Turn Up the Strobe: The KLF, The Jams, The Timelords, A History - Books - Reviews - Soundblab

Turn Up the Strobe: The KLF, The Jams, The Timelords, A History

by Joseph Majsterski Rating: Release Date:

Turn Up the Strobe opens with a shocking revelation: Bill Drummond and Jim Cauty both declined to be interviewed for the book, leaving a potential gaping hole in the story of their musical journey. The obvious concern is rehashing the infamous night of August 23, 1994, when the pair filmed themselves burning a million quid. Author Ian Shirley quickly disabuses the reader on the notion that this book is going to rake them over the coals yet again, and makes it clear the focus will be on the sounds. In a clever turn, acknowledging the gaps that must exist without the iconic duo giving fresh firsthand accounts, Shirley dubs his work a remix, just as much of the group's early work sampled and reassembled existing music.

Despite this problem, the book starts way back in the 1970s with Drummond's start in the Liverpool punk scene, and mines deep to dig up lots of old interviews and quotes from Drummond in particular. The very early going is a bit of a slog because of the slew of names flowing through the text, and the writing doesn't pop as much as it could in places. Still, it's fascinating to see how hard Drummond worked through his Zoo Records label to get bands like Echo and the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes their starts. I also appreciated how Drummond played around with expectations for what a band was supposed to be or do. He was a bit revolutionary in the early 80s.

Cauty was also active in the early punk scene, in an interesting parallel, except in Totnes rather than Liverpool. Perhaps it wasn't such a coincidence; I think everyone was in a punk band in the U.K. in the 1970s. But the book spends an entire chapter focusing on The Whippets from Nowhere and related acts, which barely tie into KLF at all, other than a few mentions of Cauty helping the band and some of the other acts. It is background to some of the groups he was actually in, but it's too much detail away from the purported central cast of KLF, a problem the book repeats again and again. Something else that's rather remarkable is that Cauty and Drummond don't actually get together and collaborate on their first project, The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu track "All You Need Is Love", until almost halfway through the book. I felt like things were dragging before that point, but once I arrived, I thought perhaps all that prehistory built up the tension and expectation. And it is interesting to see how the pair divvied up the work, with Cauty being more the technical mastermind and Drummond more the face and voice of the pair.

From there, the book seems to really get rolling, but that could be because the period where the two worked together is my primary interest, or because what they did together was objectively more interesting than working in traditional bands. I particularly liked the tidbit that they managed to exactly mimic the sounds of the Doctor Who theme song on the fictional Dalek robots on their Timelords single 'Doctorin' the Tardis' because bandmate Nick Coler, in an amazing turn of luck, was friends with Dominic Glynn, who was doing music for the show in the late 1980s. The brilliant marketing campaign for the song is also a highlight of the book. It's also hilarious how after all their hard work trying to make number ones, with mixed results, KLF's first song, 'What Time is Love?', was essentially a huge underground hit entirely by accident and without any real marketing campaign. It was also odd how disjointed their release schedule was, with a bunch of disparate singles coming out, then the unrelated first proper album Chill Out, then more singles, and finally The White Room, which included essentially all the singles and served as a kind of double bookend on their brief career.

One of the more interesting sections is about KLF's, or specifically Cauty's, involvement with Alex Paterson and The Orb, and the nascent ambient house scene in the late 80s and early 90s. In particular, I had no idea Cauty and Paterson had collaborated on a set together that Cauty later stripped down to his own work and released as a solo album called Space. Between that and Chill Out, it's amazing to see how foundational KLF was in ambient music, and somewhat sad to consider what more Cauty could have done if he'd stuck things out.

And this segues into the true tragedy of the pair. As much as KLF's DIY spirit was key to their success, in that they had total control of their music, it was obviously a major factor in their ultimate demise, as they also had full responsibility for getting everything done, as they had no manager and were running their own label to boot. Other pressures such as the collapse of their distributor Rough Trade and their bizarre performance at the 1992 Brit Awards, capped by Drummond's firing blanks from a machine gun over the crowd, surely contributed as well, but handling every aspect of their music from top to bottom must have taken its toll. The book does a good job of capturing some of the sadness of the band's breakup here.

Shirley mixes old information with fresh takes from a both key and bit players, and manages to paint a fairly detailed picture, but it's hard to tell if the book is too unfocused, or it's just that Drummond and Cauty touched so many projects that causes the book to feel so sprawling. Taken as a whole, it's clear that the coverage in the book was largely driven by who he could get interviews with; the long talk with Paterson being one of the most noticeable. I also noticed spots where Shirley didn't have a detail and just made a guess as to what happened. And in places the writing comes off as less professional and more excitable. I'm not sure if that's a problem or not; it's just not precisely the tone I'm used to when reading biographies. And the book definitely could have used a good editorial pass, as there are typos and grammatical mistakes here and there.

I did find myself disappointed at the end, when Shirley indicates that he loves a good discography, but then neglects to provide a comprehensive one for the works of Drummond and Cauty, instead throwing out a grab bag of tunes to listen to while reading the book. Such a list should have been at the beginning of the book rather than its conclusion, and an actual discography would have been extremely useful, considering what a confusing mess the total output of the duo became over the years. I willingly acknowledge that's a nitpick, but there it is. To be fair, I did stop quite a bit during my read through to look up and listen to the songs mentioned throughout, which added quite a bit to the experience. The Space album was perhaps the highlight of these musical discoveries.

While the book doesn't quite deliver the complete package, it does what it can with what it has, which ends up being a good amount. Of course, the book's biggest problem is that there's no new commentary from Cauty and Drummond to tie it all together, to get some kind of final, definitive statement on the band's history. The is compounded by the fact that Cauty and Drummond have reemerged on August 23, 2017, twenty-three years to the day after their infamous one million pound caper. So it seems that history is still incomplete and ongoing. Perhaps they prefer to keep something of a shroud over their key KLF moments, so no "true" telling will ever be written. Or perhaps, based on their classic book The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way) or their new one, 2023: A Trilogy, the pair will write their own book one day. If you want the full story of KLF, you'll be left wanting. If you're interested in the punk, new wave, acid house, or ambient house scenes in England, you'll be pleased at these tangents. But there is an unavoidable paucity of backword-looking, KLF-specific information from them men themselves. Still, this is worth a read simply for the fact that it's the best we'll ever get, unless the men decide to open up. Turn Up the Strobe comes out on Cherry Red Books on November 1 in the U.S.

Comments (0)

There are no comments posted here yet