In 1991, the best-selling singles act in the world was ‘The KLF,’ a duo consisting of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty. This UK-based group engaged in varied activities and made a point of both mocking the music industry as a whole and not earning a single thing. During their short careers neither one of the pair made any money, instead putting all of their earnings back into increasingly lavish productions. Through the early 90’s their popularity soared with the release of their number one hit ‘Doctorin’ the Tardis’ which mashed together the Doctor Who theme with Rock and Roll (Part Two) and other popular songs of the era. The hit was slated by critics universally but still managed to reach the top ten in Australia and Norway.
The end of the peculiar ride came with an incendiary performance by The KLF at the Brit Awards. They joined up with the band Extreme Noise Terror and, on prime-time television and performed a thrash metal version of their popular song ‘3.am eternal.’ Bill Drummond was on crutches screaming the lyrics into the microphone. He then hobbled off stage and came back on with a large automatic machine gun and a cigar, for effect. He then fired blanks into the audience which panicked. At the end they left the stage and the announcer declared:
“The KLF have now left the music Industry.”
This turned out to be very prescient as later that year the pair retired swiftly and entirely. Then they had a problem. Over the next few months their music still was bringing them money, but they didn’t want to make a profit. By 1993 they had £1,000,000 between them, so they set up the ‘K – Foundation.’ It was initially a fund to help struggling artists but then, true to form they decided against it.
“We realised that struggling artists are supposed to struggle, that’s the whole point.”
Their first deed, nailing all of the money to a pine frame, but no galleries would exhibit it. They considered taking it to Russia by train but no company was willing to insure it. They were at a loss as to what to do when in 1994 they had an idea. In a café they were trying to decide what to spend the money on, then they scrapped that. They would burn it.
It started with what was the largest single cash transaction in the history of British banking, one million pounds sterling, an unintentional extra. On the 22nd August the pair and a roadie they referred to as ‘Gimpo’ took a ferry across to the quiet island of Jura, just off the coast of Scotland, the site of one of their previous lavish ‘productions’, a wicker man burning ceremony they had held. Then early the next morning they lit the fire. Jim Reid was the only independent witness on the scene wand watched with dismay as inside that large and abandoned industrial building they tossed in the thick bundles of £50 notes, each bundle was worth £50,000.
The bundles wrapped in cellophane were recorded on film by ‘Gimpo,’ the group worried about whether or not the money would burn, then suddenly a bundle ignited, agitating the fire and slowly being consumed by it. Jim Cauty unwrapped a bundle and gleefully hurled £50 notes at the fire while Bill Drummond used a plank to push in the stray cash spat out by the fire. Many £50 notes were caught in the significant draft caused by the fire and an estimated £100,000 rose up the chimney. Gimpo filmed the outside briefly and watched the cash flow out the top and sink slowly downwards amongst the spark and cinders.
The reporter later wrote in an article about the guilt he felt initially and the shock when they actually did the thing. These turbulent emotions soon settled down and became a troubled version of boredom as a fortune went up in smoke before his eyes. The whole fire took an hour, later the ash was collected and made into a brick. Months later the islanders reported finding singed notes about the place, believing, unlike many, that the story was true.
The filming done by ‘Gimpo’ was turned into a 67 minute film proudly called ‘Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid’ (Quid being British slang for the pound). It toured around the country and at the end of each showing the pair engaged in a debate with the audience, was it right, wrong or none of your business? It gathered serious media attention but perhaps the biggest change was within the duo themselves.
Until 2000 Bill Drummond claimed to suffer no remorse but by 2004 he admitted to the BBC how difficult it was to justify the decision.
“It’s a hard one to explain to your kids and it doesn’t get any easier. I wish I could explain why I did it so people would understand.”
Jim Cauty himself worried much more about the decision, his friends declared him to be suffering from mild depression and a form of shock.
“Every day I wake up and think ‘Oh God! I’ve burnt a million quid and everyone thinks it’s wrong’.”
Whether or not it is wrong, is up for debate. Which is all they really wanted.