Saturday, November 13, 2021

An education with the KLF

 


I wrote this in December 2000, an uncompleted recollection of my internship at London's Lillie Yard Studio in 1991 when I was 21 years old. The studio, which was co-owned by Hans Zimmer (Buggles, Hollywood) had a 24-track analog heart, but was on the cutting edge of the digital revolution with gear to support the nascent digital recording and sampling revolution. It was used by a number of UK indie dance artists, including Nomad and The KLF. I didn't know anything about this industry, but it was an education that I would never forget.    

It was the age of E, a new era in the UK music scene. Ecstasy and boom-boom beats had washed over European youth in the late 80s like a double-edged tidal wave. By 1991, the UK music industry was working flat out to supply the grooves that would keep a generation dancing. 

Not that some snotty American indie rocker college fucker like me would know it. But it was happening just the same. And I was about to get a long-term, behind-the-scenes look at how one of the biggest bands of the era operated.

Except The KLF wasn't a band, as I soon discovered. There was no lead singer, guitarist or bassist, like the groups from earlier pop music eras. The KLF was more than that, a sprawling experimental collaborative encompassing music, art, and media. 

The organization formed around several business and creative concepts. It had a core of two people, Jimmy Cauty (co-founder of The Orb) and Bill Drummond (Big In Japan, and manager of Echo and the Bunnymen). They were a binary star, surrounded by two or three permanent satellites which fed off the core while simultaneously keeping it alive and healthy. Add to the KLF system another five or six semi-permanent and temporary satellites which would spin away from the core after their assigned mission was complete. Sometimes one of these lesser satellites would swing back into orbit around the core, other times the satellite would spin off into the void, never to return.

These satellites weren't necessarily musicians. In fact, some of the most important people to the KLF collaborative were the permanent and semi-permanent associates who handled business matters. Chief among them was Sallie Fellowes, the manager of The KLF's record label, KLF Communications. Sallie was undoubtedly the Jupiter of the system. Most other orbiting satellites felt her pull if they had any dealings with The KLF. 

As for the musical talent that appeared on the albums, only a few were vital to the Cauty/Drummond core. They included Nick Coler, a friendly half-techie/half musical wunderkind who played keys on The White Room and handled some programming duties as well. 

Other musicians -- such as the rappers appearing on several White Room tracks, and Tammy Wynette -- were hired guns, bright comets paid to reel off a few verses during a song and maybe even to appear in the video, then being whipped back out into deep space. 

I was a very small satellite indeed. In the year or so I orbited the system, I had no real input in anything The KLF or KLF Communications ever did. I wasn't anyone's "mate." I never went down to the pub with anyone in the KLF system for a drink. I never hung out with Bill or Sallie, I never met Scott Piering, Mick Houghton or anyone else in The KLF's publicity machine and I doubt Jimmy ever spoke more than a thousand words to me, or even remembers who I was. 

But I did interact quite a bit with Sallie and Bill and some of the KLF music and studio people. And I did observe a lot, starting on on my first day of work at Lillie Yard.

It was a sunny weekday morning, and the door to the studio was ajar. I let myself in and wandered up to the office, which was dominated by a large calendar showing bookings in the coming weeks and months. A thin young blonde woman with black eyebrows was sitting at one of the three desks in the room talking on the phone. She paid me no attention. I didn't see Emma Burnham, the studio manager, so I went out to the living room. 

I noticed another room next to the office with different bits of recording gear lying about -- tape consoles, music stands, and some other components I couldn't identify. The techie who had let me in the previous day was standing with his back to me, coiling a cable around his arm.

"Excuse me," I said.

He turned around, and recognized me. This time he grinned. "Oh, you're Ian, aren't you?"

"Yeah. I'm supposed to start work today."

"Yes, Emma told me. I'm Dave. I'm the engineer." Dave put down the coil and reached out to shake my hand. "You're American, aren't you." It wasn't a question, more of a statement.

"Yeah, that's right. I'm from Boston."

"We sometimes get Americans in the studio. Come on, I'll take you downstairs to meet the boys."

"The boys" were Julian Gordon Hastings, the assistant engineer, and Paul Bloom, the "tape op," a sort of apprentice engineer. Both were in the control room, a dim, low-ceilinged, carpeted and soundproofed room absolutely packed with gear. There were computers, reel-to-reel tape recorders, DAT recorders, electronic compressors and gates, and lots of components whose purpose was unknown to me. There was also an absolutely massive mixing desk that seemed to take up half the room, facing a wide-screen video monitor and two expensive-looking speakers. 

It looked just like what I thought a professional studio would look like, minus the musicians.

Making music in the early 1990s was a million miles away from making music in the 1950s. Forget anything you think you may know about recording music from watching music videos or Hollywood biopics. No band gathers in a room to lay tracks down live. No singer simultaneously plays guitar while laying down a vocal track. As for dance music, it is not a matter of firing up the drum machine and playing the keys at the right moment over a beat.

Recording pop music in a professional studio in 1991 was a painstaking, layered process. Spontaneity was limited by the highly technical nature of studio recording. 

Julian was sitting at the console. He was tall and thin, very short blonde hair, taken to wearing turtlenecks and acting very serious. He had a biting wit that sometimes shone through, often at Paul's expense. Paul, who was coiling cables, was thin, with longish black hair under a baseball cap. He was almost always smiling. He spoke with a local North London accent and was known as "Max" to his friends -- apparently because he had worked at a McDonalds before becoming entering the recording industry. 

While Julian and Paul got their paychecks from Lillie Yard, they also received credit on some of the songs and albums they helped record. Julian, for instance, was named several times in the liner notes of The White Room. To Julian and Paul, and I'm sure any other young engineer or tape op, getting a chance to work with The KLF was a great opportunity and a necessary step in building a respectable career in the music industry.

It was in the studio control room that Julian and Paul spent most of their time. They were subordinate to the producers, programmers and others who rented the studio. If someone needed a mike in the sound booth, Paul would set it up. If the producer needed to listen back to the rhythm section or tweak the bass track, Julian would help make the necessary adjustments on the console. If Bill and Jimmy wanted to stay until 3 a.m. getting a inserting a sample into a song, Paul and Julian would be there until 4 a.m. making sure all the gear was shut off, put away and locked up afterwards. Emma would be long gone by that point, of course. Dave, whose main duties were fixing, installing and ordering components, would probably be gone too, unless some major troubleshooting issue arose.

I said earlier that I wasn't anyone's mate in the KLF organization. That's not totally accurate. Nick Coler was always friendly to me and loved to show me things about music - I remember one time expressing surprise at seeing a rhyming dictionary on a bookshelf in Nick's room, which launched him into an enthusiastic discussion about patterns in pop music. Other people I worked with at the studio were friendly to me, including Paul and Julian and Emma and Dave.

I followed Dave back upstairs. Emma had arrived, and seemed happy to see that I had actually shown up and not fled after the previous day's interview. 

I am used to rolling my sleeves up right away when works presents itself, and asked her straight away what she wanted me to do. 

"Well, I am not sure there is anything to do at the moment. But you should meet Sallie, 'cause you'll be helping her out a lot," Emma said.

Sallie was the thin blonde woman who had been on the phone in the office. On the first few days she was friendly in a tense sort of way, but that wore off as my low position in the Lillie Yard pecking order became clear. 

Sallie's personality was the opposite of Emma's. She was as cold as Emma was warm, direct as Emma was tactful, and efficient as Emma was relaxed. She had a brutal intelligence; no business matter was left unfinished, nothing slipped by her unnoticed and there was absolutely no pulling the wool over her eyes. I consider her one of the sharpest people I have ever met. 

I found that most of the time Sallie had distracted air about her. This was not surprising considering the large number of business and creative activities The KLF was involved in and the small size of The KLF organization - she was the only full-time person. I seldom saw her take it easy and never saw her waste time. If it were possible to do several things at the same time, she would. During a phone conversation, for instance, she would often be doing something else -- typing, reviewing a contract or making one of those weedy British fags with pouch tobacco and rolling papers. 

Sallie tolerated no dissent from lesser bodies in The KLF universe. She kept things close to the vest, too. For instance, telling me not to let Emma in on certain KLF business. Later, when I worked directly for Sallie at KLF Communications HQ in Brixton - a small, one-room office at the Brixton Enterprise Centre - she would sometimes let me in on the the realities of the music industry, including some minor collisions in deep space involving The KLF and associates. But for some of their biggest capers, including the infamous 1992 Brit Awards controversy, I was mostly kept in the dark (the main hint something weird was going down - calling around to local chemists asking if they had a de-coagulant for a large quantity of sheep's blood).    

On that first day at Lillie Yard, Sallie was willing to cut me a little slack. But only a little.

"Emma mentioned you haven't heard of The KLF."

"Yeah, I haven't," I admitted.

"That's not odd," Sallie said, turning to Emma. "We haven't signed to anyone in the U.S. yet."

"Really?" said Emma, looking surprised. "You're not released in the States? I thought they'd be massive over there."

"That's the plan, after we decide who to go with." Sallie smiled tightly and took a drag from her cigarette with one hand, and wrapped her other around her stomach, as if she were cold. Later when I saw Sallie give herself this one-armed hug, I knew it meant she was deep in thought about some important KLF business.

Emma asked her if there was any KLF discs lying around for me to listen to at home. 

"Hmmm, I think we have some samples somewhere ..." Sallie replied, turning to a shelf by her desk.

"Actually, I don't think that's necessary," I interrupted. "I don't have a CD player at home." I didn't add that I had no interest in dance music, either. 

Sallie shrugged. "Well, we have some other things." She reached over and took a thin, oversized paperback with a glossy cover from the top of a stack. It had a white cover, and stamped in an oversized black typeface like some bland government-issue pamphlet was the title: "The Manual." But the small print underneath the title was distinctly un-governmental: "How to have a number one the easy way." By way of explanation was the message "The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu reveal their zenarchistic method in making the unthinkable happen." The authors were The Timelords.

Justified Ancients of Mu Mu? Zenarchistic? The Timelords? This was all way over my head. "Thanks," I finally managed. "It looks, uh ... Who wrote this?" 

"Mostly Bill," said Sallie. "They used to be called The Timelords. Ah!" she said, suddenly remembering something. "That's right! You might know them, The Timelords had a song that got a lot of club play in the U.S. about a few years ago. 'Doctorin' the tardis.' "

It sounded familiar, but I wasn't sure. "Hmm, I don't think I know it."

Emma was nodding. "You know, it goes 'Doctor Who, Hey! Doctor Who!' ..."

Something clicked in the back of my memory. "Oh yeah! I know that song." Finally, some common ground.

There wasn't any more chat after that. Sallie was busy, as was Emma. I made some tea for Emma and Sallie showed me how she liked her coffee. I was let go early on the first day, there was little for me to do, and The KLF wouldn't be coming in until later in the afternoon.



   

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