The return of the KLF: pop’s greatest provocateurs take on a post-truth world

It is 23 years since the KLF burned 1m and turned their back on the music industry. They have now returned with 2023, a piece of dystopian metafiction could it be just what our consumer culture needs? We take a first look

So why exactly did KLF set 1m on fire? Its been a burning question for 23 years, as pops greatest provocateurs chose to let rumour, conjecture and myth around the publicity stunt held on the Scottish island of Jura and ending their career on 23 August 1994 swirl about unanswered for two decades. Until now.

The return of the project formed by Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty in 1987 which has lain dormant in a self-imposed moratorium of 23 years returned at 00.23am on the morning of Wednesday 23 August. As Drummond and Cauty drove into a backstreet of Liverpool in an ice-cream van to begin three days of events, their first new work a trilogy of dystopian fiction, an end of days story, called 2023: A Trilogy simultaneously dropped online.

Yet this is not a book for those looking for straightforward answers, and is obtuse as KLF, who have published it under their other moniker, the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. It is a multi-layered, self-referential meta tale, starting with two undertakers, Cauty and Drummond, who discover a life-changing book called 2023: A Trilogy on a hotel bookshelf. It was written by George Orwell, the pseudonym for one Roberta Antonia Wilson, 33 years ago. What you are about to read is what they read well almost, reads the preface, adding that it has been translated from Ukrainian.

Book of shadows… 2023 by The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. Photograph: Faber & Faber

It is a tale which switches between the diary of the author, Roberta, in April 1984, and her fictional novel set in 2023, in the tax haven of Fernando Po, which is the last nation state on earth (on a small island off the coast of Africa). It was once part of Equatorial Guinea, before Equatorial Guinea did their lucrative deal with Wikitube, notes the book.

It is littered with bastardised references to 2017 culture in a nod to the grim future that could befall us all the Big Five who rule the world are GoogleByte, Wikitube, Amazaba, FaceLife and AppleTree. Winnie, the main protagonist, has had an affair with Julian Assange in her younger years, and now uses an iPhone23; Michelle Obama has been the first female president of the US in 2020 but now models for Damien Hirst; Putin was crowned (ceremonial) czar of Russia; Simon Cowell was murdered by a former contestant live on Chinas Got Talent in 2017. An alternative history for the Beatles and their role in world peace is also offered. Yet for all the technological progress, todays social flaws, particularly the degradation of women, remain unchanged in 2023.

KLFs re-entrance into the world on Wednesday night in their battered ice-cream truck also almost exactly mirrors a passage of the book, which points to a note scrawled on a warehouse wall in Liverpool. I found myself in a dusty, sooty city. It was night and winter and dark and rainy. Then I saw an ice-cream van pull around a corner and pull up beside a derelict building.

While the book is not specifically about Cauty and Drummond, they crop up as self-referential characters, at one point referred to as men in their late sixties who meet up in a red brick two up, two down terraced house in Northampton, alongside comic book author Alan Moore. It is the first time they have been in the same room together since 1994. In the book, these three men withdrew 1m in 50 notes and burn them in a bonfire in front of the Houses of Parliament. What follows is a passage which is the closest to an explanation for the publicity stunt that the KLF have ever offered.

Everyone sees it for what it is: the vanities of successful rockstars with not enough money to burn… The three of them tried to save some sort of artistic grace by claiming they were misunderstood and they were going to call a Twenty Three Year moratorium on their collective creative activities. In their reckoning, these 23 years would give the hoi polloi, the art establishment and the international jet set enough time to assess the reasons why three ex-rock stars felt whim enough to burn a pile of money so big it could have saved one million starving Ethiopian babies from certain death.

Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty arrive in Liverpool. Photograph: Richard Martin-Roberts/Getty Images

The return of the KLF was marked by a poster in the East End of London posing the question: 2017: What the fuck is going on? Certainly it feels fitting that the pair, whose stunts far predated the absurdity of most internet culture, are making their comeback in the post-truth era and at a time when Beyonc and Jay-Z are supposedly leaders of the Illuminati.

Few acts since have been able to rival their anarchic, anti-commercial and mostly ludicrous career in the late 1980s and 90s, and the book illustrates how they still have the power to poke vicious holes through popular culture. There was their shameless yet pioneering sampling of pop songs, which led to objections from Abba for the unauthorised use of Dancing Queen. The pair travelled to Sweden to convince Abba to endorse the record. Abba refused, so they gave the gold disc to a Swedish sex worker and burned the rest of the records in the woods.

There were their sceptre-wielding performances on Top of the Pops, and their appearance at the 1992 Brit awards with the band Extreme Noise Terror, where they fired blanks from machine guns into the crowd, then dumped a dead sheep on the red carpet, adorned with the message: I died for you. They subsequently buried their Brit award at Stonehenge.

And lets not forget their dramatic and, in the eyes of many, self-indulgent decision to burn 1m of royalties in a final symbol of their disdain for the major labels domination of the music industry. Along with the deletion of their entire back catalogue, its an act that seems as hideous yet laudable today as it did back then.

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