Will Pop Eat Itself? – A Contextual Examination of The Golden Age of Sample Culture

Every once in a while, a book finds its reader, in a strange and inexplicable fashion. I happened upon Will Pop Eat Itself? while visiting a massive three-story used bookshop in Niagara Falls with a friend. I wandered to the basement after requesting the lights be switched on by the proprietor, and quickly found myself in the music section where the title practically leapt off the shelf insisting that I pick it up.

A quick scan of the back cover seized my attention as The KLF were mentioned repeatedly, and leafing through the pages I beheld countless references to their work. And no fewer than three paragraphs into the first chapter I found the author drawing comparative parallels between postmodern music and Finnegans Wake. I absolutely needed this book in my life. I read it voraciously in the days ahead, pacing myself to take careful notes.

What made my discovery particularly serendipitous was that I was at the very same time exploring other historical examinations of sample culture, most notably Benjamin Franzen’s 2009 documentary film, Copyright Criminals which tells the story of the golden age of sampling – precisely the period about which the book was written.

Jeremy J Beadle - Will Pop Eat Itself

In the introduction, Beadle states that “If you really want to know what’s going on in a society look at its popular culture” and that pop had invariably always been eating itself. He cites Elvis’ covers of other musicians and how “Rock Around the Clock” was just a rework of the earlier hit “Shake Rattle & Roll” as early examples. Beadle presents one of his main points here:

‘Pop’ as we understand it was – whether you date it from Haley, Presley or some other more recondite marker of your own devising – born around 1955 or 1956, and reached a point where it seemed exhausted about thirty years later. The digital sampler proved the ideal tool for pop to take itself apart, thus arriving at modernism and postmodernism simultaneously.

He asks, “is there any future in this autocannibalism? Or is this idea that pop will eat itself a much older one than we realize?”

1. Things Fall Apart

The first chapter wastes no time in diving into the history of artistic self-consumption. Finnegans Wake is offered as an early example of how popular culture can be enlightening and how every artefact somehow reeks of the period of its creation. Other significant works cited include the cultural escapism of Gone With the Wind and The Sound of Music.

Beadle begins to examine the temporal nature of cultural phenomena, describing the disintegration of cultural hegemony – the Soviet Union lasting fewer than 75 years and America’s economy being mortgaged to the Chinese. He notes how the sixteenth century established forms of tonality were rejected by the composers of the Second Viennese School and explores medieval allegorical writings segueing to staples of modernist literature to contextualize the evolution of the arts. Henry James’ In the Cage and The Golden Bowl, Eliot’s The Waste Land, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Joyce’s Ulysses are visited to frame the deconstruction of literary tradition and cultural ideals.

And with the birth of the gramophone record, the teenager, disposable income, and the consumer came the concept of the pop star. Beadle explains:

The pop-star business was the child of two particularly twentieth-century phenomena – the technology of recording and mass marketing.

And succinctly describes the dilemma of pop thusly:

Pop music is after all a necessarily limited form – a simple, memorable melody, which requires a relatively simple tonality and series of tonal relations, usually over a regular four-in-a-bar beat. There is only a limited number of permutations through which these basic requirements can be met. And when forms are exhausted the tendency is to turn inwards.

Beadle closes the chapter demonstrating that, with the advent of the sampler, pop music endeavored to rip it all up and start again, just like The Waste Land, Schoenberg, and cubism – examples he explores in greater depth in subsequent chapters.

2. Bricks in the Wall of Sound

The second chapter explores milestone events which shaped the nature and influence of the gramophone record. At the outset Beadle explains that the sampler empowered the producer to emerge as the artist themselves and cites several pivotal moments of recording history. The first example he offers is Caruso’s 1902 performance of ‘Veste la giubba’ where the recording offered listeners the closest thing to the real experience of a live performance. He goes on to describe Walter Legge’s notorious recording of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde – likely the first known example of ‘dishonest dubbing’ wherein the voice of Legge’s wife was substituted for the credited performer in order to hit the highest notes of the piece. And with Culshaw’s recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle for Decca, Beadle explains, the studio became an art form itself rather than merely a tool, as studio effects rendered a produced recording arguably superior to that of the concert hall experience. The production wizardry of Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, and George Martin are discussed, as well as Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland, (each of Motown fame) and a host of others.

3. Stars on 45

Pressing on through history, Beadle describes how punk briefly revitalized the concept of the single in the uncertain marketability of the post-Beatle age. Anti-racist sentiment helped usher in the reggae revival and the rise of ska with 2-Tone Records. The Jam similarly spearheaded the mod revival.

The chapter explores the Stars session musician medley phenomena in parallel to the birth of the political soundbite era of Margaret Thatcher, before moving onto the image-focused pop icons of Michael Jackson and Madonna. He closes with a summary of other aspects of the mid-80s musical landscape, from Christmas novelties to dance pop, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Wham!, and the academic wave of British art-school neo-minimalists.

4. Scratching Where It Itches examines the emergence of the scratch-mixing DJ, the birth of rap, and Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s visionary sampladelic work as The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. A brief history of black music is chronicled, from early spirituals to jazz to blues, then onto reggae and ‘toasting’, funk, and eventually to DJ and rap culture.

5. Kick Out the JAMs dives into the anti-song anti-instrument philosophy of Drummond and Cauty’s first album, 1987 (What the Fuck Is Going On?). Their outright cynicism and straightforward purloining of other artists’ work was a direct challenge to copyright and Beadle notes that “for all its cynicism about much contemporary pop music and public attitudes, [was] a deeply serious social and political statement.” Only 500 copies of their debut single, “All You Need is Love” were produced, and all were court ordered to be seized and destroyed elevating the cult iconic status of the duo. The chapter analyzes the raw and subversive nature of The JAMs’ 1987 and gives the record the detailed examination warranted by such a surreally iconic moment in contemporary music history. Beadle observes, “The point about this chaotic collage – chaotic in the sense that no apparently consistent frame of reference is maintained – is precisely that the listener is left without an objective correlative.” The epitome of postmodernism.

6. Hitting the High-tech Groove (Not Entirely Legally) provides a history of the sampler and examples of its execution from the author’s own experience in the studio. Beadle touches upon “The Singing Dogs (Medley)” novelty recordings, early synths, the Mellotron, and the Fairlight before describing the studio production process of his own experiments using an Apple Macintosh and an Akai S100 sampler with an 8MB board for the sample bank. (This was, after all, 1990.) It’s amazing to reflect on what was achieved with such minimal computing power at the dawn of the digital age.

7. Pump Up the Volume considers the single of the same name that Beadle argues marked pop music’s advance into modernism. He parallels its revolutionary impact to that of Schoenberg’s aforementioned chromaticism and to Picasso’s post-impressionist creations in that each of these artists purified their respective artistic landscape by reducing visual and auditory objects to their constituent elemental parts, abandoning conventions, and starting anew. Beadle critically examines the studio perfection and the artistic merit of this watershed recording. He concludes the chapter posing questions to the reader about the artistic merit of sampling, noting that any critic claiming that samplers merely reuse prior materials would have to say the same of Eliot’s The Wasteland or Joyce’s Ulysses, and that the very same could be said of Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, Mahler, Beckett, and countless others.

The remaining chapters further contextualize the then-emerging story of sampling. 8. Dirty Cash outlines the flood of sampler cash-in records that followed the release of “Pump Up the Volume.” 9. Mix-omatosis examines the decline of the pop single around 1989 and the nostalgia-soaked commercialism of the era’s advertising, and the hollowness of the Jive Bunny phenomenon. 10. And The Law Won (But the Jury is Still Out) presents several examples of sampled music in the courtroom, including the Biz Markie case and the DNA remix of “Tom’s Diner.” But it is the book’s finale which properly and most thoroughly addresses the question of the title.

The final chapter, 11. Justifiable or Just Ancient? is a fantastically analytical framing of The KLF’s later catalog. Here Beadle approaches the exhaustive and intricate cultural contextualization later perfected by John Higgs in his book, The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds. Beadle notes that “As The KLF they have managed to create a myth which is self-propagating, self-sufficient, self-consuming, and self-referencing,” which is precisely what makes the duo’s zenarchistic career so fascinating to critique and to curate.

Beadle concludes touching upon other artists who at the time were employing the sampler more as a natural production tool than a novelty and appropriately discusses the gritty, anti-consumerist recordings of the band Pop Will Eat Itself. He surmises that the sampler will find greater acceptance into the rock ethos in the years ahead and closes the text re-examining the question of the book’s title. Beadle successfully reinforces the twin points of his primary theme – that the sampler is a viable tool for composition, and that pop inevitably MUST eat itself by its very nature. Thus, Beadle demonstrates that the sampler is the most important creative innovation of the postmodern age and a principal figure in the future of music.

Will Pop Eat Itself? stands as a fitting historical document of the events and philosophies of the golden age of sampling, and is a wonderful addition to The Innerspace Labs’ library.

Time is Running In

On January 5th, a mysterious poster appeared in London, the same day as its website, k2planthireltd.com.

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The poster announced the end of the 23-year hiatus, (the number 23 having played a critical role in many of the KLF’s works as they relate to the 23-enigma of the Illuminati). This postponement of the K-Foundation was ceremoniously implemented by the duo signing an infamous contract in gold pen across the windscreen of a Nissan Bluebird November 5th, 1995 and the deal was sealed with the act of pushing the Bluebird off a 120-foot cliff at Cape Wrath. 23 years was intended to ‘provide opportunity of sufficient length for an accurate and appropriately executed response to their burning of a million quid’.  

Further investigation into this exciting new announcement led me to an even more mysterious YouTube account, user WGU 18G, which has been posting cryptic new KLF content since January 1st, when they uploaded a 46-minute video puzzle dubbed, “KLF 01 01 2017 WTF FOUND VHS.” Tiny video fragments were posted in the first 23 days of 2017, each a mash up of pop culture film footage recut to speak words like, “KLF” and “Justified Ancients” and “MuMu”. Mixed in are footage of Robert Anton Wilson, the Kennedy assassination, other Illuminati symbology, BBC educational film reels, and fraction-of-a-second long superimposed elements intended to reveal pieces of the puzzle… or to lead the viewer entirely off the scent.

And on January 7th, Instagram user @followersofmu uploaded this addition to the mystery:

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And today – the 23rd of January brings all of this news serendipitously to my attention on the very day my copy of my literary white whale – The KLF’s THE MANUAL arrived at my door from Germany.

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A week ago I decided that it would be foolish to let any more months pass, permitting the few remaining copies of this massive text listed for sale to be snatched up by other collectors. I quickly purchased a copy of the second (and final) edition but was disappointed to see that the giant oversize MANUAL had been reduced to a minute handbook for its reprint and that the author and title were changed to a less-impressive re-wording, (see below).

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Within moments, I located a first edition copy in outstanding condition for only $30 more, which made my decision a no-brainer. In minutes, I’d canceled my order and secured an original for my library.

For those unfamiliar with THE MANUAL, it was published in 1988 and dubbed, “THE MAJESTIC INSIDE STORY OF HOW TO MANIPULATE THE POP MUSIC WORLD.” The book instructs the reader to quit whatever band they’ll in, sell all their gear, buy the top pop singles of the day, sample them, have a number 1 hit, and be forgotten by lunchtime. The book promises that if you’ve followed their instructions and don’t make it to number one, that they’ll refund your purchase.

The first printing of the book is credited to The Timelords, as Cauty and Drummond had just successfully implemented their guide and made it to number one under that moniker with the ridiculous hit, “Doctorin’ the Tardis.” And they were right – just as THE MANUAL instructs, the track liberally samples the theme music from Doctor Who, Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll (Part Two)”, sections from “Blockbuster!” by Sweet and “Let’s Get Together Tonite” by Steve Walsh, and neither member of the duo played a single note on the track. Critics hated it. The song was shite. But it made it to number one.

In the years since the abandonment of the K Foundation, Drummond and Cauty have done some fantastic work. Bill Drummond created The 17 and published a book of its collected writings. Graffiti appeared in Derby with messages like this:

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And soon thereafter, a series of posters were created to convey the concept of The 17.

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Meanwhile, Cauty continued his anarchistic art, most recently with a touring art installation dubbed The Aftermath Dislocation Principle (ADP) Riot Tour. ADP is a massive graffiti-covered shipping container with small lenses positioned around its perimeter which grant observers a glimpse into a post-riot dystopian miniature city contained within. Spectators can see flashing lights, police blockades, and the remains of a city torn asunder accompanied by the faint sound of police radio signals from inside the container. The installation toured in from April to December of 2016 and was featured as part of Banksy’s Dismaland. ADP Riot was a larger scale implementation of the theme Cauty explored in 2011 with A Riot in a Jam Jar.

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But all of this – the zenarchistic mythos of the KLF, the Manual, the burning of a million pounds at Jura, their art and music… and 23 years of contractual silence… has led to their return in 2017.

Time is running in.

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UPDATE 01-24-17: Information from some additional sources appear to dispell the cryptic rumours outlined above. First, on January 5th, The Guardian published an article titled, The KLF are back (sort of) – and it’s exactly what 2017 needs containing the following statement:

News of the comeback centred on a mediocre YouTube collage featuring the duo’s previous videos, which turned out to be something someone had compiled for a 2015 book talk. Drummond himself rained on the whole parade, saying: “Jimmy and I have always remained very close but we have no plans to reform the KLF or exploit our back catalogue in any way.”

His quote, it turns out, was a feat of semantic nuance. Within 24 hours, a photograph of a chanced-upon bill poster appeared on social media, confirming that the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (not the KLF) were working on new material (rather than exploiting their back catalogue), and that it would be unveiled on 23 August.

Cauty tweeted confirmation of this new material shortly thereafter.

And on 01-17-17, KLF.de posted the following notice:

In the aftershock of this month’s announcement some publications were fast on turning excitement into exaggeration, so we thought it necessary to point out some facts or, at the very least, debunk some rumours.

  1. The KLF have not announced their return.
  2. At this point no music releases have been teased, be it reissues or freshly recorded material.
  3. There will be no new Jimmy/Alex collaboration. This particular rumour came from a news page which took the then slightly dated Positive Void website for the official K2 Plant Hire Ltd. homepage.

At this point the only official information is that The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu are gonna unveil their sculpture The Twenty-Three Year Moratorium on August 23rd as announced via the K2 Plant Hire poster and the liner notes from Bill Drummond’s “Imagine…” DVD.

In the meantime, everybody lie down on the floor and keep calm.

So for now, we’re just Waiting.

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