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THE RETURN OF THE KLF: A BLAKEAN ANALYSIS
I was as surprised as anyone when The KLF released a ‘best of’ compilation on Spotify and YouTube on New Year’s Day. This, I thought, was a promising start to the year. It made their music readily accessible to new generations. We could now see their videos remastered after years of putting up with rips of dodgy VHS copies on YouTube. It came with the promise of unheard outtakes to come and, most importantly, those songs still sound fantastic.
But I could understand why some felt a little let down. What the KLF had done seemed to be against the spirit of everything they stood for. Surely they were the Kopyright Liberation Front, eternally at war with the music industry? From their deletion of their back catalogue in 1994 to their refusal to use the name ‘KLF’ or reissue music when they returned in 2017, they stood apart from the music industry and refused to play by its rules. It wasn’t clear what had caused them to back down now. Did signing up to the industry’s standard distribution channels weaken their myth in some way?
When we speak of the KLF’s myth, we tend to talk of their wild magical Discordian capers or their principled war on copyright. But these shenanigans were the path they took – they were not their intended destination. That destination was a place outside of rational understanding and language, and as such it could only be referred to by metaphor. The KLF’s preferred metaphor was The White Room, a place they hoped to reach by boarding the Last Train to Transcentral. All of this was up front and centre in their work – it was hardly hidden.
Another metaphor they used was ‘Eternity’ – they signed a contract with Eternity and sang of the timeless moment they called 3AM Eternal. This was also a favourite metaphor of William Blake’s. When he wrote of holding ‘Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour’, he was talking about the same experience of being outside of time that The KLF spoke of in 3AM Eternal. Much of Blake’s work can be interpreted as an instruction manual in how to reach this awareness.
Blake and the KLF have a lot in common. A fundamental concept from Robert Anton Wilson and the Discordian mythos that the KLF adopted was an understanding of reality tunnels – how our minds construct a limited mental model of the world outside our skull, which we then confuse with reality itself. The key lesson here is that it is important not to believe your own model or Belief System – or to put it simply, to not fall for your own BS.
This is also a Blakean idea. Blake personified the act of mentally creating a world, and then mistakenly believing that the limits of this world were all there is, with a character he called Urizen. Urizen is rational and insecure and desperate to believe his own BS. He is blind to how limited his mental abstractions are, and he cannot see anything beyond them. Like all of Blake’s characters, he exists in all of us. He is useful and we need him, but we also need to recognise how limited he is.
A good illustration of this is Blake’s painting Newton – in which the scientist becomes a representation of Urizen. Here we see Isaac Newton in a strange, atmospheric, organic and shapeless world, which we interpret as the bottom of the ocean until we notice that Newton and his scroll are dry. Newton is blind to the larger world in which he sits because he is focused on his work and the rational abstractions that he mistakes for the wider reality. Rational abstractions like this are, in many ways, brilliant and useful, but they are also the ‘mind-forged manacles’ that keep us locked inside our flawed, limited reality tunnels. They prevent us from seeing beyond ourselves – the place for which the White Room is as good a metaphor as any.
What is the solution? Blake stresses that we need forgiveness to escape – if only briefly – from those mind-forged manacles. As he tells us, ‘Mutual forgiveness of each vice / Such are the Gates of Paradise’. To forgive is not to allow an aggressor to avoid punishment, but to free ourselves from resentment. True, forgiveness is not always easy, especially for those suffering from repeated attack. But it still remains a goal to aim for because, if we let our grudges linger, they become part of our identity, trapping and defining us like unwise tattoos. In A Christmas Carol, Marley’s spirit is trapped in chains of greed, but we can equally snare ourselves in chains of resentment.
To experience Eternity, Blake tells us, we need to be able to be able to slip lightly out of our identities and look beyond our sense of self. Then we can streak naked through the White Room. But resentment, blame, and the extent to which injustice can come to define us acts like a heavy overcoat that we struggle to remove. In this context, what exactly was the purpose of The KLF’s one-sided war with the music industry? It certainly didn’t affect the industry in any way. Was it a useful act of integrity, or were they defining themselves by decades-old grudges that were comfortable and self righteous but ultimately limiting?
The mental model that Urizen creates is constructed out of opposites – light and dark, warm and hot, us and them, and so on. As a result, there can never be a complete utopia or dystopia, only the tension between these ideas. We will always live in an imperfect world, and we will never be done attempting to improve it. We will always be trying to work out what is fair and what works. This can seem exhausting and overwhelming at times, but it is a burden that is much easier to bear when you have moments of transcendence in your life. Your inner Urizen will try to tell you that transcendence is self-indulgent or a denial of suffering. It is neither of these things. Transcendence is fuel.
The KLF’s abandonment of what they used to stand for can be seen as the dropping of their own mind-forged manacles and a return to the limitless liberation that their music was always about. As the overall title they’ve given their re-release programme tells us, the intended journey is ‘Sample City Through Transcentral.’ That title makes most sense, perhaps, during their now re-released track It’s Grim Up North, when the white noise and techno eventually gives way to the sunrise of Blake’s Jerusalem.
On Weds 10 Feb I’m joining Robin Ince for his online Reality Bites show, in which he promises to examine “the issues that arise from living in a probabilistic universe, the shortcomings of our brain for perceiving reality, the importance of doubt and the Exegesis of Philip K Dick.” Tickets and more details here.
I had a lot of fun on the Quietus subscribers’ Low Culture podcast, in which I attempted to convince people that there is a lot more to Eddie The Ed, Iron Maiden’s undead mascot, than meets the eye.
It was also fun rambling away to the Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler on his new Ideaspace podcast – there’s lots of good ideas about building a better future in Yancey’s work, have a listen.
Kind readers sometimes send me gifts, but none has been as unexpected as when I recently received a small patch of land in Tasmania. This is a brilliant idea – a crowd-funded rewilding scheme, in which the more people come together and support it, the more land is left alone. A perfect gift for those awkward aunties and uncles, perhaps. For more details, visit the website of the Helsinki Foundation.
If you’re thinking of making a few small changes that might improve your life, can I point you towards the lastest book by my wife Joanne Mallon? Change Your Life In Five Minutes A Day is a small, beautifully designed gift book that will have a big impact.
You’re too late if you want to the film rights to Salena Godden’s brilliant debut novel Mrs Death Misses Death – Idris Elba has already nabbed them. But the good news is that the book is now in shops, and I heartily recommend you don’t miss it.
Among the too-long list of those we lost last year was Dave Mounfield, best known for Count Arthur Strong. Last Orders at the Shoulder of Mutton is a tribute to him from his friend David Bramwell – and all proceeds go to Martlets Charity. Have a listen here.
That’s all for now. By the time you get my next newsletter, there will be flowers opening and sunlight on your face. See you then!