By the mid-’90s, British Invasion 2.0 had taken over American music, as Oasis, Blur, Pulp, and Radiohead cracked the rock and college radio charts. But right before those (mostly) self-serious bands broke stateside, there was a British group called the KLF raising all sorts of hell across pop culture. The brainchild of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, the KLF (“Kopyright Liberation Front”) was full of radical ideas about art, sampling, the media, and the record business; perhaps despite this, they managed to make several appearances on the U.S. charts. Yet the fact remains that though they’re rather fondly remembered in their homeland, they don’t have nearly as much of a reputation here in America.
This year has seen several oblique announcements regarding the return of the KLF project, after more than two decades away from music. Just last week, another KLF transmission promised a second book by the duo titled 2023: A Trilogy, likely a take on their mutual obsessions of The Illuminatus! Trilogy (the tome responsible for much of the now-prevalent Illuminati iconography) and the number 23, which features heavily in Illuminatus books and various conspiracy theories. The announcement read, in part: “Down through the epochs and out across the continents, generation upon generation of the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu have told variants of the same story—an end of days story, a final chapter story. But with one hope, even if the hope at times seems forlorn.” Which is to say, the announcement doesn’t tell you much about what you’re likely to hear or read from the anarchic duo. That’s because the murky mythos of the Mu Mus is full of red herrings, shaggy dog jokes, and the occasional profundity. Their work is predicated on the idea of surprise, in that you can never be sure what you’re going to get: high art, crass in-jokes, or some bastardization of the two.
Never ones to get too comfortable, the KLF also went by handles like the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (the JAMs), K Foundation, the Timelords, 2K (as in Y2K), and more. They’ve been called many things by critics: “punk situationists,” “acid house pranksters,” “art warriors,” “an obtuse piss-take.” Imagine if the Residents got in early on rave culture, the Second Summer of Love, and the birth of chill-out/downtempo—that was the KLF. Trying to establish their own cultish set of iconography, they made a ton of music, shot extravagant videos and a film, wrote a book, and sponsored various art projects. They sampled liberally in the hairy period of late ’80s and early ’90s copyright law, once having to burn boxes of records to avoid prosecution for uncleared ABBA samples. They experimented tirelessly—working with everyone from Martin Sheen to Tammy Wynette—until they ran out of thresholds to break, just six years in.
When the KLF concept began gestation in the perverse mind of young Scotsman Bill Drummond (the tall, short-haired one), he had already spent the late ’70s and early ’80s bopping around different jobs in the British music industry. He played guitar in Liverpudlian punk outfit Big in Japan and managed acts like Echo and the Bunnymen. Drummond met guitarist Jimmy Cauty (the long-haired one) when he was working A&R for WEA Records and signed Cauty’s band Brilliance. Years later, Drummond came up with the idea for a plunderphonics group called the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, and realizing he’d need someone to help execute the vision, he rang up kindred gonzo spirit Cauty.
Their early work as the JAMs was very crude and hip-hop-skewing, like a weirder, Scottish take on the Beasties. Their fast and loose style became somewhat refined, and they started writing hookier singles. They somehow made the leap from fringe weirdos to commercially viable pop stars and never looked back. By the end of the ’80s, their antics had resulted not only in a No. 1 hit (“Doctorin’ the Tardis”), but also a book about how to cynically and formulaically repeat said No. 1 hit. Over the next several years, they’d funnel their profits into increasingly lavish and bizarre productions, videos, and hijinks. In that period, they’d also make one of the best ambient albums of all time.
Then it all famously culminated at the ’92 BRIT Awards, where they ended their performance by machine-gunning the audience with blanks. Just like that, the KLF retired. Before long, their art and propaganda arm K Foundation popped up again, funneling KLF cash into outrageous stunts—like their signature statement, burning a million British pounds and filming it in 1994.
The KLF have popped up here and there since then, but for all intents and purposes, they’ve been dormant as Cauty and Drummond—now in their sixties—have pursued other projects within music and visual art. Their comeback’s timing does not seem totally coincidental given that far-right authoritarianism has risen again in the West, vaguely echoing the early ’80s of Reagan and Thatcher. The bleakness and rampant capitalism of England during Thatcher’s reign was where the KLF germinated. The duo was an albatross of the internet culture to follow—weird, humorous, sadistic, conspiracy-addled, fixated with shadow government agencies and corporations—so maybe they have a vision for a post-truth world?
Whatever it is Cauty and Drummond have in store, let’s gear up by looking at some of the most memorable keyholes into the wild and wooly world of the KLF.
Debut Single “All You Need Is Love”
The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu’s 1987 debut single saw Drummond and Cauty take on the alter-egos “King Boy D” and “Rockman Rock” and sample without permission from MC5, the Beatles, Hall and Oates, model Samantha Fox, and an incredibly dramatic PSA from John Hurt. On the surface it sounds like a weird party record or some mutation of a Malcolm McLaren record, but it’s actually a song about the grim reality of the AIDS epidemic and the often irresponsible manner in which the media covered the public health crisis as it unfolded.
In 1988, the KLF published this guide on how to play the music industry, using as a case study their No. 1 UK hit “Doctorin’ the Tardis,” a ridiculous proto-Jock Jam take on “Doctor Who” that couldn’t be more British if it tried. The manual includes many cunning passages like, “Having no money sharpens the wits. Forces you never to make the wrong decision. There is no safety net to catch you when you fall.” Like their whole career, the instructional booklet functions both as a hilarious takedown of the music industry and as a legitimate rubric for commercial success within it.
Ambient Masterpiece Chill Out
Perhaps bored of peak-time bangers, the KLF created an ambient masterwork with their 1990 concept album, which was supposed to be the soundtrack of some mythic train ride through the American South. It was the perfect example of their kitchen-sink plunderphonics approach, where everything from sound-effects records, slide guitar, dollar-bin fodder, and rave stabs made it into their dream-like universe. Cauty was also the co-founder of the Orb, so check their discography if you want to explore more music like this.
The Stadium House Trilogy
VHS tape The Stadium House Trilogy was a supercut of the KLF’s catchiest anthems—“3 a.m. Eternal,” “Last Train to Trancentral,” and “What Time is Love?”—across three longform music videos featuring over-the-top set pieces. The 1991 release melded their Illuminati iconography with the bombast of late ’80s music industry excess, set to a soundtrack of bona fide rave bangers: “3 a.m. Eternal” was a No. 1 hit in the UK and peaked stateside at No. 5 on the Hot 100.
Tammy Wynette Collab “Justified & Ancient (Stand By The Jams)”
In 1991, the KLF teamed with Tammy Wynette for what would be the last hit of the country star’s career, hitting No. 1 in 18 countries. A rumor persists that the Wynette original “Stand By Your Man” and “Stand By The Jams” were released almost 23 years apart (there’s the number 23 again), and that’s one of the reasons why they did it (besides just liking country music). Wynette claimed she has no idea why they chose her, nor what deeper meaning there might be. In addition to wearing a skintight mermaid suit in the video, Wynette “had this crown on. I don’t know what the meaning of that was,” she admitted to The Independent. “Mu Mu Land looks a lot more interesting than Tennessee. But I wouldn’t want to live there.” The result was schizophrenic pop bliss hung on a Hendrix sample, with Wynette singing about ice cream trucks (ice cream and sheep were two of the KLF’s favorite motifs) and other absurdities.
The 1992 BRIT Awards Performance
The KLF had the idea to use the BRIT Awards to pull a prank so crass, it would singlehandedly destroy their career. Lore suggests they had planned to douse the audience with animal blood à la Carrie, but instead opted for a punk rendition of “3 a.m. Eternal” featuring Extreme Noise Terror as their backing band. Oh yeah, and they fired machine guns (loaded with blanks) into the audience at the end. Their publicist concluded the performance by announcing, “The KLF have now left the music business.” Cauty and Drummond went one step further, dropping off a dead sheep carcass at the after-party and later heading to Stonehenge to bury their BRIT Award (which was eventually drudged up by a local farmer).
Money-Burning Explanation on “The Late Late Show”
In 1994, the K Foundation burned a million British pounds on the Scottish island of Jura, while collaborator Gimpo filmed the whole thing. They claimed this was authentic British currency—money they had earned from record sales. There has never been any credible proof to contradict that this actually happened. One of their consistent points about the stunt was that they thought it was more relevant than spending it on bullshit—houses, cars, figure-8 swimming pools, whatever. Shortly after, Cauty and Drummond went on Ireland’s “The Late Late Show” to defend their inflammatory act of trolling—one that kept good on their promise to do something so egregious, it would end their pop-music career. “We wanted the money,” Drummond claimed, “but we wanted to burn it more.”
2K Live at the Barbican
The Mu Mu boys made one last live appearance together in this predictably insane performance from 1997. The 20-minute show gave them an opportunity to perform their new protest song, “Fuck the Millennium,” both a subversion and an example of the “comeback single.” Cauty and Drummond dressed as wheelchair-bound old men in viking unicorn helmets, and surrounded themselves with a men’s choir, a 100-year-old club of Viking obsessives (the Viking Foundation), a band that does brass covers of acid house jams, a group of Medieval battle re-enactors, opera singer Sally Bradshaw, and actual Liverpool dockers (who were striking for three years at the time).
The highlight arrived near the end of the set when they played “K Cera Cera,” their cover of the Doris Day hit “Que Sera, Sera,” which they first released in 1993 to celebrate a peace accord between Israel and Palestine. It might be the best recorded moment of these two madmen, even though they don’t touch an instrument or a microphone throughout the whole thing. The spectacle is, as always, their instrument.