I’ve written about media to do with The KLF a few times in the past, in the form of John Higgs book and the film Who Killed The KLF? – both of these look at the all encompassing mythology (for wont of a better word) that surrounds Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty this book however, Ian Shirley’s Turn Up The Strobe: The KLF, The JAMs, The Timelords – A History, does something a bit different and focusses on the duo’s musical output in a far more matter of fact manner.
While, on one level, this sounds far less interesting, as it gets going it soon becomes clear that the musical saga of the group is just as weird and wonderful as all the other shenanigans that existed (and in some cases still exist) around them.
Starting off in the late 1970s Shirley starts out with Drummond’s pre-JAMs activity from Big In Japan to managing The Teardrop Explodes and Echo & The Bunnymen before going through Cauty’s early work leading up to the pair first encountering each other with Brilliant, which it seems left them so dissatisfied with the music industry that they joined forces as King Boy D and Rockman Rock to form The JAMs.
As with most such explorations of their work Drummond and Cauty only appear in archive form but Shirley does a great job of finding extracts from old interviews and more recent writing (particularly from Drummond) to help tell the story, along with a fascinating range of excerpts from official press releases from KLF Communications, clearly written in Drummond’s voice but with an increasing level of obscurity as they needed to promote their work less and less as their career went on.
Along with this we get more up to date interview extracts with many of their behind the scenes collaborators which adds a wrinkle to the story not often seen elsewhere, as they tend to be painted as just two men against the world, but here we see those who were allowed into ‘Trancentral’ (so to speak) to help make the ideas a fully rounded reality.
Of course it’s the early sections where Drummond and Cauty were finding their feet in their style of cut up hip-hop (which merged into dance, trance, house and pop) that is the more interesting section before they settled into a formula, but it sounds like the time in the studio was interesting right up until the end, though the sessions with Extreme Noise Terror (the final sessions of The KLF it would seem) do feel rushed through despite how inconclusive they ultimately were.
As it goes on there are points where this does get a little repetitive or bogged down in the less interesting side of things with record sales and distribution coming to the fore, though some of the stuff about Rough Trade and how The KLF factored into their work are interesting, but when it gets to financial issues of the company it’s less so.
Where Turn Up The Strobe really succeeds is restating quite how musically important The KLF were by all but creating a new way of making music and, eventually, taking it to the top of the charts about as globally as anyone can manage, something that’s often overshadowed by their later actions, so as a counterpoint to Higgs book this is great, but there’s no denying that what makes The JAMs as interesting as they were lies somewhere between the music and the myth.