Twelve years is a mighty long time.
Post-pandemic it feels like twenty three.
Twelve years in the world of The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu seems like a lifetime.
In 2010, Bill Drummond was closing The Foundry, re-releasing How To Be An Artist as $20,000 and ending No Music Day. He was on the Coast To Coast tour with The17 and painting graffiti under bridges.
In 2010, Jimmy Cauty was recreating Riots In Jam Jars.
In 2010, John Higgs was half way between his Timothy Leary book and his KLF one.
In 2010, Alan Moore was half way through writing Jerusalem and probably hadn’t got to the bit about money, fire and Cauty & Drummond.
In 2010, Wanda Dee was busy
In 2010, I was leaving the music industry to go and teach mathematics.
In 2010, film maker Chris Atkins had started work on a film about The KLF. The Greatest Story Never Told.
A lot of water has flowed underneath the Queen Mary Bridge since then. The film maker has spent some time at Her Majesties Pleasure and the film’s protagonists have become undertakers.
On initial viewing, Who Killed The KLF? could have been made in 2010. The events after this date are covered briefly at the start of the credits, but story told essentially ends with the writing of the contract on the Nissan Bluebird at Cape Wrath and a stunt too far involving a dead cow, a pylon and the M25 (see 45 for more on this escapade – “fucking cow”). But those extra twelve years, the perspective they give the events of 87-92 and the context of today’s re-activated Agents of Mu make Who Killed The KLF? a very relevant film for today.
Don’t make art for rich people
The rock documentary, or rockumentary, if you will, is a curious beast. For every beautifully curated Beatles release, from the Sgt Pepper anniversary to the Anthology to the over-sharing Get Back, there are a dozen grubby, unauthorised ones interviewing Pete Best’s Nan and the bus driver from Magical Mystery Tour. These usually are blessed with music by fellow Merseybeat groups in lieu of The Fab Four, with maybe the odd inclusion of the My Bonnie sessions with Tony Sheridan. Recently, the streaming services have provided these with a new home to replace sitting unsold on hmv’s shelves. There’s still an awful lot of dross, but there’s some excellent filling authorised ones like The Velvet Underground Gimme Danger, the story of The Stooges, made by actual filmmakers Todd Haynes and Jim Jarmusch. The BBC continues to rule the roost with the clout to gather together all the major players and pay for all the broadcast rights to the songs, like they did with the Bowie double bill of Five Years and The Last Five Years.
For the bands I love, and the ones I’m just curious about, I’ve devoured these ninety minute peeks behind the curtain, and I could genuinely watch George Martin at the Abbey Road mixing desks for weeks at a time. So it was with a modicum of trepidation that I approached Who Killed The JAMs? This could really go either way…
Well the good news is that WKTK has achieved everything it set out to do, in telling the story of the band that deliberately wrote themselves out of the history books. Before their return with the Sample City Through Trancentral streams, it seemed a little rude to reawaken the myths. What was so brilliant about the John Higgs book and Bill’s own 45, was that it wasn’t really about The KLF. It was about everything in the iceberg that was submerged and out of the public domain.
Now that their legacy is digitised and streaming for eternity (or is that Eternity?), it seems almost acceptable to prize open the metaphorical shipping container for another peak at chaos and confusion. For every devotee of The JAMs post-music adventures there are 23 others that just enjoyed the tunes and this documentary manages to please everyone. If Micky Flanagan includes a joke about you on his stand-up, you’re still part of the mainstream and your music was for the masses.
Make art for everyone
WKTK has sourced some incredible archive footage and skilfully augmented it with animations (the trip to Nashville is reminiscent of the O Ren Ishii sequence from Kill Bill or the Johnny gets mugged scene from The Great Rock N Roll Swindle) and well realised re-enactments staring Phil Blake’s restored Ford Timelord, although Chris Atkins’ invitation to The KLFRS may still be pending.
The talking heads used to propel the story along, in conjunction with Bill and Jimmy’s own words, span the spectrum of Mu Mu Land from Alan Moore and John Higgs, to Carl Cox and Paul Oakenfold, who appears to have only been asked if he remembers The KLF.
SPOILER: He does. Just about.
Sounds/NME journalist (and inventor of lad culture via his Loaded magazine), James Brown, appears to still be heavily involved in Operation Mindfuck, partly because he confesses to making up an awful lot of JAMs stories in the early days and partly because his memory of the 90s seems to have been left there. He is the one unreliable narrator of the film, and his lack of a grasp of what could be called facts let’s things down a little, which is a shame as he was along for the ride on many of those early adventures in 87/88.
If there were a few more interviewees that I could add, it’d be the musicians involved with the records, although Nick Coler arrives to tells his Red Army Choir Meal Deal story again.
Don’t stand on the outside looking in, stand on the outside looking further out
Some of the most revealing parts of the film are Jimmy’s thoughts on what drove the them, with Cauty and Drummond effectively managing their alter-egos, King Boy D and Rockman Rock with an almost schizophrenic detachment. Their desire to be outsider artists subverting from the inside is apparent throughout, although the art world seemed ultimately less malleable than the music one, as the subsequent neutering of the Sensation! artists of the time seems to demonstrate.
Don’t make punk rock
There are a lot of comparisons that can be made with The Great Rock N Roll Swindle and The Filth And The Fury, with Bill in particular playing the parts of both McLaren and Rotten. I’m sure there are plenty of parallel realities where it was the Sex Pistols who burnt all that filthy lucre. Regardless of how you view the Pistols’ legacy now – and Lydon really isn’t helping things – the spirit of the two films above runs throughout Who Killed The KLF?
Don’t make art bigger than yourself
As the film comes to a close, the unravelling of The K Foundation ends things on a bit of a low. In the context of this film, it’s easy to see The K Foundation as just The KLF, but with art. As The KLF, their telepathic partnership was able to consistently raise the bar with every release, whereas, for me, they have been far more interesting as artists when they have been working alone. Of course, it goes without saying that Welcome To The Dark Ages – particularly Day Three- remains the single greatest work of conceptual art this century and with Toxteth Day Of The Dead they have found a way to collaborate on something of real beauty.
Don’t come the rebel
Watching the story of The JAMs unfold over ninety minutes it’s easy to see it as there ultimate defeat by the music industry that their fictional namesakes sought to destroy. But once you’ve been as equally acclaimed as Simply Red, there really is no where to go. America: What Time Is Love/America No More was the sound of artists giving all that they could give until they could give no more. Alongside McLaren and Rotten, the PWL Hit Factory are equally relevant. For a short time Anarchy, Kylie and Stadium House all had their moments, but once the rebels have the keys to the castle, their time is running out. Or in.
The Lost Commandment
For a documentary that was put together over such a lengthy period, it is surprising how of the moment it all feels, managing to reflect both the chaos of 87-92 and today’s cultural memes. It’s a shame though, that their triumphant return is glossed over slightly in the final frames, bizarrely using footage from the Cube WTKFBAMQ event from 2015. Mumufication is hugely misrepresented and Barbican ‘comeback’ completely ignored.
Riot now, pay later
1992 saw the end of The KLF and the beginning of the end of rave culture. In May of that year, the Castlemorton seven-dayer turned a bit nasty after some over zealous policing at the behest of some worried millionaires. This was just eight days after the band announced their retirement. Coincidence? Probably, but it would have been interesting to see the band’s response if they were still active, what with Jimmy’s range of riot accessories and armoured trucks. WKTK focuses on the band’s retirement through its effect on distributors suddenly devoid of stock with which to capitalise on their BRIT award. It was an open secret in the record industry that there were two warehouses full of Sinatra best-ofs- reflecting his two distinct careers with Columbia and Reprise – for about five years, waiting for him to die. At the end of 1991, there were global shortages of Top 40 CDs whilst the pressing plants churned out nothing but Queen’s Greatest Hits. But no one anticipated the end of The KLF and quickly British record stores turned to US imports of the Arista release of The White Room to fill gaps on chart walls.
Burn the Bridge
Watching the aftermath of The Brits again, it’s clear to see that it was the ultimate act of bridge burning with the mainstream. Something impossible to come back from, streaming or otherwise. Burning out and not fading away. The tension and the paranoia of the times is ramped up towards the end of the film and it’s clear to the viewer that the end was almost inevitable.
Accept the contradictions
So the verdict from me is that Who Killed The KLF? has fulfilled the brief and whilst it may not have the support or backing of Cauty and Drummond, it excels at stitching together some incredible archive material into a gloriously watchable ninety minutes and it is a film that devotees will return to time and time again.
The first cinema to put on this film alongside Welcome To The Dark Ages, the Cube doc and The White Room has my money, burnt or otherwise.