Review: “The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned A Million Pounds”

In 1990/91 I was ten years old and a Michael Jackson fanatic. Beyond that I was aware of pop music, but not really interested in much beyond The King of Pop. A few years later hip-hop would steal my heart and keep it exclusively for over a decade before it would allow me to talk to other people. But I remember even then being aware that the British dance/pop/art duo the KLF were something different. They had catchy tunes, and more strikingly videos which were really memorable. Hooded people, armoured cars, and men with massive horns coming out of their foreheads. Oh, and Tammy Wynette on a throne singing about ‘Justified Ancients from Mu Mu’.

A few years later a friend in school had a copy of “The White Room” on tape and we used to listen to it along side N.W.A. and Ice-T. (I still have that copy. A long time borrow turned into ownership at some stage :) )

The KLF's "The White Room" on cassette tape

I didn’t really think much about the KLF for a long time after until a few years ago I suddenly remembered how great they were and began rediscovering their music. I also remembered and fully appreciated now their infamous final act where they burned the one million pound profits the hugely successful group had earned.

John Higgs has released a new book about the KLF. But it’s not like any musical bio you have ever read. It’s about much more than the KLF, it’s about synchronicity, coincidence, chaos, magic and rationalism. It’s a pretty good history of the group, but by it’s own admission, it’s not as thorough as it could be, because at any opportunity it uses the KLF as a platform to discuss a wider issue.

It devotes time to:
Discordianism
Robert Anton Wilson
The JFK Assassination
The Demise of Doctor Who
Carl Jung
Alan Moore
Magical Thinking vs Rationalism
The Value of Money

and much more…

It’s a hugely entertaining and thought provoking read. Even if you are only vaguely interested in the KLF I would recommend it. At it’s heart this book is really about how we view reality. It constantly refers to how we make mental models to make sense of the world and how we mistake our mental models for reality, a topic Wilson was hugely interested in, as was Alan Watts. The book makes the case (in a very powerful final chapter), as did Wilson and Watts, that a major cause of our ‘problems’ is mistaking our ‘models’ of reality for reality itself. In a way the KLF is used as a case-study to show this and the final chapter is almost like a thought-experiment using the KLF to force you to consider how you view the world. It’s also a great yarn about one of the truly original music groups of all time.

This book has given me a new found love for the KLF, Robert Anton Wilson and ‘the map is not the territory’.

I’ll be thinking about it for some time.