We welcome guest writer – Getintothis’ Gary Aster. For me, Gary’s day-by-day, real-time reporting of ‘Welcome To The Dark Ages’ was essential reading (just like Vicky Pea and Seb Tiley) during the ‘situation’. In this article, we are given an extended version of his Day 3 coverage of proceedings.
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The KLF in Liverpool: Day 3 – Badger Kull, the funeral procession and the Graduation Ball (Extended Mix)
Activities begin a little later today. Most of us are to assemble at the Florence Institute in Toxteth (or the Florrie as it’s known locally) for 4:30, save for some volunteers whose jobs require them to arrive a little earlier. I get there on time at half four. The Ice Cream Van is parked outside but this isn’t the first thing that I notice. There are lots of people milling about. They are all wearing make-up. Well, I say make-up (and indeed it is make-up) but stage make-up. Everyone’s face resembles a crude skull akin to those worn by participants of a Day of the Dead parade. This is the very first time throughout these whole proceedings when I can honestly say to myself “yeah, I was expecting that.” Badger Kull’s song – ‘Toxteth Day of the Dead’ – gives the game away. We’re in for something like a Mexican Day of the Dead parade.
So I head inside and am almost immediately directed to a table where a volunteer is painting everyone’s face in all-over white. I am then directed to a second table where another volunteer sits me down and applies a deep black around my eyes to give the impression, of course, of the eye sockets of a human skull.
However, due to the surprising and let’s be frank, completely undeserved success of Badger Kull everyone I speak to at first seems to believe we are being made-up to resemble badgers. You reckon? Funny looking badgers if you ask me. One bloke even laughingly tells me that some local kids asked him why everyone was in panda make-up. “Ha!” he replied to the kid “we’re not pandas, we’re badgers!” No, no we’re not. We are skulls. These faces are death masks. We are walking memento mori.
How was this not obvious? Loads of the volunteers who said they were good at drawing have been appointed to the role of “skull-painter.” Badger Kull’s song, which they will perform tonight, is entitled ‘Toxteth Day of the Dead’. Now here we all are arriving at a venue in Toxteth and yet loads of people seem to think it’s the day of the badger. Badger Kull, for those who may not know, is simply a group composed of volunteers.
I don’t mean to go on about this misconception, but I think it exemplifies something about this whole affair. The situation seems to be designed to derail itself and throw up these chaotic confusions. “A lot can go wrong in 72 hours”, as we were told at the outset.
Leaving that aside, the business of having everyone’s face-painted does help to break the ice and there’s a friendly and amiable atmosphere in and around the Florrie. Everyone’s very chatty and in seemingly good-spirits, which is just as well because things are a bit late getting underway. Then when they do get underway they’re swiftly halted again by a persistent fire alarm. Finally we trudge into the main hall of the Florrie and take our seats.
Three vertical screens in portrait aspect dominate the stage we are all facing. On our seats, hymn books with the (slightly altered) lyrics of ‘Justified and Ancient’ within. The screens burst into life, accompanied by an ambient/industrial soundtrack that really makes the room shudder and rumble. It’s the 2023 Triptych Film. I won’t attempt to review it here but I will say that it’s a pretty dark piece. And it prominently features quite a bit of skull imagery…
Then something even more sombre gets underway. A lecture from Callender and Callender (undertakers), which, with a bit of poetic or artistic licence concludes “do not be afraid we are already dead”. Indeed we are instructed to stand and sing these words as a repeated refrain, as if we were all assembled in a church again, this time during a funeral service, but a really fucking weird one.
“You won’t need your hymn sheets for this one – it’s only one line repeated” explained Claire Callender, ‘radical undertaker’, before singing it for us – “Don’t be afraid, you are already dead”. A mere four bars of music ‘sampled’ from a track with those words as its title by Akron/Family, yet they were strangely potent in this context. As we all joined in, at first unaccompanied by any other sounds, I looked around to see discrete tears rolling down a few faces. Not at all what I was expecting. A moment to treasure.
Soon the Jams’ rendition of Jerusalem (as heard at the conclusion of ‘It’s Grim Up North’) strikes up and volunteers enter from the back of the room in procession, they bring with them decorated skulls (seriously, does anyone still think we were supposed to be badgers?) and two coffins, built only yesterday by the Jams at St Luke’s – the Bombed Out Church. Some carry traffic cones, but on their heads as helmets. Then a robed and hooded figure emerges. It’s only Jarvis Cocker, here to give a newly updated rendition of ‘Justified and Ancient’ accompanied by an organist and a choir of volunteers in Mu Mu robes. For the finale we all join Jarvis and the choir singing the repeated refrain “all bound for Mu Mu land” and march together singing in procession, leaving the Florrie and out onto the streets of Toxteth.
The Rites of Mumufication are underway. We’ve heard the sermon, sung our hymns and now we must walk in holy procession. The Great Pull North awaits us. The Ice Cream Van is outside ready to be pulled through the streets by rotating groups of volunteers. Inside sit Drummond and Cauty, the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu.
400 people, all with skull-painted faces led by a bagpiper. Other volunteers hold aloft a banner heralding ‘Toxteth Day of the Dead’. There are bishops of Mu in orange robes with traffic cone helmets, flanked by volunteers pushing shopping trolleys filled with ragwort and other weeds which are scattered before us on the ground (actually, the road) we are about to tread upon. Some have car tyres which they are rolling along with them, others too have shopping trolleys bearing stuffed animals. We are a 400-strong deathly carnival of the absurd.
It’s a 3 mile walk to the Invisible Wind Factory from here along the dock road.
We would resemble a riotous rabble were it not for the huge amount of fun everyone was clearly having and the obvious good-spirits amongst the marchers. It’s a hell of a thing to see coming down the road towards you and of course people are peering out of their windows and then coming out onto the street to watch us go by.
After about a mile, the boot of a car parked just ahead of us is opened and boxes containing the robes of Mu are retrieved to be dished out for us to wear. There is an enthusiastic scramble to get hold of these and people hurriedly don their robes. Actually, they are yellow pack-a-macs with a distinctly monk-like hood, and the Jams logo and phrase ‘Toxteth day of the dead’ printed onto them. There seem be enough for everyone.
Of course further down the road we run into a bit of bother since a procession like this does rather stop the traffic, and it would appear that no one has cleared any of this with the authorities. The Police appear to want to halt proceedings but we’re allowed on our way probably because by this point we would cause less disruption by continuing to our destination than by turning back.
Our destination is a large patch of empty ground opposite the Invisible Wind Factory. Empty no longer though – it contains a large pyramidal structure (23 foot high I learn later) which has evidently been prepared for a fire. The two coffins carried all the way from the Florrie are placed into the pyramid. The piper plays his lament again – familiar to KLF fans from the track ‘America No More’, then Bill and Jimmy don their horns, take up flaming staffs and put it to the flames.
We learn more about Mumufication – much more, but this isn’t the place to go into that now. As the fire begins to fade the Invisible Wind Factory opens. Our shared ritual is at an end, we have graduated from the Dark Ages and our graduation ball awaits just across the road.
After the experience the 400 have just had this can only prove to be a bit of a let-down. At least it was for me I’m afraid, but I’m not disappointed. These last few days on the whole have been remarkable in many ways, and this final day the most exhilarating and bewildering of all. This experience has been quite unlike anything else I’ve ever participated in; a unique situation.
As I left the Graduation Ball in the early hours of Saturday morning I thought I had a handle on what had just unfolded. It seemed to me that this was Drummond and Cauty bidding farewell to the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, the KLF and all their myriad off-shoots. There was some discussion as to the contents of the two coffins carried all the way from the Florrie and cremated in a burning pyramid. My guess was that they contained the two scarecrows as effigies of Drummond and Cauty, although this proved not to be the case since they were still visible at the Dead Perch Lounge the following morning.
Before the situation I wondered if we 400 were assembling not to praise the Jams but to bury or cremate them. However, it’s worth bearing in mind what they didn’t burn. The Ice Kream Van survived, despite what you may have read in the Guardian. When the possibility of the van being burned had earlier been put to Jimmy Cauty he dismissed any suggestion – “we’ve just had it MOT’d!” Their master tapes, which some believed would also likely be cast into the flames, remain intact as well. And so too does their collaboration, at least for now. They have a Pyramid to build – the People’s Pyramid.
This was first proposed back in 1997 when Drummond and Cauty decided to become building contractors operating under the name K2 Plant hire. They unveiled some ambitious plans, including the People’s Pyramid, but these remain unfulfilled, although they did have some pretty decent K2 Plant Hire hard-hats and hi-vis jackets made up.
On Saturday morning there was one final situation. ‘Conceptual Architect’ Paul Sullivan presented his design for the People’s Pyramid, based on an original drawing by Jimmy Cauty. I asked where they plan to build it. The precise location has not been either found or settled on (Sullivan’s answer was ambiguous on this point), but somewhere in the vicinity of Toxteth apparently. Others asked how long it would take to complete (“a very long time”), the approximate size of the foundations and the angle of its diagonal sides. Then we were shown into a room with a pyramidal arrangement of televisions, each displaying Jams/K2 Plant Hire imagery. A bizarre and unlikely ending to a bewildering few days.
During my time in the Dark Ages I didn’t speak to a single volunteer who was unhappy with the way events had unfolded, and I really did look for them. Objectivity demands that I must cast a critical eye over proceedings but this affair was so unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced that I don’t know by what criteria it can realistically be evaluated. If we judge the events based on the impact and influence they’ve had on the volunteers, then we must consider it a resounding success.
Others looking at all this from the outside might see only naïve super-fans being manipulated by their idols in order to help them drum-up publicity for a book launch. And those on the inside shrug their shoulders for the umpteenth time having long grown accustomed to those sorts of dismissals. It was ever thus – at least that’s how it’s always been for the last thirty years. The Jams provoke extreme reactions and it is their lot ever to be misunderstood by most and barely understood by a few. Their secret? We don’t know – it’s a secret. They tell us they are in the business of laying the dead to rest nowadays. But it seems to me that their real business is the cultivation of mystery.
(A shorter version of this article first appeared on ‘Getintothis’)
All photography courtesy of: G. Aster
Read all of Gary’s articles on ‘Welcome To The Dark Ages’ for Getintothis:
26/08: The KLF in Liverpool: Day 3 – Badger Kull, the funeral procession and the Graduation Ball (Original, shorter version)