I was once sent to review the KLF for NME and ended up writing about an ice cream van. Ultimately I can only blame Bill Drummond for this strange assignment but that is a minor quibble given the huge amount of pleasure Bill has brought to my musical life.
I’m writing about Bill now because he and his partner-in-crime Jimmy Cauty have recently announced their return to the fray after 23 years. Between 23-25th August they are in Liverpool for ‘a three day situation by the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu': Liverpool Welcome to the Dark Ages.’
For many people Drummond will be best known for his work with the KLF and the burning of £1million, but for me he will always be the colossal figure striding like a madman around the stage of a Liverpool club called Eric’s. I suspect Bill wouldn’t welcome an article that focuses on his past actions, but what he has done over the years is so special that it deserves to be reviewed and admired.
I first saw Bill playing at Eric’s in a brilliantly chaotic band called Big In Japan, when I was 15 (this was the same band that contained Holly Johnson, Ian Broudie, Jayne Casey, drummer Budgie and latterly Dave Balfe). Roger Eagle, owner of the club, had the brilliant idea of opening the venue on Saturday afternoons with the night’s headliners doing an extra show. This meant I got to see all of the big names of the punk and post-punk era, but Big In Japan were the matinee-goers favourites. There was a tiny stage struggling to contain this bunch of larger-than-life characters and the largest of them all, by some way, was Bill. At their final gig we stormed the stage - the only time in 40 years of gig-going that I’ve ever felt inclined to do so.
Bill himself has written about the importance of Eric’s and its manager Roger Eagle in a lovely tribute pamphlet entitled ‘Brutality, Religion and a Dance Beat’ published after Roger’s death and finishing with the magnificent dedication “This pamphlet is published specifically for those bullied by the life and work of Roger Eagle.”
After the end of Big In Japan, Bill and Dave Balfe then went on to put out debut singles by both Echo and The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes and formed a management company to look after both groups. These were bands I’d seen many times at Eric’s and loved; particularly the Bunnymen. In the Bunnymen, Bill found the perfect foil for his maverick management style.
Bill was never going to be a typical manager and the Bunnymen were themselves unconventional pop stars who really didn’t want to play the game the way it was meant to be played. Bill would suggest gigs in out-of-the-way places because ley lines supposedly met there. It didn’t make any sense to anyone except Bill but it all added to the Bunnymen mystique. He came up with brilliant plans like the ‘Shine So Hard’ film, that was filmed at a secret gig in Buxton and the 'Crystal Day' gig in Liverpool, that attracted fans from all over the country. There is an argument that the Bunnymen were the best band in the world at this point and as a huge fan I loved those special days out, following them to gigs at Buxton, to Stratford-Upon-Avon and to London, as they became the first band to play the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Royal Albert Hall in the 1980s.
The tour that finished at the Royal Albert Hall was a typical Drummond creation, taking in dates in New York, Iceland, Denmark and (bizarrely) the Outer Hebrides. Bill claimed it was all to do with ley lines. This ley lines theory, together with the novelty of gigs in Skye and Lewis, brought plenty of publicity for the band. The reality was that, behind the talk of ley lines, there was the need to connect an awkward tour schedule. The Hebrides gigs fulfilled this role while also creating a great news story. The band themselves believed Bill was just setting up gigs at his old holiday haunts. Whatever the truth it was a typical of the genius of that man Drummond.
But Bill was really only getting started. With the JAMS (Justified Ancients of Mu Mu) and then the KLF (Kopyright Liberation Front) he and partner-in-crime Jimmy Cauty made some of the best dance records of the late 80s and early 90s, in the process upsetting everyone from Abba, through to MCPS and the BRITs. They also wrote a great book ‘The Manual: How to Have a Number One the Easy Way’ on the back of their own novelty 1988 number one single ‘Doctorin the Tardis’ presented under the guise of The Timelords. (Bill’s ‘45’ book, published in 2000 is a personal favourite).
Drummond and Cauty never do what is expected of them and at the height of their fame in 1991 I was sent to review a very rare appearance they were due to make at The Royal Court Theatre. Their appearance was on the same bill as comedian Emo Phillips who was doing the show as part of the Liverpool Festival of Comedy, run by Bill’s old Big In Japan bandmate Jayne Casey. I’ve just found my review which states ‘a yellow cloaked chorus of 50 chanted “Justified and Ancient” accompanied by the peals of a Lewis’s ice cream van parked onstage. The audience were then invited to purchase refreshments from the vehicle where they were served by the hooded figures of Drummond and Cauty’.
The KLF announced their immediate retirement from the music industry in 1992 and in a typically radical move demanded the deletion of their entire back catalogue.
Given their huge impact and entirely unconventional history, it isn’t surprising that the return of Drummond and Cauty is attracting attention right across the world and I for one can’t wait to see what this pair of maverick geniuses get up to this time. You couldn’t ever accuse the pair of them of being predictable, but apparently the ice cream van is getting another outing!
The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu have announced that they will arrive at the News From Nowhere bookshop in Liverpool, in their Ice Kream Van, for a book signing with a difference entitled the Ice Kream Van Kometh. They will be making their entrance at 23 seconds after midnight on 23rd August. Attendees will be the first people in the world to be able to buy copies of their new book ‘2023 A Trilogy’ and copies will be stamped by JAMS/KLF. (News From Nowhere is an independent radical/community bookshop which has somehow managed to survive for 30 years through many hard times and it is fitting that the shop has been chosen for this event as they will undoubtedly benefit from being the first to be able to sell the book).
I’m not sure Bill Drummond would approve of a place like the British Music Experience but that’s by-the-by. It doesn’t stop me having huge admiration for one of British music’s most subversively brilliant characters.
Bill if you are reading this, then there is an open invitation to come and visit so we can have a debate about the merits of a museum dedicated to celebrating British rock and pop music. Over to you Bill.