KING BOY D- Library of Mu
- Library of Mu record:
- Title: KING BOY D
- Date: March 1997
- Journal: The Wire
- Author: Ben Watson
- Type of resource: Interviews
- Status: text
- No. views: 24046
- Description: Essential article, which justifies the K output as "living, active, exciting avant garde art". Feature many juicy quotes from Drummond on all Subjects: Art as well as Illuminatus! stage play, Bad Wisdom misogny, etc.
KING BOY D
By Ben Watson (March 1997, The Wire)
On rare occasions, the staged rigmarole of pop culture creaks at the seams, the grey pasteboard buckles and some golden, unearthly light pours through the cracks. Such a rent in normality occurred in February 1992, when The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu's "Justified And Ancient (Stand By The JAMMS)" single shot to number two in the charts. The group, otherwise known as The KLF (Kopyright Liberation Front), brought all the trappings of rave culture to the Top Of The Pops stage: techies with wraparound shades operating computer consoles; dancers in dayglo jumpsuits; a line of conga players in tribal costume. Suddenly, a cameo was superimposed on this melee of 3AM Eternal M25-warehouse Dionysiacs: the First Lady of Country, Miss Tammy Wynette. Framed in a misty oval, she sang: "They're justified and they're ancient/And they like to roam the land/They're justified and they're ancient, I hope you understand" each syllable caressed by the trembling sincerity of her Alabama twang.
Having nodded to one of rock'n'roll's twin tributaries, Ricardo Da Force was wheeled out to deliver a brilliant rap: modern and urgent, urban and black. Like Malcolm McLaren's "Buffalo Gals" - in which New York City breakdance crew The World's Famous Supreme Team were bribed into performing a hokey hillbilly routine - The KLF were reminding us how thoroughly weird is this cross-breed we call 'popular music'.
The KLF was the brainchild of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty. In 1988, as The Timelords, they'd had a number one hit with "Doctorin' The Tardis", this time featuring Gary Glitter. The full meaning of this 'novelty' item was only revealed when a book appeared in the shops authored by Drummond and Cauty and titled The Manual: a step-by-step guide to achieving a number one hit. It included advice on how to cop a fresh rhythm from a midweek club, how to secure a loan from the bank manager when the video needs to be made, and how to employ a record plugger. Since then, everything touched by Bill Drummond has provoked controversy and outrage - and a kind of inexplicable joy. He wanted to sever his right hand and fling it at the dignitaries at the Brit Awards. Instead, he flung a dead sheep on the steps of the hotel hosting the awards, and subjected the audience of music industry luminaries and liggers to Extreme Noise Terror, a group which had cornered the market in radio-unfriendly, one minute blasts of righteous speedcore (being anarcho-vegetarians, the group objected to the sheep abuse). Drummond joined forces with Zodiac Mindwarp, a tattooed biker from Leeds who fronted a greaser rock outfit called The Love Reaction, and exhibited a limited-edition tome of pornography bound in elephant hide called The Bible Of Dreams. Operating as the K Foundation, The KLF offered cash 'sculptures' to the Tate gallery, campaigned against Rachel Whiteread's Turner Prize award, and flew to a remote Scottish island to burn a million pounds in cash.
Whenever one came across a K communication - record, paid advert, rumour, documentary - something unstable and psychotic seemed to resonate: a whiff of punk, of scare-the-bourgeois avant garde brutalism, of social revolution. But in the case of The K Foundation, the art world decided that Drummond and Cauty were just rock stars wanting to 'buy-in' to the art scene.
Art critic John A Walker was not impressed by the money capers' "This point had been made already by Warhol, Boggs, Finn-Kelcey and others," he sniffed and advised the duo to study Vermeer.
Such dismissal - defensive of fine-art privilege and blind to the aesthetics of musical mass-production - was belied by the sheer quality of KLF product. People with a taste for the genuine avant garde (with sensibilities honed on the productions of Sun Pa, Sun Records, Devo, Frank Zappa, X-Ray Spex, P-Fun, John Zorn) could tell that The KLF were for real. 1991's The White Room was a great pop album. The previous year's Chill Out - which purportedly reinvented the Ambient genre for the 90s - was a glorious epic of melancholia and realtime plagarism. The B-side of "America: What Time Is Love", released during the Gulf War, was a devastating protest-montage of helicopters, bagpipes and carpet-bombs. The KLF were driving pointed question marks into the body of contemporary mass culture. To those who were bored with the ordinary, this felt like a rallying cry.
Being granted an interview with Bill Drummond was intriguing, but also somewhat alarming. Didn't his co-conspirator Jimmy Cauty drive about in a Chieftain tank equipped with some kind of subsonic military device? Surely a man who nailed a million quid to a board and then burnt it was capable of any enormity. Bad Wisdom, the book Drummond and Zodiac Mindwarp (aka Mark Manning) have just published through Penguin, is replete with Sadean orgies detailing rape and slaughter and copro-bestiality. Was crucifixion perhaps the method by Drummond to deal with interloping critics?
In a country pub near Aylesbury, over beer and chicken curry, Bill Drummond sorted out some misconceptions. After three hours of conversation, he drove me back to Leighton Buzzard train station, and left to pick up a child from school. No stigmata: I'd emerged unscathed (or so I like to think).
The previous evening I'd seen Drummond and Zodiac give a reading at Filthy McNasty's in North London, so it was a simple matter to identify him on the station platform. Long coat, boots: the windswept look of people who don't live metropolis. I find it intriguing that somebody should step down from the position of pop star in order to write fringe literature and give book readings. Drummond had recently read at one of Paul Smith's Disobey events to launch Lights Out for the Territory, a new collection of fevered associations by the veteran connoisseur counterculture subversion Iain Sinclair, which includes his thoughts on The K Foundation (he was intrigued, but defended Whiteread's fragile, "feminine" art against Drummond and Cauty's attacks). The audience consisted of maybe 30 or 40 people. Did that feel like a come-down after making videos for MTV and selling millions of records round the world?
"In my personal day-to-day life, I don't see all those thousands of people, I do what I do," Drummond replies. "For me its not a big difference. It's not like: fucking hell, I was playing Wembley last week, and now there's only 30 people here! There is no difference in my head. In the little room where I'm doing what I'm doing, writing or thinking about things, or talking this morning to Jimmy on the phone, it's not like you've suddenly got a huge big phone or something! But it we're talking about pop things, obviously a pop record is meant to be number one, if it isn't number one, it's a failure."
Drummond was born in South Africa in 1953 but grew up in Clydebank, Scotland. In 1968 he went on an exchange trip to Germany's industrial Ruhr Valley. Already an Elvis fan, he was introduced to Little Richard and avant garde classical electronic music. When Neu! and Faust and Can came along, he recognised that the avant garde had infiltrated rock, but he retained his tan-boy allegiance to soul music (particularly the Miami sound and the TK label). He is not convinced by the 'breaking boundaries' claims that are universally made by the more pretentious pop acts.
"A three minute pop song is a three minute pop song whatever the icing - some squiggly sounds, a little bit of noise," he says. "For me, pop only works as a genuine great thing if your heart is totally in it. A great pop record is great because for the people involved it was for real - real genuine expression. A lot of record companies try and make bands commercialise themselves, but it never really works. With The KLF, it wasn't just a cynical thing. Jim Cauty and I both have a genuine love of pop, and a lot of other things, too, but through that genuine love of pop we were able to express - to get things out of us. We also had a belief that pop music, to be pop music, has to be incredibly successful.
"There's that thing of people thinking: we want to infiltrate the system - from within we can bring it down. I never believed that. All that happens is that oneself gets corrupted. You get into it, you get corrupted; it's the easiest thing. It's not some big cynical ploy to do that, it's just what happens because we're all weak, really, so we can all be seduced and we can hate ourselves for it - hence the we-bite-the-hands-that-feed-us type thing.'
What stops Drummond from simply milking the commercial process; is it because believes money isn't everything?
"No. I'm too indulgent, I'm too driven by whatever demons drive me. Everything I've done has been 'self-indulgent', but part of that self-indulgence is knowing the genre you're working in and that you love. If you're painting, using oils, you have to accept that certain pigments won't mix with other pigments; it just doesn't do. If you're making a dance record at 160 BPM, and what people are dancing to in the clubs at moment is 120 BPM, people aren't going to dance to it - so its not a dance record. You have to accept that certain colours don't mix. If you're working with pop music, pop music is communicated - over the last 20 years, 30 years now - by Radio One; so it you're making a record that doesn't fit within that area, it isn't true pop music. For a lot of bands that's a heretical, compromising statement, but I've never seen it as compromising. It's just thinking: this is the palette, and you know that your burnt sienna doesn't mix with your aquamarine, so that's that.
"When you're a teenager and you get into pop music it seems to be this great expression of everything possible at that moment in your life. It has a great draw and it pulls you in. The depressing thing is that as an art form it doesn't go anywhere. Once you're in it, it's all about selling records to teenagers. It you're the artist, you might be absolutely brilliant, but all you can do is keep putting two fingers up against the establishment and getting heartbroken - we all know the things it falls into - but it you're an artist, a painter or a writer, as you mature it works. But Eric Clapton somehow doesn't work It doesn't matter how great Eric Clapton was. Most become caricatures. You end up doing these photo sessions for album sleeves and magazines to try and still appeal to teenagers. It becomes horrible"
The KLF were dismissed by some as too 'knowing', accused of patronising their audience. After all, Drummond had success in the 80s managing Teardrop Explodes and Echo & The Bunnymen. He played in Big In Japan (and Lori & The Chameleons!). He knows how the industry works.
"People like the genuine artist to be naive, to not be aware of all the stuff that goes on," he says, 'but the trouble is, I am aware of it. Sometimes I think it undermines the artistic worth of some of the stuff that I do, but I've come to terms with that now. I think: fuck it I can't unknow all the stuff I know, because it's a lifetime of ending up knowing it"
In Bad Wisdom, Drummond writes about being affected by the presence of Elvis in the culture. It is not a matter of buying or even playing his records, but of experiencing him "by accident": hearing a record blare out of a window; a truck with 'ELVIS' written across the windscreen in chunky white letters, a glimpse of the Presley features in a merchandise calendar. The was the great strength of The KLF: they were aware of what Frank Zappa called "conceptual continuity' - the myriad mediations by which ideas are communicated in an industrial society. The way Drummond explains the whole Turner Prize/K Foundation scandal is highly abstract, yet conceptually compelling.
"Jimmy and I at the time just couldn't stop ourselves. We knew whatever we were doing would be perceived like, ...you know, the way people perceive Madonna buying Renoirs, because she wants to have some of that, it's a way of buying credibility, something more than making disco records. We all see that and we all decry it. Even as we were doing it I knew it was going to be perceived as us saying, 'Please, please, please, let us be part of this thing!"
"Another thing we were aware of was that it would be taken as us fighting the corner for the 'man in the street' who thinks all this contemporary art is rubbish. Jimmy and I don't think that all contemporary art is rubbish. If anything, we were thinking it's not contemporary enough! If it's meant to be contemporary art, push it, push it! Not that we think we're so great, but this stuff is so twee and nice and pleasant, fucking do something that excites and screams at us and all these things - but it doesn't and it continues not to. Maybe that's the way it's been and that's the way it always will be, but...
"Most of the people who wrote about what we did, and the TV programme that was made about it, made a mistake. I was only able to articulate it to myself afterwards with hindsight they thought we were using our money to make a statement about art, and really what we were doing was using our art to make a statement about money. Having arrived at that formula, I'm probably manipulating everything we did to fit into the theory, but we were just getting up in the morning and getting on the phone with each other and saying, fucking hell! So at some points we thought we were attacking the art establishment then we were saying, no that's not what this is about.
"The image I had in my head of the whole K Foundation/Turner Prize affair was of there being a mirror, you know, like the mountain reflected in the lake? The Turner prize is like that [he draws a pyramid in the air] and we were like that underneath [draws an inverted pyramid beneath it] - so that was the picture. Jimmy and I both come out of painting and drawing as much as playing guitars, and that was the 'picture' I was painting myself - maybe Jimmy had a different one in his head - but it was like the sort of painting you get in on a wall in a fish and chip shop: a mountain and a lake and the reflection underneath - that was the thing, that was the 'work'."
At the time, people complained that The K Foundation had no worked-out art theory and that their statements were contradictory: but the very fact that they operated as improvisors, responding to events as they arrived, gave their communications the point-blank impact that signals living, active, exciting avant garde art. Their communications had the frustrated urgency that characterises the Futurist manifestoes [sic] of Marinetti or the dada 'lampisteries' of Tristan Tzara.
Stifling such appreciation, and attempting instead to provoke Drummond, I compare the way he has crossed over from pop into the art world with the career of David Bowie - the latter's references to Andy Warhol, his sub-Egon Schiele paintings Drummond is having none of it.
"It's shit, that's why. It's crap at the end of the day. This is what I hate people accusing me of! You know how we distrust an actor - a film actor making a record is always crap. But David Bowie has got all three - the artist as in painter, contemporary artist, the singer and the actor - and for all of them he's not the thing! He's either an actor trying to be a pop singer, a pop singer trying to be an artist or an artist trying to be an actor.
"The few people I know within the contemporary art world are very blinkered. They have to write off whole areas. The genres are so defined, they're from the past. But science evolves, new media are being thrown up all the time. I know that I've always been banging my head against the same seam, chiselling away at the same thing, and it's only on the surface that it looks like it's different, that its coming out in different ways. But I know that underneath, it's just me chiselling away, trying to get to the gold.
"I like painters who are working today and pushing the barriers, but there is all this other stuff which means you don't have to spend those years of apprenticeship. It's intuitive, those years I spent being bombarded by stuff from the supermarket or the TV or just walking down the street - and that's somehow my apprenticeship.
"I'm big on science," he continues "For me, science always gets there first. Science invents the electric guitar. Jimi Hendrix doesn't visualise the sound, there's the guitar first and then he abuses it. The Japanese invent drum-machines to sound like American stadium-rock bands, and then black guys out of Chicago start abusing it. Or samplers come along, not because Steinski or whoever is going to make a record that sounds like it does. Science is always there first.
"When Ken Campbell put the Science Fiction Theatre together in Liverpool in the early 70s, it was to do Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus trilogy, a 12-hour play. I remember there was a part for a Chinese woman in this play, an Oriental woman. He asks me, who's the biggest Oriental woman in the world today? So I said Yoko Ono And he said, 'Okay, the magic of the phone is that it connects everywhere in the world; every village in China will have a phone and there will be a wire that goes there - you can get anybody!' Within half an hour he was speaking to Yoko on the phone, saying, 'Look, we've got this blah, blah, blah.' Obviously she wasn't up for the part, but I was thinking: if you want to do something, what's going to stop you? That was a big influence"
After they had burned the million pounds, The KLF wanted feedback from the public. They wanted to understand the meaning of the act. Their roadie Gimpo (the mephitic incubus of Zodiac Mindwarp's fantasies in Bad Wisdom) had videoed Cauty and Drummond shovelling banknotes into the furnace.
"We got accused of all sorts of things, so we did a tour of the film," explains Drummond. "We went to a prison to ask if it was criminal We went to a mental hospital to ask if it was madness We took it to an inner-city comprehensive and we took it to Eton - the same day! - to ask if it was educational. We took it to all these specific places and recorded the questions and our answers. One of the main things we found, and this is what we were surprised about was that loads of people identified with it, or got a rush from it which they couldn't explain. They would have loved to have been able to do it. Jim and I learned from that: we were just the people lucky enough; we were the people who'd been in a position to do it. By no particular design we'd ended up with all this fucking cash coming towards us. Most people who've got cash coming towards them, it's because that's what they set out to get. Suddenly we've got all this cash coming towards us, and we hadn't set out to get it. It wasn't guilt or anything, its just we were in that position to be able do this thing.
"One night an audience was asked: is there anyone here that would've liked to do this or thought about this? And people put up their hands. That became a regular thing and it would be about ten per cent [of the audience], so ten per cent of the population ...or ten per cent of the people who came to see this film! [Drummond laughs uproariously] Or maybe they were just trying to endear themselves to us- but it was a real thing. We realised that it wasn't like we were so different or so special or so far-out or so fucking fucked-up; we just happened to have a million lying around..."
There is a passage in Bad Wisdom where Drummond meditates on his own sexism and misogyny: his sympathy for the Yorkshire Ripper and his resentment at dependence on "the female". This is the section he chose to read at the Lights Out event. He seems surprised that I don't take him up on this and asks if I'm "holding back". I reply that I see it as a fairly inevitable product of the all-male band, and of the split between 'creativity' and 'normality' created by the institution of the family (Drummond's wife 'banned' him from playing the guitar; in Bad Wisdom he seems to assume that the man in a relationship doesn't mend clothes or cook). I tell him my models are Joyce and Zappa and George Clinton, whose art entertains an enlightened polymorphous perversity that does not exclude women and infants, rather than the psychotic sexism of Zodiac Mindwarp's adolescent sub-Burroughs fantasies. Drummond shrugs his shoulders.
Having admired The KLF and The K Foundation and the risks they took inside the culture industry, I have to admit to being disappointed by some of Drummond's notions. They seem like a regression to the fatalism of the romantics (he loves William Wordsworth). Having discoursed admirably on the necessity of punk, he starts defending Progressive rock. All very well to aspire to 'classical' music, I counter, but surely that genre has its own dynamics and historical necessities? The problem with most Progressive rock is that it aspired to the bombast of Wagner rather than the detailed sonic materialism of Webern, Varese and Xenakis. The reduction of the vast implications of black music to a temporary 'teen' phenomenon wreaks damage in the most unexpected quarters. Guilty husbands, Radio Three, the repro-medievalism of frauds like John Tavener, Wordsworth's nature poetry: Drummond seems in danger of reverting to the bourgeois culture that rock 'n' roll (and The KLF) was going to save us from in the first place.
"I look back and think how fantastic, these British bands in the late 60s thinking: we can do anything, we don't have to do a three minute song just because that's what they do at Radio Caroline or Radio One or whatever, or that's what the geezer at the record company says; we can do what we want we can explore! And letting their imaginations go totally over the top. [Pop] didn't just have to be 'The girl's chucked me' or 'I love that girl over there with the miniskirt on', it can be anything - it can explore the imagination and all the time-signatures you want to have and be influenced by everything. When punk came along, Progressive rock was damned as a middle-class indulgence, it wasn't gritty and 'from the street'. I talk about that as almost a middle-class or public school 'fascism of punk'. My mates, although I wasn't into Progressive rock at the time, were just regular working class lads. They loved the whole thing, just lying on your floor, curtains shut... Of course, its boring to begin with, but you learned every note and it became magnificent! Van Der Graaf Generator was phenomenal. I still have a soft spot for Peter Hammill - not that I buy his records, but I'm glad he's still there. Then this other sort of fascism that came in and stomped on it. Obviously it did need stomping on.
Surely the point isn't 'short song' versus 'extended music', but whether the stuff itself is any good?
"Zodiac remembers the last time he played [Genesis's] Lamb Lies Down On Broadway", says Drummond, "when he knew this was the last time he could play it he knew he had to throw it away after that, and he cried! He knew he had to leave that behind."
Bill Drummond's perception of the mediations of modern society is sharp, materialist, unideological. The absence of a moral or political programme leads to him being branded as 'incomprehensible' by media journalists: however, it's this radical scepticism that allows him to break through ossified concepts and hierarchical assumptions about culture and class.
Having accumulated enough music-biz experience to play its games, most managers and artists simply maximise exposure and profits. Instead, Drummond used what he knew to experiment and improvise with the materials he had mastered. For once, claims that pop can be a conceptual art became palpable; pop started to feel like an adventure rather than a business.
The KLF were an eruption of genuine play into a sphere where 'entertainment' is rationalised according to the dictates of capital-accumulation. It is what is deemed (in the work of a gallery artist such as Hans Haacke (to constitute 'avant garde art'. But the fact that the art world rebuffed Drummond is proof that the art-establishment has no understanding of the avant garde whose art they curate.
Ten years from now, after a period spent developing the revolutionary writings of what he calls The Literary Arseholes, Drummond plans to record an "avant garde/Progressive symphony". After witnessing the seamless ingenuity and smarts of The KLF - its scintillating inventions and interventions in the mass media - it is hard to believe that Drummond would really end up as a 21st century version of Peter Gabriel.
Unreconstructed Romanticism may eventually lead him into the arid wastes of high culture (the manipulations of tonality/literature about sexual relations), but somehow you suspect that what will emerge is more likely to be incongruous and dazzlingly strange.
"The essence of Progressive music is learning to wait," he continues.
"None of that fucking chorus in a minute, 50 seconds or something you've got to wait fucking seven minutes for that guitar chord. That's what makes it great; learning to go with those things. The fact that the players are playing to the ultimate limit of their capabilities, and obviously they're nowhere near as good as any of those jazz guys or Frank Zappa, but these English guys just pushing themselves, anything to prove they're not The Tremeloes! It is magnificent...
KLF activities were suspended after the release of Chill Out in January 1990 [sic]: all product was recalled. Bad Wisdom is published by Penguin. Iain Sinclair's Lights Out For The Territory is published by Granta. Thanks to Emma Biggs, Stewart Home and Esther Leslie.
1. Bill Drummond in countryside, colour
2. Bill and Jimmy in classic pose
3. Bill and Jimmy, robed with Jura horns
4. 3 K foundation adverts: '1994 K Foundation Award', 'Abandon All Art' and 'voting form'
5. Bill and Zodiac by a train (looks like in Finland, but not sure)
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Posted by Guest on 2006-04-29 06:25:30
Are you sure this is the same Ben Watson? I can't imagine a former kollaborator (ex member of Brilliant) writing:
Being granted an interview with Bill Drummond was intriguing, but also somewhat alarming. Didn't his co-conspirator Jimmy Cauty drive about in a Chieftain tank equipped with some kind of subsonic military device?
Posted by The Librarian on 2007-02-18 23:14:03
ah thanks kingboyk, you're right, this Ben Watson is the well known "deviant and polemical" writer and Zappa biographer: