Was it a case of more money than sense that led Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, formerly of the KLF, to burn 1 million pounds sterling on the Isle of Jura in 1994? It’s a question neither man has fully answered.
After the event, both said they wouldn’t talk about it for twenty-three years. Since then, Drummond has spoken about it twice: once in 2000, when he said he was unrepentent; then in 2004, when he admitted to the BBC he regretted burning the cash.
The money allegedly came from royalties Drummond and Cauty made through the success of their band the KLF - the world’s most successful band in 1991. After retiring from music, Drummond and Cauty reunited the K Foundation, and established an award for the “worst artist of the year”, which they gave as a £40,000 prize to that year’s Turner Prize winner, Rachel Whiteread.
The following year, the pair carried out their biggest stunt - burning a million quid of their own money.
Was it real? Did they actually burn a million? Or, was the money bogus?
One theory suggests it was all a hoax and the notes burnt had been intended for incineration, being purchased from the Bank of England by the K Foundation for £40,000.
Seems possible, but Drummond and Cauty were accompanied by journalist Jim Reid who wrote the whole event up in the Observer newspaper:
“The money is not beautiful, and it is only intimidating for a while. It is impossible, looking at it, to imagine what you might buy with it. Four bundles for a nice flat in Chelsea, the whole lot for a lifetime not working. It doesn’t look that impressive. The next thing you feel is the need to do something, not to let it just stand there. Because, of course, I, like anybody else with healthy appetites, want it.
“Lying on the floor in its proud plastic packages, the money represents power. But it is a power that is painfully vulnerable. Cauty separates two fifties from a bundle, hands one to Drummond, and taking his lighter, lights them both. Despite the rain and wind outside, the money is going to burn. In fact, nothing could burn better.
“Drummond is standing to the left of the fireplace throwing fresh bundles in, Cauty is to the right, screwing up three or four fifties at a time. After five minutes their actions become mechanical, almost like it is peat or coal that they are fuelling their fire with. But this is going to take some time. ‘Well that’s OK,’ says Cauty, rolling a cigarette. ‘It’d take a long time to spend it. Can I spend an hour out of my life to burn a million quid? (Drummond laughs)... All the time you say about things: ‘I haven’t got the time to do that.’ Well, I’ve definitely got time to do this.’
“The fireplace is a rough affair. Occasional fifties get wedged in crevices above the fire before they eventually fall down to be destroyed. Cauty is poking at the fire with a stick, moving the bigger bundles into the heat. Whole blocks of 50 grand remain resolutely unburnt: singed, charred, but perfectly legal. We have a bottle of whisky with us and it is passed round as if nothing could be more natural than burning £1 million on a remote Scottish island in the middle of the night. This is the truly shocking thing about the evening. It almost seems inevitable.
“It took about two hours for that cash to go up in flames. I looked at it closely, it was real. It came from a bona fide security firm and was not swapped at any time on our journey. More importantly, perhaps, after working with the K Foundation I know they are capable of this.”
A few days later, a total of £1500 in charred notes were washed up on the shores of Jura, much to the islanders’ disgust.
Did they actually burn £1m? And what did it mean? Julian Cope called the stunt “intellectual dry wank”, while the Observer in 2000 returned to it stating:
“It wasn’t a stunt. They really did it. If you want to rile Bill Drummond, you call him a hoaxer. ‘I knew it was real,’ a long-time friend and associate of his group The KLF tells me, ‘because afterwards, Jimmy and Bill looked so harrowed and haunted. And to be honest, they’ve never really been the same since.”
Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid questions our strange and fetishistic relationship with money - who has not considered how they would spend a million? - as it reaffirms a moral responsibility wealth (in any form) brings, by exploring a one-off event that now runs counter to the current global obsession with failing banks, bankrupt economies and corrupt financial markets.