The KLF: John Higgs Interview
WRITTEN BY JOSH RAY – OCTOBER 2014
As well as being a turning point in his own life, a certain dream the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung had back in 1927 sparked a series of events that almost self-prophetically transformed Liverpool, more specifically Mathew Street into a burgeoning creative hub, or to use another term a “pool of life”. Rather fittingly the dream that made Jung embark on a study of synchronicity also gave birth to a whole web of synchronicities, or more likely it just made those involved more willing to open their eyes to them…
In his book about the infamous duo Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, John Higgs pieces together the narrative that led to the re-emergence of Mathew Street as a prominent cultural force, catalysing Liverpool’s true psychedelic boom. The same narrative also brought the roots of modern conspiracy theories to Liverpool’s doorstep via Ken Campbell’s nine-hour adaptation of The Illuminatus! Trilogy at Aunt Twacky’s, later inspiring much of the warped magic that made Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty AKA The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu AKA The KLF rise to become the best selling singles band in the world in 1991 only to erase themselves from history and burn their last million pounds on the remote island of Jura a year later.
When Kermit Leveridge started making music with EVM128 and took the subsequent Blind Arcade project to Greg Wilson, the trio embedded a few pages from the KLF’s story into their own and the multi-media record label Super Weird Substance was formed. As we ready ourselves for the penultimate Super Weird Happening in a five-stop UK tour – taking place at the Baltic Triangle’s Constellations and the Observatory – more and more constellations seem to be appearing in the strangest places, or perhaps we’re just more willing to open our eyes to them…
Whatever’s happening, we thought it best to catch up with John Higgs to give us a bit of context ahead of him joining the talks with Greg, Kermit and Bernie Connor at the Super Weird Happening on 18th October.
THE DETAILS ON JIMMY CAUTY AND BILL DRUMMOND’S STORY ARE SPARSE AND OFTEN CONTRADICTORY. HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT RESEARCHING THE KLF: CHAOS, MAGIC AND THE BAND WHO BURNED A MILLION POUNDS?
I’m not sure that’s true – all the details in the story were just sitting there, publicly available, in plain view. There’s very little original research in my book. The problem wasn’t finding out what happened, the problem was that what happened wasn’t easily categorised or understood by our usual way of looking at the world. That’s why all the music writers out there, who are desperate for a good music story, have spent the last twenty years failing to write a book about The KLF despite it being such an obvious thing to do.
IN THE BOOK YOU WEAVE A COHERENT NARRATIVE OUT OF SYNCHRONICITIES BETWEEN EVENTS BEGINNING WITH CARL JUNG’S DREAM IN WHICH HE SAW LIVERPOOL AS A “POOL OF LIFE”, LATER INSPIRING PETER O’HALLIGAN TO PURCHASE A WAREHOUSE ON MATHEW STREET. HOW INFLUENTIAL DO YOU THINK THAT AREA BECAME IN THE 1970S?
I’d guess it was quietly influential at the time and massively influential in the long term. Peter O’Halligan does seem to be something of a Patient Zero in that post-Merseybeat cultural explosion, doesn’t he? You can trace most things back to him, if you are of a mind to do so.
Greg Wilson makes the point that while we tend to think of Liverpool in association with the Magical Mystery Tour coach or Strawberry Fields, it didn’t really have a psychedelic scene in the 1960s – all that psychedelia from the Beatles was after they had left. And Gary Lloyd, who did the music for Alan Moore’s Brought To Life, reckons that Liverpool’s real cultural greatness began when Ken Campbell arrived about ’76 – brought here by Peter O’Halligan, of course – and ended abruptly in 1984 when the last echoes of the Erics/Zoo Records post-punk scene died out.
It’s not healthy to obsess over a time that is dead and gone, but what I like about these Super Weird Happenings is that they seem to have a good understanding of what was valuable in the past, and are informed by that, but their focus is on doing something good now.
JUST A MONTH AFTER THE LIVERPOOL SUPER WEIRD HAPPENING, DAISY ERIS CAMPBELL,S STAGE ADAPTATION OF COSMIC TRIGGER – THE NON-FICTION SEQUEL TO THE ILLUMINATUS! TRILOGY – IS OPENING IN LIVERPOOL’S BALTIC TRIANGLE, AN AREA THAT, LIKE MATHEW STREET, TRANSFORMED FROM BEING AN “EXTREMELY UNPLEASANT, BLACK AND OPAQUE” WAREHOUSE DISTRICT INTO A BURGEONING CREATIVE HUB. DO YOU THINK LIVERPOOL IS A CITY THAT ATTRACTS SYNCHRONICITY?
Yes, I think so. Or more specifically, it’s a city which is willing to recognise synchronicity, because synchronicities are not passive entertainment – they flock together when you engage with them.
Liverpool is a place that likes to look at things sideways, so it’s going to see things in a different way to others. When I came up earlier in the year with Daisy to do an event at the Kazimier to raise awareness of the Cosmic Trigger play, it was blindingly apparent that we were in the right place and that people here really got Robert Anton Wilson and where he was coming from. So the Cosmic Trigger play is opening here not for any practical reasons – both me and Daisy are now living in Brighton, it would be much easier to put it on there first – but because Liverpool is exactly the right place for it.
ONE OF THE MOST MEMORABLE MOMENTS OF THE BOOK WAS WHEN DRUMMOND – UNDER THE BELIEF THAT “SOME FORM OF ENERGY POURED INTO ICELAND, FLOWED JUST UNDER MATHEW STREET AND EMERGED BACK INTO SPACE AGAIN AT PAPUA NEW GUINEA” – ATTEMPTED TO SYNCHRONISE AN ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN CONCERT IN ICELAND WITH A PERFORMANCE FROM THE TEARDROP EXPLODES IN PAPUA NEW GUINEA, WHILST HE HIMSELF STOOD ON A MANHOLE COVER IN MATHEW STREET. DO YOU THINK HE MIGHT HAVE ACHIEVED ENLIGHTENMENT IF HE’D SUCCESSFULLY ARRANGED BOTH CONCERTS?
Ha! Well, when you look at those who have achieved Enlightenment, they do so in some pretty unlikely ways. The Buddha managed it sitting under a tree, for example, which is no weirder than standing on a manhole cover if you think about it.
I can’t say if the Mathew Street manhole cover, in the right context, would have done the trick for Drummond. What I think is important about that story is that Drummond was willing to entertain the idea – the actual results, or lack of them, are secondary to that. But his willingness to follow the strange path that only he could see seems a more promising route than sitting around meditating every day.
SOME OF BILL DRUMMOND’S THEORIES MAY HAVE BEEN OUTLANDISH, BORDERLINE MANIC, BUT DO YOU THINK HE WAS ON TO SOMETHING WITH THE ORIGIN OF THE NAME ECHO?
Much of Bill Drummond’s work, it seems to me, is about recognising and honouring those irrational impulses that arise in us all – which we normally immediately kill off with criticism and reason – and trying to make something positive out of them. His concept of the spirit of Echo is an example of this, and the fact that we’re talking about it all these years later shows that some quality of the idea must have struck a chord in us. I don’t know if that means he was “on to something”, as you say, but it’s enough for me to think that the idea has value, regardless of whether it’s true or not.
There’s a lot of ideas in Robert Anton Wilson’s books that are simultaneously very profound and important and also total bullshit. Things like the 23 Enigma or the Law of Fives, for example, are valuable because they help you understand that while they are not actually true, neither are most of the other things that you base your life on. Much of Discordianism is about becoming comfortable with that.
THERE’S A CONNECTION TO THE FILM DONNIE DARKO AS WELL ISN’T THERE?
There was, with the evil rabbit spirit and the Echo and the Bunnymen soundtrack. There are connections to a lot of odd things in the story!
SINCE THE BOOK WAS PUBLISHED HAVE YOU ENCOUNTERED ANY NEW THEORIES ABOUT THE MOTIVATION BEHIND THE KLF BURNING A MILLION POUNDS?
I’ve heard plenty of theories, if perhaps not ones that I prefer. But since the book was published I think I’ve got a much better handle on the unique fire that was Jimmy Cauty. If I was to go back and rewrite it now I think I’d do a better job of writing about Jimmy.
ALAN MOORE’S LIVING ROOM WAS ONE OF THE PLACES WATCH THE K FOUNDATION BURN A MILLION QUID WAS SCREENED – HE’S ANOTHER FIGURE DEEPLY INTERWOVEN INTO THE NARRATIVE. HAVE YOU READ MUCH ABOUT THE SUPER WEIRD SUBSTANCE THEORY HE CHAMPIONS?
Oh yeah – I wasn’t able to write about the money burning before I got my head around Alan Moore, because before then I didn’t know of a single philosophy or model that could contain that act. When he says that information is a ‘super weird substance’ he’s just quoting physicists, but that idea for him is part of a far richer philosophy. I’d recommend anyone to read up on Alan’s thoughts about the nature of ideas and the mental world. Just googling for interviews with him, then following your nose, is the easiest way to start, but his book A Disease of Language is particularly good.
TAKING INFLUENCE FROM ALAN MOORE, THE KLF AND DONNIE DARKO, DO YOU THINK IT’S FAIR TO SAY THAT BLIND ARCADE ARE A CONTINUATION OF THE BOOK’S NARRATIVE?
It definitely sounds like they’re drinking from the same source and being swept up in the same currents. They just need a Doctor Who obsession and we’ll officially be siblings.
CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR NEW BOOK OUR PET QUEEN?
That’s an odd little cheapy ebook I was asked to write by Random House in Canada. It started out as a one line gag about how the royals are not our superiors but our pets, but the more I thought about that the more I realised that it was the only angle on monarchy that made any sense. As I get older I get fonder of things that are totally nuts, but which actually work.
Writing it was a nice little break from my next proper book, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century, which will be out in May. That’s been a lot of work and is ambitious as All Hell.
I’m also rushing to finish a book called Standing on the Verge of Getting It On. That’s a biography of the band TC Lethbridge who are playing their first gig, 23 years after forming, at the Cosmic Trigger festival. It’s not usual to write a book about a band who haven’t played live yet, I know, but this is a very special story.