Listen to this track by canny pop song strategists and performance art doyens The KLF, featuring the First Lady of Country herself, Tammy Wynette. It’s “Justified & Ancient”, a tune that features on their 1991 album The White Room and on its own as a single version. After this song was released with notable chart showings all over the world, there were no more singles from the group at all. In fact, they deleted their own catalogue in the UK!
The KLF was a meta pop group more so than the real thing. The whole project seemed to be an active parody of the pop industry process, inventing a whole vocabulary and mythology around itself. The “band” was made up of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, both of whom were on the British music and theatre scenes at various levels since the mid-1970s. They started this project under the name JAMs (that’s Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu) by the late eighties.
By 1991, this single referenced their history and was something of a closed circle for them as their last ever single connected to the JAMs/KLF project. It certainly had a positive impact on Tammy Wynette in a very measurable way, while also being indicative of an approach to pop music as art where Drummond and Cauty were concerned all around.
How they actually got Tammy Wynette on board in the first place is anyone’s guess! You could easily chalk this one up as one of those very unlikely collaborations that we’ve seen across the decades of pop music history. The song, and really the whole concept of the KLF all around is very loosely based on a series of science fiction novels The Illuminatus Trilogy with some custom-made mythology by Drummond and Cauty thrown in. The lyrics here aren’t exactly in Wynette’s wheelhouse. But as mentioned “Justified & Ancient” had a pretty measurable effect on her career. It garnered Wynette a return trip to the top forty, her first since 1969.
I remember first hearing this song on the radio in my second year of university. It was first thing in the morning and I was waking up for an early class. Hearing electronic dance grooves behind a decidedly country lead vocal of Wynette’s distinct quality and vintage, I thought I must be dreaming. Who would do something like that? How would that even happen in this era when radio was becoming more and more predictable and formatted? I still don’t know how it got to mainstream radio. It’s almost like it was the result of a dare. More likely, it was a way to actively subvert the expectations of the pop music industry process and structure by being as weird as possible while still getting a top ten single in the charts anyway. Subversion was kind of The KLF’s thing. Actually, maybe anarchy is a better word.
In addition to their activities with The KLF project, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty wrote a book called The Manual that deconstructed the pop music industry and humourously (if cynically) revealed the dispassionate mechanics of scoring a number one single. There were bands that actually used the book as an actual manual, some of whom garnering some success thereby. But I think the real point of the book was to make a comment on the spiritual value of that central goal of getting a number one single with all of the trappings that comes with achieving it. Subversion would be a running theme in Drummond and Cauty’s projects, not the least of which would be one that involved their newly monikered K Foundation burning one million pounds sterling of their own money in 1992 as an act of outrageous performance art. When it comes to making statements about the emptiness of pop culture, that’s really putting one’s money where one’s mouth is. Or just setting it on fire.
All that aside, this song still does what pop songs should do. It’s fun. And it adds variety and a sense of the unexpected. It certainly has a punk rock spirit about it. Who says a country music maven can’t be on a dance record singing wacky science fiction nonsense? Who says that the lyrics have to make sense? Who says you can’t make pop music as a statement against the mainstream but that still has mainstream appeal? During a time when the industry was still figuring out how to market all of the new musical trends coming out of the late-eighties and into the early nineties, this song was one of the reminders that when it comes to pop music as art, there’s a wider range of possibilities than the industry allows, and with more levels of meaning to explore, too.
The KLF are no more. But you can read about Bill Drummond’s worldview via this 2000 interview (non-traditional, natch …) from The Guardian.