Although this is essentially just a direct abridged extract from Higher Than The Sun – my book about Primal Scream, Teenage Fanclub, My Bloody Valentine and Saint Etienne, and the four astonishing albums they released when the general public weren’t looking – and was only ever intended as promotion for it, there’s something powerful and compelling about this account of The KLF ending their accidentally chart-topping career in a wallop of noise and impoliteness at the UK music industry’s decidedly polite and non-noisy annual self-congratulatory bash. Sometimes, when something is hidden deep within a sea of text that you’ve been working on for months, you don’t notice anything remarkable about it until you wind up having to look at it in isolation.
I really don’t feel I can take any of the credit for this though. Maybe I do tell the story well, but it’s one gobsmacking humdinger of a story, and the fact that The KLF have never explained exactly why they did it – and when pushed hard on the matter don’t even seem to be able to in the first place – has only added to its mystique, power and sheer sense of thrill. As far as I’m concerned it doesn’t need explaining, though – whatever their reasons, they had decided that they didn’t want to do something any more, and set about extracting themselves from it in the most provocative, bridge-burning and entirely in-character way imaginable without actually being offensive (and on balance, that appears to be a harder conceit to pull off than you might reasonably assume). It’s certainly more in the spirit of ‘punk’ than any shower of whining attention-seeking berks with ‘shock’ lyrics and no shower gel. In a year that also saw Ice-T dragged into what only narrowly averted becoming a state censorship row, and the after-effects of the still-raging row over Carter USM flooring a television presenter who took the piss out of them live in front of a massive audience, it’s The KLF’s antics that are remembered and that is no mean feat. It’s also a more inspiring moment than many seem prepared to give them credit for, and no doubt there are legions of their fans who have contemplated doing something similarly enigmatic and decisive. Actually, why didn’t I include this in my list of the best endings ever?
While Alan McGee’s failure to transform Primal Scream, Saint Etienne, My Bloody Valentine and Teenage Fanclub overnight into globe-straddling millionaire megastars was almost entirely down to both the ultimately uncompromising nature of their music and, in most cases, the varyingly ‘difficult’ nature of the artists concerned, it is still true to say that any such ambitions were decidedly at odds with an industry that was heavily weighted against allowing independent labels to succeed on their own terms.
Indeed, there was some suggestion around this time that The British Phonographic Industry felt that it was time that the troublesome independent sector was brought into line. Amongst several moves seemingly intended to weaken its constitution and assimilate it comfortably into the mainstream were a series of showcases for indie bands in 1991 under the banner ‘The Great British Music Weekend’, from which no participants seemed to walk away with anything short of serious misgivings, and a concerted push to replace the Independent Chart with a wider Alternative Chart, which would have allowed major label million-sellers like Nirvana to dominate at the expense of smaller scale acts; this latter ambition was seen off by a particularly sustained rebuttal from the NME. If the independent sector was to retain its integrity, then clearly it would have to stand apart from any attempts to get it to play by everyone else’s rules.
Perhaps sensing all of this, on 12th February 1992, The KLF brought the curtain down on the artier end of indie music’s association with the mainstream in fine style. Rumours had been circulating for some time that the million-selling yet defiantly uncoinventional dance music duo were struggling with the pressures and demands of the industry and their unexpected and indeed unprecedented level of success, and that Bill Drummond in particular was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Reports had filtered out that the follow-up album they were working on, tentatively titled The Black Room, combined solidly commercial hooks with hardcore techno and ugly guitar noise. With a likely award for Best British Group in the offing, The KLF were booked to open the 1992 Brit Awards, the annual music industry corporate bash notorious for lavishing more attention on money men and high earning artists – even if they hadn’t released a record in several years – than on any actual developments in the music scene. For two erstwhile punk rockers and art students who had already developed a serious grudge against the industry ‘suits’, the temptation to create havoc was too great to pass up.
Instead of the expected high-concept spectacle, the audience were treated to a flashing blue police light and Drummond – walking with the aid of a crutch – announcing “this is television freedom” before yelling the lyrics to their previously radio-friendly singalong ‘Stadium House’ chart-topper 3am Eternal at a ferocious speed, accompanied by hardcore punk-metal band Extreme Noise Terror, and closing the performance by firing blanks at the audience from a machine gun while the band’s publicist Scott Piering announced “Ladies and Gentlemen – The KLF have left the music business”. The audience had in fact got off lightly – only at the very last minute did Extreme Noise Terror manage to talk Drummond out of catapulting a dead sheep into the middle of the parade of expensive evening wear.
The final close-up of Drummond – who would subsequently devote himself exclusively to art and writing (though occasionally with musical elements) – shows a man clearly feeling like a huge burden has been lifted from him; the audience – apart from classical conductor Georg Solti who had laughably walked out in ‘protest’ – simply clap out of politeness with disgusted expressions, although a longshot reveals veteran agit-prop singer-songwriter Billy Bragg applauding with great enthusiasm. Rarely has the distance between art and commerce been so neatly – if accidentally – encapsulated. It would be left to bands more willing to play the game – amongst them Blur, Suede and Pulp, who in time would all have their own hair-raising escapades at The Brits – to pick up the baton a couple of years later.
You can get Higher Than The Sun in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. You can also find another extract – this time looking at the story behind Loaded by Primal Scream – here, and an interview with me about the background to the book here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.