“What are we doing?” ‘The White Room – 1989 Director’s Cut’ by The KLF

❉ OK – everybody lie down on the floor and keep calm! John Rivers gets the last train to Trancentral.

It is November 1988. Halfway up a mountain in the Sierra Nevada range in Spain Bill Drummond, one half of The KLF, is having a thought. That thought, as he told a magazine the following year was ‘What are we doing?’. He is surrounded by a film crew, many of whom have just completed work on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He asks them what it would cost if they just stopped work there and then. He is told it will cost them £65,000 to stop. They carry on.

It was his partner’s suggestion to make a film. Jimmy Cauty had been considering an art exhibition, but then settled on the idea of a road movie. The duo had found themselves somewhat cash-rich after their novelty pop smash Doctorin’ the Tardis had got to number one in June 1988. According to Ian Shirley, author of the excellent Turn Up the Strobe: The KLF, The JAMS, The Timelords  – A History the single had probably earned Drummond and Cauty somewhere between £300,000 and £500,000. At least £250,000 of that was ploughed into making the film. It is called The White Room and when the duo review the footage back in England, they realise they have a problem. The film isn’t very good. In fact, it’s worse than that, it’s boring.

No dialogue was recorded for The White Room, instead Drummond and Cauty are going to record a soundtrack for it. Work starts in the studio in February 1989, they will focus on the music while considering how to make their film more interesting. Eventually in March 1991 The White Room album is released. The movie hasn’t been (their plans on hold due to wanting to mount a reshoot with Paul McGann and reckoning it will cost them a million pounds) and the album itself is markedly different from what was originally proposed. During those two years events conspire to change the band’s direction: they invent two sub-genres of dance music (Ambient and Stadium House), are the progenitor of a third (Trance), they attend raves, discover ecstasy and once again find themselves at the top of the pop charts, this time as The KLF.

The KLF – The White Room review, Select Magazine. Source: http://selectmagazinescans.monkeon.co.uk/

It’s with this context that the release of The White Room: The 1989 Director’s Cut should be understood. Made available on streaming services on the 23rd of April 2021*, the album gives fans like myself a fascinating insight into where the band were creatively, pulling together a collection of tunes that musically and thematically are the KLF sound while managing to incorporate a number of different genres including house, dub and country.

The album starts with an instruction: Go to Sleep which matches Drummond’s weary, reflective tones with Maxine Harvey’s house vocals. Given the upbeat nature of the record, the chorus of ‘go to sleep, go to sleep’ seems a little counter-intuitive. Elements of the record would eventually go to be incorporated into both the single of Last Train to Trancentral (though no uplifting strings here, rather a brass arrangement that sounds like it escaped from Sir Cliff’s North Pole Elf Workshop for Christmas number ones) and also the KLF’s Ambient House album Chill Out. Listening to Go to Sleep suddenly feels like you’ve discovered a Rosetta Stone of KLF grooves which you know from other texts, just here in one place.

Another key reference to Chill Out appears on the album in the form of Madrugada Eterna (Club Mix edit) which combines the very Country slide guitar so beloved of Drummond with a rolling bass groove which gives the listener the impression they are travelling. Chill Out  would eventually take this idea to its logical extent as a road trip through the Gulf Coast states of the US. Visually one imagines sunset in the American West and a radio caught between Country and House music stations.

If those two tracks represent what would go on to become cornerstones of Chill Out then the rest of the album directs the listener to more of what would be found on the later version of The White Room. Build a Fire continues the Country road trip themes, relying once again on Bill’s meandering commentary around Lee Marvin and being ‘down that road’. The bass line here is evocative of Angelo Badalamenti’s work on Twin Peaks which must have resonated with listeners in March 1991 as the series had started on the BBC in October 1990. Of course, it also points to just how far ahead in their thinking Drummond and Cauty were, not to mention that they went through with the intention to ‘build a fire’, it’s just at this point no one, including The KLF, realised they were going to burn a million pounds on it.

The title track itself The White Room is a funky piece of nonsense. From the faux-African scat, to the pretentious choice of an oboe to Bill’s portentous vocals  – “If you want to know the things we see, then step inside our skins”, the whole track may cause you to nod your head, but it lacks the atmosphere or impact that other tunes on the album do. It turns out The White Room is an empty song, as well as an empty space. Better is Make It Rain a House thumper which Guru Josh channelling saxophone and driving acid line. Though lacking the ‘pump, pump a little harder’ vocal which appears on the released album, Make It Rain is a great piece of dance music. Also appearing more or less untouched on the 1991 release is No More Tears, a foray into Dub Reggae that really does work, the ‘Sunlight on a winter’s day’ line really can put a smile on your face.

Two of the tracks would later go on to find single success, but needed to be rebuilt from the ground up to do it. The Last Train to Trancentral (Da Force, Over and Out) appears much as it does on the 1991 album release, which is to say, a sparser, more indirect mix than the single version. Ricardo da Force takes the theme of journeying to a destination and runs with it. To its credit, the album version retains the uplifting strings moment, which truly captures euphoria, especially when experienced on a dancefloor. Meanwhile Justified and Ancient (Black Steel Joins the JAMS) is also the same as the ‘91 release, albeit with some extra wind effects.

This track would famously be reworked with Tammy Wynette and get to number 2 in November 1991. The album version, sung by guitarist Black Steel, has a dream-like quality. At this point the JAMS aren’t yet driving an ice cream van, but instead are still going by their adopted names from the earlier JAMS album 1987: What the Fuck is Going On? – ‘Rockman [Cauty] he’s just made of bricks and King Boy [Drummond] lost his screws’ Black Steel tells the listener.

Which brings us the two remaining album tracks, both of which are frustratingly short. The Lover’s Side, originally mooted as a single release with Go to Sleep on the b-side is aimed squarely at the clubbing scene. Urgent, rave style strings mingle with some traditional KLF chanting. However it never seems to get going as a song and you can understand why the band hesitated on releasing it. The Church of the KLF would make it to the 1991 release, operating as a segue between 3AM Eternal and The Last Train to Trancentral.

As a standalone piece it is an intriguing enough premise: “Love and hate, war and peace, they’ve all been tried before” which then gives way to a spacey, throbbing slice of house and, along with What Time is Love? Drummond and Cauty invent Trance some six years before it really takes off. That there isn’t an 8 minute mix of The Church of the KLF is frankly annoying, as this track has the potential to be an electronic dance monster, but is faded out way too early.

When The White Room was eventually released it incorporated both What Time is Love? and 3AM Eternal in their Stadium House single versions. The album now had a much more coherent shape taking the form of a ‘live gig’ before segueing into the road trip element. Stylistically it is perhaps less coherent than Chill Out but at least gives the listener a taste of the power that the band were capable of displaying in the singles chart. The 1989 Director’s Cut is fascinating because it shows how Chill Out  and The White Room would emerge from those original mixes.

It is November 1991. Three years after Bill Drummond was asking himself ‘What are we doing’? halfway up a mountain in Spain I walk into the Our Price at Gatwick Airport and am given money for an album I can buy on cassette. This is specifically for listening to on my first ever flight, a trip to America. I choose The White Room. As the plane taxis to take off I start the album. The wind-swept landscapes, the chanting, the MACHINE GUNS. I feel literally shaken in my seat and decide there and then it is one of the best things I will ever hear. I am 12 years old and I still believe that’s true. The White Room 1989 Director’s Cut gives me the opportunity to understand how and why that came to be thirty years on.

* All of The KLF’s 2021 re-releases have appeared on the 23rd. The number 23 is regarded as important in the Illuminatus! trilogy, the reference text for the KLF’s stylings.

Listen to ‘The White Room – The 1989 Director’s Cut’ here.

Buy Ian Shirley’s KLF history Turn Up the Strobe here.

John’s own KLF mix, including tracks from the 1989 Director’s Cut.

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