Was pop music a thing of the 20th century, and did The KLF really kill it?

Still, while Drummond may not have butchered a sheep on stage, he did have an antique machine gun. As the song ended, he clenched his cigar between his teeth and sprayed bullet after bullet into the audience, the music industry itself. The gun only fired blanks, but it was a cathartic moment.

In a strange way, something in the music industry did die around that point. Music in the twentieth century had shown an incredible ability for invention. New musical genres were constantly created and explored – so much so, in fact, that this was considered normal. The first half of the century had given us such distinctive new genres as blues or jazz. The Fifties gave us rock ‘n’ roll, and the Sixties gave us psychedelia and soul. The Seventies gave us reggae, heavy metal, disco and punk, and the Eighties had delivered hip-hop, techno, acid house and indie.
The assumption was that this level of creativity was normal and would continue indefinitely.
Each of those new genres was a major musical movement, a continent of sound the likes of which had never been heard before. They were usually forged in the crucible of new technology, new drugs or a combination of both. Musicologists have their technical definitions of each of these genres, but non-musicians define them more simply. Each genre makes us feel differently. We know the mood that a blues record creates in us, and we know that those feelings are different from the ones generated by jazz, heavy metal or reggae. The musical genres, in other words, map out the various moods and states that the human mind is capable of experiencing.
This constant invention of major new genres was believed to be normal in 1994. Those in the Brits audience had personally seen the rise of disco, punk, hip-hop, rave, Madchester and indie in their own lifetimes. The fact that these genres had appeared alongside other creative bursts, such as the invention of video games or street art, also helped to normalise them. Grunge had just happened and, while it may not have staked out as much new territory as its punk or metal parents, it still felt like a distinct and valid invention. It would never have occurred to anyone in those seats, as Drummond fired blanks into the ranks of their peers, that this period of invention had come to an end.
In the years ahead, the journalists and A&R men of the industry would busy themselves seeking the next new thing. Britpop was presented as just such a thing, despite it being a coked-up combination of indie music and nostalgia. Music which sounded like music used to could be a brave new thing, if you were having too much of a good time to think about it. But, as the decade rolled on and the twenty-first century began, it slowly became apparent that major new genres weren’t arriving any more. Sure, genres split into sub-genres as they were explored more fully, and the space between different genres were colonised by crossover artists. Yet these hindreds of subgenres, from drum ‘n’ bass to black metal, were considerably more limited than the genres being founded just a few decades early. They were noticeably less fertile.
Non of this meant that music got worse. There were still great songs being written and great performances given. Recording became cheap, the ability to record music and reach an audience became more democratic, and access to the entiry history of recorded music became easy. But the idea that there were major new continents of unexplored music slowly faded. The frontier had been colonised. We had discovered the edges of the territory.
Bill Drummond did not know this at the time. Despite machine-gunning the music industry at the point when its engines of creativity died, he did not imagine that he really was killing it. Correlation does not imply causation, after all. But regardless of what he thought he was doing, we was still the one man in the room whose actions were in sync with the wider picture.

excerpt from John Higgs, The KLF: Chaos, magic and the band who burned a million pounds (2013), p. 193–196

The KLF – did they know what they were doing?

This was the start of Drummond and Cauty’s reputation as being masters of the publicity stunt. It is worth noting the gulf between this reputation and how they actually behaved. The traditional role of media manipulator is a scheming, cynical one, where intricate plans are mapped out in advance and followed to the letter. The archetype of the manipulative producer is perhaps best embodied in the Sex Pistols film The great rock ‘n’ roll swindle. This presents the story of the Sex Pistols as a grand scheme by their manager, Malcolm McLaren, who is shown manipulating the band like a sinister puppet master for his own financial gain.

In contrast, The JAMs, on adventures such as the Swedish trip and others, are simply winging it. The impetus here was that they had to destroy their stock of the album and they wanted to make that act a thing in itself, something symbolic and intersting. Beyond that, they were scrabbling around for ideas and just trying to make something happen. Hindsight may fix these events into a narrative that makes them appear symbolic oralmost pre-ordained, such as the way the bonfire of their debut album mirrors the later bonfire of their money. But when they are being enacted, they are chaotic. They lack aim and purpose. To quote one of their press releases: “The plot has been mislaid”.


Perhaps more than anything they did, The Manual led to the pair being perceived as cynical media manipulators rather than random followers of chaos. In a sense, this was always inevitable when they became successful because the public narrative believes that success comes from knowing what you are doing. The equally common phenomenon of stumbling upwards is rarely recognised. /…/
The fact that Drummond and Cauty were becoming successful was a clear sign that they knew what they were doing, or so the public narrative went. How, then, should they explain the strangeness of their behaviour? Clearly, it is all part of their plan. It was calculated media manipulation, “scams” or “pranks” aimed at generating publicity.
With that narrative in place, Drummond and Cauty were in a unique position where they could follow and enact strong occult currents in full public view without comment.

excerpt from John Higgs, The KLF: Chaos, magic and the band who burned a million pounds (2013)