The KLF are amazing — and after a twenty-three year hiatus are reforming! The Scottish duo moved effortlessly through genres, from heavily accented old-school sample-based hip-hop, to top-selling house music with their 1991 smash hit album The White Room, finally inventing the genre of Ambient House with their Chill Out LP before finally quitting the music business in a hail of blanks fired from an AK-47. But not many people know that The White Room wasn’t just an album, but an ultimately unreleased film.
If you already know about the KLF and want to get to the movie, you can watch it in-full above. On the other hand, if you haven’t heard of the KLF, strap in — there’s a reason that even twenty years on, people still talk about a band that lasted only six years. It’s not every band that begins their career being chased from a bonfire by a farmer with a shotgun and ends it by firing a machine gun at their audience.
Before we continue, it should be noted the KLF used many pseudonyms: their first LPs were released as the JAMS/Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. Their last release was credited to 2K. There’s a few other names in there, too… and that’s not even counting the different things “KLF” was said to stand for. But to make things easy, let’s just call the band “The KLF” since that was their most common name and the name of their label.
The KLF’s first album was 1987: What The Fuck Is Going On, which also resulted in their first scandal. On the song “The Queen And I” they sampled ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” without permission. Once ABBA found out, they weren’t happy and threatened to sue. Given an ultimatum by the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society to either go to court or destroy all the records, the band’s members Bill Drummond (aka Kingboy D) and Jimmy Cauty (aka Rockman Rock) took a trip to Sweden with the remaining copies of the 1987 LP. Their goal was to convince ABBA to give them permission to keep the song as-is, but when ABBA refused to meet with them, the KLF decided to burn the records in a farmer’s field… who was none too happy, and chased them off his property with a shotgun, records ablaze.
A photo of the 1987 LPs burning was used as the back cover art to their next full-length, Who Killed The JAMS, and an edited version of 1987 was released with the samples missing… along with instructions on rebuilding the original album using your own sources for the original samples using three turntables, a television and a VCR. The instructions also included the following disclaimer:
WARNING: We must warn you that to attempt any of the above in the presence of two or more paying or non-paying people could be construed as a public performance. If the premises that you are in do not have a music license you will be infringing on the copyright laws of the United Kingdom and legal action may be taken against you. Under no circumstances must your performance be recorded in any form.
Their pranksterishness continued between massive hits like “3 AM Eternal”, “What Time Is Love” and “Justified & Ancient”. After scoring a #1 hit as the Timelords with “Doctorin’ The TARDIS”, they wrote a The Manual explaining precisely how to have a #1 hit. (It worked, too; Edelweiss had a hit with “Bring Me Edelweiss” from following The Manual.)
As they climbed the pop charts, they appeared on the 1992 Brits Awards with thrash metal band Extreme Noise Terror covering “3 A.M. Eternal”. First, the normal version:
And now, the Extreme Noise Terror version:
It’s a little hard to make out, but at the end of the video — after Bill Drummond shoots a machine gun full of blanks at the crowd — an announcer intones “The KLF has now left the music business.” The funny thing is, they weren’t joking. A few months later, the KLF deleted their entire catalog (except in the United States; Arista Records had the rights to The White Room and Wax Trax the rights to Chill Out, and neither label were about to pull a couple hit albums from distribution).
There have since been a few one-off singles; as the K Foundation, they recorded “K Cera Cera”, only to be released when we have world peace (They made a brief exception in 1993, a released a limited edition of the single in Israel and Palestine to celebrate the 1993 Peace Accord). In 1997, they played a concert as 2K that lasted 23 minutes, and released an EP featuring a studio version of the new song “Fuck The Millennium” debuted at the show.
In 1994, they also did a 67-minute long film called Watch The K Foundation Burn A Million Quid, in which Drummond and Cauty with their roadie Gimpo went to the Jura Islands and, well, burned a million pounds of their own money, taken from KLF royalties. The film is shot in poor quality, and the audio is mostly unintelligible, but the KLF toured with the film, showing it to crowds, and then asking the audience questions.
The question “why”, however, was never answered; The KLF said it would be 23 years before they revealed the answer. In interviews, Bill Drummond has said he wishes he could explain it so people would understand — but those who want a bit more explanation can check out the book The K Foundation Burn A Million Quid.
As it turns out, 23 years since they burned the money is 2017 — and true to form, Drummond and Cauty are returning with a new release of some sort on August 23rd, announced via the newly established Twitter account and website for K2 Plant Hire.
Of course, in true contrarian fashion, the notice implies that there will be no discussion of any of the KLF’s past work — so we probably won’t find out anything about why they burned the money, anyway. And their classic albums like The White Room and Chill Out probably won’t be getting spiffy new reissues… or likely even appearing on iTunes.
The KLF attempted to make a full-length film called The White Room in 1990. The full script is available online, however, if you read the script first, only the sections labelled “THE INNER FILM” were shot.
There’s very little dialogue, and the film is a quietly surreal road trip in the deserts of Spain. Honestly, not much happens — the film can be accurately described as “The KLF leave their studios, drive out to the middle of nowhere, then enter a smoke-filled room. There’s also a contract involved.” In fact, without reading the script, it’s hard to follow what little narrative it contains.
But that doesn’t matter. The White Room is not that kind of film. Those looking for plot or story are best to check out something else. However, if you want to see long, long takes of gorgeous photography set to great music (including alternate versions of tracks from The White Room LP and Chill Out), I can’t recommend the film enough.
There’s a similar feel to the likewise nigh-plotless Magical Mystery Tour. However, while the Beatles’ film was more about psychedelics, peace and love, The White Room is a quieter affair with a slight sense of unease. Buildings are dingy and cluttered, looking almost as if they’ve been destroyed. Much like the generational angst that spawned grunge in the US, the UK was going through a similar mindscape with the end of Margaret Thatcher’s reign of terror, and The White Room captures that sense of dread.
The White Room is not for everyone, but if you’re interested in non-narrative film, it’s for you. It’s been compared to Jodorowsky, and makes a great midnight movie. If you dig the KLF — and you should — you owe it to yourself to watch the project they poured so much into, only to be forced to abandon it unfinished.
(Previously published in an earlier form on September 5, 2015.)