry. King’s acceptance had, on a symbolic level, signified the music industry claiming Drummond and Cauty for itself.
Drummond and Cauty’s problem with the music industry wasn’t the usual adolescent anti-authoritarian posturing that is so common among musicians. It was the result of bitter experience. By that point Cauty and Drummond had twenty-five years’ experience in the industry between them, from running record labels to producing, working in A&R, being in unsuccessful bands and being pop stars. They knew what the music industry did to people, and they also knew what it had done to them. But by then they also knew how much they had been formed by it. It had shaped their lives and left them feeling corrupted, but it was also an integral part of who they were.
It’s still surprising that they were asked to provide the opening performance for that year’s Brit Awards show. They had been asked to appear the previous year, but negotiations had broken down following their plans to fill a stage with angels and Zulus and arrive on the back of elephants. The deal breaker, with hindsight, was probably their plan to chain-saw the legs off one of the elephants. The elephant, they said, represented the music industry. The organizers understandably walked away at this point, but they should have realized then that they were not dealing with stable individuals.
They had huge butchers knives ready, and planned to throw hunks of carcass into the audience. It was intended to be an act so appalling that they would never have been forgiven for it.
Cauty and Drummond were never going to stand on stage and entertain an audience of music industry insiders with one of their crowd-pleasing number one hit singles. They did not desire the acclaim of their peers, nor were they focused on using the event as a showcase to further their careers. They were more concerned with the implications of the invitation. The music industry was finally reacting to them, recognizing what they had achieved, and attempting to embrace them. It was an invitation that demanded a response, and that response needed to be a summation of their feelings about the industry. In the end they did not quite achieve this, but there is no doubt that they tried.
The show began. The audience were seated in rows, dressed as fabulously as their status demanded and looking effortlessly nonchalant whenever a TV camera turned towards them. The KLF were announced as the opening act and the audience cheered and applauded, seemingly delighted. Bill and Jimmy walked out onto the stage. They were accompanied by Extreme Noise Terror, a grindcore band from Ipswich.
At the time, the existence of such extreme metal bands was all but unknown to the mainstream audience. Bands like Extreme Noise Terror and Slayer had been played on John Peel’s radio show, and the Midlands band Napalm Death had appeared in a BBC Arena documentary, but beyond a small group of serious music fans most people had no idea that such an extreme type of music even existed. To those unfamiliar with the genre, it did not even appear to be music. It was noise, and it was a shock to realize just how deeply unpleasant noise could be. In an age when speed metal is used to sell energy drinks, it is perhaps hard to appreciate just how incomprehensible bands like Extreme Noise Terror were at that time. With all due respect, they were not how the British Music Industry wanted to showcase British music to a watching TV audience of nine million people in the UK alone.
The band erupted into a thrash metal version of 3am Eternal, although there were few in the audience who recognized it. Extreme Noise Terror had two vocalists, each barking lyrics in incomprehensible, atavistic grunts that sounded somewhere between Beelzebub and the Cookie Monster. Between them stood Bill Drummond, leaning on a crutch and smoking a fat cigar. He wore a kilt of Drummond tartan that he received on his 21st birthday and the battered leather overcoat that Martin Boorman wore when he escaped to Bolivia. He meant business. He spat out new lyrics, full of references to the BPI and the Brits, but the exact words were indecipherable under the volume, speed and sheer presence of the music.
Drummond’s interest in Extreme Noise Terror came after he heard them on the John Peel show. He and Cauty had been planning a hard rock follow up to The White Room called The Black Room, and had approached Motörhead about a collaboration. Motörhead declined, knowing full well that their solid metal audience would never forgive them for working with a ‘dance music’ band. Drummond then called Extreme Noise Terror but the message he left, “from Bill of The KLF,” was initially ignored as it was misheard as “Bill from the ALF”, or the Animal Liberation Front. Extreme Noise Terror were deeply into the animal rights scene and were considerably more likely to be called by the ALF than The KLF. Eventually, though, they connected, and the two bands started working on The Black Room sessions. That album was never finished.
Earlier that morning, Drummond had driven to an abattoir in Alan Moore’s home town of Northampton and bought a dead sheep and eight gallons of blood. The plan was that he and Cauty would dismember the corpse on stage. The KLF had used sheep imagery throughout their career, ever since they appeared on the cover of Chill Out, so destroying one like this had obvious symbolic meaning. They had huge butchers knives ready, and planned to throw hunks of carcass into the audience. It was intended to be an act so appalling that they would never have been forgiven for it. Jimmy also goaded Bill by suggesting that Drummond could cut his own hand off as well. This was dangerous talk, given how psyched the pair were. They both knew as they suggested ideas that there was a danger that they would carry them out.
Cauty’s suggestion reminded Drummond of the Red Hand of Ulster. In Irish legend there was a race across the sea from Scotland, and the first competitor to touch the land was to be declared the King of Ireland. One potential king was behind in the race, so he cut his hand off and threw it ahead of his rivals, onto the shore, and in doing so claimed the land as his own. When Cauty suggested that Drummond could cut his own hand off and throw it into the audience, the idea interested Drummond because he immediately saw it as in some way claiming the music industry for himself. Drummond’s actions were being dictated by his symbolic interpretation of events, as always, but this potent form of internal logic seemed to be pushing them into darker and more dangerous territory. Drummond’s train of thought was, needless to say, not a normal reaction to being asked to cut off your own hand.
Rumours about the dead sheep had spread during the day, thanks to their publicist Mick Houghton wisely informing the press in order to sabotage their plans. Jonathan King and the BBC were horrified and made it clear that no such act could be allowed, and certainly not televised. Extreme Noise Terror weren’t too impressed either, some of them being extreme vegetarians who were known to vandalize butcher shops. The sheep remained in the van during the performance, only to reappear later that night dumped on the steps outside the aftershow party tagged with a note that read, ‘I died for ewe’. The prompt arrival of the police prevented the eight gallons of blood joining the sheep on the hotel steps. Like so many other times, Drummond and Cauty had failed to implement their plans and been left with no choice but to improvise.
As the song ended he clenched his cigar between his teeth and sprayed bullet after bullet into the audience, the music industry itself.
Still, while Drummond may not have butchered a sheep on stage, he did have an antique machine gun. As the song ended he clenched his cigar between his teeth and sprayed bullet after bullet into the audience, the music industry itself. The gun only fired blanks, of course, but it was cathartic.
In a strange way, something about the music industry did die around that point. Music in the twentieth century had shown an incredible ability for invention. New musical genres were constantly created and explored — so much so, in fact, that this was considered normal. The first half of the century had given us such distinctive new genres as Blues or Jazz. The Fifties gave us Rock n’ Roll, and the Sixties gave us Psychedelia and Soul. The Seventies gave us Reggae, Heavy Metal, Disco and Punk, and the Eighties had delivered Hip-Hop, Techno, Acid House and Indie.
The assumption was that this level of creativity was normal and would continue indefinitely.
Each of those new genres was a major musical movement, a continent of sound the likes of which had never been heard before. They were usually forged in the crucible of new technology, new drugs or a combination of both. Musicologists have their technical definitions of each of these genres, of course, but non-musicians define them more simply. Each genre makes us feel differently. We know the mood that a Blues record creates in us, and we know that those feelings are different to the ones generated by Jazz, Heavy Metal or Reggae. The musical genres, in other words, map out the various moods and states that the human mind is capable of experiencing.
the idea that there were major new continents of unexplored music slowly faded away. The frontier had been colonized. We had discovered the edges of the territory.
This constant invention of major new genres was believed to be normal in 1994, and those in the Brits audience had personally seen the rise of Disco, Punk, Hip-Hop, Rave, Madchester and Indie in their own lifetimes. The fact that these genres had appeared alongside other creative bursts, such as the invention of video games or street art, also helped to normalize them. Grunge had just happened and, while it may not have staked out as much new territory as its Punk or Metal parents, it still felt like a distinct and valid invention. It would never have occurred to anyone in those seats, as the blank bullets from Drummond’s gun sprayed across their peers, that such invention had come to an end.
In the years ahead, the journalists and A&R men of the industry busied themselves seeking the next new thing. Britpop was presented as such a thing, despite being a coked-up combination of Indie music and nostalgia. It appeared that music which sounded like music used to could be a new thing, if you were having too much of a good time to think about it. But, as the decade rolled on and the twenty-first century began, it slowly became apparent that major new genres weren’t arriving any more. Sure, genres split into sub-genres as they were explored more fully, and the space between different genres were colonized by crossover artists. Yet these hundreds of subgenres, from Drum ‘n’ Bass to Black Metal, were considerably more limited than the genres being founded just a few decades early. They were noticeably less fertile.
None of this meant that music got worse, of course. There were still great songs being written and great performances given. Recording became cheap, the ability to record music and reach an audience became more democratic, and access to the entire history of recorded music became easy. But the idea that there were major new continents of unexplored music slowly faded away. The frontier had been colonized. We had discovered the edges of the territory.
Bill Drummond did not know this at the time. Despite machine-gunning the music industry at the point its engines of creativity died, he did not imagine that he really was killing it. Correlation does not imply causation, after all. But regardless of what he thought he was doing, he was still the one man in the room whose actions were in sync with the wider picture.
As the band left the stage a voice declared over the PA that “The KLF have left the music industry.” It was only meant as a joke. They didn’t realise at the time that it was true.
Shared by permission of John Higgs. John Higgs is an English writer, novelist, journalist and cultural historian. His books include I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century, The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds. His current release is Watling Street.
Higgs will be discussing the KLF Liverpool event with us tomorrow. Stay tuned!