It was towards the end of August 1994 that burnt, tattered and waterlogged scraps of £50 notes began to wash up on the shores of Jura, the mountainous, sparsely populated island in the Inner Hebrides. A few locals tried to piece together bits with visible serial numbers in order to claim replacement legal tender; others told the police and the papers. What drug deal or criminal payoff could have possibly gone so wrong that the perpetrators would need to burn all the money? And why Jura?
In the event, the trail led not to the Scottish underworld, but south, and to a stranger source. These were the ashes of the most improbable, audacious and ruinously expensive art statement in the history of pop, an anti-publicity stunt carried out in a remote location under conditions of ritual and total secrecy: the time the KLF burned a million quid.
Mick Houghton, the dance duo’s longtime publicist, fielded increasingly angry calls from members of the public who wanted to know why this money couldn’t have gone to kidney machines, children’s hospitals or their mortgages.
“It could have been worse,” Houghton recalls. “Jimmy and Bill had talked about torching the money in Trafalgar Square, or hiring Battersea power station for some huge event and then burning it in front of the crowd. Can you imagine?”
Conceived as a symbolic exorcism of what the KLF had become, Jura irrevocably froze Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty in the public mind as the “money-burning pop pranksters”. But they had always been a more complex and subversive proposition than that.
Drummond and Cauty stole from the Beatles and Abba, then sneaked illegal-rave culture on to Top of the Pops. They memorably hijacked the 1992 Brit awards as a symbolic massacre-suicide for the entire music industry. In using and abusing graffiti and money as contestable art objects, they anticipated the work of Damien Hirst and Banksy. The raw material of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s esoteric Illuminatus! trilogy fed into their alter egos, the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu.
Now as we reach the symbolic 23rd anniversary of the cash-sacrifice on Jura – 23 being a totemic figure in Illuminatus! numerology and thus in JAMMs lore – the KLF are back. Gnomic flyposters promise a KLF book and an event in August “unearthing aspects of the 2023 trilogy across Liverpool”, where Drummond’s career began. The Illuminati, once a private fixation for Drummond, Cauty and the 1970s counterculture, have become a pop-culture obsession (see Beyoncé and her pyramid hand gestures). The KLF, AKA The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu, were always agents of chaos. Now the world they anticipated is here.
Lasers, strobes and house beats might have defined the KLF but they are perhaps better understood as a 70s arts lab time-warped forward to the late 80s. Bill Drummond’s formative years were spent as a carpenter and set-builder; the avant garde actor and director Ken Campbell recruited him for his…