Digital breadcrumbs: Tracking down The KLF in 2017

On 1 January this year, 30 years after James Cauty and Bill Drummond decided to form a band, a video was uploaded to YouTube. Part music video and part documentary, this surreal film was about The KLF, the most famous collaboration between Cauty and Drummond.

This was followed several weeks later by a photo, tweeted by K2 Plant Hire, of a poster in Hackney. Featuring the logo of publisher Faber and Faber, the poster pointed to the release of a novel entitled “2023 – a trilogy by The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu”, another moniker under which Cauty and Drummond work.

A number of other websites referencing The KLF have been appearing, cryptic posters have been spotted and new videos have been uploaded, all of which is reminiscent of the beginnings of an alternate-reality game (ARG) – a form of transmedia, internet-based storytelling, now ubiquitously tied to everything from TV show tie-ins to video-game ad campaigns, but something The KLF arguably kickstarted in the first place.

Alternate-reality games

Cauty and Drummond’s subversive antics are a natural fit for a digital age of alternate-reality games. At their most basic level, these are are a form of transmedia storytelling that relies on the players solving clues to advance the game’s narrative across a variety of real-world and online platforms.

ARGs first started popping up during the 1990s, with an early example being the fictional mystery Dreadnot in 1996. Made using a grant from the San Francisco Chronicle, the game urged players to listen in on voicemails for characters, examine website source code and investigate real locations in San Francisco. Instead of offering a story up on a platter, users would have to hunt it down like a detective.

The early internet was a breeding ground for similar hidden stories, woven by developers and forum dwellers across several sites – hidden in code and veiled references. Transmedia treasure hunts really came into their own, however, during the first decade of the 21st century, when marketing companies started to hijack the internet’s natural tendency towards interconnected, interlinked narratives, coupled with the online culture of conspiracy theories, to create commercial ARGs – often creating the impression of a wider fiction world around a specific film, album, video game or TV show. Recent examples include “Find 815”, made to promote the TV series Lost, and “Year Zero”, for the Nine Inch Nails album of the same name.

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(Above: From the “Year Zero” ARG)

Although it’s impossible to credit any one individual with the invention of ARGs, it would be fair to say that Cauty and Drummond were greatly influential in their development since the 1990s. The KLF’s use of cryptic advertising on billboards and in the national press, for example, can be taken as a particularly subversive, pre-internet precursor to the modern ARG – hijacking pre-existing media structures to their own ends.

Cutting and pasting with The KLF

Before smartphones and laptops gave a platform for platform-straddling stories to trip up internet users with referential rabbit holes and websites for fake companies, The KLF were gleefully subverting ideas of reality, as presented in the media we consume.

Through the many iterations of The KLF, Cauty and Drummond broke new ground with their sampling, or “creative plagiarism” as it became known. Using a digital sampler, they extrapolated existing pop music and transmogrified it into something new. Rather than sampling being something that happened in the final stage of creating a record, Cauty and Drummond made it an integral part of the creative process.

Unfortunately, this habit of borrowing music without the owner’s consent saw them being sued by Abba for sampling “Dancing Queen” for “The Queen and I”. Nonetheless, their sampling would go on to inspire electronic outfits such as the Utah Saints, who sampled Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” for their debut single “Something Good”, although the band’s Jez Willis gained permission first.

The KLF’s culture-jamming antics didn’t stop with unlicensed sampling, and had a certain tendency towards the grandiose. They once used a courier to collect their prize from the Brit Awards, set fire to £1,000,000 on a Scottish island and – via the band’s K2 Plant Hire’s website – announced in 1997 plans to build the “People’s Pyramid”. This was to be an estimated 46-metre high structure built from as many house bricks as there were 20th-century British births. It wasn’t built, with The Guardian noting at the time that “planning permission might pose a problem”.

The KLF left the music industry just as bombastically as they entered, by performing a thrash-metal version of “3AM Eternal” with Extreme Noise Terror at the 1992 Brit Awards, during which Cauty fired machine-gun blanks into the crowd, before walking off stage to the announcer declaring “The KLF have now left the music business”. They then left a dead sheep outside one of the afterparties with a note reading “I died for ewe, bon appetit,” before deleting their entire back catalogue.

You wouldn’t see One Direction doing that…

Conspiracy theories

Although The KLF had declared they would only return once world peace was restored, they made a single, 23-minute live return with “Fuck the Millennium” in 1997, under the moniker of 2K. Rather than conventionally advertising the concert in London’s Barbican Centre, it was announced by full-page adverts for K2 Plant Hire, asking readers to vote whether or not they should “***k The Millennium?”, using the “Millennium Crisis Line”. Apparently, 89% of respondents wished to fuck the millennium…

Playing into the idea of conspiracy theories – the kind that sees pieces of string connecting pinned newspaper cutouts – is a key part of what makes an ARG. This is a world The KLF inhabits, with particular attention to that conspiracy staple the number 23. As well as the 23-minute length of “Fuck the Millennium” concert, the catalogue number for The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu’s debut single (“All You Need Is Love”) was JAMS 23, while the duo’s “JAMsmobile” (a 1968 Ford Galaxie American police car owned by Cauty) had the number 23 on the roof.

The band’s self-referencing nature continues, with the account hosting the recent YouTube video originally being named after the registration plate for James Cauty’s police car (“WGU 18G”). The account is now under the name of Luther Blissett, a popular pseudonym used by cultural activists and performers.02_-_hackney_poster

(Above: The recent K2 Plant Hire poster)

As with ARGs and conspiracy theories, the boundaries between truth and lies are often uncertain when it comes to The KLF. First thought to be issued by the band themselves, the recent video was later claimed to be a found VHS recording of something that had been compiled for a 2015 book talk. Even with this there is uncertainty. One video engineer I spoke to said she thought the video seemed newly made, with VHS-style edits put onto fresh footage.

Indeed, the rabbit hole goes into strange places. Until recently there was also a website for the Doyce Street Mining Company: a company that includes James Cauty as a director. This website declared on the front page “Jimmy made us do it!” Aside from a few art exhibitions in 2014, there’s little trace of its existence. Is it an art space? Is it part of some pan-media KLF-led ARG conspiracy? Am I thinking too much?

Gaming the system

However, unlike a great many ARGs, where there is a final reward for following the complex trail across the different platforms, Cauty and Drummond have always refused to provide explanations. Much like the discordian group in The Illuminatus! Trilogy – a 1975 trilogy of novels, from which Cauty and Drummond take the name “The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu” – they mirror the secret society’s tactics of spreading chaos.

These chaotic elements came to the fore in the Fuck the Millennium performance, which was a surreal mishmash of acid brass, Liverpool dock workers chanting “Fuck the Millennium” and a male choir singing “K Sera Sera”, while Drummond and Cauty wheeled themselves around the stage in electric wheelchairs.

“It was very anarchic,” says operatic soprano Sally Bradshaw, who appeared during the “K Sera Sera” sequence. “I don’t think they had a very clear choreographed plan of what they were going to do.”

Unlike typical ARGs, which normally lead to some final conclusion or, in the case of marketing, some final product, The KLF don’t give their audience much in the way of answers. For them, it seems, the journey is more important than the destination. Also unlike marketing ARGs, The KLF aren’t weaving obtuse narratives to flog a film or TV show. Behind all their lunacy, Cauty and Drummond deliberately defy conventions, with a strong vein of political commentary to their antics – as anarchic as they are.

What next?

Many had hoped that the recently uploaded video would herald The KLF’s return to the music industry, but for the moment it seems like only the novel 2023 will be released. 2023 is described as a “Utopian costume drama, set in the near future, written in the recent past”.

Nonetheless, their self-referencing nature continues. The floating pyramid on the posters evokes the “People’s Pyramid” that was first promised in 1997. The Amazon listing also includes the lyrics “Well we’re back again/they never kicked us out/twenty thousand years of/SHOUT SHOUT SHOUT,” from “All you need is love” by The JAMs.

Like all the best artists, Cauty and Drummond show but do not tell. They refuse to comment on their return, except to say that they’re “hard at work in their light industrial unit” (quite possibly the L-13 Light Industrial Workshop that Cauty is connected to).

With the current attention on “fake news”, a UK uncertain about its future outside of the EU and a US president more inclined to late-night Twitter tirades than official press conferences, now more than ever is the right time for James Cauty and Bill Drummond’s reality-distorting antics. To quote the first poster announcing their new material, “2017: What the fuck is going on?”

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