This Is Television Freedom

While Alan McGee’s failure to transform Primal Scream, Saint Etienne, My Bloody Valentine and Teenage Fanclub overnight into globe-straddling millionaire megastars was almost entirely down to both the ultimately uncompromising nature of their music and, in most cases, the varyingly ‘difficult’ nature of the artists concerned, it is still true to say that any such ambitions were decidedly at odds with an industry that was heavily weighted against allowing independent labels to succeed on their own terms.

Indeed, there was some suggestion around this time that The British Phonographic Industry felt that it was time that the troublesome independent sector was brought into line. Amongst several moves seemingly intended to weaken its constitution and assimilate it comfortably into the mainstream were a series of showcases for indie bands in 1991 under the banner ‘The Great British Music Weekend’, from which no participants seemed to walk away with anything short of serious misgivings, and a concerted push to replace the Independent Chart with a wider Alternative Chart, which would have allowed major label million-sellers like Nirvana to dominate at the expense of smaller scale acts; this latter ambition was seen off by a particularly sustained rebuttal from the NME. If the independent sector was to retain its integrity, then clearly it would have to stand apart from any attempts to get it to play by everyone else’s rules.

Perhaps sensing all of this, on 12th February 1992, The KLF brought the curtain down on the artier end of indie music’s association with the mainstream in fine style. Rumours had been circulating for some time that the million-selling yet defiantly uncoinventional dance music duo were struggling with the pressures and demands of the industry and their unexpected and indeed unprecedented level of success, and that Bill Drummond in particular was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Reports had filtered out that the follow-up album they were working on, tentatively titled The Black Room, combined solidly commercial hooks with hardcore techno and ugly guitar noise. With a likely award for Best British Group in the offing, The KLF were booked to open the 1992 Brit Awards, the annual music industry corporate bash notorious for lavishing more attention on money men and high earning artists – even if they hadn’t released a record in several years – than on any actual developments in the music scene. For two erstwhile punk rockers and art students who had already developed a serious grudge against the industry ‘suits’, the temptation to create havoc was too great to pass up.

Instead of the expected high-concept spectacle, the audience were treated to a flashing blue police light and Drummond – walking with the aid of a crutch – announcing "this is television freedom" before yelling the lyrics to their previously radio-friendly singalong 'Stadium House' chart-topper 3am Eternal at a ferocious speed, accompanied by hardcore punk-metal band Extreme Noise Terror, and closing the performance by firing blanks at the audience from a machine gun while the band’s publicist Scott Piering announced "Ladies and Gentlemen – The KLF have left the music business". The audience had in fact got off lightly – only at the very last minute did Extreme Noise Terror manage to talk Drummond out of catapulting a dead sheep into the middle of the parade of expensive evening wear.

The final close-up of Drummond – who would subsequently devote himself exclusively to art and writing (though occasionally with musical elements) – shows a man clearly feeling like a huge burden has been lifted from him; the audience – apart from classical conductor Georg Solti who had laughably walked out in ‘protest’ - simply clap out of politeness with disgusted expressions, although a longshot reveals veteran agit-prop singer-songwriter Billy Bragg applauding with great enthusiasm. Rarely has the distance between art and commerce been so neatly – if accidentally – encapsulated. It would be left to bands more willing to play the game – amongst them Blur, Suede and Pulp, who in time would all have their own hair-raising escapades at The Brits – to pick up the baton a couple of years later.

This is an abridged excerpt from Higher Than The Sun, the story of Screamadelica, Foxbase Alpha, Bandwagonesque and Loveless, and how, long before Britpop, Creation Records took on the world and nearly won. You can get it as a paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.