The KLF in Liverpool: A reflection on Welcome to the Dark Ages

KLF - Welcome to the Dark Ages

KLF – Welcome to the Dark Ages

Now that the KLF’s Welcome to the Dark Ages event has finished and the dust settled, Getintothis’ Gary Aster offers his thoughts on three days of weirdness.

It’s hard to find the words to describe what has been happening in Liverpool this last week.

So much that has taken place was so far removed from the normal course of events that there are no familiar frames of reference or easy comparisons to be made. This was genuinely a unique event, or rather ‘situation’, wholly unlike any other in my, admittedly limited, experience.

Beforehand, I had a chat with my editor about how best to cover the event. We agreed that short, daily updates followed by a longer, more detailed review was the way to go, but I found it impossible to sum-up each day briefly.

So much happened that required lots of explanation for those unfamiliar with the weird and wonderful world of the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (or the Jams/KLF) that I ended up having to write far more than I originally intended, yet still left a great deal unsaid. This is testament to the planning, creativity, imagination and work-ethic of the Jams.

In attempting to consider it all objectively I recognise, viewed from the outside, the whole thing may look like an elaborate and extended practical joke played on the attendees, or “volunteers”, since all 400 of us were given jobs to do, duties to exercise, roles to fulfil, as well as paying £100 for the privilege. This wasn’t an ordinary festival or art show with clear dividing lines between artists and audience. In some ways we were having to provide our own entertainment.

Many of the things people were asked to do lay well-outside participants’ comfort zones. We were sent out to “borrow” traffic cones and shopping trolleys by the dozen, pick and gather weeds, told that we would be expected, with the help of others, to pull a large, heavy object for 3 miles through the streets of (for most “volunteers”) an unfamiliar city.

The KLF in Liverpool: Day 3 – Badger Kull, the funeral procession and the Graduation Ball

This was a demanding schedule with many challenges to be faced. On the whole, I think it’s fair to say that attendees rose to these challenges brilliantly, showing real courage, good humour, skill and above all enthusiasm.

Inevitably there were moans about the complete lack of any new music (even though it was made abundantly clear there wouldn’t be) and about the “volunteer” aspect to proceedings, but it was hard to know truth from fiction. Partly because quite a few volunteers were given the task of taking to social media to make such complaints, and they did so with gusto.

Complaining about a lack of new music at this point is ridiculous. The KLF left the music business behind them in 1992. Since that time Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty have pursued their own individual careers as artists not musicians.

Those in attendance, though they may well have started out as Jams / KLF fans, are still fans today because they have followed these two gentlemen’s post-KLF activities. My impression is that most weren’t expecting a music festival but an art event, perhaps with some musical elements, and that’s what we got.

The charge that we were all being made fools of by Drummond and Cauty for their own smug, superior amusement, and at our expense doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, but is a line being spun in some of the coverage. In many ways they showed great kindness.

Everyone had several, even multiple opportunities to speak with them, and they were generally quite approachable and accommodating. Both were regularly present and accessible, as were their accomplices, especially the legendary ‘Gimpo’, one of their former roadies who was something of a star-player throughout (and witness to the burning of £1m). A man who gets things done and a natural leader, Gimpo really came into his own during the procession. Having seen him in action I am convinced that that many of Drummond and Cauty’s ideas would never be realised without him.

A lot can go wrong in 72 hours” was one of the lines used to trail the event, yet in the end things generally did go according to plan. But it was a very loose plan that seemed designed to allow for its own derailment, and deliberate eruptions of chaos were an integral element of it all.

Each unfolding situation brought with it new surprises and challenges. These were overcome by the impressive determination of us, the 400 volunteers. I attended ‘Welcome to the Dark Ages’ alone yet I was never short of company. Our situations required us to collaborate and we did so eagerly and with good grace and humour.

We experienced a diverse range of situations, frequently hilarious and baffling, some thought-provoking and others apparently meaningless and chaotic. Unexpectedly, there were even moments of quiet beauty, such as the first hymn sung mid-sermon during Friday’s Rites of Mumufication. “You won’t need your hymn sheets for this one – it’s only one line repeated” explained Claire Callender, ‘radical undertaker’, before singing it for us – “Don’t be afraid, you are already dead”.

A mere four bars of music ‘sampled’ from a track with those words as its title by Akron/Family, yet they were strangely potent in this context. As we all joined in unaccompanied by any instrument I looked around to see discrete tears rolling down a few faces.

Not at all what I was expecting. A moment to treasure. I thought of Winston, who I had met the day before and whose tribute to his late friend had moved me, and hoped that he was ok just now.

As I left the Graduation Ball in the early hours of Saturday morning I thought I had a handle on what had just unfolded. It seemed to me that this was Drummond and Cauty bidding farewell to the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, the KLF and all their myriad off-shoots. There was some discussion as to the contents of the two coffins carried all the way from the Florrie and cremated in a burning pyramid.

My guess is they contained the two scarecrows as effigies of Drummond and Cauty.

But it’s worth bearing in mind what they didn’t burn. The Ice Kream Van survived. When the possibility of the van being burned had earlier been put to Jimmy Cauty he dismissed any suggestion – “We’ve just had it MOT’d!

Badger Procession

Ice Kream Van

Their master tapes, which some believed would likely be cast into the flames, remain intact. And so too does their collaboration, at least for now. They have a Pyramid to build – the People’s Pyramid.

This was first proposed back in 1997 when Drummond and Cauty decided to become building contractors operating under the name K2 Plant Hire. They unveiled some ambitious plans, including the People’s Pyramid, but these remain unfulfilled, although they did have some pretty decent K2 Plant Hire hard-hats and hi-vis jackets made up.

On Saturday morning there was one final situation. ‘Conceptual Architect’ Paul Sullivan presented his design for the People’s Pyramid, based on an original drawing by Jimmy Cauty. I asked where they plan to build it.

The precise location has not been either found nor settled upon (Sullivan’s answer was ambiguous on this point), but somewhere in the vicinity of Toxteth apparently. Others asked how long it would take to complete (“a very long time”), the approximate size of the foundations and the angle of its diagonal sides.

Then we were shown into a room with a pyramidal arrangement of televisions, each displaying Jams/K2 Plant Hire imagery. A bizarre and unlikely ending to a bewildering few days.

During my time in the Dark Ages I didn’t speak to a single volunteer who was unhappy with the way events had unfolded, and I really did look for them. Objectivity demands that I must cast a critical eye over proceedings but this affair was so unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced that I don’t know by what criteria it can realistically be evaluated.

If we judge the events based on the impact and influence they’ve had on the volunteers, then we must consider it a resounding success.

Others looking at all this from the outside might see only naïve super-fans being manipulated by their idols in order to help them drum-up publicity for a book launch. And those on the inside shrug their shoulders for the umpteenth time having long grown accustomed to those sorts of dismissals.

It was ever thus – at least that’s how it’s always been for the last thirty years. The Jams provoke extreme reactions and it is their lot ever to be misunderstood by most and barely understood by a few. Their secret? We don’t know – it’s a secret.

They tell us they are in the business of undertaking nowadays. But it seems to me that their real business is the cultivation of mystery.


Here’s the Social media reaction to the JAMs return to Liverpool – Welcome to the Dark Ages

Images by Getintothis’ Peter Guy