2023: A Trilogy by The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu
(Faber & Faber hardback, 376 pages. Out now)
Report by Roy Wilkinson
In the Spring of 1987 your correspondent was interviewing Bill Drummond for the now long-defunct UK music weekly Sounds. It was about 11am and we were sat quietly at Cranks vegetarian wholefood restaurant just off Carnaby Street – Bill’s chosen meeting place.
In late 1986, as Bill turned 33 1/3, this former label boss / manager to Echo & The Bunnymen had released his solo album The Man – a charming, exhilarating slice of wild-eyed folk-rock. Bill had recorded the album in a church hall in Galloway, backed by musicians including The Triffids (minus frontman David McComb). With its release on Creation Records, I’d given the album an evangelical 5/5 stars in Sounds. Who could fail to be intrigued and delighted by potential radio smashes like ‘Julian Cope Is Dead’ and ‘Such A Parcel Of Rogues In A Nation’? The latter was a Robert Burns poem voiced by Bill’s father, the Presbyterian minister the Reverend Jack Drummond. But there was another story in the ether. A new band in town. They were said to be called The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu and they were up to all kinds of things. And before too long, they would become The KLF…
In Cranks I asked Bill if he was The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu. He indicated his rucksack and said, “I have a gun in here. If you turn off that tape recorder I will show it to you…” But Bill didn’t say his co-authorship of The JAMs was off the record. In my interview feature I made it clear that Bill was central to this gathering musical storm – thus announcing The JAMs to the wider world. Or, at least, to the wider world as delineated by the wonky maps and measures of the UK weekly rock press.
Soon The JAMS were lined up for a Sounds front cover. I reviewed their debut album, 1987 (What The Fuck Is Going On?), giving it an evangelical 5/5 stars. As deployed by Bill and his cool, guitar-ace co-pilot Jimmy Cauty, The JAMs’ hip hop-inspired methodology was often a clunky machine, but there was naked thrill to their kamikaze sampling of Abba, The Monkees, Led Zeppelin and The Fall, among much else. (At this point I’d like to say that in six years of reviewing many albums for Sounds I gave maybe seven of them an evangelical 5/5 stars…)
By luck as much as judgement I was there at the start of The JAMs. Now, 30 years later, I find myself in proximity to an end, or at least endings… In 2017 Bill and Jimmy are abroad, spectacularly, once more. Faber & Faber have published a hardback book, Bill and Jimmy’s ill-behaved and darkly jocular meta-fictional spectacular: 2023: A Trilogy By The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu. Toward the end of August, the duo also enacted Welcome To The Dark Ages, a kind of three-day situationist stag party in Liverpool – an astonishing compendium of absurdism, fun, death and cosmic rumination. It took in a show trial, Jarvis Cocker and several hundred people pulling an ice-cream van, unscheduled, through the nocturnal centre of the Scouse citadel. But, most amazingly to me, I find that Bill and Jimmy have launched a funeral partnership with my next-door neighbours.
I live in the Devon market town of Totnes. Now, Totnes does have strong JAMs connection. Jimmy Cauty grew up here. But I moved to Totnes 10 years ago simply because my wonderful current wife wanted to try living here. About a week after The JAMs’ Merseyside goosefair I wandered through our garden, up past the globe artichokes. I was returning a book to our neighbours, Claire and Ru Callender, who are funeral directors at The Green Funeral Company in Devon. “Hey, look at this,” said Claire, indicating a web page she had open. It was a simple black-and-white design. In big letters near the top:
CAUTY & DRUMMOND UNDERTAKERS
Wow. Claire and Ru had started a funeral venture with Bill and Jimmy. This was the first I’d heard it, or of Claire and Ru’s presence at the Liverpool event. It turned out that Bill and Jimmy had recently visited Claire and Ru in Totnes. Ru had reminded Bill of my distant walk-on part in the JAMs/KLF kosmography. Bill remembered. There had been mild amusement. Maybe the JAMsters would see the unknowing émigré rock reporter emerge in fluorescent cycling tabard as I saddled up in full view of my neighbours’ big front window, ready to complete my daily exercise loop past Dartington Hall and the footbridge over to the stream trains.
In the moment, as I took in the funeral news from our neighbours, galactic-scale self-centring took hold. There I’d been, near the start of the JAMs/KLF story – the million pounds on fire, those superbly audacious hit records… And here I was adjacent to the end – the final curtain, ashes to ashes… Our neighbours’ new funeral operation includes MuMufication – the chance to have the ashen remains of your friends or family become part of a brick, which, in turn, will become part of The People’s Pyramid, a monumental structure to be gradually constructed in Liverpool. Cor! It really was all connected! This crazy pop-cosmic fantasia and my small part in it!
Such coincidence, non-coincidence and allied chaos theory are very much part of 2023: A Trilogy By The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu – a bewildering-but-compelling cosmic joke of a book, a book which also offers sombre, sobering rumination on the catastrophic fairytale of our existence. As one of the book’s narrators offers at one point: “Life is the gateway drug to Death.” The book begins with some sampling as brazen as that enacted on that first JAMs album – in this case appropriation of Orwell’s famous clock-striking-13 line from Nineteen Eighty-Four. But in place of Winston Smith’s infernal dystopia we have Winnie Smith and what is billed as a utopian year 2023.
The name Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu was taken from Robert Anton Wilson’s conspiracy-theory-laden 1975 series of novels The Illuminatus! Trilogy. In 2023 several names and characters from the Illuminatus! books recur. The cop character names Saul Goodman and Barney Muldoon have been moved from New York to Stoke Newington. Rather than Hagbard Celine, male submarine captain, in 2023 we have Celine Hagbard, female head of GoogleByte, one of five tech-company grand-mergers. The ensuing New Big Five now, benignly, oversee the planet in place of nation states. Such goofily sci-fi FutureCorp stylings may slightly suggest the likes of Ben Elton’s feebly satirical iPlanet from the Queen musical, but 2023 soon blasts free from both the Illuminatus! books and from We Will Rock You.
To give just one example of the book’s web of parallel realms and fractured alternative futures, the book may or may not be written by a George Orwell. But here this is the pen name of one Roberta Antonia Wilson – who is living on Jura in 1984, the island on which, in 1948, Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four… There’s a lot of the above gender-switching, with female CEOs for all the New Big Five (Melanie Gates etc). Both political-economic power and the book’s narrative voices are often in female hands, but the book’s juncture with womanhood is an interesting one. Yoko Ono, the arch ‘girlfriend-joins-the-band’, is artfully mocked. Repeated and puzzling vagina-vocab laffs are had with real-world tough lass Azealia Banks. Or, as she is the book, Azealia Vaults… Perhaps this is all some monster-from-the-id impulse for Bill and Jimmy – a helpless urge to épater la bourgeoise and / or signpost their own liberal guilt. One can only guess.
When I first heard of this book I thought it might be some inchoate blam-blam fusillade knocked out between Jimmy’s amazing toy-town dioramas and Bill’s endless art schemes (The 25 Paintings World Tour: 2014–2025 etc etc). But 2023 seems to have been worked on assiduously and, despite the narrative whirlwind, is cast in the fluent, page-turning prose that Bill is known for. There are holes to pick at. Is the apparent confusion between Lady Penelope and Penelope Pitstop intended? Similarly, the awry background buzz on the German football team FC Energie Cottbus. But what the heck…
Taking in Vladimir Putin, Lady Gaga, Tracey Emin, the Shipping Forecast, Sam & Dave, Jonathan King, a killer whale called Killer Queen and a harrowing sub-plot centring on third-world rape, 2023 is, in many respects, an equal-opportunities rabbit-hole. It’s a work of immense comic megalomania, but one that blends the absurdism with a plausible undertow of profundity. It’s a countercultural novel that fondly, funnily explodes the insider codes of countercultural cool. It surveys our madly over-designed current design-for-life and, implicitly, asks a rhetorical question previously raised by the Manic Street Preachers. Who’s responsible? You fucking are…
As The JAMs morphed into The KLF I continued to interview them for Sounds. My most treasured token from this reporting beat is some unused sleeve artwork – pictured here, an abandoned single sleeve from a point at which they thought about recasting themselves as The Forever Ancient Liberation Loophole, The Fall. I also have a letter from Bill: “DEAR ROY WE BOTH ENJOYED YOUR SPREAD ON THE JAMS… A FAIR APPRAISAL OF WHERE WE ARE (OR NOT), SEEING AS WE HAVEN’T A CLUE…” Our K-p’d crusaders might well still stick to the latter, but this book balances any faux dumb-ass-ery with hard-won wisdom. It maybe even completes a trilogy of truly audacious instances across their history – that first JAMs album, burning the cash and now this. 2023, what the fuck is going on? Quite a lot it seems…
2023 is available here in the Caught by the River shop, priced £17.99.
Roy Wilkinson is author of the acclaimed forestry/rock memoir Do It For Your Mum (Rough Trade Books). Long sold out in print, but available as an e-book here.