Saturday, March 26, 2011

The K Foundation Burn a Million Quid

After seeing Bill Drummond's "The 17" earlier in the week, a lot of KLF-related things have been running through my mind. The KLF's music has aged fairly well -- a lot better than anyone would have expected if you'd done a straw poll in early 1990's -- and I think their "stadium house" fingerprints are all over contemporary dance/hip-hop hybrids by the likes of will i am and Diddy Dirty Money. And of course "Chill Out" belongs in its own separate category of timelessness. "America: What Time Is Love" turned a lot of heads at the time with the way it took the original song and remade it into a preposterously bonkers piece of epic dance-rock bedlam, and it still sounds just as wild and unpredictable now as it did then. They applied their hit making formulas to the US market and came up with a diabolically simple approach: turn down the dance and turn up the rawk, because that's what Americans love. It turns out they were a bit too late because grunge washed away pretty much all of the dance rock in the US charts (e.g. Jesus Jones) and there was no combining the two for years afterward. Rock fans had their rock, and a completely different set of fans had their dance (typically Eurodance). If even U2 couldn't sell that combination to the American public in the mid-90's ("Pop" was a huge failure by their usual standards), then it couldn't be done.

But after all these years, I'd never seen their film of the infamously self-explanatory "The K Foundation Burn a Million Quid". These days, it's all on Youtube, together with a veritable treasure trove of their past singles, remixes, interviews, and live performances. The former KLF even have a channel where you can relive their best moments for yourselves, and seeing as their entire back catalogue remains deleted, you won't find a better place for beginning your KLF-related crash course.

I haven't watched the unedited film where they actually burn the money (except for some select clips), but it can be easily found online if you want to see it. Accompanying it is a rather fantastic bit of documentary film making. It's a brutally honest document of what they did, with plenty of criticism to go around. It's not a soapbox for Drummond and Cauty to philosophize about their ideas, and it's not a testimonial to how noble and misunderstood they are by a bunch of their closest confidants and yes men. It's remarkable that it's so even handed, considering that it was produced entirely by them and not independently.

There's hardly any sensationalism on display here. The K Foundation aren't lunatics. They come across as well reasoned, articulate individuals throughout, and the calmness and rationalism that characterizes all their conversations and interactions with others is almost enough to make you forget that they're talking about BURNING A MILLION QUID.

The most illuminating part of film occurs near the end, after we've seen the K Foundation and their associates consult with a series of curators, publicists, and art sellers in an attempt to assess the value of their work (i.e. a pile of ashes in a ratty suitcase). Earlier in the film, Cauty said that normally, money controls you, but by making art out of money, then they'd be the ones in control. Sure, it sounds profound and thought provoking, until you remember that (say it with me) he's talking about DESTROYING NEARLY ALL THEIR MONEY. Anyhow, they're sitting in Cauty's house, speaking with an advisor (who I'm not sure was named in the film) and he's giving them some tough love, and Cauty suggests forging a brick out of the ashes (which in fact they did do sometime later), which led to this exchange:

Advisor: If you want to get rid of the ashes, just give the ashes to me!
Drummond: We didn't say we didn't want to ...
Cauty [interrupting]: But they're our ashes. [short pause, and a hurt look forms on his face, like a boy whose about to have his toys taken away by his parents for doing something bad] They're ours.

It might be junk, but it's his junk. The advisor goes on to say that they're scared to sell the ashes and have them on display in a gallery somewhere, because once that happens, people will laugh and say how ridiculous they are and that's something the K Foundation can't deal with. They scoff at the notion, but they don't have a comeback.

Suddenly, it all made (a bit more) sense to me. The KLF spent a career trying to get away with whatever they could. No matter how silly it might have seemed on paper, they weren't afraid to try. Take a reworking of the Doctor Who theme to #1 on the UK singles chart? Sounds ridiculous, but they did it. Storm the charts with so-called "stadium house", make fun of rock star excesses by performing live with a huge entourage, wearing strange costumes, and playing guitars that aren't actually plugged it? They did that too, and sold millions of records doing it. But they were in control of everything. They got into the music business when they wanted to, and got out when they wanted to. On the way out, they deleted their back catalogue, which might have cost them a fortune in future royalties but it was their decision, they owned their art, and didn't care if they were throwing away millions of dollars in future royalties by keeping it for themselves.

They gave plenty of interviews, and generally weren't shy about talking about burning the money*. They proudly screened the unedited one-hour film of them burning the money, and made a point of advertising that they'd be answering questions after the screenings. There's a scene of a screening in Manchester, and a polite but incredulous audience where only Tony Wilson had anything positive to say about the artistic value of burning a million quid ("it's very art", he said, and of course Tony Wilson would love something like this, did you even have to ask?). I believe the K Foundation when they said that it wasn't about the publicity or about promoting themselves. And they're obviously weren't afraid of people criticizing their art ... provided that they were a part of the process. The criticism and the giggling and people saying they were selfish or indulgent was tolerable (or even stimulating!) as long as it happened under their supervision. Showing films, music, art, whatever -- good or bad, they remained in control, it could always be about them, they could lord over the process, and when they got bored of doing so, they could always stop. But selling their art would take everything completely out of their control, and that was something they couldn't tolerate.

*For added entertainment, check out the K Foundation interview on the Gay Byrne Show (a late night talk show hosted by a legendary Irish radio and TV presenter), and be sure to watch until the end to hear Joe Elliott from Def Leppard attempting to tear them down.

No comments: