The Men That Burned A Million In The Name Of Art

04 April 2019
The KLF, The K Foundation, The Turner Prize, Bill Drummond, Jimmy Cauty
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A slowly escalating story of artistic misadventure, musical mayhem, and the two men behind one of the wildest stunts of all time

Gimpo’s camcorder footage was shaky to say the least, but it captured pretty much everything worth seeing that day. The bundles of cash stuffed into suitcases, the bumpy plane ride to the Scottish Island of Jura, and the moment that Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty (formely of The KLF) set fire to one million pounds.

This was their grand artistic gesture – a comment on cash and its very place in society… and you don’t get many of those  on the northwest coast of Scotland.

There was just one problem: most people didn’t believe that it ever really happened. And even if they did, they hated it, were confused by it, couldn’t understand how such wanton stupidity could possibly be considered art.

OK, there wasn’t just one problem.

But if the purpose of art is to create discourse, then perhaps there was something in it. Twenty-four years later, the occasion retains a near-mythical status, not to mention being the defining moment in the public lives of Drummond and Cauty, who went on to go from the KLF to become anarchic art collective, the K Foundation.

Now, there’s How to Burn a Million Quid, a surreal new BBC Radio 4 podcast that chronicles the story for a new generation.

“The best stories are timeless,” explains producer and director, Boz Temple-Morris. “And this is certainly one of them.”

While the burning of cash was an apex of anarchic art, it certainly wasn’t out of character for Drummond and Cauty. The previous seven years had been founded on a collective desire to mess with the system, even when all they had was the music.

In the late ’80s the British charts were in the saccharine-soaked grip of manufactured pop. Record producers Stock Aitken Waterman were the sweatshop owners-in-chief, taking fresh-faced young stars and grinding them into dust with identikit catchy tunes made of drum loops, sequencers and hard-nosed commercialism. There was a time, somewhere around the early ’90s, when it felt like the same track had been playing for six years straight.

An uprising was underway through the indie scene, but it was still in its infancy. In 1987, indie roughly equated to six sweaty guys from Manchester playing guitars and wearing flared jeans until their government benefit cheques arrived. As things stood, the bubblegum tracks clogging up music’s main arteries were ripe for a bypass, and Bill Drummond was better equipped than most to perform the operation.

Drummond (left) and Cauty at HMV, London in 1990

Made up almost entirely of stubble, tangled greying hair and creased camo jackets, Drummond looked like a ramshackle Bob Geldof. He was Geldof after a fortnight spent chained to a tree protesting a new runway at Heathrow. But with years in A&R – talent scouting – under his belt, as well as time spent producing bands such as Echo and The Bunnymen, the guy knew the music industry.

Even so, the idea to suddenly form a band inspired by the Beastie Boys was an unusual one.

It had come during a New Year’s Day’s family walk (or if you believe the BBC podcast, via legendary theatre producer Ken Campbell’s appearance as a transmogrified salmon). But an idea was one thing, actually pulling it off was another. While Drummond knew the business, he didn’t have the beat knowledge required for this job. But Jimmy Cauty did.

Cauty was a little more conventional, if only in appearance. With short-cropped hair and a uniform of neat jeans and tucked-in long-sleeved shirts, he had the look of a teacher doing a bit of weekend shopping – albeit with a certain menace behind the eyes. He also happened to be the co-founder of seminal electronic band, The Orb.

The result was a pair of scruffy blokes in their early thirties sent to save your soul by posing as 19-year-old rappers. Between them lay musical salvation. An unlikely one, admittedly, but salvation none the less.

Taking the name The Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu (inspired by The Illuminatus! Trilogy) and adopting the rap pseudonyms King Boy D and Rockman Rock, they sampled everything they could get their hands on. The sound was raw and unfiltered, but exciting. The rapping itself, less so – there’s a reason why there aren’t too many hip hop stars from Scotland – but they had… something.

In 1987, James Brown was a journalist with music publication Sounds. The future Loaded founder championed their cause from day one. “They sent me their one-sided sampled 12” ‘What The f*** Is Going On?’ at Sounds, where I was an up-and-coming freelancer,” explains Brown. “I was 20, but writing cover stories on young British bands. It was a genuine musical collage made up of stolen samples. Because it was independent, self-financed and illegal, I made it Single of the Week, which prompted big rows at Sounds about whether that could be done with a single you couldn’t actually buy. But I’d never heard anything like it.”

Unfortunately, a sound so heavily built on pilfering samples was destined to hit trouble. That the end came courtesy of ABBA was perhaps less predictable.

The JAMs track, “The Queen and I” didn’t so much as sample “Dancing Queen” as grab it with both hands and swallow it whole. But even a showdown with the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society – that ordered them to forcibly remove all traces of the record – proved fertile ground for Drummond and Cauty, now on a roll.

With a young journalist (Brown) and photographer in tow, they headed to Sweden with unshakeable confidence and the belief that, if they could only find them, they could talk ABBA out of legal action. Who knows, perhaps they could even become friends.

Whether pure publicity stunt or not, to Brown the whole scene was exciting.

“In the beginning we were on top of tower blocks flyposting so the images could be seen from miles around. Then we went to Sweden to doorstep ABBA and give them a gold disc. The JAMs were seen to be breaking apart the acceptable structure of copyright. It genuinely felt like we were doing something fun and challenging.”

In the end, they didn’t find Benny. Or Björn, Agnetha or Anni-Frid either. So they came back home on the North Sea Ferry, dumping half the records overboard as they made the journey.

The fallout from The JAMs only served to intensify their desire to disrupt, a manifesto loosely based around the Situationist movement and the notion that art has the power  to affect the status quo, igniting a re-evaluation of society’s ideas and values in the process.

How much disruption and discourse can come from a Ford Galaxie is open to debate, but the official line from Drummond and Cauty was that Cauty’s old American police car had spoken to them in the dead of night, instructing them to become a new band named The Timelords. (Oh, and it was also the car from Superman IV, if anybody was interested.)

In reality, The Timelords offered one lowest common denominator pop song – a mash-up of the Doctor Who theme tune and a Gary Glitter track – knocked together in a deliberate attempt to secure a hit single by numbers. Ironically, it was based around the industry moves that Cauty had picked up years previously working with Stock Aitken and Waterman, now being used to poke fun at the industry itself.

The Timelords released “Doctorin’ The Tardis” in June 1988. It sold over a million copies and went to number one. But success for a Situationist defeats the objective. Any sort of commodification into the mainstream is something to be despised, even if it is only in jest.

Thankfully Drummond and Cauty countered this further with an accompanying book entitled The Manual (How To Have A Number One The Easy Way). Here was an explanation on how to beat the system at its own game. It was fun and anarchic and actually pretty useful. Bands such as Chumbawumba and The Klaxons have since claimed they followed it to score similarly big hits themselves.

While the career trajectory might have appeared shambolic, there remained an element of dynamism to it all. Drummond and Cauty knew that without change they were finished.

Having now shape-shifted into a rave outfit named The KLF (Kopyright Liberation Foundation) they enjoyed their most successful period in music, delivering the platform ultimately required if the intention is to truly influence change. With a more honed, electronic direction, The KLF began to gain credibility through a recognisable sound and prankster reputation. By 1991 they were one of the biggest-selling acts in the world. But the commercial high ground was no place for Drummond and Cauty. They did, however, have an exit strategy.

The KLF's final performance at the Brit Awards

Drummond’s first idea was to cut his own hand off at an awards show and throw it into the audience, but nobody really knows how close that one came to fruition. The reality saw them take to the stage at the London Apollo, having just accepted the award for Best British Band – backed uncomfortably by the grind band, Extreme Noise Terror. As the song mercifully came to an end, they fired blanks over the audience with an old M16, while promoter Scot Piering announced, “The KLF have now left the music business.” Which they did. But only after deleting their entire back catalogue first.

Even as Rachel Whitehead was announced the first ever female winner of the Turner Prize, she knew that it wouldn’t be her only award of the evening.

Just hours earlier she’d been voted Britain’s Worst Artist by a newly formed collective (Drummond and Cauty) called The K Foundation. The prize money was £40,000 – exactly double that which came with the Turner Prize.

As the ceremony played out in London’s Tate Gallery, the K Foundation cash was nailed to a frame in neatly stacked bills and chained to the railings outside. Whitehead was told that if she didn’t accept it they would burn it. The defining moment of the evening is a clearly unamused Whitehead having to receive the prize in the cold and damp, while a mob of photographers encircled the scene.

Originally the idea was to use their cash from The KLF to help struggling artists.

“But then we realised that struggling artists are meant to struggle,” explained Drummond. “That’s the whole point.”

With around £1m left, they decided to turn the money into works of art instead. Literally. The collection, Money: A Major Body of Cash, was born sometime around 1993 and involved roughly seven pieces of work – mostly featuring cash attached to varying bits of wood.

“We nailed it to wood so it can’t function as it wants to,” said Drummond. “Money tends to control people, it dictates what you have to do with it – spend it, give it away, invest it – we just wanted to be in control of it.”

There were highlights; one being £10,000 nailed to a skirting board with an asking price of £5000. You could buy it, destroy the art and make a five grand profit, or stick it on your wall and watch the cash value depreciate by the day. But even that seemingly led to boredom in the end, particularly as no major gallery would touch their work. Eventually, after holding an exhibition in the middle of a field in Surrey, they just decided to burn it. 

Which takes us back to that boat house on the Isle of Jura.

The footage of long-time friend and roadie, Gimpo, struggles with the light, but you can still make out what’s going on. The flames lick and spit while Drummond and Cauty idly toss £50 notes into the furnace, only stopping to question technique (Drummond scrunched, Cauty threw them straight). Then, in around 57 minutes, it was gone. One million pounds up in smoke.

The response was strangely muted. “No one believed them really,” explained Brown. “It wasn’t like you could Periscope or Instagram Live stream it. My main thought was that they wanted to do something spectacular, but it was less so as an action as it was as an idea.”

But gradually, noise grew. The music press, and some critics, embraced the anarchy, but the art world was generally less enamoured. Not because of the moral dilemma, mind you, but because they thought it just wasn’t very interesting. When it comes to this game, Yves Klein – with invisible works of art, and gold thrown into the River Seine – was the man to beat. Drummond and Cauty went to ground.

Exactly one year later they resurfaced. Back on Jura with the video footage, they hosted a screening about the whole affair, including a Q&A afterwards; pushing it around the UK too. Despite the bravado, (“I feel good about it. It’s probably the best thing we’ve ever done,” said Cauty in one post-screening session) the eyes appeared to tell a different story.

Whether burning money could ever be classed as art will always remain open to debate, but isn’t that the point of art itself? To Kourosh Nouri, founding director at Dubai’s Carbon 12 gallery, the idea of it is, “beyond pathetic, showing a fortunately lost era of easy-made and earned money, addressed to an uneducated crowd”.

To Asmaa Al-Shabibi, director of Lawrie Shabibi, it’s art if “they intended it to be art. This was a performance, a form of artistic practice. We may not agree with what they did, ethically and morally, but the fact that we still talk about it means that it has relevance and had a lasting impact”.

For Brown, one of the biggest problems was execution. “I think provocative art works in the reveal, or the discovery, and the reaction it prompts. If Tracy Emin had kept her messy bed in her bedroom, nobody would have cared, but because it was in a gallery, it was striking. Two guys in an old building, on dimly lit footage, potentially burning a million quid didn’t have the striking visual power of their earlier stunts. Suddenly, they were doing something wasteful that could have put food on people’s tables or kept people alive. It seemed arrogant, out of touch and self-indulgent.”

It’s something that both men have struggled with. “There’s a side to it that’s really heavy for us to deal with,” explained Cauty later. “Every day you go, ‘Ah, yeah, I’ve burned a million quid.’ Nobody thinks it’s good. You can’t tell people why you did it, because, well, you don’t really know.”

Regardless of the outcome, the act itself will continue to merit discussion, both for and against. Perhaps the podcast, 25 years after the event, will raise new questions, such as how might Drummond and Cauty have actually written it differently?

“They probably would have deleted it all immediately after recording it, playing three hours of silence instead,” consider writers Sean Grundy and Cara Jennings.

Riot In A Jam Jar, by Jimmy Cauty

Those looking for definitives in the careers of Drummond and Cauty, will be disappointed. They continue to produce work of varying artistic merit to this day. Drummond has a website, that creates a user-generated sculpture, while Cauty’s recent work Riot in a Jam Jar featured at Banksy’s Dismaland project.

One thing does remain clear. In 1991, The KLF released the single “Justified and Ancient”, featuring guest vocals by country music star, Tammy Wynette – perhaps the oddest, most bizarre collaboration of all time. It was also, largely, an ode to an ice cream van. Now that, my friends, is art. ■

How to Burn a Million Quid is streaming now on all podcast platforms.