The Lost Classic of Hip House Plunderphonia

“All sounds on this recording have been captured by the KLF in the name of mu. We hereby liberate these sounds from all copyright restrictions, without prejudice.”

The statement appears around the center label of The KLF’s very first full-length recording, published under what would be the first of many monikers, The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. John Higgs notes in his book, The KLF: Chas, Magic, and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds that the name, lifted from The Illuminatus! trilogy represented “the principle of chaos working against the corporate music industry, a guerilla band of musical anarchists who existed to disrupt, confuse and destroy.”

The year was 1987, and Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty were pillaging the music industry with reckless abandon. The album, titled 1987 What The Fuck Is Going On? could never be reissued in today’s world of militant copyright litigation. The record makes liberal use of samples ripped from massive artists who would be untouchable in the 21st century, including Stevie Wonder, The Fall, Beatles, ABBA, The Monkees, The J.B.s, Dave Brubeck, Sex Pistols, Scott Walker, Led Zeppelin and Bo Diddley.

The KLF - Justified Ancients of Mu Mu - 1987 - What the  Fuck is Going On.JPG

You don’t make friends in the music industry by sampling just about the entire refrain of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”, and the duo was promptly investigated by the Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society, who in August of that year ordered The JAMs to recall and destroy all unsold copies of 1987. In an effort to salvage the project, The JAMs traveled to Sweden with the remaining copies of the album hoping to negotiate with ABBA. Sadly, the band wouldn’t hear of it, and so, quite ceremoniously,  The JAMs burnt the remaining LPs in a pyre in the Swedish countryside, the scene depicted on the front and back covers of their 1988 JAMs farewell, Who Killed the JAMs. The album featured the track, “Burn the Bastards,” a sample-heavy celebration of the fire set to house music.

The KLF - The History of The JAMs (1988) back cover - burning of 1987

1987 stands as a piece of history – a snapshot of a sliver of time when an act of plunderphonia like this was still possible. It embodied the ideas of sampling, hip-hop, and Discordianism and somehow, it all made sense together.

Higgs contextualizes the intent and the perception of this recording: “If and when The JAMs are remembered today, it is for their pioneering role in establishing sampling as a legitimate creative act in modern music. In many ways, that misses what it was they were doing.” While today’s understanding of sampling concerns itself with manipulating and reshaping elements of a recording and repurposing them for something new, The JAMs had something else in mind. “They took things not for how they sounded, but for what they represented,” Higgs explains. “When they took parts of ABBA and The Beatles, it was not because of the quality of the sound, but very specifically because they were records by ABBA and The Beatles.” The act was an exercise in what the Situationists called, détournement, which involves taking the cultural images forced upon us and using them instead for our own ends.

Remix culture really came into its own in the digital age, where the technology to rip and reshape culture became democratized to the point where any 13-year-old can start remixing and mashing copyrighted works. But in 1987, just two years after John Oswald’s Plunderphonics EP was released, and at the dawn of Negativland, this was still new and unplundered territory in the world of music.

And the world is waiting for August 23rd, when The KLF will close their 23-year contractual hiatus, returning to the eternal question asked with their first release.

What the fuck is going on?

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Photograph by: The KLF

Philosophical Wax – Artistic Influence Comes Full-Circle

With the whole of my Saturday evening at my command I decided to delve deeper into the culture surrounding a yet-unread title on my bookshelf – The notorious Illuminatus! Trilogy.  Little did I know that the exploration would bring a number of my artistic and musical favorites full-circle in a sphere of related influence!

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Having read Malaclypse the Younger’s Principia Discordia, (a wonderful bit of counter-cultural madness), I already had a fundamental (mis)understanding of the lunacy that is Discordianism.  But in my readings, there were multiple references to its earlier incarnation – the social revolutionaries known as The Situationist International.

For those unfamiliar with the group, their philosophy is, for the most part, summarized thusly:

[Situationism] is derived primarily from anti-authoritarian Marxism and the avant-garde art movements of the early 20th century, particularly Dada and Surrealism.  Overall, situationist theory represented an attempt to synthesize this diverse field of theoretical disciplines into a modern and comprehensive critique of mid-20th century advanced capitalism.

Essential to situationist theory was the concept of the spectacle, best-illustrated in Guy Debord’s 1967 book and found-footage film – each titled, La société du spectacle (The Society of the Spectacle).

The Spectacle is a criticism of advanced Capitalism, where real-life experiences are replaced with the commodified consumerist culture of living through one’s possessions.  The Situationists viewed this passive consumption as damaging to the quality of human life for both individuals and society.  Instead of living vicariously through one’s purchases and property, the Situationists sought to create situations – moments of life deliberately constructed for the purpose of reawakening and pursuing authentic desires, experiencing the feeling of life and adventure, and the liberation of everyday life.

The film, The Society of the Spectacle (1973) is available in its entirety, dubbed Fr subbed Eng here:

And only a few years later, the film Network (1976) would similarly address the societal dangers of mass media.

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This philosophy was clearly an influence on the hippie art scene of the 1960 with their staging of nearly-spontaneous Happenings.  I was honored to attend the first Happening of the season in Buffalo for an impromptu performance of Terry Riley’s In C with participation from children in the audience.

Tracking the influence back even further (and then again, to the present) I learned of the French avant-garde movement, established in Paris in the mid-1940s by Romanian immigrant Isidore Isou known as Lettrisme (Lettrism) and his concept of Hypergraphics in 1954.

Here is an Orson Welles Interview featuring Isidore Isou and Lettrist poetry – rich with Dadaist influence.

In 1958, Columbia Records issued the very first recordings of Letterist poetry – Maurice Lemaître presente le lettrisme.

This poetry adds another level of historical context to the performance I attended by composer Ethan Hayden at the University at Buffalo this past January.  While there was likely a Situationist influence on his work, “…ce dangereux supplément…” (2015) for solo voice (with optional electronics & video), Hayden’s piece is phonetically and linguistically more refined (though equally absurd!) both in its content and his delivery.  While I absolutely recognize the importance of Isidore Isou’s philosophy and his primitivist poems, Hayden has a far-greater command of language (or perhaps of nonsense?) and I look forward to his future performances.

And in 2007 to celebrate the life of Isou, The End of the Age of Divinity was published in his honor.  The book is available for free below.

http://antisystemic.org/SW/TheEndOfTheAgeOfDivinity-Enkutatach409.pdf

Once again coming full-circle to more recent artistic movements, Lettrism brought me to aforementioned Lettrist hypergraphical art, pictured below.

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While I am by no means a scholar of art history, the influence here is clear as day on the 1990s typographic art of David Carson (famed for his work in Raygun Magazine and for Nine Inch Nails) and on Karl Hyde and John Warwicker’s Tomato art collective, which created the deconstructivist typographical art for Underworld’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman.

The work of David Carson…

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and of Tomato…

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Art of this nature is rooted in the cut-up technique first employed by the Dadaists in the 1920 and again in the late 1950s and early 1960s by William S. Burroughs.  But it was the audio incarnation of cut-up that I first encountered in music culture, from the earliest (and quite literal) tape cut-ups of musique concrete, to the resurfacing of the method by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Eno, and others, to the explosion of sampledelica culture in 1980s and 90s hip-hop and turntablism.

And around the same time, the radical and subversive art of culture jamming was born.  The term, coined in 1984, refers to any form of guerilla communication, such as the vandalist works by The Billboard Liberation Front and the illegal-art sample-based music of Negativland.

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All of this brought me back, yet again full-circle to The KLF.  The documentary, On the Passage of a few People through a Rather Brief Moment in Time: The Situationist International 1956-1972 contains flashes of the phrase,

“The Time for Art is Over.”

This very notion was later reiterated by Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond of the KLF in the K Foundation’s cryptic adverts appearing in UK national newspapers in 1993.  The first ad proclaimed,

K_Foundation_-_Abandon_All_Art_Now_Print

The Situationist documentary is available on Youtube in 3 parts.

It is only now that I realize that John Higgs’ endlessly fascinating book, THE KLF: Chaos, Magic, and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds directly referenced the Situationists, the Discordians, Alan Moore and “Ideaspace”, and Robert Anton Wilson – all of the key figures I am now exploring.

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Incredible discoveries are waiting to be made every day, and quiet Saturday evenings, like yesterday’s, are gleaming with potential for magic just like this. I’ve now a week ahead of me and a century of exciting new art to explore.

Chaos, Magic, and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds

More big news to finish off the year with a bang!

Two new titles to report – one from each of my greatest musical inspirations.

The first is John Higgs’ new book – THE KLF: Chaos, Magic, and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds.

To quote DJ Food, who just blogged about the book at the end of October:

“If there’s one event that the book centers on it’s the burning of a million pounds and from there he draws clear lines to Robert Anton Wilson & Robert Shea, Alan Moore, Ken Campbell, the number 23, Dr Who, magical thinking, The Dadaists, the Devil, Discordianism, the assassination of Kennedy, Wicker Men and the banking crisis of the late 20th Century.”

This is definitely not your average KLF biography.

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The book went into print just last September, so I was happy to create an entry for the title on Goodreads and to provide its first review.

I’m 3/4 through this brilliant book and with each new chapter I am amazed how much this humble little paperback reveals about global events and cultural responses of the 20th century.

For example, Chapter 12: Undercurrents examines the quiet death of 20th century culture – the forgettable early-to-mid 90s.

The chapter summarizes the beginnings and endings of cultural climates, citing key events beginning with Darwinism’s impact on the pillar of faith in the late nineteenth century to The Great War, the conflict of the 40s, the conformity of the 50s, the liberation of the 60s, the hedonistic self-indulgence of the 70s, and the shift toward material wealth in the 1980s.

All of this lead to the 90s – the point where culture simply burned out. “They were out of ideas.” Slacker became the iconic low-culture film of 1991. Nihilism peaked in 1994 with Kurt Cobain’s suicide, the KLF’s burning of a million pounds, and the death of Bill Hicks.

And with these events, Higgs declares, “this was the point when the constant creation of new musical genres that had characterized the 20th century came to an end.”

Higgs refers to 1991-94 as the “Age of Extremes,” bracketed by the end of the Cold War and by the birth of first popular web browser.

The chapter also touches upon Surrealism, Situationism, Anti-capitalism, Communism, Fascism, Dadaism, The Cabaret Voltaire, Generation X, Tony Blair, George W Bush, The Spice Girls, and how all of these lead us to the new millennium.

Other chapters are equally rich in content.  Chapter 4: Magic and Moore, (specifically pp 80 – 89) examine the nature of consciousness, Carl Jung, Alan Moore’s concept of “Ideaspace,” and reality, itself.

A thoroughly exciting book, I had to put it down mid-chapter just to collect my thoughts.

One thing is for certain – Higgs’ book will give you more insight into the mysterious entity that is the K-Foundation than you could ever have asked for.

The KLF Print by Innerspaceboy 2013
A screen print design I made in tribute to the K Foundation earlier this summer.

And I was absolutely delighted when I received a record from my other great inspiration in the post – the first solo recording from Underworld-frontman Karl Hyde.

For those who aren’t aware of my history with Underworld, the debut record of Underworld Mk II – Dubnobasswithmyheadman was the very first album I heard which wasn’t top 40 radio pop.

Dubnobasswithmyheadman

The album set me on a path to discover the progressive and cerebral sounds of the avant-garde and the history of electronic music.  And the album’s packaging, designed by Karl Hyde and his design company, Tomato, inspired me to pursue my degree in graphic design.

In the 35 years since two gents from Cardiff sold their first single out of the boot of their car, Underworld has gone on to write floor-stomping anthems, to collaborate with Danny Boyle on Trainspotting and more recently, the Frankenstein play with Benedict Cumberbatch, and to score the 3-hour opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games.
They’ve produced experimental works with Brian Eno and created ambient installation pieces for their Tomato art collective.

And now, in 2013, Karl Hyde has released his first-ever solo LP at the age of 57.

Karl Hyde - Edgeland

Edgeland is an elegant and ethereal experimental record – an appropriately sophisticated first solo venture for the man who has been pioneering the electronic genre for decades.

There are subtle but clear elements of inspiration sprinkled throughout the record which Karl’s life-long fans will surely detect.  The last 40 seconds of “Final Ray of the Sun” for example contains a few notes from a muted, compressed harmonica.  The sample comes from a single titled, “Big Mouth” released by Karl back in 1995 under the moniker, Lemon Interupt.  The single received little press or radio play, but true Underworld fans will smile contentedly when the harmonica begins to play on “Final Ray.”

The percussive piano loop which comprises the opening 10 seconds of “Out of Darkness” serves as a subtle nod to Terry Riley’s genre-defining minimal masterpiece, “In C.”

Furthermore, the fragmented instrumentation of “Dancing on the Graves” and the mechanical vocals of “Cascading Lights” are musical elements one might suspect were lifted from Brain Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

Even if not for those particular samples, Brian Eno’s collaborative impact is certainly evident in Karl’s trademarked stream-of-consciousness vocals.  It is a mature, contemplative record and a triumph for Karl Hyde.

The release of this new LP inspired me to take on a large project.  This evening I set myself to the task of downloading the largest compendium of Underworld’s work – all in 320CBR  quality and merged it with my own UW library, twice the size of the web-sourced archive.

In four hours’ time, I had constructed a 27GB network of 393 sub-folders and over 2,500 tracks.  I applied uniform naming conventions to the entire set to establish the first archival-quality library of their extended catalog.

Each folder is prefixed with the year of release, and suffixed with its respective catalog number.  Albums are sorted into folders such as ALBUMS, DEMOS & PROTOTYPES, INTERVIEWS, LIVE RELEASES, SINGLES, SOUNDTRACKS, etc, etc.

I plan to spend the remaining evenings of the year tagging the entire network of files to match the folder structure.

And I will enjoy every minute of it.

Thanks for tuning in for 2013 and I’ll see you next year!