It’s been nearly 20 years since the Kopyright Liberation Front (KLF) committed suicide, twice. One incident involved a gun; the other had a furnace. The pioneering group was at the top of their game. They had international hits. They made money. They wrote the book on ambient-techno in their 1990 masterpiece, Chill Out. And they imbued the notion of “trance techno” into British pop with their single, What Time is Love?
Their spectacles that portrayed the future particularly impressed a 12-year-old scamp like me, who watched the video for the stadium-techno hit, 3AM Eternal about twice a day on MTV. In the video, images of London streets soaked in melted neons, acid rain, and bleary-eyed drivers were contrasted with a concert of soul singers dressed in occult-style robes and a rapper leading the cry for a spiritual rise out of the mire. It was an exotic sight during the days when it seemed only hackers and affluent families used the then-mystical Internet.
But the KLF’s core members Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond chose death, a spectacular one.
They performed a sloppy and apathetic death-metal rendition of “3AM Eternal” at the 1992 Brit Awards where Drummond later accepted an award and then pulled out na M-16 to fire blanks at the unsuspecting audience. The group later discarded a sheep carcass outside the post-ceremony party. Attached to the creature was a note that read, “I died for ewe. Bon appetit.” The KLF then broke up, and in 1994 while acting in the capacity as the “K Foundation,” they filmed themselves shoving what appeared to be a million pounds into a furnace. The quid was the fortune they had left after taxes and expenses. These pop stars then supposedly earned the right to claim they didn’t “sell out” to the corporate record industry. “Was it Art? Was It A Political Statement? Was it Bullocks?” read a KLF advert. The audience wasn’t amused when they defended themselves on a Scottish talk show. Drummond said that publicly destroying cash was “more interesting” than donating it to charity. Cauty mentioned that he discovers new reasons for justifying the act everyday, a recent one was that his group just wasn’t talented enough to compete with Michael Jackson.
Cauty’s remark about being unworthy to be shoulder-to-shoulder with The King of Pop was poignant. He and Drummond declared that anyone could have a hit pop song if he or she knew how to write a generic pop tune and let talented studio engineers take care of the music. These were the same people who scored a hit with the witty and willfully dumb single, Doctorin’ the Tardis. They simply mashed up the eerie synth melody of the Dr. Who theme song and the groove from Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll,” only instead of Gary’s shouted title, we had chants of “Dr. Who!” So they were the authorities in achieving pop success with little talent but a good ear for artistic re-appropriation.
They also wrote the book on how you too can be on the Top of the Pops. Their 1988 book, The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way) is arguably the finest satire written about the 80’s pop music machine. “Now, we all know all pop music is not going to save the world but it does, undeniably, create a filing system for the memory banks,” they dryly write in the introduction. “In years to come, people will stagger home down lonely streets singing your song to the strains of regurgitated vindaloo, all memory of who was behind the song lost. It is you, though, who will be responsible for bringing back those lost tastes, smells, tears, pangs, forgotten years and missed chances. So enjoy what you can while at Number One.” Much of the book mimics the get-rich-quick schemes so prevalent in the Thatcher/Reagan era. Yet, there’s a bitter cynicism that came from witnessing the ease of producing a pop song and the world of movers and shakers who make sure any song hits the pop charts, no matter how crass. “The only way a singer’s voice can help it get to Number One is if it has such a distinctive quality the world can’t help but react to it instantly, almost to the point of inspiring ridicule,” they wrote.
Enter Rebecca Black
The Manual came to my mind when 13-year-old Rebecca Black became a pop star overnight last spring. The worldview from KLF’s jaundiced eyes reopened when it was announced she’s releasing her debut album this month. The Rebecca Black controversy will end up being one of this young decade’s most significant moments in pop culture. Here we had an unknown singer whose mother paid $4,000 to indie label Ark Music Factory to record Black and give her the pop star treatment. The producers over-spiced her tune, “Friday” with late 00’s production bells and whistles (i.e. Auto Tune, the I-vi-IV-V chord progression heard in a million pop songs, crunchy electric guitars, jaunty Neptunes-style beats), and directed a music video that followed every clichÃ© in the teen-pop genre. Black’s voice and the lyrics were the stars – a voice that strangles vowels in attempts to be fun-kay and poetry about Friday’s place on the calendar and the banalities of waking up, eating breakfast, and going to the bus stop. So many listeners were aghast when the video went viral and became a hit without the help of Top-40 radio. Mockery fueled the popularity, whether it be on late-night talk shows or YouTube. Call it the advent of unpop music. “What was once yours for a few days will now enter the public domain,” The KLF warned aspiring pop singers in The Manual.
Yet, it was still a feat for an unknown person to arise above the glut of independently produced music released. More than 10 million artists started MySpace pages to grab public attention as of last year. Black’s “Friday” video was viewed more than 30 million times on YouTube a few weeks after it was posted. Ark Music owner Patrice Wilson deflected the criticism by saying his music is no different from the pop songs cranked out by the major labels. “The whole goal is to bring people together and show young people, ‘Hey, we can make good music and keep it clean and have fun, and that’s who I am,” he said in a canned video interview. He later declared, “We’re not going to let you guys down. Young, old, everyone who basically has a dream there – don’t let anyone tell you can’t accomplish your dream.”
How to Have a Number One, “The Easy Way”
Did The KLF foretell about the Rebecca Blacks conquering the pop world? They didn’t quite imagine artists breaking into the pop charts by following The Manual’s instructions. Drummond and Cauty offered a full refund for the book if you, the student, did not achieve a Number One within three months of buying their manual. They also offered a night out with them in Madagascar if you actually scored a hit. “We will lie to you, but we will lie to ourselves as well,” they wrote in the introduction. “You will, however, see through our lies and grasp the shining truth within. We will trap ourselves in our own pretensions.” Drummond and Cauty also grow bored writing their book at one point and end up quoting 1917-era similes they found in a library. There are many aspects in The Manual that would fit well in Music Ark’s schemes and won’t leave my mind whenever Black appears in the gossip blogs. The KLF also offer a twisted version of punk’s romanticized DIY ethic. And if you dare dismiss pop music as the workings of “wicked music moguls” chasing the allowance money of impressionable teens, they write, “This is a worthless argument pursued by those unlucky ones who have never really been moved by the glories of pop music. They may as well have never been teenagers.”
Drummond and Cauty first tell you to discard your musical instruments (“even better, sell the junk”), quit any band you’re in, and start collecting unemployment checks. “Anybody with a proper job or tied up with full-time education will not have the time to devote to see it through,” they write. “Also being on the dole gives you a clearer perspective on how much of society is run.” They later claimed that the lack of money will sharpen your artistic wits. Last time I heard, Black is being homeschooled (due to bullies) and of course, she’s too young to get a job. Readers are then told to obsessively study the pop hits of the day to see what makes a pop song work. The KLF delivers pages and pages worth of pithy instructions on how to contact studio engineers who offer cheap rates, what studio gear to desire, which promoters to choose, and how to avoid the traps of bank loan offers. And they also tell you when to drink your tea and stare at the window in deep thought, when to bathe, and when to finally guzzle a pint. Two points the stick out is to let the studio-paid programmers create the instrumental music on keyboards and to never worry about artistic originality. “Every Number One song ever written is only made up from bits from other songs,” they write. “There is no lost chord. No changes untried…There is no point in searching for originality.” Another songwriting method they mention is to find an old pop hit and dress it up “in the clothes of today.” As for lyrical creation, The KLF tells you to write down the most banal clichÃ©s heard on pop radio – anything that’s catchy, positive, and sticks in the mind (remember their Dr. Who chant). “Just remember there is a difference between bland clichÃ© and clichÃ©, and only you can tell the difference in the context of the song you are constructing,” they write.
Readers are advised to only work with indie record labels rather than the majors since many of them are desperate for hits. However, The KLF advises against releasing music on a studio’s own label, since it’s for the “terminally unhip” due to the bad reputation of the label’s other records. This claim certainly fits for Music Ark, since they have been criticized for peddling other Rebecca Blacks despite their claims of being a benevolent launching pad for children trying to shoot for the stars. “You’ll say, ‘Hey, art just sprung out of my box!” Wilson said.
As for what The KLF wrote about what lies between the studio and the pop charts, they detail a day-by-day schedule of contacting promoters, approving final studio mixes, and anxiously hoping for the golden moment when your clichÃ©-riddled song is played on the radio. Somewhere along the way, they accurately prophesize the advent of home studio gear: “It’s obvious that in a very short space of time the Japanese will have delivered the technology and then brought the price of it down so you can do the whole thing at home. Then you will be able to sod off that crap about going into studios.”
A curious development in the Black saga is that she had a falling out with Ark Music after they reportedly sold “Friday” as a ringtone and a video. She reportedly never earned money from her song and she’s now releasing her debut album on her personal record label, RB Records. “Money, as often quoted, is not the root of all evil,” The KLF wrote in The Manual. “We do know WHAT the root of all evil is. That is to be explained in one of our future manuals and if we were to tell you the answer now you would not bother trying to have a Number One.” Black’s latest single, “My Moment” features her voice Auto Tuned to a shine. The acompanying music video has her singing on the red carpet after her mother rubs her hands for good luck in a limousine. Half a million people reportedly voted “dislike” compared to 300,000 “like” votes on YouTube.
Toward the end of The Manual, The KLF has little to say about what follows next if you actually score a Number One. “(I)t’s only through mastering the art of having complete control when you are at the same time totally out of control,” they forewarn. “You must hold the reigns tighter than you have ever held them before but let the chariot head over the cliff top. The abyss is calling.”