The KLF were one of the more inventive techno outfits of the late 80s/early 90s. They referenced Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy and Doctor Who a lot; they fired guns (blanks) over an audience full of music industry bigwigs and deposited a dead sheep at the entrance to the after party; they burned a million pounds in public; and so on. They occasionally dressed up like ice cream cones.
The KLF dressed as ice cream cones with Tammy Wynette
One of the KLF’s biggest hits came in 1991 with “Ancient and Justified (Stand By The JAMs)” for which they recruited country music superstar Tammy Wynette. The song was another reference to Illuminatus!, which features a clandestine group called “The Justified Ancients of Mummu,” a name they also adopted for themselves; it hit #2 on the U.K. charts, making it as close as the pranksters would ever come to topping the pop charts.
According to Jimmy McDonough’s Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen, the collaboration brought its share of difficulties:
In September 1991, Tammy was the beneficiary of extraordinary good luck: an international pop hit that dropped into her lap from out of nowhere. The gift came by way of UK musicians Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, aka the KLF, a crackpot outfit known for dance hits and absurdist antics.
In early summer of that year, the duo were in a London studio trying to revive a track that had been kicking around in one form or another since a fragment appeared on their 1987 debut album in a song entitled “Hey, Hey We Are Not the Monkees.” Cauty wanted to replace the singer, randomly suggesting Tammy Wynette. Drummond, a fan of not only country but of Wynette, got on the phone and a week later was being picked up at the Nashville airport by none other than George Richey. “Driving a powder blue Jag,” Richey, recovering from open-heart surgery, sported “snakeskin boots, fresh-pressed jeans, a wet-look perm,” wrote Drummond. “I liked him.”
Bill met his idol back at First Lady Acres as he stepped into the First Lady’s pink beauty parlor. “Her fingers were being manicured by a young man as a woman teased her hair into some feathered concoction. Her free hand was flicking through the pages of Vogue.” Tammy had a question for her new friend. “‘Bill, you’re from Scotland? Can you tell me why I have such a large lesbian following there?’ I had no answer, but promised to look into it.”
Drummond was well aware of the inescapable pitfalls of the Tammy Wynette-KLF collision, which by its very nature was, as he described, “an evil and corrupt exchange … the young artist wanting to tap into the mythical status and credibility of the has-been, the has-been wanting some of that ‘I’m still contemporary, relevant, will do anything to get back into the charts’ stuff.” But that didn’t stop Bill from playing the number for Tammy on her white grand piano. Wynette gamely warbled along. “She couldn’t find the key, let alone get it in pitch,” worried Drummond.
Into a local studio they went later that night, Tammy attempting to lay down a vocal on a thunderous dance track that certainly featured no down-home fiddle (although there was steel guitar buried in the murk, along with a Jimi Hendrix riff), not to mention nonsensical lyrics about a place called Mu-Mu Land which contained the couplet: “They’re justified and ancient / and they drive an ice cream van.”
About as far out of her element as Mu-Mu Land was from Music City, Tammy was hopelessly adrift in this electronica wasteland. “She could not keep time with the track for more than four bars before speeding up or slowing down,” said Drummond. Richey entered the booth and attempted to coach her. “A complete disaster” was Bill’s pained appraisal. “How do you tell the voice you have worshipped for the past twenty years, one of the greatest singing voids of the twentieth century, a voice that defines a whole epoch of American culture, that it sounds like shit?”
Drummond whisked the track back to London and dumped the bad news on his partner, Jimmy. Cauty told him to relax—the latest digital technology they’d just purchased would allow them to take Tammy’s words and “stretch them, squeeze them, get them all in time.”
The spectacular, no expense spared promo video. Imagine such a anarchistic act as the KLF getting this kind of bread to make a video today…
Here’s the KLF and (via video linkup) Tammy Wynette on Top of the Pops. In a lower-third it’s explained that Drummond had declared the following Tuesday to be “No Music Day” so that you would be encouraged to reflect on just what it is you want from your music. (For their part, TOTP turned it into a John Cage joke.)
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘Chill Out’ dudes, they got this: rare KLF albums appear on iTunes