Are KLF leading us all on a wild goose chase? Getintothis’ Gary Aster ponders the question.
“Liverpool is at the present moment the centre of the consciousness of the human universe.” (Allen Ginsberg, 1965)
“Liverpool is Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan come to life, but with no king at the head.” (Bill Drummond, 2012)
“A locality is the trace of an event; a trace of what has shaped it. Such is the logic of all local myths and legends that attempt, through history, to make sense out of space.” (Mikhail Bakhtin, 1981)
Liverpool is on the edge both geographically and metaphorically speaking. It is a place of myths, either self-generated by its inventive people or imposed from outside; a city that has played host to a surprisingly large number of artists possibly drawn by the city’s status as an outpost of defiance – a seaport, more Welsh and more Irish than the English mainland to which it is reluctantly attached.
Google the phrase “Liverpool avant garde” and you will be directed to an Aigburth-based hair salon. But on the fringes of this city, creativity flourishes connecting Liverpool with a range of art movements including Situationism, Pop Art, Photorealism and Conceptualism amongst others.
Here, Adrian Henri brought back with him ‘the happening’ from New York, Yoko Ono drew large crowds to the Bluecoat and Filmaktion was conceived at a Walker Art Gallery show. Liverpool’s appeal as a place where artists can try out new ideas may partly be due to the perception that it is a challenging place to host such events and where a reaction of some sort is almost guaranteed.
This was certainly the case when in 1995, as a 23 year old undergraduate in Liverpool (a good age to have a lasting impression made upon you), I witnessed the uproar caused by the screening of the film Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid. This was made by former pop-stars-turned-art-foundation-curators, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty of the K Foundation.
Liverpool was the only city to be blessed with two screenings of their silent, hour-long film which documented (as the title indicates) the burning of 1 million UK pounds of fresh bank notes. It was, to put it mildly, a memorable experience despite the fact that the film’s production values indicated that it had a budget of approximately 1 million and 15 pounds.
The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (and not the KLF, although both bands have the same line-up) are planning to return later this year, on the 23rd anniversary of their costly bonfire. They have chosen Liverpool as the location for five days of largely unspecified activities, although we do know that it will involve the premiere of a brand new film, and the publication of a new book by the pair, entitled 2023.
Quite what else they’ll be up to is anyone’s guess but their choice of Liverpool as the place to stage this much-anticipated return may be unsurprising to long-term observers of Mu.
Both collectively as the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (hereafter referred to as The Jams) and separately as individual artists, Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond have returned repeatedly to Liverpool. Together as the KLF, though they only ever made a mere handful of live appearances, two of these were in Liverpool.
Bill Drummond in particular has an especially complex psycho-geographical relationship with the city. The answer to the question, “Why have the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu chosen this city as the location for their long-awaited return?” may be considerably more complicated than “because they happen to rather like the place.” It includes numerous well-known and lesser known persons, many of whom are (or were) completely unaware of their own involvement in this peculiar story.
Jimmy Cauty returned to Liverpool most recently last summer, with his Aftermath Dislocation Principle project. This large scale sculpture/installation of a dystopian model village populated only by Police Officers clearing up after a riot and housed in a large storage container, sat in the grounds of the Florence Hall in Toxteth for a week-long visit.
I’m told that Cauty also took groups of local students from nearby schools to visit the Tate Gallery in London and gave them a guided tour of some of Banksy’s work in our nation’s capital.
But it is Bill Drummond in particular whose life and work has become especially embroiled with this city.
Drummond first came to Liverpool to study Art in 1972; he later dropped out, though he may yet submit his final piece at some point in the future if his writings are to be believed. He remained resident in Liverpool for over a decade.
As a teenager in the 1960s Drummond, like everybody else, was unavoidably aware of Liverpool as the home of the Beatles. His writings and lectures often refer to the first record he ever bought. It was the Beatles’ most Liverpudlian of 7 inch 45rpm singles, Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever – a pairing of songs which, of course, mythologised two sites of significance to McCartney and Lennon’s Liverpool childhoods.
Drummond’s interactions with Liverpool may be presented as a story of unfolding, myth-making, chance encounters and strange, apparently significant coincidences or synchronicities.
It begins with a dream that Carl Gustav Jung (1875 – 1961), one of the founding fathers of psychology, once had and recorded in his book Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Though he never visited Liverpool, Jung dreamt that he was in the city along with several of his fellow “Swiss” and gives a detailed description of his precise dream location, comparing it to the more familiar (to him) Basel – a place where, amongst other things, “streets converged”.
Here, he sees a vision of a mysterious “round pool, and in the middle of it, a small island…On it stood a single tree…It was as though the tree…was the source of light.” Jung’s Swiss companions in the dream could not see any of this.
“They spoke of another Swiss who was living in Liverpool, and expressed surprise that he should have settled here. I was carried away by the beauty of the tree and the sunlit island and thought ‘I know very well why he has settled here’. Then I awoke.” Jung considered this dream to be the turning point in his life which led him to study synchronicity and the subconscious.
In the early 1970s, self-styled Scouse beat-poet Peter O’Halligan read about Jung’s dream and it struck a chord with him. He began to investigate possible sites for the location of the dream based on Jung’s descriptions and concluded that the best fit was the small square where several streets converged at the bottom of Mathew Street.
O’Halligan himself also had a dream involving the same location. A cast-iron manhole cover used to lie at the junction between Mathew Street and Button Street. O’Halligan dreamt that he saw a natural spring emerging from this drain.
Upon visiting the location in his waking hours O’Halligan found an empty warehouse adjacent to it with a ‘to-let’ sign. He took this to be another kind of sign, took out the lease on the empty building, placed a bust of Jung into an alcove in the thick-set outer wall with an inscription of a brief Jung quotation – “Liverpool is the pool of life” – and opened The Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun.
Although the school has long since closed its doors and been replaced by an Irish-themed pub, there is still a bust of Jung set into its outer wall.
The Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun soon acted as a magnet for Liverpool’s day-dreamers, drifters and wannabe bohemians. Its location, within a stone’s throw of the Cavern Club, Probe Records and Eric’s nightclub, probably helped.
Here people gathered to while away the hours in the café, hatching plots, writing poems, plays and novels and, of course, forming bands. One of the regulars here was a young Bill Drummond, then working as a carpenter building sets for the Everyman Theatre, but was finding himself easily distracted by his newly adopted city.
One of those distracting Drummond was the maverick theatre director and student of Jung, Ken Campbell. Campbell was looking for new and challenging work to stage when he came across a paperback copy of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus Trilogy, a wilfully disorientating series of LSD-fuelled novels in a single volume which blurred fact and fiction to weave a complex tale concerning the Illuminati, an alleged secret society which has been controlling world events for centuries.
Today the books are identified by many as the initial source of contemporary interest (and belief) in Illuminati conspiracy theories. This is ironic because Shea and Wilson were both enthusiastic followers of Discordianism, a sort of joke religion and/or satire of religious and political ideologies, not unlike Pastafarianism with its “belief” in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Their intention was not to persuade readers of the truth of their, frankly, absurd and fantastical tale, but simply to confuse, amuse and satirise. This was all of-a-piece with the Discordian’s “Operation Mindfuck” – a plan hatched by free-thinkers at American Universities in the 1960s (chiefly Harvard and Berkeley) dismayed that they had to declare their religion in university applications.
Denied the option of ‘no religion’ they declared themselves Discordians. What initially drew Campbell to the book however, was its lurid science fiction cover depicting a yellow submarine.
Campbell saw this as an example of Jungian synchronicity and took it as a sign that Liverpool was the place to adapt the novels for the stage.
And so it came to pass that Campbell established his Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool at O’Halligan’s Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun and set about adapting the Illuminatus Trilogy for the stage, finally producing a cycle of five plays lasting a total of eight and a half hours. O’Halligan’s school was to be the venue for the performances, on a tiny stage at the back of a warehouse-turned-cafe.
This may sound impossible of course, but as the actor and comedian (and Campbell’s co-writer) Chris Langham remarked “If it’s possible, it will end up as some mediocre, grant-subsidised bit of well-intentioned bourgeois bollocks. But if it’s impossible, then it will assume an energy of its own despite everything we do or don’t do.” And so it proved. Campbell assembled a stellar cast including Langham, Jim Broadbent, Prunella Gee, Bill Nighy and even persuaded Sir John Gielgud to provide a recording to voice the part of a computer named FUCKUP. Campbell also got through to Yoko Ono on the phone but found that she wasn’t available at that time.
Observing all this was a particularly impressed 23 year old Bill Drummond, who Campbell had employed as a set designer – “and fuck me did he deliver” recalled Bill Nighy. In keeping with the disorienting nature of the plays, Drummond produced sets in distorted and exaggerated scales, using forshortening and other technical tricks to great effect. The plays were so popular that, after a successful run in Liverpool, they transferred to the National Theatre in London for a sold-out run.
It was here that a 23 year old Jimmy Cauty saw it and was first introduced to Discordianism, although he and Drummond had yet to meet. Drummond did follow the production to the National, but he soon opted instead to return to Liverpool, having told Campbell that he was going out to get some Araldite.
Twenty years later Drummond and Cauty looked to Ken Campbell when in need of a director for their 23 minute Fuck the Millennium show at the Barbican in 1997. This too involved Liverpool, since Campbell employed the services of Liverpool’s then striking dockers as part of the cast.
And there’s that number 23 again – a throwback to Illuminatus (in which 23 is imbued with huge mystical significance and importance) its influence still resonating decades later.
Back in Liverpool, Drummond heard the call of punk rock. With Holly Johnson (later of Frankie Goes To Hollywood), Ian Broudie (much later of the Lightning Seeds), Budgie (later of The Slits and Siouxsie and the Banshees, amongst many others) and Jayne Casey (later of Pink Industry and later again an artistic director) Drummond formed Big In Japan – a supergroup in reverse as it were.
When the band split, by his own account Drummond was “fuelled with enough punk attitude…to decide to form my own record label”. He did so in collaboration with Dave Balfe, the Teardrop Explodes’ keyboard player who would later found Food Records and move to live in a house, a very big house in the country.
Together, Balfe and Drummond established Zoo Records which, alongside Big In Japan, was responsible for early releases by other Liverpool-based bands including the Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen. Drummond would go on to manage both of these bands, but in a far from conventional sense.
Because like Carl Jung and Peter O’Halligan before him, Drummond had begun to entertain certain mystical and esoteric notions about the particular corner of Liverpool which had inspired the psychologist and the beat poet before him.
Drummond reasoned (if that’s the word) that the apparently unremarkable manhole cover at the bottom of Mathew Street – the same place where Jung envisioned a beautiful Island upon a lake and where O’Halligan believed there was a natural spring (funnily enough, there is – it feeds into the sewers down below at roughly that spot) – is also the exact spot where an interstellar ley line strikes the earth.
The details are a little shaky. We only have Drummond’s word for it, and by his own account he was consciously making it all up.
But he was also driven to act as if it were true. Shortly before handing over the management reins of the Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen to other, more conventional hands he hoped to arrange for both bands to play separate gigs in Iceland and Papua New Guinea simultaneously while he stood on the manhole cover and soaked up its vibes or energy or whatever it was, until he had satisfied himself that nothing was happening.
Drummond’s last hurrah as manager of Echo and the Bunnymen was to be called A Crystal Day. It was held in Liverpool (of course) in May of 1984.
A cryptic ad in the classified pages of the music press alerted those in the know to the fact that the Bunnymen were up to something special. 1500 tickets were made available and quickly snapped up by sharp-eyed fans from across these isles.
But these tickets had to be exchanged at Brian’s Diner, the favoured Liverpool haunt of many acts on the Zoo Records roster. 1500 fans bought their breakfast here and only then were handed the real tickets to an extraordinary gig due to take place that evening at St George’s Hall.
Between breakfast and that evening’s concert Drummond had planned a series of increasingly strange events of an almost Situationist bent to keep the fans occupied. These included the release of thousands of blue and yellow balloons (the colours on the label of the first Bunnymen single) and a 23 mile bicycle ride round the city in the approximate shape of the spooky rabbit figure from the sleeve of the Bunnymen’s Pictures On My Wall single, beginning in the vicinity of Drummond’s preferred manhole cover.
At the close of the day Drummond later wrote that he knew he had done all he could with Echo and the Bunnymen and their relationship soon fizzled out.
In 1998, as part of an exhibition at the Bluecoat, Drummond recounted the events of A Crystal Day on a series of bill posters which he pasted up outside the gallery. I can still remember the excitement of unexpectedly chancing upon these as I happened to be strolling along School Lane, and the slight awkwardness I felt as I read my way through Drummond’s strange tale, before popping into the gallery to buy a copy of the book From the Shores of Lake Placid.
For the Teardrop Explodes, Lake Placid was simply rhyming slang for LSD/acid. For Bill Drummond I can’t help but wonder if it refers to the mysterious lake of Carl Jung’s dream.
To The Shores of Lake Placid was the title of Zoo Records final, lavishly packaged release. Drummond’s liner notes for this compilation album however describe it as the first in a trilogy of “plays”. The Jams’ forthcoming book is also said to be a trilogy. Its accompanying film is referred to as a “triptych.”
Following the events of A Crystal Day, Drummond spent the next two years working as an A&R man for a major record company. In 1986 at the age of 33 and a third (note for younger readers – this is the exact speed at which a standard vinyl album revolves) he wrote and recorded his one solo record; Bill Drummond – The Man.
It was originally intended to mark the end of his career in the music industry, although this wasn’t, of course, how things panned out. The album was 33 minutes and 20 seconds long – 33 and a third.
Given the frequency with which Drummond incorporates significant numbers into his work, it is interesting to note that the return of the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu in Liverpool later this year falls on the 33 and a third anniversary of A Crystal Day, as well as the 23rd anniversary of his and Cauty’s burning of a million quid.
On April Fool’s Day this year Florence Hall in Toxteth played host to the 14 Hour Super Weird Happening and rumours of The Jams abounded there. I was repeatedly told, for example, that Drummond and Cauty would be making an appearance at News From Nowhere on Bold Street, Liverpool this coming August. The bookshop has repeatedly (and uniquely) stocked and distributed copies of several of Bill Drummond’s extremely limited edition publications.
Most recently, Drummond made a ‘sculpture’ from copies of his book 100 (with a blue and yellow cover) which was exhibited in the shop window of News From Nowhere until all individual copies were sold. I was also reminded of the fact that, 20 years ago, Liverpool’s Probe Records was the sole out-letter for the Kalevala Singles – 500 limited edition singles by fictional Icelandic bands referred to in the pages of Bad Wisdom, the 1996 book co-authored by Bill Drummond and Mark Manning (a.k.a. Zodiac Mindwarp) which tells the tale of the pair’s pilgrimage to the North Pole to sacrifice an icon of Elvis Presley.
A cryptic message on the wall of Probe alerted those in the know to the fact that these singles were not what they seemed. I recognised the band names from Bad Wisdom and concluded that they must be the work of Drummond, Cauty and Manning. In his book 45, with the singles all long since sold, Drummond revealed that they were indeed behind these records.
Having said all of this, it should also be noted that, amongst keen observers of Mu, an intriguing and alternative theory has been circulating online in recent months. Because the announced date of their return, 23rd August, is also celebrated in the Ukraine as Ukrainian Flag Day.
This might easily be dismissed as an irrelevant coincidence or synchronicity but for the fact that in the Ukraine it is traditional on this day to release blue and yellow balloons, the two colours of the Ukrainian flag which are said to represent blue skies and cornfields.
Earlier this year, in typically convoluted fashion, Drummond and Cauty released a trailer for their soon-to-be-premiered film, which prominently features blue skies and cornfields. A month prior to the release of this trailer, the pair’s official twitter feed posted an image of the cover of their forthcoming book.
Among other things it depicted the familiar pyramid blaster logo of the Jams/KLF, but with one subtle difference; the word ‘Justified’ had been rendered in Ukrainian.
A google search of the phrase ‘Ukraine Liverpool’ produces an intriguing result – the Art Hotel Liverpool, situated in Donetsk, Ukraine. This has led some to speculate that the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu will be making their comeback not in our fine city, but instead may be staging some sort of post-modern John and Yoko ‘bed-in’ at the Art Hotel Liverpool…or something.
When I began to research this piece I wanted to answer the question ‘Why Liverpool?’ Having now investigated it thoroughly I can reach no certain conclusions. Indeed it may be more appropriate to ask ‘Which Liverpool?’
Perhaps the answer really is nothing more than “because they merely happen to rather like the place” and my research has been nothing more than a wild goose chase – the equivalent of being asked to go for the long stand on one’s first day in a new job. But if that does indeed prove to be the case I won’t feel disappointed.
Perhaps everything is connected; perhaps none of this means anything. Yet my instincts tell me that, come the 23rd of August, something will begin to happen; something wonderful.