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BOOK REVIEW: "The KLF: Chaos, Magic & the Band Who Burned A Million Pounds" by John Higgs

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BOOK REVIEW: The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned A Million Pounds by John Higgs (Orion Books) 2012

Why did I pick up this book? Was I a fan of The KLF back when they were recording?  I remember The White Room. Not much else, really. What drew me into reading this two-plus-year old book at this time?

Well, I make a habit of re-watching the film Donnie Darko in late October each year. It’s an annual ritual of extreme importance to me.

And while watching it, there is the bit about the high school students reading Graham Greene’s The Destructors. Children destroy an old man’s house. This causes reactionary elements – Mrs. Farmer, specifically – to protest the reading of the book, especially after the school was vandalized and flooded. (read my post about this - "Frank")

Thinking of this, brought to mind that book on The KLF. Didn’t they burn 1 million pounds, for no apparent reason – at least a reason that was understandable? I put Donnie Darko on pause – just as Drew Barrymore’s character is sitting on her desk, addressing her English class …

I begin reading. Reading is a ritual of sorts, right?

And as it turns out, Bill Drummond, one-half of the band that would become the edgy, dance-pop group The KLF, had his own rituals. Managing Liverpool, England’s Echo & The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes, considered polar opposites musically and thematically, struck Drummond as interesting. And when an actual “bunny rabbit” he called “Echo” started appearing to him Harvey/Frank style on the Bunnymen’s album sleeves, he felt it was significant – and a bit mad.

“In the summer of 1983, Bill Drummond walked to Mathew Street (Jung dreamt of this) and, at he exact time (Echo &) the Bunnymen went on stage in Reykjavik, he stood on the manhole cover,” writes Higgs. “Drummond’s personal mythology had grown considerably since he saw Echo in the record sleeve. He had come to view the different personalities of his two bands (Echo & The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes) as alchemical opposites … he had a vague feeling that something would happen, but exactly what was hard to define. Perhaps he would somehow absorb the energy of the two bands? Perhaps he would gain some form of enlightenment? It was completely mad, of course, he knew that. But that wasn’t a good enough reason not to do it.”

And that segment appears in a chapter called “Sirius and Synchonicity,” to give you an idea about the magical mystery tour author John Higgs takes readers on in The KLF. Higgs admits that “giant rabbit spiritas are extremely rare.” But when the film Donnie Darko incorporated Echo & The Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” in the film (singer Ian McCulloch said the lyric “fate, up against your will” came to him in a dream) in the soundtrack, at key moments, one begins to think Bill Drummond was seriously on to something.

As we have noted before, here at Red Dirt Report, Discordianism has far more power than its agnostic founders – Kerry Thornley and Greg Hill – intended. As we have noted in our recent reviews of Adam Gorightly’s Historia Discordia and Caught in the Crossfire, Discordianism plays a role in synchronistic history, as is the case with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy – or the frequent appearance of the number 23 – a number that looms large in The KLF’s strange story, where Eris, the goddess of chaos, frequently invoked by Discordians, is let loose – leading to the actual, literal burning of 1 million pounds in a Scottish boathouse in the weird summer of ’94.

But where did it all start? It’s hard to say. Perhaps it is found with the books of Robert Anton Wilson – Illuminatus! It is from this classic book that Drummond and his musical collaborator Jimmy Cauty come up with The Justified Ancients of Mummu. This is the group where they “convince” – or try to – convince Whitney Houston to join The JAMs. This, after realizing pop records don’t get much better than the pop gem “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” And with that project, The Timelords enter our dimension with “Doctorin’ the TARDIS,” a huge hit that led to the resuscitation of the ailing Doctor Who series in the late 1980’s and earl 1990’s. And Cauty and Drummond would not be the “face” of The Timelords, rather a Bluesmobile-looking car called “Ford Timelord,” a wink to Douglas Adams’ Ford Prefect character in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

With some serious synchromysticism at play, Higgs writes: “The car itself, a 1968 Ford Galaxie, had originally been shipped to England by Pinewood Studios and it had been used as a prop in a number of films, including the first Superman movie.”

As a sync author myself, this is amazing, as the first Superman movie has played a strange role in my own life, as has the whole of synchronicity.

Writes Higgs: “Synchronicities are only synchronicities if you choose to notice them. Paying attention to them is entirely optional …”

Indeed. I’ve learned that lesson.

On the chapter talking about Alan Moore’s Ideaspace, we find out that Drummond & co. seemed to have tapped into something … bigger. Something unlike any other thing seen in pop music. Or at least since the days of Led Zeppelin.

“The lack of intention is significant from a magical point of view,” writes Higgs. “One fo the most important aspects of magical practice is the will. Aleister Crowley defined magic as being changes in the world brought about by the exercise of the will, hence his maxim ‘Do what thou Will shall be the whole of the Law.’ The will or intention of a magical act is important because the magician opens himself up to all sorts of strange powers and influences and he must avoid being controlled by them. Drummond and Cauty were not exerting any control on the process, and so they made themselves vulnerable to the who-knows-whats that live out of sight in the depths of Ideaspace.”

And then rave happened. It provided a way to get Drummond’s “magical thinking” even further to the masses.

Enter The KLF. And it was reaching the heights of fame and fortune that led to their rapid descent. A ritual burning.  A burning of money. Destruction for the sake of destruction. They were now the destructors. They got the Best Band award for a British group. Their statue was later found in a farmer’s field – buried – near Stonehenge. Drummond's friend Julian Cope was likely proud of that - secretly, anyway.

But was it more? The two men – Drummond and Cauty – said they would not get together for 23 years. There’s that number again. 23.

And between discussions about the Christian idea of the Devil, the burning of a Viking longboat, Tammy Wynette, Dadaism, ABBA’s lawyers, bonfires, and Operation Mindfuck. And that’s scratching the surface, mate. Will we get answers in a few years? Will the K Foundation or whatever the hell they're calling themselves now come back? Like Tears for Fears? Or Echo & The Bunnymen, for that matter. ("Bring on the new messiah, wherever he may roam ...")

Charles Fort once famously said: “Wicker men come when its wicker men time,” said Charles Fort.

And wicker men came. 

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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