Chaos, Magic, And The Band Who Burned A Million Pounds - Revisiting The KLF

They might have burned all their money for no discernable reason, but in a world where everyone is an attention seeker, that's no reason to dislike them...
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They might have burned all their money for no discernable reason, but in a world where everyone is an attention seeker, that's no reason to dislike them...

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Way back in 1994, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty – better known as The KLF, the Brit-award winning dance music duo who had been the best-selling singles band in the world – took their last million pounds to a deserted boathouse on the Scottish island of Jura and, in the middle of a damp, rainy night, set the whole lot on fire.

They were asked why they had done this, but they were unable to come up with an explanation.

This, understandably, annoyed a lot of people. There was some debate as to whether their actions were art, or magic, or anarchy, or some form of cry for help. With hindsight we can recognise that these are not mutually exclusive, and that such a symbolically complex act was not going to be understood with a single explanation. Back in the nineties, however, a simpler explanation was favoured, and it was this: Cauty and Drummond burned their money because they were a pair of attention-seeking arseholes. With that explanation fairly universally accepted, the world was able to move on and forget all about The KLF.

Nearly twenty years have passed since then, and the world we live in is has become very different. The isolated individualism of the late twentieth century has mutated into an age of networks where the reactions to what we do can no longer be avoided. We’re all subjects of social media now, hard-wired to seek out retweets, likes and followers. A strange new economy has blossomed during these last twenty years, running in parallel with the old one. This new economy is not primarily concerned with accumulating money, but is instead focused on being heard. It’s a rat race, like the old economy, but one caused by the scarcity of attention rather than the scarcity of wealth. We’re desperate to be recognised over the ever-rising wave of noise and, like it or not, this new economy has caused all of us to become attention-seeking arseholes.

Now that we’re all familiar with what being an attention-seeking arsehole entails, we’ve gained new insight into the actions of Drummond and Cauty. And if we’re honest, we can now see that ‘attention-seeking arseholes’ doesn’t really cut it as an explanation for their actions anymore. Why would they head to such a remote spot and very privately torch their money if they were essentially just trolling us? And why don’t modern-day attention-seeking arseholes perform equally unthinkable acts? You never hear of Mumford and Sons slashing Rembrandts, or Jessie J firebombing banks. The KLF, it seems, were not simply being attention-seeking arseholes. They were something else.

So if we want a handy, no-brain explanation for why The KLF set fire to their million, then we’re going to have to think again. This is, I would argue, wonderful news. Not because we might actually find an answer which explains what they did, of course - nobody believes that we’ll ever understand that. Instead, it’s wonderful news because we can now return to those records without being put off by their ‘attention-seeking arseholes’ connotations. This is a real joy, because The KLF made some fantastic records.

The irony here is that if we could make singles as good as they did, we wouldn’t need to be arseholes. They would bring us enough attention to last us a lifetime. Clearly, there is much we can learn from The KLF. It just won’t be what we set out to discover.

Find the full story of the KLF in John Higgs' critically acclaimed book. You can also visit his website here, or follow him on twitter.

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