Leaving the Music Industry

Thirty years ago, the KLF staged a dramatic attack on the music business at the 1992 Brit Awards. How political was that gesture in retrospect, and could we see its like again?

Bill Drummond performing at the BRIT Awards in 1992. (JMEnternational / Getty Images)

The opening of the BBC’s coverage of the 1992 Brit Awards immediately evokes a bygone era of light entertainment. The exterior shot of the Hammersmith Odeon by night. The gong and drum roll. The old BBC announcer’s voice. A black-tie audience in tiered seating bathed in a warm red glow. It could be the Royal Variety Performance. All of which makes what happened next all the more jarring. ‘Extreme Noise Terror vs. The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu’, announces Bill Drummond on stage, slouching into a pair of crutches and draped in a long leather jacket that supposedly once belonged to Martin Bormann. ‘This is television freedom!’

There’s a burst of feedback, a relentless hardcore beat cracks in, and two mulleted twenty-somethings in long-sleeved t-shirts proceed to growl and grunt the lyrics to the KLF’s recent number-one single, ‘3 AM Eternal’. The guitars squeal, Drummond peals off a staccato rant about the British Phonographic Institute, and as the song reaches its climax, he plants a cigar in his mouth and sprays the audience with a volley of blanks from an antique machine gun. There’s a burst of bemused applause from the crowd and an American-accented voice announces over the tannoy, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the KLF have left the music industry.’

At that moment, the KLF — Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty — were the biggest-selling pop group in Britain. This despite the fact that they had no manager, no producer, ran their own label, and even loaded their own records into the van for distribution. Since the group’s formation five years earlier as Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, they had consistently positioned themselves as industry outsiders and cultural terrorists, defacing billboards and making great play of their DIY manifestos in a way that belied their joint decades in the music business, which in Drummond’s case included working in A&R for Warner Brothers, co-founding Zoo Records, and managing Echo & The Bunnymen. All of which simply meant that they could do what they felt like and generally did. There was no one who could tell them not to.

The day before the event, Drummond and Cauty drove to an abattoir in Northampton to collect the bleeding carcass of a recently-slaughtered sheep. They had planned to butcher the thing onstage as part of the show and hurl the blood and butchered body parts across the front few rows of the Hammersmith Odeon. In the event, they merely dumped the animal on the steps of the after-party before driving off unceremoniously, with the police in hot pursuit. It was finally this ad hoc stunt, not the machine gun (which most people wrongly assumed to be a toy), that brought down tabloid opprobrium. The Star, somewhat self-righteously, even quoted an ‘appalled’ spokesperson from the RSPCA.

The KLF did not leave the music industry that night in Hammersmith. Not quite. Despite the release of a subsequent press release declaring the group’s immediate retirement and the deletion of their entire back catalogue, later that year they released another version of their old hit ‘What Time is Love?’ and the year after released another single — this time under the name K Foundation. In between, there were compilation appearances and further releases in territories where they had outstanding contractual obligations. Rock critics of a certain age like to imagine that this stuttering halt was not just the end of one band but the end of something far greater: art, creativity, the music industry, music as such. Take your pick.

From the perspective of a present in which the Brits opening performance is more likely to feature a quintet of grinning simpletons bobbing about on a floating platform in front of the Millennium Dome, it’s tempting to look back at the KLF’s assault of thirty years ago as a thing quite unimaginable today. But I’m not sure if that’s really true. What is hard to imagine is any band pulling a stunt like that on television. Largely because no one under the age of a hundred watches television. That still matters because, as Pitchfork columnist Tom Ewing once said of the Top 40 charts, television once provided for pop music ‘a public space, an arena where different ideas and interests can rub up against one another.’ In the terminology of the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe, television could act as an ‘agonistic space’ in which counter-hegemonic struggles could play out.

From John Lennon’s request at the Royal Variety Performance that ‘the people in the cheaper seats, clap your hands, and the rest of you, rattle your jewellery’ onwards, British light entertainment was a place where politics happened. That was because artists like Lennon and Drummond made it happen and made certain kinds of partially buried conflicts visible in the process. Since the absorption of the music industry by Silicon Valley, musicians have generally felt so besieged that the focus of artistic self-organisation has largely been on the development of new forms of community and interdependence. But this could turn out to be just another form of capture by the language and ideology of the hi-tech industries and new managerialism. In order to regain some of that ‘energy and fizz’ that Ewing found in the charts, pop may require new forms of antagonism. Less hugging and learning; more blowing things up.