BEST SINGLES OF THE 90S: #1
July 20, 2012
As an American, I’m sometimes left wondering what the fuss is. It’s an issue of scope, I think—Britons used to the relatively cramped quarters of their island are awestruck by the simple, inelegant vastness of the American continent. There is no Texas in England. Plenty of British authors, filmmakers, and musicians have paid tribute to America in their work, but maybe the one that gets it most right out of them all is the KLF’s Chill Out, a forty-five minute ambient DJ set meant to evoke a nighttime road trip through the American South. Sure, there’s not a lot about the “Madrugada Eterna” beat that screams America, but that’s them, the KLF themselves, beat-avatars surrounded by the loneliness and endless space that dwarfs any car on a Nebraska highway.
The KLF didn’t want to be cowboys. What they understood was that in these huge empty spaces, folklore lives. Throughout their brief career as pop pranksters, they relentlessly self-mythologized, and incorporated bits from everything they liked, like magpies. They took from Robert Anton Wilson, from Atlantis mythology, from hip-hop, from ABBA, from Sweet, from ice cream, from the Situationists, from Doctor Who… and on and on. They climbed the Tree of Culture one branch at a time and snapped off twigs where it pleased them. Even their failures became triumphs of self-image: there are exhaustive discographies online that catalogue all the things the KLF didn’t release.
On their second and final studio album, The White Room, the KLF had transitioned into “stadium house”—dance music, long able to cling to the charts in the UK, was sexed up with American mainstay hard rock and its quickly rising competitor, hip-hop. “Justified and Ancient,” the album’s closer, was a reaffirmation of the KLF mythos, a low-key bass line accompanying vocalist Black Steel’s proclamation that “if you don’t like what they’re going to do, you’d better not stop them ‘cause they’re coming through.” It’s a perfectly catchy song in its own right—and then they remixed it for the single.
“Justified and Ancient (Stand by the JAMS)” is the KLF’s visionary appropriation pushed to its breaking point. Pop-metal riffs compete with bellowing soccer chants. There’s a soulful diva (Maxine Harvey), a rapped middle section (Ricardo da Force), and the crown on top of it all, Miss Tammy Wynette. Wynette, singer of “Stand by Your Man,” is one of the most revered country singers of all time—and here she is, backed by a bit of pedal steel guitar and an absolutely frantic dance track. Even she becomes subsumed by the KLF’s need to expand their story: “They called me up in Tennessee, they said, ‘Tammy, stand by the JAMS’…”
Years before anyone ever used the word ‘mash-up,’ there the KLF were, breaking ground and just doing it for their own sake. Watch the video: Roman architecture, stageplay costume design, Atlantean motifs, African tribal drumming, robed cultists, horned guitar gods, multiscreen information overload—they made a video that looked like their song sounded, and then broke up instead of waiting for the rest of the world to catch up to them.