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.

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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