Is The Black Room, the legendary lost album and follow up to The KLF’s The White Room finally about to be unearthed? Getintothis’ Gary Aster takes an in depth look.
This one requires a bit of explanation. The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, better known in their chart-topping guise as The KLF, made their return after a 23 year absence in Liverpool last summer.
Their comeback consisted not of any new music, but of an almost impenetrable novel entitled 2023: A Trilogy, which was launched in our fine city with 3 days of Discordian, Situationist happenings.
The duo of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty were ably assisted by 400 of their most loyal fans who, by snapping up the extremely limited tickets, were agreeing to take an active role as “volunteers” in the events as they unfolded. So it was that, on the final evening of this affair, I found myself near the banks of the Mersey, along with the rest of “The 400” (as we volunteers began to refer to ourselves) with faces recently painted to resemble crude human skulls, standing with my back to a pyramidal funeral pyre some 23 foot high.
The pyre bore the remains of two coffins which had been carried some 3 miles to their present location in an anarchic procession, pulled in an ice-cream-van-as-hearse by shifting teams of the 400 volunteers.
Now we listened intently as Drummond and Cauty explained something of what we had all been up to. Apparently the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (or Jams, for short) had entered the funeral business. In collaboration with Clare and Rupert Callender of the Green Funeral Company, they had devised a process they called Mumufication.
For a fee, (£99) persons could purchase a single, unfired brick bearing a Mu Mu logo. The bricks were intended to house 23 grams of the ashes of the departed, which would be fired into the bricks once their owners had passed away. These bricks, so we were told, would be preserved and used to construct a large pyramid – ‘The People’s Pyramid’ – consisting of thousands of Mu Mu bricks.
The precise location for this proposed pyramid / monument / sculpture has yet to be revealed. The following morning, when I questioned “conceptual architect” Paul Sullivan, who had drawn up detailed plans of the pyramid showing the means of its construction, his answer was no more specific than: “somewhere in Toxteth”. How long would it take to complete, I pressed further. “A very long time”, came the vague reply. Well, that’s builders for you.
Back to the final evening and the funeral pyre, as Drummond and Cauty explained their plans I confess I began to feel somewhat disillusioned. However you look at it, paying nearly a hundred quid for a single brick seems like a rip off. Ok, punters aren’t just paying for the brick, but also their place in the proposed pyramid – I get that, but still I kept hearing Johnny Rotten’s voice taunting his own fans; “ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Was I reading too much into things by noticing that Mumufication is an anagram of A Mu Mu Fiction?
I wandered around looking for anyone who had bought a brick. I was curious to know what they thought they were buying. I soon found a pleasant enough chap. “You’ve bought a brick I see. They’re very expensive. For that money you could’ve bought a near mint copy of (long since deleted classic KLF album) “Chill Out” on vinyl” I pointed out. He told me that he had lost his mother when he was very young, liked the idea of the bricks and the pyramid and anyway, he already owned a copy of Chill Out. I didn’t want to press him any further and wished him well. But his reply only increased my unease with this whole business.
It seemed obvious to me that this proposed pyramid would never actually be built. The Jams first mooted a People’s Pyramid (although initially one merely consisting of ordinary house bricks) last century. Like many of their plans, nothing ever came of it. In the weeks that followed the Liverpool situation, several fans shared pictures of their bricks which were very fragile and had simply disintegrated, leaving their owners in the position of having paid nearly a hundred quid for a box of sand and a certificate. My initial impression that the whole business was a sort of conceptual joke at the expense of those fans deepened.
I wandered over to the merchandise van parked nearby. A few days earlier we 400 had all been issued with a merchandise menu. The last two items on it were redacted, or rather, “embargoed”, but the embargo was now due to be lifted and I was curious to know what these two items might be. I admit, I was half hoping (but not really expecting) that one of them might contain some new music, perhaps even the band’s legendary lost album The Black Room.
One of the embargoed items was evidently the bricks. The other turned out to be a packet of 23 Jams-branded “koffin nails” – a snip at a mere £20:23. I put it to the bloke selling the merchandise that twenty quid for a bag of perfectly ordinary nails was a bit of a rip-off. He said something about the artist Jeremy Deller which I didn’t quite catch and that appeared to be the end of the matter. I looked at the other items on offer, all priced £20:23, and decided not to invest in any of them, although the prices some of that stuff has been changing hands for on eBay ever since has confirmed it would have been an investment with a decent return.
The Graduation Ball beckoned. Perhaps partly because of my temporary disillusionment, this was something of a let-down for me, but I know that most enjoyed it and for some it was even the highlight of their week. My thoughts returned to what Bill Drummond had been telling us earlier – that November 23, 2018 was to be the first Toxteth Day of the Dead; that they planned to begin construction of the People’s Pyramid on this date and lay the first bricks. But how could they possibly know if any of those who had bought bricks would die between then and November 23rd of the following year I wondered?
And this was very far from being the only flaw with the plan. I’m no expert on building regulations, but I would’ve thought that a large pyramid made partly from the cremated remains of the dead would be quite a difficult thing to get planning permission for. It also occurred to me that if the Jams can’t sell 400 bricks to their most committed fans (and they couldn’t) then there’s no way that they’ll ever sell enough (almost 35,000) to complete this proposed Pyramid. Surely the only people who care about this will all be long dead and gone before it’s anywhere near completion. However I looked at it, the whole thing appeared to be nothing more than a bloody pyramid scheme.
Some three months later, on November 23 last year, the Jams hosted another, much shorter event for only 99 “volunteers” in our nation’s capital to coincide with the publication of the audiobook version of their trilogy. Burn The Shard Part 1, as it was called, though doubtless rewarding for those in attendance, attracted very little media attention and part 2 appears to have been quietly dropped.
Later, news that a major re-design of the bricks was in progress reached the faithful. Replacement bricks were being tested and would soon be sent out. A couple of months ago the Jams-related forums were busy as delighted fans shared pics of their newly re-designed and fully intact bricks. Perhaps I had been wrong and this wasn’t an elaborate and expensive practical joke after all. But what is it? 23/11/2018 WTF is going on?
Recently the online KLF forums began to bristle with speculation about the forthcoming Toxteth Day of the Dead, with many wondering if it would even happen at all. Some fretted about the lack of an announcement for tickets. Recently a trailer appeared on the official Mumufication website, where the bricks had previously been on sale. It confirmed that something would be happening on the already announced date, but gave away little more than that.
A second trailer appeared a week later. This one had much more in the way of content. It also had a soundtrack – a rather heavy-sounding snippet of unfamiliar music and a single word yelled by someone sounding an awful lot like Bill Drummond: “Justified!”
During this trailer, at the 32 second mark, the phrase The Black Room flashes up in reverse for a mere, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fraction of a second. Of course Andy Gell, curator of the 400 Remix Project and the author of two Jams-related books, was the first one to spot it. He screen-shot the single frame in question and shared it among the faithful causing much optimistic speculation. Coupled with the music underscoring this new trailer (very reminiscent of one of the leaked demo tracks from the original, incomplete but widely bootlegged ‘Black Room’ sessions) this seemed to suggest that we might finally get to hear it in some form.
But would they really do something as conventional as releasing an album? At last year’s Liverpool situation both Drummond and Cauty were insistent that they had no interest at all in making music anymore. I still find it very hard to believe that, come the 23rd of November, fans will be able to visit their local record stores and just buy a copy of The Black Room. But then, if you’d told me a couple of years ago that they’d soon be releasing a trilogy through a major publisher, available in all good book stores, I’d have found that hard to believe too.
An ongoing lack of any concrete announcement or tickets for sale fuelled rumours. Of course I don’t want to misinform readers, but with so little information from official channels, fans were bound to speculate. Plausible-seeming rumours (which I can neither confirm nor deny) began to circulate that perhaps ‘The Black Room’ or access to the forthcoming Toxteth Day of the Dead would only be available to those who had bought bricks, their initial leap of faith therefore rewarded.
I began to regret my decision not to buy a brick. Ok, the Pyramid may never be built, but the Jams seem determined to press ahead with the idea anyway. Something will happen this 23rd November. Indeed, we’re told that it will be the first of what is to become an annual event. Even if it is only open to brick-holders, it seems unlikely that the chosen few will be required to bring their (still quite fragile) bricks along with them.
But why bricks? They do keep cropping up in the Jams mythology. On their debut album we were told that “Rockman, he’s just made of bricks”; the band’s logo is a Pyramid made up of 23 bricks; the ashes from the million quid they (apparently) burnt were swept up and forged into a single brick. In the mid-90s they declared themselves to be K2 Plant Hire – builders not artists – whose first job was to be the People’s Pyramid, built from millions of ordinary house bricks; one to represent everyone resident in the UK at that time, IIRC. That plan has evolved considerably of course, but the idea of bricks remains.
The Pyramid as re-conceived last year began to take on a different hue the more I pondered on it. Vicky Pearson, former Getintothis writer, pointed out at the time that it had echoes of the old saying that civilizations progress when elders plant trees in whose shade they will never be seated.
Watching director Paul Wright’s abstract film Arcadia – a collage of rare, archive footage depicting various folk customs – also made me look at Drummond and Cauty’s pyramid in a new light. Could it be that the pair plan to institute a new tradition? If their proposed Toxteth Day of the Dead does indeed become an annual event (and I think it will) then it may have rather more merit than I first allowed. It’s surely a worthwhile thing to gather with other like-minded folk once a year, consider one’s own mortality, remember those who have gone before and try to put it all in some sort of perspective. And all the more potent if some of the departed were people with whom participants had previously shared an annual ritual.
Our culture has grown ever more secular and distant from the seasonal rituals so brilliantly captured in Paul Wright’s film. One reading of Drummond and Cauty’s work sees them as myth-makers. Undeniably much of what they did as the KLF etc. had the aspect of ritual about it. Whether or not a People’s Pyramid is actually built may be beside the point – buying a brick then becomes a leap of faith. It could be merely a vain plan to ensure Drummond and Cauty’s legacy endures, with the pyramid being little more than Ozymandias’ ruined statue, or it could be a sincere attempt to gift the world a new and useful tradition, one that will continue to mystify those who hear of it for years to come.
Cauty and (especially) Drummond’s work outside the Jams has, in recent years, repeatedly returned to the subject of death and how we mark it. In the spring of last year for example, Resonance FM aired a series of 5 experimental radio plays by Drummond (writing under a pseudonym) in which death was the recurring theme. Some years ago now, Drummond also felt moved to set up mydeath.net – a website which allows users to specify their preferred funeral arrangements. Could it be that one day in the future either Drummond or Cauty will return to Toxteth in the ice cream van/hearse with the other one beside in the form of a brick?
The bricks at first seemed to me like a cruel and acquisitive joke played on the Jams’ most loyal fans. But I’m really starting to regret not getting one now. And, for the moment at least, that seems to be a mistake I can’t rectify. Since the trailers described above first appeared on the official Mumufication website it’s not been possible to get into the site and purchase. I suspect that may well remain the case until November 23rd, has passed, but who knows?
Couple more stills from yesterday's video – blink and you'll miss it. pic.twitter.com/bHqffCUY8F
— KLF Online (@KLF_Online) August 31, 2018
And what of The Black Room, their legendary lost album, which they were working on when they suddenly and unexpectedly decided to quit the music industry, delete their entire back catalogue and put the KLF to rest? Its apparent inclusion in their mysterious trailer may be nothing more than a red herring; a deliberate attempt to mislead us until all is revealed in November. As one fan remarked: “On some level, they are ALWAYS messing with us.”
Yet it’s also true that, writing some 23 years ago in Bad Wisdom, Drummond proposed that perhaps he and Cauty ought to return to the album one day as elder, battle-scarred veterans and complete it…
Judging by the timing and manner of previous announcements, I suspect that there’ll be an update due on the October 23. I’ll certainly be checking the Mumufication website on that date. Not long to wait now then. Whatever they’re up to, we’ll find out soon enough.