Burning question- Library of Mu
- Library of Mu record:
- Title: Burning question
- Date: 13 February, 2000
- Journal: Observer
- Author: ?
- Type of resource: Interviews
- Status: text
- No. views: 7379
- Description: Mainly a history cum review of 45, but also some very significant quotes from Drummond. Seems that the pressure to sell copies of 45 has meant he will answer questions now.
By ? (13 February, 2000, Observer)
Why did Bill Drummond set fire to 1 million? Why did he want to chop
off his own hand on stage? And why did the chart-topping KLF disband?
As the controversial pop-star-turned-artist hits middle age, are we
any closer to knowing the answers?
What were we supposed to call this? Was it art? Some kind of bizarre
political statement? A bit of a larf spun horribly out of control? If
it was any of these things, it was the most extraordinary example
anyone committed in the last two decades of the 20th century. It went
almost unnoticed at the time, because few people were prepared to
countenance the possibility that it was more than a stunt, couldn't
believe anyone would do such a thing, be that
stupid/irresponsible/free. But it wasn't a stunt. They really did it.
If you want to rile Bill Drummond, you call him a hoaxer.
'I knew it was real,' a long-time friend and associate of his group
the KLF tells me, 'because afterwards, Jimmy and Bill looked so
harrowed and haunted. And to be honest, they've never really been the
On 23 August 1994, Drummond and his partner Jimmy Cauty travelled to
the Isle of Jura and, before a sceptical invited audience, ritually
burned 1 million - in notes - of their own cash. Both in their late
thirties, they'd earned the money as the men behind one of the UK's
most unlikely pop groups. In 1991, the KLF, an acronym for Kopyright
Liberation Front, was the bestselling British act in the world. Riding
the post-acid house boom in club music, they could do no wrong: every
tune they touched turned to gold. But the next year, they opened the
Brit Awards with a scathing performance, backed by a co-opted heavy
metal band. At the end of it, a stunned audience heard them announce
that 'the KLF have left the music business'. A freshly slaughtered
sheep was laid at the entrance to the post-awards party, with a tag
reading: 'I died for ewe. Bon appetit.' They had been presented with
the coveted gong for best group, then immediately dissolved
themselves. Then, in 1994, they burned most of the money they'd made
up to that point. Why?
Drummond sits before me, a stubbly but youthful-looking 47, eating a
cheese omelette and chips in a north London greasy spoon, the first
thing he's eaten today, at 2.30pm, in the first interview he's done in
six years. He and Cauty have made a deal not to talk about the million
pounds, he tries to tell me. We're fencing. I ask him how much they
earned during their peak.
'Are you trying to ascertain whether a million pounds was that much to
us?' he replies, fixing me with a steady gaze.
Yes, I say.
He nods slowly. 'But it wasn't about burning all the money. And it
wasn't about cleansing anyone's soul. In this context, a million is a
lot more than 2 million. A million is the icon. It's what we talk
about, dream about. It has the power.'
Have you regretted it since?
Are you financially stable now?
'No, I'm not. No.'
So why did they do it, I ask, and how did it feel to watch it wither
and snake, finally, irretrievably, into the sky? The answer takes two
hours to emerge, and even then I'm not sure I quite understand. For
the past few years, Drummond has been relatively quiet, living with
his wife Sallie Fellowes and two (soon to be three) small children on
a farm in Aylesbury. The tangled logic of his career appears to be
reflected in his private life, which takes in three other children,
with two other women. He is close to the eldest two, but hasn't seen
the third since the child was 18 months, a situation he acknowledges
as 'weird' and is understandably reluctant to talk about. At one point
in his new book, 45, after having 'trashed' another relationship, he
wonders whether he 'will ever get to live with any of my children'.
The longer you look at his life and read his work, the more clearly do
you see what looks like a pronounced and compulsive cycle of creation
and destruction, stretching right back to his schooldays.
His music career fits perfectly into this pattern, and it's what makes
45 such a good book about pop: few people in Britain can be in a
better position to explore the dumb, chaotic tensions that make it
tick - tensions between creation and destruction, ephemera and
unwitting consequence, between mythology and visceral, irreducible
truth. Many of his activities look like japes, but he will admit that
'we are serious about them, ridiculously serious'. He wants them to
mean something, but knows that pop usually works best when it doesn't
know what it means. And he knows. He can't help it. No wonder he wants
to escape, but can't.
45 purports to be a series of snapshots and memoirs taken from the
year he turned 45, seemingly at random, but actually compiled with
deceptive - he would say accidental - logic. An early passage finds
him driving to Helsinki with his children Kate, 12, and James, 10, to
deliver some records and take in a Michael Jackson concert. James has
just announced his decision to give up learning to play the guitar he
badgered his father into buying him and switch to bass. A row ensues.
"That's it, James. I'm not paying for your lessons any more. The only
reason why you want to start playing the bass is because you think it
is easier." My voice is raised, I'm losing it, something I hardly ever
do with my children. A year ago he would be crying by this point; now
he just sinks into sullen silence. Kate says nothing. I switch on the
radio. Abba's 'Winner Takes It All'. I slip from reality into pop
nirvana, where the pain of heartbreak feels like the ecstasy of
submission... I hope Kate and James can't spot the tears now rolling
down my cheeks.
"Don't you understand, Dad? I have to work hard at school all day, and
if I come home and just spend all my time practising guitar it makes
me a boring person."
"What, and lying around watching television doesn't?"
"You're just getting like all the other dads, wanting me to do what
"No, I'm not. I would far rather you didn't want to be in a band. Most
people who dream or struggle their youth away wanting to be in a band
end up unhappy, depressed, unfulfilled, 'cause it never happens."
"It happened for you."
"That was just luck. Look, even if it does happen, it always goes
wrong. Do you think Keith from Prodigy goes home at night happy?"
"You talk rubbish, Dad. I want to be in a band because that's what I
want to do; it's got nothing to do with you. And anyway, I don't want
to be a bass player, I want to be a singer."
"James, all singers are thick. Think of the boy you like least in your
class - he'll be the singer. Everybody hates singers."
"Crap. Everybody loves the singer most."
"I mean the other lads in the band. They always hate the singer. He's
always the lazy, loudmouthed, show-off one. You don't want to be like
Liam Gallagher, just standing around doing nothing but being thick."
"Oasis are one of the best bands in the world; better than the Beatles
ever were - it would be great to be the singer of Oasis."
I do not rise to the bait. Silence descends.
I can't believe I've just had this conversation with my 10-year-old
son. If he's like this now, what's he going to be like when he's 15
and growing dope plants in his bedroom?
When Drummond was 15, he lived in a council house in Corby, in the
East Midlands. He was born in South Africa, where his father, a Church
of Scotland missionary, was working, and proudly recounts that his
first words were in Xhosa, the language of the Bantu people. The
incoming apartheid government forced the family home to Scotland
before William was 18 months old, and thence to a council house in
Corby. He was impatient with school and ultimately deemed unsuitable
for the sixth form, he claims, after being caught reading the NME
during a study period. Noting interests that included music and
'making things', a careers adviser suggested a future as an instrument
maker, which required a qualification in art. Drummond enrolled in art
school, but left before long, although his passion for art remains
strong. 'It didn't work out,' is all he says now.
Music provided the solution, first through membership of Liverpudlian
one-hit wonders Big in Japan (with Lightning Seed Ian Broudie and
future Frankie Goes to Hollywood singer Holly Johnson on - don't tell
James - bass). When that collapsed, Drummond found more lasting
influence as manager of fêted local post-punk outfits The Teardrop
Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen. Establishing what would later
become a pattern, he severed links with the latter at the peak of
their popularity and went to work in the A&R department of WEA
Records, where he was responsible for signing acts to the label. The
only significant thing he did at that time was to sign a group called
Brilliant, which had been formed by the former Killing Joke bassist,
Youth, and featured the guitarist Jimmy Cauty. After three years,
Drummond left his job in ignominy, but not before he and Cauty had
struck up a relationship. Their subsequent commercial success, he
explains, was partly inspired by a desire to 'prove [WEA MD] Rob
Dickens wrong'. So they did, spectacularly.
KLF stands for Kopyright Liberation Front. Their first album, 1987 -
What the Fuck is Going On?, made use of the newly accessible
'sampling' technology to borrow parts of other records and assemble
them into something new. This is routine now - just ask Fatboy Slim -
but was controversial at the time and led to a lawsuit with Abba over
the unauthorised use of a passage from 'Dancing Queen', after which
all unsold copies of the record had to be destroyed. Presaging things
to come, Drummond and Cauty travelled to Stockholm in order to present
a commemorative gold disc to Abba singer Agnetha Faltskog. Also
presaging things to come, they couldn't find her, so gave the disc to
a prostitute they happened across in the street, and came home.
In 1988, the pair decided to have a number-one record. They changed
their name to The Timelords and released a cheesy dance take on the
theme from Doctor Who, 'Doctorin' the Tardis'. It duly topped the UK
singles chart and inspired its authors to follow up with a book
entitled The Manual (How To Have A Number One The Easy Way).
An Austrian duo, Edelweiss, followed their instructions and shifted 2
million units of a single called Give Me Edelweiss. A year later,
again operating as the KLF, Drummond and Cauty began an extraordinary
run of success with a pair of juddering rave anthems called 'What Time
is Love?' and '3am Eternal'. In 1990, there came the first 'ambient
house' LP, Chill Out, and in 1991, a further series of hit singles and
the bestselling album The White Room. Most bizarre of all, perhaps,
was a version of their song 'Justified and Ancient', which featured
country star Tammy Wynette on vocals and was only kept from the
Christmas number-one slot by the death of Freddie Mercury and the
re-release of 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. It was hardly surprising if the duo
began to imagine themselves immune to failure. They were having fun,
could do anything. At the 1992 Brit Awards, they proved as much.
Drummond is wearing jeans and work boots and fluorescent-orange donkey
jacket with 'K2 Plant Hire' emblazoned on the back. He is soft spoken
and intense, more comfortable discussing ideas and abstracts than
emotion or inner life. His second wife used to worry that he would
find God and join the church without warning. It hasn't happened yet,
but you can see how it might.
I'd heard that the original plan for the 1992 Brit Awards was to chop
up a sheep on stage and throw the gore into the audience.
Unfortunately, Extreme Noise Terror, the heavy metal backing band they
used for the performance, were vegetarians and refused to be part of
such a performance. Oh dear. At the same time, Drummond tells me with
absolute conviction that his first wish for the 1992 Brit Awards was
to cut off his hand and throw it into the audience. 'I thought that
would be the ultimate thing, a way of taking it even further. I was
inspired by the story of the red hand of Ulster, which you see on the
Ulster flag. That comes from the story that, when the first people
came to the region, there was a young man in the boat who wanted to be
the first to claim it for his king or laird, so he chopped off his
hand and threw it on to the beach. So in my head, I was chopping off
my own hand and throwing it into the massed ranks of the music
business, claiming it for myself.'
You're telling me that you seriously considered this?
'Yes, but it's hard... you end up going down an avenue where you are
almost daring yourself. I bought the implement... and then... Jimmy
talked me down, persuaded me that I didn't have to. The sheep became
symbolic. They took the place of the hand.'
Extraordinary. I am looking at Bill Drummond, yet hearing the voices
of Hannibal Lecter and David St Hubbins of Spinal Tap. Perhaps it's me
that needs help. At the same time, subsequent events suggest that
Drummond should be taken seriously. After the dissolving the KLF, he
and Cauty took the additional step of deleting their back catalogue,
thus cutting off future sales and royalties. Reconstituted as the K
Foundation, their first overt act was to establish a prize for the
worst art of the year in 1993. Remarkably, you might think, the
shortlist was the same as for that year's Turner Prize. Sculptor
Rachel Whiteread won both, and was allegedly warned that, if she
refused the K Foundation's £40,000, it would be set alight. The Turner
Prize was worth £20,000. Whiteread did all right that year. Soon,
however, the ante would be upped.
I want to know two obvious things, the first being what possessed
Drummond and his partner to burn 1 million, the second being what he
felt at the moment he knew the money couldn't be retrieved, that it
was gone forever. He tries to tell me that his actions that day were
just like the others.
'I think I've always done the same thing, and it's just what it looks
like on the outside that's different,' he contends, unconvincingly. 'I
don't know what it is, but it's dealing with that same feeling on the
inside and working with that.'
What kind of feeling?
'A sort of big thing that you've got to get out, and it's just the
wrapping that makes it look different. I'm trying to make sense of
'I don't know what it is.'
To me, as with the way you ended the KLF, it looked like an aggressive
expression of loathing, not dissimilar to Richie Edwards of Manic
Street Preachers carving '4 Real' in his arm with a penknife, or Kurt
Cobain blowing his brains out. Reading 45, I wondered if you were
exacting revenge on pop music for the damage it inflicted on your
personal life? As we know, the myth and iconography come at a price. I
also thought the act said something quite profound about our
relationship to money, as the anger felt in some quarters about your
not having given yours to charity showed, but we'll have to save that
for another time.
'No, I don't think that's right, though it touches on certain things.
Jimmy and I made an agreement not to talk about this for a certain
time, because the more we did, the more its impact became dissipated.
What I will say is that I've never seen it as a destructive thing. It
wasn't to destroy the money. It was to watch it burn.'
Can you imagine ever regretting what you've done?
'Well, obviously, if one of your kids is dying of cancer and there's
an expensive clinic in California which can cure them... but other
than that, no.'
The great thing about UK pop is that trash and substance can exist
side by side, often in the same artefact. In 45, Drummond betrays a
rare trace of pride as he tells the story of how a forgotten KLF tune
came to be used as an anti-Milosevic rallying cry in Serbia.
You spend your pop life longing for one of your three-and-a-half
minute slices of radio fodder to rise above being mere pop music, to
enter the social fabric of the nation and times we live through, like
'Give Peace a Chance' or 'Anarchy in the UK' or 'Three Lions'. And
this morning, I learn that a track that we recorded in a day, never
released as a single, thought was crap and had forgotten about has
taken on a meaning, an importance in a struggle I hardly understood.
The most poignant passages of 45 come at the end, though, in a pair of
chapters called 'Now That's What I Call Disillusionment' 1 and 2. In
the first, Drummond tells the story of how he and Echo and the
Bunnymen guitarist Will Sergeant flew home from the US specially to
catch a rare performance by San Franciscan avant-garde legends the
Residents, in Birmingham Town Hall, of all places. As so often in
these instances, what they found was not what they had conjured in
their fantasies. The next chapter concerns the KLF's self-mocking
final performance, disguised as old men in motorised wheelchairs, at
the Barbican in 1997. This provoked righteous scorn in the press,
mostly in relation to the irony of the KLF making a comeback, however
pranksterish and absurd. Drummond begins by quoting some of the
reviews of that show, despairingly to begin with, then with a growing
sense of peace and acceptance. Finally, he suggests, he was relieved
of all obligation to live the myth, to be credible, bankable, in touch
with the zeitgeist. He could pick up his pencil and get on with the
rest of his life. That wasn't the best thing that happened that night,
though. That involved a journalist from Time Out who had been one of
the KLF's most ardent fans.
In 1988, at the age of 12, he had bought our 'Doctorin' the Tardis'.
He got on board. Then through his teenage years he had faithfully
followed our every move. We were the idealised big brothers he never
had. On our retirement from the music business in 1992, he even wrote
a book recounting our exploits. Then that night in 1997, after we
daubed our message on the grey concrete and were about to speed off
looking for some after-hours action, I shook our former teenage Number
One Fan's hand and wished him well. In that moment, as our hands
shook, I detected something in the glint of his eye: disillusionment,
as real and pure as disillusionment can get. Almost as powerful and
strong as when I saw that bit of dark curly hair sticking out the back
of that Resident's eyeball mask. In our (Jimmy's and my) short journey
through pop, that moment of disillusionment was maybe our greatest
creation. Without that final state of disillusion, the power and glory
of pop is nothing. And when it happens (and if it has not already
happened for you, it surely will), savour it, because it very quickly
slithers into disinterest and gets forgotten as life marches on.
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