The KLF team up with a Justified and Ancient Country legend [December 1, 1991]
Plus: George Michael and Elton John, Kate Bush, Prince, Martika, and Michael Jackson
This week’s Number 5: ‘Justified and Ancient’ — The KLF featuring Tammy Wynette
I would love to dive deep into the full story of The KLF.
I want to talk about the time Bill Drummond planned an Echo & The Bunnymen tour by drawing a bunny’s head on a map of Britain. Or the time he arranged for two bands to play gigs at exact antipodal points, creating a musical earth sandwich.
I’d love to explore how they were influenced by the Discordian pseudo-religion, their connection to the Kennedy assassination, or how they became convinced that they were fighting a psychic war with the Illuminati.
I’d really love to tackle the great unanswered question of their career: why they chose to pile up £1,000,000 in cash and set it on fire, shortly before vanishing for 20 years.
But talking about that would be pointless. Because I would just be quoting from one of the greatest rock biographies of all time, John Higgs’ The KLF: Chaos, Magic, and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds.
There’s one recurring theme in The KLF’s story, which is that everything just came really easy to them.
Like, suspiciously easy. Disturbingly easy. No door was ever closed to them. If they wanted something to happen, it just seemed to happen. Even before they were famous
In 1988, the band scored their first Number One with the madcap ‘Doctorin’ The Tardis’. In the wake of that success, the band released the book The Manual (How To Have a Number One The Easy Way), which documented their creative process
And that process is shockingly lazy. Most of The Manual is about how hard work is a total waste of time. You don’t need to spend ages honing your craft, paying your dues, or fretting about a record deal.
Just make a record. It’ll probably be a hit.
And that’s kind of the genesis of ‘Justified and Ancient’, the most unlikely hit record of not just the 90s, but all history. An unlikely record in both senses: it was unlikely to be a hit, and it was unlikely to ever even exist.
It’s still hard to believe that the legend Tammy Wynette, best known for her standard ‘Stand By Your Man’, ended up on a record with a pair of nutty English ravers.
The KLF weren’t totally unknown in the States in 1991. ’3 a.m. Eternal’ had made it into the Billboard Top 10 earlier in the year, and The White Room had sold decent numbers. But it’s still such a weird pairing, like Pavarotti appearing on a Limp Bizkit track.
How did it happen?
Same way everything happened for The KLF. They wanted it, so it happened.
The line in the song where Tammy sings, “They called me up in Tenessee/They said Tammy, stand by your JAMs” is the literal truth of what took place. Drummond and Cauty were messing around with ‘Justified and Ancient’ in the studio when one of them said, “y’know what this track needs? Tammy Wynette.”
So, they picked up the phone and started calling. Within a few minutes, they had been routed directly to Wynette, who was just coming offstage from a show in Nashville. They played the demo down the phone to her and she immediately said yes.
The resulting song is the kind of insane, multi-genre crossover pop genius that we wouldn’t see again until Lil Nas X released ‘Old Town Road’. It’s country, it’s rock, it’s rave. It’s got bells, it’s got ice cream vans, it’s got everything. It was one of the defining songs of 1991.
And all without Drummond and Cauty breaking a sweat.
You can see how this might drive them a little insane.
The world is supposed to have rules. Boundaries. Structures. Systems that allow us to make sense of things. You can’t just casually phone up Tammy Wynette and get her to sing about Mu-Mus. That’s not supposed to happen.
It must be scary to realise that these systems are illusions. That, really, it’s just chaos all the way down.
Scary enough to make you do something drastic, like set fire to a million quid.
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 1 (New Entry): ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ — George Michael and Elton John
The biggest, saddest moment of this year in music happened on November 24, 1991, when Freddie Mercury died of an AIDS-related illness.
This week’s new Number One had nothing to do with that. But didn’t it? Doesn’t it feel like a fitting tribute to the departed rock star?
In 1991, Elton John was largely known to be gay, although it wasn’t discussed much in public. George Michael was very much in the closet and actually had a reputation as a lady’s man, thanks to his association with every supermodel on earth.
The two had first performed this song together at Live Aid, the show that cemented Queen’s legacy forever. Both men would also sing with Queen in 1992’s Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley, which was a blatant attempt to recreate Live Aid.
They didn’t sing this song at the Freddie tribute. They should have though. It’s a great anthem, both melancholy and defiant, and works as an elegy for their recently deceased friend. In this sad week, it accidentally captured a mood.
Number 13 (New Entry): ‘Rocket Man’ — Kate Bush
Speaking of tributes, 1991 saw the release of Two Rooms album. A glittering array of superstars including The Who, The Beach Boys and Tina Turner came together to pay homage to Elton John and Bernie Taupin by covering some of their most famous tracks.
The lead single was Kate Bush’s reimagining of ‘Rocket Man’. Bush here is in full Manic Pixie Dream Kate mode here, with ukeleles and wind machines everywhere. It’s a very good version of a song that is really just an easy-listening version of ‘Space Oddity’.
Number 14 (New Entry): ‘Driven By You’ — Bryan May
The George Michael and Elton John track feels like serendipitously great timing. This one, however, feels like Brian May totally failing to read the room. Absolutely nobody was in the mood for this soft rock dirge in December 1991.
Also, it starts with the line “Everything I do, I do for you.” THAT LINE IS TAKEN, BRIAN! I hope you get nits.
Number 25 (New Entry): ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ — Prince
It’s been 30 years and I still can’t decide if “If I gave you diamonds and pearls/Would you be a happy boy or a girl” is a dreadful rhyme or total genius.
It’s Prince, so there’s no reason it can’t be both.
Number 28 (↑ from 37): ‘Martika’s Kitchen’ — Martika
Hey look, it’s another Prince song in the charts. This is less epic than ‘Love Thy Will Be Done’, but it is a lot of fun.
The kitchen is a metaphor for sex, just in case that wasn’t clear.
Album of the Week
Dangerous — Michael Jackson
We talked a few week ago about the weird place Michael Jackson found himself in when he dropped 1991’s Dangerous. It was his first album without Quincy Jones, and it groaned under the weight of expectations.
So, is it any good?
That depends on the yardstick you’re using to judge it. It sold 32 million copies worldwide and is currently 15th in the league table of best-selling albums, so I guess it can’t be that bad.
But if you compare it to Off The Wall or Thriller—hell, even if you compare it to Bad—then no, this album isn’t very good.
Or, to be more precise, it’s not great. This is The King of Pop we’re talking about. Dangerous makes him sound like the Prime Minister of Pop. It’s an achievement, sure, but it’s clearly a step down.
There are some bright spots, like the deliciously funky as ‘Remember The Time’, ‘Can’t Let Her Get Away’ and ‘Keep It In The Closet’. These are forward-looking tracks that anticipate a lot of what’s about to happen in R’n’B during the 90s. They sound like Janet Jackson songs, and I mean that as a huge compliment.
But a lot of it sounds like Michael Jackson playing catch-up. He wanted to ride the hip-hop wave while also appealing to a mainstream fanbase, and he had just about pulled it off on goofy tracks like ‘Bad’, but now he just sounds cringe on the album’s openers ‘Jam' and ‘Why You Wanna Trip on Me’.
Jackson also indulges his schmalziest Hallmark instincts on this record. Quincy Jones might have given a bit more edge to the saccharine ‘Gone Too Soon’ which, ironically, goes on far too long.
And I like to think Quincy would have found a way to torpedo the extremely grim ‘Heal The World’, in which Jackson embraces his Messiah complex. The only good thing about ‘Heal The World’ is that it’s less embarrassing than ‘Earth Song’.
Dangerous is a soild 7/10 record. Maybe 8/10 on a good day. But it’s all about standards. Off The Wall is an 11/10 record. Thriller is ∞/10. It’s one thing to be crowned the king; another thing entirely to keep your ass on the throne.
While we were saying goodbye to Freddie, the charts were also witnessing the end of another era: the age of New Kids On The Block as a serious commercial prospect.