KLF video director reflects on pop rebels’ legacy and new BFI compilation
“I just made the films…” Director and designer Bill Butt denies he had much knowledge of the mystique and surreal internal logic which drove The KLF. At one point the biggest selling singles band in the world, this pairing of former A&R man Bill Drummond and artist/musician Jimmy Cauty would confound and fascinate the music world for four hectic years. “There were mad ideas. Incredibly ambitious,” Butt tells me. “The reason we could do them was because they used all their own money. None of those films would have been made if it had to involve a record company.”
Also known as The Timelords and The Justified Ancients Of Mu-Mu, the pair started their assault on the charts in London during 1987. Drummond (calling himself King Boy D) and Cauty (assuming the identity of Rockman Rock) began creating sample collages of anything from The Monkees and Whitney Houston to ABBA and Led Zeppelin.
The recordings were released as The JAMS’ 1987: What The Fuck Is Going On?, with the pair publicising their work through a oblique graffiti campaign. The accompanying attention quickly spread to ABBA and their lawyers, who robustly objected to the pair’s use of Dancing Queen on the album. Resulting lawsuit saw it withdrawn from sale, despite the pair driving to Sweden in Cauty’s old Ford Galaxy to reconcile with the pop legends. Finding nobody home at Polar Studios in Stockholm, they presented a local prostitute with a gold disc for the album; hoping she would pass for the band’s singer, Agnetha.
Undeterred, they swiftly released a version of the album without any of the samples. It contained exceptionally long silences and minimal arrangements, accompanied by detailed sleeve notes on how the listener could reinsert the samples and return the recordings to their intended state. This was offered free to anyone who surrendered an original version. While the lawsuit arguably prevented 1987 from achieving runaway sales, the furore brought them to the attention of a wider audience and an intrigued tabloid press. It wouldn’t be long before Drummond and Cauty would launch an assault upon the singles chart. Which is where Butt properly steps into this adventure.
He first met Drummond at art school in Northampton, when they were both 17. “We’ve joined up for bits of work ever since really. We were theatre chippies at the Belgrade Theatre. Then I helped him out with a set he was building for Illuminatus!.” Directed by Ken Campbell and inspired by the radical science fiction novels of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, the full version of Illuminatus! weighed in at nine-hours.
Later, as the KLF, Drummond and Cauty would draw heavily from Shea and Wilson’s science fiction novels, especially echoing their themes of conspiracy theories, subliminal messaging, absurdism and numerology. “I didn’t ever ask them about what made up the Illuminatus or the Mu Mu thing,” says Butt. “Although, I was fascinated by the number 23. I did put 23 stickers on cases for a while, thinking there must be something in it. Well… I didn’t lose any.”
When Drummond started getting heavily involved with music, he co-founded legendary Liverpool band, Big In Japan. After they collapsed, he went on to set up a record label and manage both Echo & The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes for a while, getting Butt to direct their pop promos. “When he got together with Jimmy, they then asked me to do some photos for them. So I did some stuff where they graffitied Tower Records. Then we got onto making films. We started off with a ‘cheap as chips’ VHS camera and ended up on the OO7 stage in about four years!”
With some clever guerilla marketing and some slightly annoyed Swedish disco sensations under their belt, Drummond and Cauty (who’d already enjoyed some success with bands like Brilliant and Zodiac Mindwarp) established themselves as the darlings of the music press. There was lots of discussion raging about whether they were the ultimate performance artists or anarchists attempting to subvert an increasingly anodyne industry. Yet the general public knew little about them, beyond some puzzled headlines. At least until the pair got themselves onto Top Of The Pops.
With an eye on the mainstream, the pair reinvented themselves as The Timelords. To further befuddle journalists who already struggled to categorise the pair, they appointed Cauty’s car, Ford Timelord as the band’s frontman, claiming it had written their single Doctorin’ The Tardis. Forced to direct any questions to a battered American police car equipped with flashing lights and a hidden speaker, journalists were enchanted by the novelty. Blending the Doctor Who theme, Gary Glitter’s Rock & Roll and The Sweet’s Block Buster, the release soared to number one on the UK singles chart and crashed into top tens around the world.
“Everything grew in scale. I wouldn’t say Doctorin’ The Tardis would win any awards… but it did! It just caught the imagination at the time.” Just as Butt was supposed to be planning his wedding, Drummond and Cauty asked him to make a promo video for the single. “So, two days after getting married, me and my wife are flying around over an airfield in Wiltshire. We’re still together after 36 years, despite not going on a proper honeymoon.” Now finding themselves with flourishing commercial success and some capital for more ambitious projects, Drummond and Cauty did what any sensible pop star would do – plough every penny into producing an impenetrable art movie.
Called The White Room, it documented The KLF’s search for a mythical place which could release them from their ‘contract with Eternity.’ “We were always talking about doing a road film,” says Butt. “But we decided, if we did, we should do it without all the boring bits – like story, dialogue and anything actually happening. We went out for a reconnaissance and found these great locations.” Much of it was filmed in Spain’s Sierra Nevada region, often featuring Ford Timelord driving around aimlessly and the pair gazing at majestic scenery. They also recorded a pop-house soundtrack which would accompany the film’s eventual release.
Faced with several difficulties, the production ate through the pair’s money. To keep everything running, The KLF released one of the soundtrack’s most commercially accessible tunes, Kylie Said To Jason. An undeniably catchy slice of Europop, it paid homage to the two Neighbours megastars and seemed assured to hit the top spot. “That was really funny… We had just spent a few bob filming in Spain and London, so it was quite good to be able to use some of this footage for the video. Then it dumped. I don’t think it even got into the top 100. That was a good lesson.”
After this, production for The White Room was shut down. The only way of seeing any of its strange marvels became through low quality VHS bootlegs covertly sold at record fairs. That is until last year, when Butt was approached by the British Film Institute to finally bring together all of the KLF’s video work in one official volume.
Assembling collected films of The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, The KLF and The Timelords, 23 Seconds To Eternity is a fascinating documentation of one of music’s most enigmatic outliers. “The BFI had already archived a load of my films that I’d done with Echo And The Bunnymen. I’d got to know their Head of Archiving, Will Fowler, and we used to talk about the KLF’s stuff and how it would be good to put it all together.”
Part of the reason The White Room never saw completion was down to Drummond and Cauty getting distracted by other projects, although Butt suggests the pair losing the initial version of the film didn’t help. “They took it to Berlin for some show, but also put down astroturf and brought a herd of sheep into the venue. I’m imagining mayhem ensued. They probably just forgot about this copy, which they’d spent a lot of money on making and editing.” He had an inkling of what could happen, so elected to have a reproduction made of it beforehand, where this new theatrical version is sourced from. “Which is why you now see all these marks across the film, which indicate where dissolves should be.”
It was quite important to get at least one aspect of the KLF story out into the public realm. Recently, there’s been a few films examining the pair’s work, including an Omnibus documentary which ended up ‘taking the piss’. “Which is inevitable really. What we wanted to do was just show our films. All my links are just explaining why we went from one thing to the next, rather than the story behind everything. Because that’s probably best left as a mystery…”
Around the time that the film’s production shuddered to a halt, it became apparent underground DJs across Europe were increasingly playing What Time Is Love. This early single had previously failed to capture the British public’s attention, but it was becoming popular with the clubbers. In response, they recycled songs from The White Room’s soundtrack, layering them with crowd noises, more aggressive keyboard hooks and speedy Euro-style rapping to create the Stadium House trilogy.
Now officially calling themselves The KLF (which stood for The Kopyright Liberation Front), new versions of What Time Is Love?, 3AM Eternal and Last Train To Trancentral all surged to the upper reaches of the charts. Each featured increasingly extravagant and bombastic videos, which stood apart from the usual MTV output. “We kept doing bigger and bigger stuff. But it seemed normal. It’s only when you stop that you realise it was a bit mad. But all the better for it.” For the third single’s video a scaled-down city, (complete with mountains, roads and train lines) was built in a squat near Kennington. “That set was massive. It was some of the most complex things we did.”
Britain was gripped by the rave scene. Music you’d once only hear in a crumbling former cotton mill outside Blackburn was filtering through onto the radio. And the duo’s music fitted in perfectly with the new sound. Always wanting to take things a little further, Drummond and Cauty’s next few releases were even more audacious. But these would also see the eventual rejection of an industry they’d been blatantly trying to subvert. It was decided to release a more rock-oriented version of What Time Is Love? for an American audience.
The pair enlisted the huge vocal talents of Deep Purple frontman, Glenn Hughes, sampled some guitars and wrote America: What Time Is Love?. When it came to the video, the band wanted something memorable. An idea was formed to get Hughes to deliver his epic vocals on a longboat full of Vikings sailing through a heavy storm. “Initially, we were going to buy that Viking ship and sail it across the North Sea,” says Butt with a small chuckle. “But I said it might be a bit hectic doing that.” In the end, the band compromised with the iconic Albert R. Broccoli 007 Stage, filled it with water and let their imaginations run wild. “I didn’t know we’d get the 007 stage at the time, but that was the only one with a big enough tank. Glenn didn’t even know what the film was going to be. When a 12-cylinder engine wind machine started firing up, and the firehoses were directed at him, he wasn’t best pleased.”
Butt says they used 35mm film on all the videos, so needed proper movie crews who were accustomed to working in this format. “They worked for a fraction of their fees because what we were doing was quite interesting. We’d also get given cameras by Panavision and stock from Kodak. We’d even get deals at the labs. We paid a fraction of what we should have done for the stages at Pinewood and Shepperton. People were fascinated by what we were doing. We were just lucky really.”
After releasing It’s Grim Up North, which offered a list of Northern towns over a pounding techno beat (the accompanying graffiti marketing prompting an angry early day motion in the House of Commons), they reworked an idea which had been floating around since the 1987 album. It was decided another big-name star was needed for the vocals. “That’s Bill for you. They were just talking between themselves, and decided Tammy Wynette would be best for it. By the end of the day, he was talking to her and seeing if she’d be up for it.” The result was Justified & Ancient (Stand By Your Jams), an unlikely pairing of the hottest band on the planet and the Queen of Country.
“Tammy was wonderful to work with, but she didn’t really have a clue what was going on. She thought it was called ‘Justified And Anxious’! Which summed it up because it was a hard film to make. There were so many things which had to fit together.” Butt and The KLF paired her with an ice cream van, tribal dancers, a large choir and a submarine, in a video which still looks incredible today. “The worst bit is watching all the trucks arrive and wondering what you’re going to do with it all,” says Butt.
At the height of their fame, the pair just checked out. But in the fiercest way possible. They announced their retirement from the music industry by depositing a dead sheep outside an afterparty for The Brits, with the accompanying message: “I died for you.” It was hours after winning Best Band at the actual awards show, where they performed with a thrash metal band and fired blanks from a machine gun at the bemused audience. The pair then withdrew all their music from sale. They later attracted further controversy, after subverting the Turner Prize and then burning their remaining royalties cash on the Scottish island of Jura in front of a small group of journalists. “I didn’t get involved with all the stuff at the end, like with the money… After the Brit Awards, I thought: ‘Blimey. It’s getting a bit extreme now.’”
Could there ever be a band like The KLF again? There’s been a long tradition of performers blurring the lines between music and art, but few holding an open contempt for the accepted way of doing things have found success. Butt says the pair achieved so much because they believed in themselves enough to put every penny they made back into their work. “If record companies are involved, I don’t know if there’ll ever be another band like that again. The intensity that they were working at does take it out of you. So, they were ready for a break.”
The release of 23 Seconds To Eternity seeks to cement The KLF’s legacy. There’s an enduring fascination with the pair, and this irreverent path to stardom. “There are sites concerned with every aspect of their work,” says Butt. “There’s also a KLF reenactment society. Instead of dressing up as Roundheads and Cavaliers, they dress up as Bill and Jimmy and do various things. Which sounds great! Bill has described 23 Seconds as being a KLF enactment. Basically, we’re all like a tribute act.”
In the end, perhaps Drummond and Cauty realised the industry was starting to pigeonhole them as pranksters who exploited pop music and DIY marketing to force their way into the charts. “It was certainly all thought through. Bill had been an A&R guy, as well as the manager of big bands. He also knew his way around production.” But, perhaps, The KLF were more of an informal conceptual art movement, which mostly existed in the reactions it provoked. Repeatedly through their work, you’ll find themes of fire, movement and sacrifice. Like Discordians in the 60s, they seem to have revelled in causing confusion and defying expectations.
The wild stories and wilful trolling are too numerous to recount here. The pair officially reunited in 1997 for just 23 minutes and, most recently, announced the opening of care homes for elderly ravers. The truth is likely outweighed by the urban myths, and there’s good reason to think Drummond and Cauty were happy to let the supposition flourish. “I think it worked in their favour, but also in some respects against them. When they started out with the car as the spokesman for the band, the tabloids loved it. That was great fun. Then when they stuck to it, and wouldn’t talk to journalists, people got pissed off with them. But they still maintain that anonymity. Like Banksy. Nobody really knows the full story.”
Bill Butt’s 23 Seconds To Eternity is available on DVD and Blu-ray now. Find out more at: www.shop.bfi.org.uk