How to build a brand the KLF way

The KLF – also known as The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, The JAMs, The Timelords, The K Foundation, 2K and K2 Plant Hire Ltd – were, for a brief period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a notorious and mysterious force in pop music.

Variously described as art terrorists, situationist pranksters, geniuses, anarchists and scam artists, The KLF hold a unique place in modern popular culture. Who else would burn a million quid, and then sign a 23-year moratorium on talking about why?

This self-imposed ban comes to an end tomorrow (23 August 2017). To mark it, The KLF's Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty are releasing a book, 2023: A Trilogy – and hosting a suitably bizarre three-day event in Liverpool, UK, called Welcome to the Dark Ages. Only 400 tickets went on sale. At £100 (around US$130) a shot, they were snapped up in minutes.

If the KLF know one thing, it's how to build a brand. On the eve of the event, we take a look back at The KLF’s most notorious moments, before distilling 10 pro tips for building a design business like The KLF on page 2.

(Skip straight to the tips here)

An auspicious start

Starting out in 1987, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty immediately grabbed the attention of the music press with their debut album, 1987 What the Fuck Is Going On? – a messy mix of hip hop beats, Glaswegian rap and uncleared samples.

Soon after, they grabbed the attention of ABBA, who sued them for sampling virtually all of their song Dancing Queen on the track The Queen and I, resulting in the album being withdrawn.

A year later they had a number one single as The Timelords with Doctor in the Tardis, a heady blend of the Doctor Who theme music and Gary Glitter's Rock and Roll Part Two. They then wrote about it in their book, The Manual: How to Have a Number One the Easy Way, an only partly tongue-in-cheek breakdown guide to making a hit record and getting it to the top of the charts, with a money-back guarantee.

The pair went on to release a series of 12-inch trance singles, tried to make a road movie, recorded a classic ambient album – 1990's Chill Out – then finally hit the big time later that year with What Time is Love?, a driving dance number reworked from one of the earlier trance tracks, and the first part in their Stadium House trilogy. 

Five more hit singles and an album, The White Room, followed over the next 18 months, until in early 1992 they dramatically left the music industry after performing a death metal version of 3AM Eternal at the Brit Awards with Extreme Noise Terror, the performance culminating in Bill Drummond firing a machine gun loaded with blanks into the audience.

Art terrorists

With their entire back catalogue deleted, they turned their attention on the art world, becoming The K Foundation and sponsoring a £40,000 prize for the worst artists of the year, announcing the winner, Rachel Whiteread, on the same day that she won the 1993 Turner prize.

They also attempted to build their own body of artwork entitled Money: A Major Body of Cash, based around large amounts of money. The first piece, Nailed to a Wall, consisted of £1 million in £50 notes, nailed to a framed board.

Unable to find galleries willing to host an exhibition, in 1994 they found another use for this million pounds. The KLF took it to the Scottish Isle of Jura and burned it in an abandoned boathouse while their collaborator, Gimpo, filmed them.

Since the dissolution of The K Foundation, both Drummond and Cauty have worked as artists. Jimmy Cauty most recently came to prominence with his dystopian diorama, The Aftermath Dislocation Principle, a giant post-apocalyptic model village that was a major attraction at Banksy's Dismaland exhibition.

Drummond's own, singular artistic career has at times consisted of building beds and dry stone walls, distributing flowers and making soup. In 2014, he started his own world tour in Birmingham, in which he was scheduled to visit 12 cities in 12 different countries, producing 25 paintings and working on other art projects before returning to Birmingham on 28 April 2025.

Welcome to the Dark Ages

2017 - what the heck is going on?

2017 - what the heck is going on?

So as we said, on 23 August 2017, Drummond and Cauty's self-imposed moratorium on talking about why they burned a million quid comes to an end.

Details of their Liverpool event, Welcome to the Dark Ages, are deliberately vague. However, all ticket holders are expected to be volunteers for whatever The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (The JAMs) have planned over the course of the three-day event. Whatever transpires, it promises to be a unique happening.

Next page: 10 tips from The KLF for building a design business

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Jim McCauley

Jim McCauley is a writer, performer and cat-wrangler who started writing professionally way back in 1995 on PC Format magazine, and has been covering technology-related subjects ever since, whether it's hardware, software or videogames. A chance call in 2005 led to Jim taking charge of Computer Arts' website and developing an interest in the world of graphic design, and eventually led to a move over to the freshly-launched Creative Bloq in 2012. Jim now works as a freelance writer for sites including Creative Bloq, T3 and PetsRadar, specialising in design, technology, wellness and cats, while doing the occasional pantomime and street performance in Bath and designing posters for a local drama group on the side.