They’re a confounding band, The KLF, and that’s what makes them so profoundly interesting during a moment in time when a lot of music was anything but. Because although there’s a lot of good music bubbling under in 1992, precious little is making much of an impression at the top end of the charts, singles or albums. In fact the singles charts in the UK are in the absolute doldrums, with sales levels plummeting to near-record lows and just twelve Number 1 singles over the course of a whole year.
The album charts are choked up with greatest-hits release after greatest-hits release, with Divine Madness by Madness, Abba Gold by Abba, Simply The Best by Tina Turner, The Best Of Belinda by Belinda Carlisle, Glittering Prize by Simple Minds and many others all ascending to the top of the album charts. In fact of the twenty-nine albums that topped the UK charts in 1991, twelve of them were compilations (that’s a whopping 41%), which doesn’t exactly suggest things are in a healthy position, and the majority of non-compilations that get to Number 1 are legacy acts, artists who have more than a decade-long career behind them (Cher, Neil Diamond, Lionel Richie, Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Mike Oldfield and others). It’s just all very stagnant, in other words, even though there’s odd exceptions like R.E.M. and Prince – neither of whom are spring chickens at this point in their careers either – who both topped the album charts (briefly, one week each), or The Orb scoring an exceedingly unlikely Number 1 album with U.F.Orb. It is in this sort of environment a band like The KLF – unconventional, to say the least – can flourish, and they were already coming off an amazing year in 1991 which has seen big success from them in the singles charts. “What Time Is Love?”, “Last Train To Trancentral” and “3 a.m. Eternal” had already been hits (the latter a UK Number 1) and “Justified And Ancient” was ready to take follow suit, which it duly did.
On the surface, though, there’s not a vast amount to differentiate “Justified And Ancient” from “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” by Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield. This is appropriate – The KLF were self-confessed huge Pet Shop Boys fans and followed that template. Take one electronic band, add in an icon from a different age and style of music, blend together and see what happens. And “what happened” was the exactly the same result – a Number 2 single. There’s nothing wrong with that approach and it clearly works. “Justified And Ancient” seemed odder than Pet Shop Boys doing the same thing because The KLF are a markedly less conventional band than Pet Shop Boys, who – at least far as their single successes thus far have gone – wrote fairly traditional songs but in a synth-pop style. The KLF, on the other hand, are deeply invested in sampling, mashing up and cut-and-pasting existing music forms to see what can be done with them – they have always existed to subvert the music industry rather than being a part of it, in sharp contrast to Pet Shop Boys.
“Justified And Ancient” is probably both The KLF track which most resembles a traditional song structure and just about the least invested in their sampling approach yet the roots are certainly visible (and it has a riff from Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” running through the chorus). Still, it should be immediately obvious why a band drawn to mashing up music in this way might be drawn to the idea of including someone like Tammy Wynette on a recording that’s otherwise got basically nothing do to with country music. The original version of “Justified And Ancient” came out in 1987 and has appeared several times since – The KLF sample and steal from other bands but they’re also more than happy to do it to themselves as well. And “Justified And Ancient” marks out something of the creative tension within the KLF – they exist to subvert music yet had a number of successful singles behind them and scored a massive hit by working one of their own numbers into a fairly conventional form and by sticking a big country star on vocals. The subversion element only really works if they’re basically taking the piss out of Tammy Wynette by getting her to sing a silly song about an ice cream van roaming the mystical lands of Mu-mu.
And yet by all accounts that’s simply not the case. Bill Drummond was genuinely fond of Tammy Wynette – another similarity to “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” where Neil Tennant was a genuine fan of Dusty Springfield – and having her on vocals appears to be sincere. It has all the hallmarks of a marketing ploy, especially from a band committed to the idea of being pranksters at the heart of the music industry, yet Drummond flew all the way to Nashville to personally take charge of the recording of Wynette’s vocals. That’s a lot of trouble to go to for a publicity stunt.
And the production belies any sarcastic intent too – this is a more up-tempo version of the song than had previously been heard but it’s also catchier and it’s got a pedal-steel guitar on it, perfectly aligning the new version with Wynette’s background. Even the sleevenotes refer to her as “the first lady of country” and the parenthesis part of the title “stand by the JAMs” was apparently included as a nod the Tammy Wynette hit “Stand By Your Man”. The JAM’s were an established part of The KLF mythos – if that’s the right term – by this point but they didn’t need to include it in the title of the song. Again, it could all be sarcastic but the evidence is mounting that it very much isn’t. It’s being played, at least by KLF standards, relatively straight. It is a strange combination, but there have been stranger, and the fact is that the end result works as a song. In fact it works so well that having an artist like Tammy Wynette singing over a then-extremely-contemporary style of music leaves “Justified And Ancient” positively ahead of the curve – compare and contrast to Cher reviving her career with “Believe”, which pulls exactly the same trick with a markedly inferior song, and it shows just how ahead of its time “Justified And Ancient” actually was.
It should, naturally, come as no surprise to discover that the other thing that “Justified And Ancient” has going for it is Ms Wynette herself. She’s pure, 100% class from top to bottom and she’s also clearly fully invested in this song. This isn’t some arbitrary “guest spot”, she gives a great account of herself delivering the extremely (but entertainingly) daft lyric a real shot of sincerity which it needs, and she stops the whole exercise from simply coming across as glib. And she delivers. Of course she does. Her enthusiasm for the project is perfectly clear, and she plays it dead straight. This allows “Justified And Ancient” to have its cake and eat it. If you want to read the song as a subversive slice of tee-hee pop anarchism that reading is open, and if you want to regard it as a well-crated pop song with a killer lead vocal from one of the big stars of country it can be read that way as well. Both readings are entirely valid and both readings sit alongside each other.
Tammy Wynette also appears in the video for the song, the majority of which is a pretty random selection of bits of The KLF’s mythos – Handmaidens of Mu-mu dancing about the place, overlapping pieces of technology, a faintly Roman-looking stage set and many more – while in the middle of it all sits Tammy Wynette imperiously on a throne, looking like she’s having the time of her life. And that’s the thing – she very clearly is. Even if this were all just taking the piss out of a faded country star the piss-taking doesn’t work because Wynette plays it straight and plays it so well. The tee-hee reading is still open musically, especially in light of what else was in the charts at the time, but Wynette is simply too good here to allow it to seem like she’s the one that having the piss taken out of her. The audience, maybe, but not her. Now there’s a skill.
Still, this is basically it for The KLF. “Justified And Ancient” was the last single they released, as the idea of subversion got gradually swamped out by actual chart success. It’s tough to claim you’re doing much in the way of subverting when you’re scoring hit after hit, and ironic distance can only take you so far. To counter such accusations, and to genuinely approach a level of subversion, the band ended their career not long after the release of “Justified And Ancient” by playing a thrash metal version of “3 a.m. Eternal” at the Brit Awards while Bill Drummond fired blanks from an automatic weapon over the heads of the assembled audience, followed by the dumping of a dead sheep outside the post-award show party entrance. The original idea had been to disembowel its corpse live on stage. They then promptly deleted their entire back catalogue – none of The KLF’s releases are commercially available even to this day – and followed that up by burning one million pounds of their remaining KLF profits in cash a couple of years later. See? Confounding. Yet all these acts seemed genuinely impressive at the time – light years away from stale re-issues, bland techno or dull cover versions, the KLF were a genuine shot of colour in a music scene that seemed almost aggressively grey. They did it with style, with genuine artistic impulses, and managed to make some really great music along the way. If only more bands were bound for Mu-mu land.
[EDIT!] Shortly after this article was written, a handful of songs did, in fact, suddenly become available on Spotify under the title Solid Star Logik after an interminable period of not being availble. Tsk.
What Else Happened In 1992?
Let’s start with a positive – Nirvana’s Nevermind gets to Number 1 in the US. On the other side the scale The Bodyguard is released in cinemas, which means good luck escaping the massacring of Dolly Parton’s otherwise-rather-sweet “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston. Brace yourself for a shock – it’s the biggest single of 1992, though “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is right behind it. David Bowie marries Iman, Bobby Brown marries Whitney Houston, and Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain also get hitched. Lou Reed has Magic And Loss and Chumbawamba release their best album, Shhh! Guns’n’Roses break two records – longest single ever (“November Rain” weighing in at a mighty 8:57) and the most expensive video ever ($1.5 million). Bill Wyman quits the Rolling Stones, and Factory Records, home to some of Manchester’s finest bands, goes bankrupt. The Cure attempt cheerfulness with Wish (it’s not wholly convincing) and Annie Lennox kicks off her solo career with the brilliant Diva. Abba begin their long walk back from the wilderness to the limelight, firstly with the release of the huge smash greatest-hits compilation Abba Gold, then by Erasure releasing a quadrilogy of covers on the Abba-esque EP (followed, with puckish good humour, by Abba tribute band Björn Again releasing their Erasure-ish EP, covering four Erasure songs in return). Michael Jackson begins the Dangerous world tour, and Ice-T has the most controversial single of the year with “Cop Killer”. Frank Zappa has his final public appearance, and Kylie Minogue departs Stock, Aitken and Waterman. PJ Harvey releases her first album and so does Mary J. Blige. Perennial punchline “Achy Breaky Heart” by Billy Ray Cyrus (yes, Miley’s dad) is inflicted upon the world, The Shamen release the exceedingly funny (and great) “Ebenezer Goode”, and Dr Dre debuts with The Chronic. Oh, and R.E.M. release the best album of the decade bar none, Automatic For The People. And at the age of 79 John Cage passes away – please observe four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence to mark the occasion.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
Even next to the, ahem, variable standards of last year 1992 is spectacularly shit in the UK, with only The Prodigy’s Everybody In The Place EP and Arrested Development’s “People Everyday” sparking even the tiniest flicker of interest. Kriss Kross want to make you “Jump”, which is at least memorable, as is the Freddie Mercury/Montserrat Caballe duet “Barcelona”, though neither are the dictionary definition of “good”. Everything else, though, is just a wasteland that includes minor Mariah Carey (“I’ll Be There”), the far-from-cunningly-named Smart E’s, Guns’n’Roses’ appalling cover of “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” and TV soap star Nick Berry’s somehow-even-worse cover of “Heartbeat”. Save us, America! But alas no, there’s more Mariah Carey (“Can’t Let Go” this time), Eric Clapton’s understandable-but-not-actually-good-in-any-way “Tears In Heaven”, and fucking “Bohemian Rhapsody” rolls out yet again (Wayne’s World edition this time). The closest we get to a respite is “Under The Bridge” by Red Hot Chilli Peppers, for one whole week in the middle of the year.
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
3. The Kinks – “Lola”
4. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
5. Eurythmics – “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”
6. Ultravox – “Vienna”
7. Elvis Costello – “Oliver’s Army”
8. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
9. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
10. Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield – “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”
11. The Beautiful South – “Song For Whoever”
12. The B-52’s – “Love Shack”
13. Luciano Pavarotti – “Nessun Dorma”
14. Adam And The Ants – “Antmusic”
15. The KLF with Tammy Wynette – “Justified And Ancient (Stand By The JAMs)”
16. James – “Sit Down”
17. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
18. Suzanne Vega-DNA – “Tom’s Diner”
19. The Bangles – “Manic Monday”
20. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
21. Queen, “Killer Queen”
22. Blondie, “Denis”
23. Dire Straits – “Private Investigations”
24. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
25. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
26. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
27. Cyndi Lauper – “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”
28. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
29. Bonnie Tyler – “Holding Out For A Hero”
30. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
31. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
32. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
33. Terence Trent D’Arby – “Sign Your Name”
34. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
35. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”