I liked other, more traditional pop stars too: Julian Cope and Echo & The Bunnymen, for instance. When I found out that King Boy D was actually Bill Drummond, the former manager of both of those acts, and that there seemed to be some contradictory shared mythology linking all these sometime-Liverpool loudmouths, I was even more intrigued. And Rockman Rock was really Jimmy Cauty, who had painted those weird posters of aliens landing at Glastonbury and Stonehenge that I'd only recently taken down off my wall, replacing them with the faces of Ian McCulloch and Jim Morrison. But great as Cope, the Bunnymen and indeed The Doors were, they weren't as ground-breaking in 1987 as The JAMs. In a way those cut-up, early hip-hop-inspired singles by The JAMs, Coldcut and Steinski were my punk rock. They were new and dangerous, and people older than me said that they weren't music, and anyone could do it- but that was surely the point. I'd started playing guitar, but spending hours struggling to learn The Cutter was dull and frustrating when with a tape recorder, a TV and a turntable I could put together my own lo-fi sound collage in an afternoon. I could get the original 7" of The Cutter, mash the riff in with Mohawk by The Champs, stick on some dialogue from a VHS videotape and open a gateway into a new dimension of possibilities.
The years passed. The JAMs became The Timelords, and had a brilliant number one novelty hit with Doctorin' The Tardis. They wrote a book about how easy it was, and showed you how to do it too. They became The KLF: more incredible, irreverent hit singles and unmissable Top of the Pops appearances followed. They released It's Grim Up North, which mentioned my hometown in a pop hit for the first time ever. They fired blanks from a machine gun at the audience at the 1992 Brit Awards and announced that they were quitting the music business and deleting their entire back catalogue. They put a series of full-page ads in the music press and elsewhere, urging us to kick out the clocks, switch to K time, and abandon all art now. Then they became the K Foundation, brilliantly subverting the 1993 Turner prize and the self-satisfied art establishment of the day. It was around this time that I first read Illuminatus!, the early seventies science fiction counter-culture conspiracy novel by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, which introduced me to the satirical anti-religion of Discordianism, the significance of the number 23, and provided the key to where most of Bill and Jimmy's ideas and imagery had sprung from, not least the name The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. In 1994 I turned 23, and The K Foundation took a million pounds, the remaining profits from their very successful pop career, and burnt the lot.
The pair signed a moratorium, agreeing not to discuss the money burning for another 23 years. They went on to other things, and so did I. I moved to Brighton, sold furniture, and wrote about music; I even interviewed Bill Drummond, talking about 'No Music Day', his surprisingly controversial call to spend one day a year not listening to any kind of music at all. I was particularly skint at the time, and Bill bought me lunch. Jimmy was also still making art, and in 2016 brought his Aftermath Dislocation Principle, a model village dystopia occupied solely by the emergency services and housed in three large shipping containers, to Festival 23, a three-day festival of Discordian counter-culture I'd helped organise. By this time I'd been sucked into a rabbit hole of extraordinary events, amazing people and mind-bending synchronicities, and found myself working in the same continuum as several of my teenage heroes. I was still completely skint.
At the beginning of 2017, The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu announced their return. A 23-year cycle was coming full circle. I was turning 46. The JAMs- but emphatically not The KLF- would be producing art together again. It would be a sculpture, or a novel, or some kind of art happening in Liverpool. Maybe it would be all three. What it most certainly would not be was a record, or a reunion concert.
A novel was announced. It was called 2023. An event was announced. It was called Welcome To The Dark Ages, and it would happen in Liverpool from 23-25 August. 23 August would mark the end of the 23-year moratorium on the money burning, an act that had grown in legend over the past two-and-a-bit decades. Tickets went on sale for £100. I was still skint, but I bought one. So did 399 other people, including many of my new Discordian friends. The event sold out in 20 minutes, though many people attempted to sell on their tickets as the nature of the event became clearer- or rather, didn't become clear at all.
The JAMs would not be performing music.
All ticket buyers would be volunteers.
Day 1 would address the question, why did the K Foundation burn a million quid?
Day 2 would be entitled 2023: What The Fuuk is Going On? This would be the Day of the Book.
Day 3 would be entitled The Rites of MuMufication. There would be a slow-paced walk of around three miles.
Before this, there would be a book stamping, at which The JAMs would arrive in their Ice Kream Van, the vehicle being a long-standing part of their mythology.
There would be a graduation ball.
There would be a screening of The JAMs' film 2023: What The Fuuk Is Going On?
There would be a performance by a band called Badger Kull. Badger Kull would play their only song, 'Toxteth Day of the Dead'.
It would be a Situationist art happening. It would be an adventure. It would be a rite of passage.
As far as I was concerned, it would be unmissable.
Tuesday 22nd August: "Dude, there's a situation- It's 2017- we have to reinvent art to make it useful again"
For me, the situation begins at 3.23 pm. I meet the sculptor Matt Smart at Choice Vehicle Rentals in Hove, where we secure an estate car and, with Matt at the wheel, pick up artist and designer Myra Stuart at 4. We then head up the A23 and onto the M25 to pick up Discordian DJ Horton Jupiter and his partner, Francesca Way, in Uxbridge. The CD soundtrack is appropriately Liverpool friendly: Julian Cope's Trip Advizer and Love's Forever Changes. With a couple of pit stops and missed turnings, we pull up on Bold Street in Liverpool at 10.23 (all timings are approximate). There is already a queue outside of News From Nowhere, the small, radical, independent community bookshop where The JAMs have chosen to launch their eagerly anticipated novel. In two hours' time The JAMs are due to arrive in their Ice Kream Van, and the book will be made available for the first time ever (pre-release copies have infamously been sent out with entirely blank pages). We find our friend Stephen McKay who takes us to a nearby pub, the Dispensary, where we're joined by Liverpool's own Larry Sidorczuk (who was Bill Drummond's assistant when the two made props and sets together for Ken Campbell's 1976 production of Illuminatus), and Myra's sister, the musician and poet Dolly Turing, plus filmmaker Adam Baker and photographer Cassandra Sutton, who have travelled over from Australia especially for this event.
Despite being a South Yorkshireman resident in Liverpool, Stephen is the guardian of Little Alan, a toy mandrill who represents the Mandrillifesto created by Northampton Arts Lab under the guidance of Big Alan (Alan Moore). An aficionado of cult sixties TV show The Prisoner, Stephen drives a Mini Moke and can often be found clad in the show's distinctive black turtleneck and piped blazer combination. In the run-up to this event, Little Alan has been active on social media offering helpful advice on things to do and places to stay while in Liverpool, but Stephen's furry friend is noticeably absent today. The reason for this is that there is a bounty on the mandrill's head. This was placed by Lucas O'Heyze of Liverpool's Discordia Britannia fanzine, with the support of at least one anonymous donor, who raised the original £50 reward to £100 for clear evidence of Little Alan being incinerated, burnt to a crisp or at least severely singed. "Every ritual needs a sacrifice", O'Heyze claimed, but Stephen obviously disagrees, and has left Little Alan at home for his own safety. His place has been taken by a glove puppet badger: a fierce Ukrainian warrior, revelling in the fact that in the Ukrainian language, 'badger' and 'vagabond' are apparently the same word. Where Little Alan usually wears a large white badge incorporating the number 23 into The Prisoner's penny farthing logo, Badger is wearing a black variant, one of 23 made especially for this occasion. Most of these have been hidden around the locations of the event to be found by participants or bystanders. This is just one example of how The JAMs' situation has already been added to by the 'volunteers', all of whom are applying their own energy, imagination and ideas towards making it an even more complex web of activities, mythology and ideas.
About 11.30 we return to the queue which has grown considerably in our absence. There is a party atmosphere with beers and spliffs doing the rounds, and a fan-driven imitation JAMsmobile, AKA Ford Timelord- a vintage Ford Galaxie painted to resemble an American black-and-white police car and adorned with the JAMs logo- drives down the street to cheers and applause. Days later, this will be given an unwanted new paint job by Bill and Jimmy. Meanwhile Anwen Burrows, one of Festival 23's veering committee, engages the queue in a ritual to energise and launch next year's festival, handing out flyers on which they are encouraged to draw sigils representing what they'd like to see at our event. Inevitably the ritual is more chaotic than intended, with intermittent rain adding to the confusion, but as Anwen leads the crowds in a chant of 'Return- return-return!' it’s clear another layer has been added to the cosmic onion.
Also moving up and down the queue is Daisy Eris Campbell, one of the main facilitators of the current situation. Daisy is the daughter of the legendary writer, actor, theatre director and provocateur Ken Campbell, who was the conduit by which the ideas of Robert Anton Wilson reached Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, and set in motion the chain of events, artistic acts and synchronicities that led us all to this moment. Indeed, Ken was arguably an even greater influence, at least on Bill, than was RAW. Bill's approach to his 'career' can be summed up in Campbell's dictum to "Make It Heroic!" which Bill painted on the wall of his workshop when working on Illuminatus! They stayed in contact, and worked together at least once more when Campbell directed the 2K Fuck The Millennium event at the Barbican in 1997.
Ken Campbell died in 2008, but Daisy has very much continued the family business of transformative theatre and creative chaos mongering. Conceived backstage during the initial run of Illuminatus at the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool (itself part of the Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun, now Flanagan's Apple on Matthew Street), Daisy's middle name of Eris came from the role her mother played in the production: the Greek goddess of chaos and discord, who threw a golden apple into a party of the gods and set in motion the chain of events that led to the Trojan War, as well as inspiring Discordianism, created in a California bowling alley centuries later. A born Discordian, Daisy's working out of this complicated legacy, combined with her own massive capacity for imagining, inspiring, changing lives and causing the impossible to happen, is an essential part of what and why this situation is. They called her up in Brighton town and said Daisy, stand by The JAMs; how could she say no?
It's fair to say that the UK Discordian revival over the past five years was essentially catalysed by Daisy Campbell and author John Higgs, working both together and apart. Higgs' 2012 book, The KLF: Chaos, Magic And The Band Who Burned A Million Pounds is essential reading, certainly for anyone hoping to grasp the historical and mythological basis for this whole event. But it was when Daisy Campbell's theatrical adaptation of Cosmic Trigger, Robert Anton Wilson's non-fiction sequel to Illuminatus, received its world premiere at Liverpool's Camp & Furnace in 2014- as the centrepiece of a Find The Others event which brought together a nationwide Discordian underground that barely even knew it existed until that point- that things really got hairy.
The first Festival 23, which took place just outside Sheffield in the summer of 2016, was the next major flashpoint, followed by the Super Weird Happening at the Florrie in Liverpool on April 1st. Organised by DJ Greg Wilson, this was simultaneously a commemoration of the 14-Hour Technicolor Dream that kicked off London's Summer of Love in 1967, a glorious day of fools, and a Discordian-inspired, contemporary counter-cultural gathering of the tribes. Through all of these moments and others the rolling golden apple has gathered momentum, picking up kindred spirits like Alan Moore, Melinda Gebbie, Jamie Reid, Youth and Richard Norris along the way.
Daisy brought Cosmic Trigger back to the stage this year, for 23 days in May at London's Cockpit Theatre, where it received rave reviews for its multi-layered, three-hour mindfuck of a show that explored our shared counter-cultural heritage while also being an act of neural reprogramming heavily sweetened with sex, comedy, music and emotional drama. As well as being her father's daughter and a representative of Eris, Daisy is very much her own woman, and her psychologically informed notions of transformative theatre are perhaps even more ambitious and far-reaching than Ken's. What's more she has the discipline, energy and charisma to pull this caper off: not for nothing is Daisy's production company called This Book Changed My Life.
But for now Daisy Campbell is on crowd control, a diminutive, black-hatted figure rushing around the queue keeping everything just the right side of chaos as, more or less 23 seconds after midnight, The JAMs' Ice Kream Van rounds the corner and trundles down Bold Street, its chimes playing the distinctive riff from their first big hit, What Time is Love?. I am charging my Festival 23 sigil by burning it as The JAMs appear, and soon the Ice Kream Van is mobbed, not only by the fans in the queue but also by passing clubbers caught up in the excitement and a group of very young girls on a birthday outing on the other side of the street. 'Is it Beyoncé!?' they cry out, referring to the popular Illuminati high priestess; they're bemused but hardly subdued when two scruffy, elderly gentlemen emerge from the Ice Kream Van and make their way into the bookshop, and content themselves with clambering excitedly over Stephen's mini Moke instead.
Bill Drummond (64) and Jimmy Cauty (60) have an ambivalent relationship with pop stardom, and this ambivalence extends to their fans as well. They seem to picture them as mostly middle-aged blokes who never got over their first E, their first crush, their first teenage tennis racket in the mirror rock star fantasy, and who will probably treat these softly-spoken, ambivalent old men like the pop stars they once pretended to be, when they were already too old, too softly-spoken and ambivalent for the part even then. Sometimes it seems like The JAMs would rather not deal with their fans at all, which perversely just makes them act more like pop stars, reinforcing and playing with the barrier between them and their audience, rather than attempting to break it down as punk ideals would advocate. In the front window of News From Nowhere are printed extensive rules of engagement, which prohibit idle conversation, hugging, kissing with tongues and hipster handshakes. Gifts will be accepted but destroyed in a controlled explosion later; there will be no signings, of books or of anything else, and no photography: "Do not attempt to take a selfie with The JAMs or anyone else ever again."
They may have their tongues in their cheeks, but they keep their faces straight and hope that if we don't get the joke we at least follow the rules. To this end they're accompanied by the imposing figure of music producer Tony Thorpe- formerly Jimmy's partner in The Moody Boys, who provided remixes of The KLF's big hits- but here acting as head man of Dead Perch Menace, the situation's security team. And they're clear too that this isn't a book signing- where authors are expected to engage with their fans in a manner prohibited by the rules quoted above- but a book stamping, with Bill and Jimmy sat at a table armed with a variety of different ink stamps which are firmly pressed onto the title pages of our newly-issued hardbacks. It's reminiscent of taking a book from the library, pre-computerisation; but more relevantly it harks back to the Rites of Mu on Jura in 1991, when a delegation of journalists were flown in to 'Mu Mu Land' and had their passports stamped by Bill, dressed as a customs officer, on disembarking from the plane.
As it happens, the fans are by no means all middle-aged blokes: the gender mix is fairly balanced, and ages range from early twenties to early seventies, including enthusiasts and interested parties who have travelled from all over the world to be here. Many are artists and innovators in their own right, and the stereotype of 'fans' hardly does justice to The 400, as ticket holders soon begin referring to themselves. Nevertheless, the artifice of this moment appeals, and it's the closest we'll come over the course of the whole situation to really playing the pop star-fan game, at least with The JAMs themselves. For now, JAMSmania is in full effect, and the boys are back in town. Time for one last drink at the event's central hub, the Dead Perch Lounge on Roscoe Lane, more usually known as the Static Gallery, where DJ Greg Wilson passes round a bottle of Jura whisky emblazoned with the eye of Horus. Then it's back to the Toxteth house of our host, Liverpool's unofficial mayor Tommy Calderbank, to sit round the fire in his garden and talk excitedly about the top night we’ve just had, and the adventures still to come.
Wednesday 23rd August: "Why did the K Foundation burn a million pounds? To get to the other side"
Back at the Dead Perch Lounge late in the morning we queue up to get our wristbands and programmes. We are also asked if by any chance we can sing, play bass/guitar, draw, swim, be exactly 5' 5" and quite strong, administer theatrical make-up, stop traffic or say no. The 'Dead Perch Merch' stall is also open, with every item- T-shirts, mugs, cagoules, posters- selling for £20.23.
At one o'clock we report to Constellation, a warehouse bar in the Baltic Quarter, to be allocated our volunteer jobs (randomly chosen, based on the skills we selected this morning). These are read out by Oliver Senton, who previously played Robert Anton Wilson in Daisy's production of Cosmic Trigger. For the next few days Oliver is The Officiator: a suave, commanding figure in a shiny suit and often our only source of information about what the fuuk is going on. Many are given the jobs of being super-fans of the band Badger Kull; four are given the job of being the band Badger Kull. They will all be playing bass. A choir of singers is formed, and one person who can draw is assigned the role of court artist for tonight's public hearing. A strong swimmer is to join Bill fishing for perch in the Mersey. Sixteen koffin karriers are assembled, all roughly 5' 5", and a handful of people who like saying no are drafted into Dead Perch Menace, to be Bill and Jimmy's official security throughout. Other jobs include flyposting crew, ragwort and buddleia collectors, shopping trolley finders, face painters, pop-up book club, soup makers, cone re-positioners, gravediggers, and volunteers for jobs that haven't been thought of yet. I'm allocated the role of Great North Puller (leg two), and told to report to Gimpo at the Florrie on Friday at midday.
We have the afternoon free to hang out, gossip and explore. Matt and Horton are both super-fans, and intend to form a Badger Kull tribute band to play their song, 'Toxteth Day of the Dead' live before they do. Someone has already had a Badger Kull tattoo and #badgerkull is trending on Twitter. We also learn that Tony Thorpe isn't the only old JAMs associate involved with the event, as singer Pete Wylie is Badger Kull's musical director (although apparently when anyone asks him what his job is he just responds "I'm Pete Wylie"), and KLF / Timelords programmer and producer Nick Coler is the choirmaster. Meanwhile we see Bill Drummond enjoying a day out shopping with his family, as though he's set all of this in motion and then just walked away.
At 7pm we arrive at the Black-E community arts centre on the edge of Chinatown for the public hearing ("not an inquiry") into exactly why the K Foundation burnt a million pounds, 23 years ago to the day. This turns out to be probably the least satisfactory part of the entire situation, as we sit for four hours in a hot, stuffy hall, listening first to a panel of experts and then to a parade of "witnesses" before being called upon to vote for one of five reasons why we think Bill and Jimmy torched the cash. The panel is chaired by Tom James, a young Liverpool writer and journalist, and consists of artist Jeremy Deller, academic Annebella Pollen, Idler editor Tom Hodgkinson, economist Ann Pettifor and Vice magazine's Clive Martin.
By far the most fascinating talk comes from Annebella Pollen, who draws parallels with the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift. Although Bill and Jimmy were almost certainly unaware of this robed and hooded, mystical-pacifist, outdoors bohemian movement of "intellectual barbarians" that flourished between the wars, there are many aesthetic and philosophical similarities between them and the JAMs/KLF/K Foundation, not least the fact that the Kibbo Kift denounced the entire monetary system as a form of black magic and actively resisted it, preferring to remain, in their own way, true to the trail. As Pollen's talk (with slides) goes on, many audience members are itching to join the Kindred there and then, and Pollen's conclusion that the burning was an act of subversive ceremonial magic as well as an instinctive leap of faith seems to chime most closely with the 400's sympathies. But then Deller's insistence upon it as an auto-destructive art statement combined with the compelling mystery of ancient landscape monuments like Avebury or Stonehenge also rings true to a degree, as does Hodgkinson's theory that it was a personal act of contrition. Perhaps too there is something in Ann Pettifor's suggestion that, by burning the notes, The K Foundation were somehow forgiving the Bank of England for their sins. On the other hand, Clive Martin's proposal that they were simply anticipating the credit card scams and lack of respect for money of today's crazy kids seems a rather desperate gambit.
The witnesses include long-standing KLF roadie Gimpo, whose longevity is even more impressive when you consider that he was road manager for a band that never played live. He gives us his first-hand account of the burning, as does journalist Jim Reid. As an afterthought, Gimpo points out that the K Foundation had already rendered £1m worth of £50 notes worthless by nailing to them to a board as part of their art piece Money: A Major Body of Cash. These notes had been sent back to the Bank of England to be burnt, but were replaced, for a fee of £580. It was these replacement notes that were immolated on Jura; therefore, Gimpo concludes, it was really only £580 worth of money that went up in smoke.
Publicist Mick Houghton and writer-artist-associate Chris Brooks speak next, followed by Angie Sammons, a Liverpool journalist who had attended a particularly riotous screening of the film Watch The K Foundation Burn A Million Quid in 1994, when Bill and Jimmy had just stared silently out at the audience, who were largely drunk, broke and all-too aware of the ravages of Thatcher-era austerity on their hometown. She is accompanied by three other locals with interesting perspectives on the act, and is followed by Glasgow journalist Craig McClane, who witnessed the signing of the moratorium on a hire car that was then pushed off the edge of Cape Wrath to wreck on the rocks below.
It's left to the great John Higgs to finally bring things to a conclusion. Pressed for time, Higgs (who should really have been on the panel) cites the Discordian belief that all statements are partly true, partly false and partly meaningless in equal measures, backing this up by pointing out that we all see the world through our own reality tunnels, when the point is to become aware of these and to break out of them. All of the panellists are trying to define the money burning in terms of their own reality tunnels, but as any good Discordian knows, there is no definitive answer. Therefore asking why they burnt the money is pointless. The real question should be: why are we all still interested in it?
The panel are asked to condense their arguments for why the K Foundation burnt a million quid down to a single sentence; we, the audience, are then asked to vote for the one we agree with most, by placing the pound coin we were given at the door into one of five buckets. I decide to put 50p behind Annebella Pollen's case for it being an act of ceremonial magic, while also putting 20p on personal contrition and another 20p on it being a legitimate piece of art. I keep the change. We're told that if no one argument receives 23% or more of the vote then another 23-year moratorium will be imposed. Fortunately (or not) my favourite argument is also the favourite of the rest of The 400, with £164 returned in its particular bucket; however, when Oliver Senton calls in The JAMs to receive our verdict, the reason we chose seems to have been dumbed down to "It was an act in a long tradition of high weirdness". It's as though it's been predetermined that any conclusion we could come to had to be glib, reductive and unsatisfying, just so Bill and Jimmy could shrug "whatever", and walk away with their enigmas intact. Should we have ever expected anything else? The JAMs know better than to ever give a definitive reason for the burning; this would rob the myth of its power. All they’ve ever said, all along, is what do you think it means? What does it mean to you?
Thursday 24th August: "Come in and change the world"
Day one, yesterday, was about the past. It was about dealing with the single act that still hangs over The JAMs: the burning of a million pounds. It needed to be dealt with exhaustively, and it was. The conclusions may not have satisfied everyone, but we can now put it behind us, and move on to the present.
For The JAMS, the present is about their book, 2023: A Trilogy, and this, we are told, is The Day of The Book. We all have our stamped copies, but few of us have begun to read it yet, so we have little idea what to expect. When we arrive at St Luke's, the bombed-out church, at 10am, we are told to enter in pairs and then to line up facing each other: "odds" and "evens". After an introduction from Oliver Senton, in which it is stated that books are only as good as the actions they inspire, that reading and enjoying them should be a private, solitary and internal experience, that public readings are uniformly awful and literary festivals are Butlin's for English teachers, Bill and Jimmy pass between the lines tearing out pages from 2023 and handing them out: one each. I am page 25. We are told that our page is ours for eternity: in all subsequent printings our names will be attached to our pages. We can also bequeath our pages to our descendants, if we so wish. But for now we are told to go out and create, or act, guided and inspired by our pages, as individuals, or by our chapters, as groups. We are to meet back at the church at 6pm to prepare our presentations and to record our acts in a so-far blank book, titled Grapefruit Are Not The Only Bombs.
The person who has the page with the chapter title on is the head of that chapter, but unfortunately the head of our chapter, chapter two, is also part of the choir and has to rehearse this afternoon. Without strong leadership I think it's fair to say that our chapter doesn't gel as well as some of the others, and maybe isn't as ambitious in its actions. We decide to all choose our favourite sentence from our page, and these are written down and rearranged to create a new page in the cut-up style of William Burroughs. Then we draw a pentagram on a map of Liverpool, with the manhole on Matthew Street (setting of Carl Jung's famous dream of 'the Pool of Life' and Peter Halligan's subsequent dream that led to the creation of the Liverpool School of Language, Dream and Pun opposite) at its centre. We're all then assigned different points on this pentagram, where we will perform a magical act involving our chosen sentence. For most people this involves writing the sentence on a wall and photographing it. As I have neither chalk nor camera, this isn't my intention.
My selected sentence goes "This, unbeknown to her, is influencing completely random aspects of her character." I decide that I have to do something more random, and that I won't know what that is until I get to my location, which is the intersection of Whitechapel and Richmond Street. I'm also not much of a team player, to be honest, and am more than happy to go off on my own, taking a Situationist wander through Liverpool town centre with my page as a guide, seeing where it leads me.
My page begins "to bringing about world change, but it worked for my ancestors and it already seems to be working for me". Walking down Bold Street I see "Come in and change the world" printed on the window of an Oxfam shop. My grandfather was a Methodist preacher who raised money for beneficial projects in the developing world, much as Oxfam do, so I guess that chimes with my ancestors' preferred methods of bringing about world change. Furthermore I've always viewed charity shops as nexuses of magical possibility, where you might randomly find something that could change your life, or at least point you in a new direction. I go in.
The first thing I see, in a glass display case, is a copy of The Megalithic European by Julian Cope. Below that is a first edition copy of The Unfortunates by BS Johnson, one of my favourite writers. This is a novel that comes as a collection of loose pages in a box, designed to be read in any order. Given today's circumstances, that seems like a pretty strong synchronicity. Unfortunately, Oxfam want £90 for this copy of The Unfortunates, which I don't have to spare.
The sentence after the one I chose as most significant on my page reads as follows: "For a start there is a man called O'Brien at Googlebyte who she has only seen a handful of times, a man she would not have looked at twice a couple of years ago, but for some reason he keeps coming into her mind." I've already twigged that 2023 riffs on both 1984 and Illuminatus, borrowing characters while switching their gender- the narrator on my page, for instance, appears to be a young woman named Winnie Smith. This Oxfam does not have copies of either Illuminatus or 1984, but it does have a book by a woman called O'Brien. It is a book I would not normally look twice at, but I pull it from the shelf. It's called Sacred Trust, which rather accurately describes my method of drifting on the winds of chance in the hope of finding something meaningful at the end of it. Since my page is 25, I turn to p.25 of Sacred Trust by Meg O'Brien. A character with my name- Ben- is speaking. "That must have been tough," Ben says, "after being so close through high school."
The book costs £1.99. I buy it, along with two New Worlds SF anthologies from the seventies, which I collect anyway, and give Oxfam a total of £5.97 with which to change the world. While I'm having some lunch at the Dig In café above a clothes shop called Resurrection, Matt phones to offer me the job as guitarist in Budget Kull, his Badger Kull tribute band. I accept. We have a rehearsal this afternoon at the Florrie, and a gig tonight at the Dead Perch Lounge. It's imperative that we play live before the official Badger Kull performance tomorrow. On the table next to me, someone has cut up a copy of the free Liverpool magazine Bido Lito, and has made a folded in origami flower from one page. I open it up, and in the centre is the message "getting the acknowledgement they deserve by performing alongside the scene's cutting edge practitioners."
I decide I'd better get to my assigned location on Richmond and Whitechapel and see what happens. It turns out to be a busy shopping precinct, and the only thing of interest is a busker singing sixties soul tunes. Wondering what to do next I drop a pound coin in his hat, and immediately a young man appears on a bicycle, accompanied by two friends on foot. He's dressed all in white, including a white hat, with a black bag placed in front of his handlebars. On the bag, and on the front of his sweater, is the word JAMS. But this is not the logo of the band The JAMs, and he doesn't appear to have any connection with the Welcome To The Dark Ages event. He rides past, and I decide that I should follow him.
I end up outside the St George’s Hall. This was the location of the Echo & The Bunnymen concert which concluded Bill Drummond's previous grand psychogeographical situation in Liverpool, A Crystal Day, in 1984. 2023 is partly based on George Orwell's 1984. A Crystal Day is most notorious for an organised cycle ride with the route determined by Bill drawing a pair of rabbit ears on a map of Liverpool, just as we drew a pentagram. Currently the hall is adorned with great banners reading Liverpool 2022, promoting the city's bid for the Commonwealth Games in the year before the one The JAMs' novel is set in. St George's Hall is also decorated with large panel reliefs, each illustrating a motto. As I am part of chapter two, I look at the second one. The motto reads "Justice in her purity refuses to be diverted from the straight path by wealth or fame". This, I think, is a suitable motto for The JAMs.
Budget Kull rehearse in the music room of the Florrie, AKA The Florence Hall, a community-owned venue that has generously given us time and space for free at very short notice, despite apparently having Badger Kull's manager protesting on the phone. Matt is on drums, Dolly is on tambourine, an American woman who has named herself Yoko Kunt is on screams, Horton is a John Sinclair-style MC, while me and Liverpool native Peter Hughes are on acoustic guitars. All of us are on vocals. All we have to go on is a badly-recorded, illicit 30-second snippet of the real Badger Kull rehearsing, and the assertion that 'Toxteth Day of the Dead' has only two notes, A and G, but mostly A. We decide to liven our version up by segueing into a chant of 'Badger Kull Mystery Tour' ("the badgers will take you away"). The only real hitch is that the instruments we're using all belong to the Florrie and can't be taken away. Surely someone in Liverpool can lend us some guitars and percussion for our gig at the Dead Perch Lounge tonight?
We arrive back at the bombed-out church and begin trying to get our presentations in order. There isn't that much work to be done on ours to be honest, so I'm first in line for the soup being served by the volunteer-staffed soup kitchen at 7. Then the presentations start, with Bill and Jimmy watching from up front. Being chapter two we're on early, and Matt’s reading of our cut-up poem is excellent, but it’s soon eclipsed as the evening progresses, with the presentations getting increasingly impressive. People have made videos and uploaded them to YouTube, or created pieces of music that are on Soundcloud, or made whole websites in an afternoon. Art has been made and given to the Liverpool Tate, and a Wicker Man containing an effigy of Simon Cowell has been torched in a nearby skatepark. In Starbucks, twenty coffees were ordered in the name of Yoko Ono, and an art piece made from the resulting cups, while in McDonalds a repeated chant of 'Big Mac with fries' was recorded for posterity.
The live performances include the destruction and burning of various charity shop singles, including some by alleged paedophiles, and the forming of the Fox Templars with their 'Operation MindFox' manifesto. Perhaps most impressive is a mass singalong of next year's Christmas number one: a rewrite of 'Feed the World' as 'Fuuk The World' with lyrics such as "there's a world outside your boathouse, and it's a world of jellied eels". Bill and Jimmy seem rather overcome.
For me however the excitement and elation is more than tinged by isolation, insecurity and self-doubt. I feel as though I missed an opportunity to do something really good. I'm watching my peers in the 400 "getting the acknowledgement they deserve by performing alongside the scene's cutting edge practitioners" as that randomly found origami newspaper flower said. But I feel increasingly like I’m on a school trip or organised activity, which in turn brings back all those buried schoolboy anxieties. I’m left out; I’m not good enough; I don’t have the confidence to express my ideas in a large group. Looking back, it's just like that quote in Sacred Trust, spoken by the character with my name, suggested: "That must have been tough, after being so close through high school."
I don't even make this connection till much later however, when I get home and actually start reading 2023. Then, I discover that one of the main themes of my chapter is the importance of creating art without documentation, especially in the book's near-future scenario when everything is immediately uploaded to social media and driven by a need for public approval in the form of likes and followers. The central character, Winnie, has created a program to effectively end death by documenting and uploading the entire lives and memories of every living person, but can't quite bring herself to hit 'send' and put it out into the world. On reading this I feel better about not being able to upload videos or music or do anything that involves using any kind of digital technology out in the field. My undocumented but prophetic stroll around the town centre seems a lot more appropriate, even if I never did get to share it with Bill, Jimmy and The 400. But at the time my sense of loneliness and insecurity continues into the evening, as our gig at the Dead Perch Lounge falls through and Budget Kull instead give their one and only performance around Tommy's fire at 1am. We're pretty dreadful and, even though I'm surrounded by people I really like and admire, I feel dull and awkward and unable to talk to them because they're all so much more interesting and talented than I am. The party goes on late, but I go to bed relatively early. Tomorrow could be a very long day.
Friday 25th August: "Don't be afraid, you're already dead"
The next morning I feel somewhat better, though still apprehensive about my role in the Great Pull North under Gimpo's command. It doesn't help that I'm late for the midday meet, but I find the Ice Kream Van parked on the pavement outside the Florrie with Jimmy peering into the engine concernedly. Thick ropes are attached to the front of the van, and the leg one pullers are getting the feel of their harnesses. But soon we're told we're free to go, just report back at 4 for face painting. I walk into town, trying to process what I've been through so far.
Today is about the future, and the Rites of MuMufication, whatever they may entail. Tonight Badger Kull will perform at the Invisible Wind Factory nightclub, at an event billed as the Graduation Ball. Our graduation is almost upon us. But what have we learned?
We've learnt about our own power and creativity. We've been given roles, and accepted them in a spirit of play-acting, but we've also come to understand the degree to which we accept the roles we're given in everyday life too. Four random people were chosen to be in a band. Another 69 people were chosen to be their hardcore fans. Everyone played along. Anyone could do it. Badger Kull and 2023 posters and graffiti are all over Liverpool, and all over the worldwide web.
Yesterday we were given simple seeds and sent out to create new works of art. We collaborated with friends and strangers, or we worked alone. We performed the results to our peers, or we didn't. Implicitly, The JAMs are saying "that's all there is to it- now go out and create, and keep creating, and keep questioning. Be a fan if you want, or a rock star, or make soup or whatever. It's all a game and you can do and be anything you want."
This is the future. Are we their legacy? Are they tending their garden and nurturing new generations of artists- not necessarily 'talent' but ordinary people prepared to make their lives into extraordinary works of art? Even the difficult moments seem to be built into the process- of course they are. All of my closest friends among The 400 have had trigger moments much like mine- some worse. We've all been pushed into places where we've had to face our demons. How else can any of us grow? We've all been given our situations, and in modern parlance it's up to us to own them, and work through them. Sometimes it's grim up north. But up ahead, the White Room is waiting.
Back at the Florrie I get my face painted along with everyone else- part badger, part stylised skull, with white face, black eyes and nose. Eventually we're ushered upstairs into the Florrie's impressive main hall and all take our seats, with three large screens all lit up in the dark with the K2 Plant Hire logo. To a minimal electronic drone, three figures in white robes and pyramid-shaped hats move robotically onto the stage and stand in front of lecterns. A short film is projected onto the three screens and they move slowly in front of it. It almost seems to be a parody of a typical Kraftwerk stage set. The film is an abstract, non-narrative mixture of animation and live footage shot beside an urban canal. The animation consists of repeating images including The Shard, sometimes on fire, sometimes topped by a giant eyeball, rotating grapefruit segments rising in the sky like a blood moon, and other images that relate to 2023 the novel. As the film fades out the vogueing scarecrows leave the stage, to be replaced by Ru and Claire Callender from Devon's Green Funeral Company. They tell us not to be afraid of anything, ever, as we're all already dead.
It’s at this point that the situation really takes a turn for the transcendental. In making us aware of how brief our existence really is, the Callenders claim to be talking directly to our DNA, to help us connect with our ancestral selves. Of course our ancestors are our family elders, but they’re also our friends and anyone who’s ever influenced us: artists, musicians, writers, even fictional characters. Most fascinating of all, they’re saying that we are all our own ancestors. This, they say, is a ritual to make us aware that we are now the past selves we will one day remember, and the past actions that will inform the people we’ll become.
All of these ancestors however, which ultimately include the entire human race, bring with them guilt and responsibility as well as wisdom. This, they say, is about looking at the map and understanding the debts and obligations that come with the remarkable gift of life. Accompanied by a plastic skull representing Papa Legbe, the Haitian voodoo psychopomp who brings us into death’s fold, they pay tribute to parents, fallen friends and, in a moving aside, deceased KLF vocalist Ricardo Da Force. And they tell us that they’re here to offer an alternative to our dismal corporate funeral rituals, in the form of a new kind of death rite for the post acid house tribes: MuMufication.
Callender and Callender have joined forces with Cauty and Drummond to become undertakers to the underworld: to us, the already dead. The JAMs have entered the funeral business, and for a small consideration (£99) they will sell us an unfired brick into which, on our death, we can insert 23% of our ashes. This will then be fired and used to build The People’s Pyramid: a project first mentioned by K2 Plant Hire 23 years ago, but which is now revealed as a planned 23-foot monument to be erected, brick by brick, in Liverpool on one day of every year- 23 November, the Toxteth Day of the Dead. Eventually it will consist of 34,592 bricks, each one representing and containing a deceased member of the tribe. Those buying into the ultimate pyramid scheme will have their unfired brick in life as a perpetual reminder of their inevitable eternal fate. It is always 3am. We’re all just bricks in the pyramid.
It’s powerful stuff. We came to see a band we liked as kids get back together, and we ended up with that band telling us about our personal, individual, inevitable death, and what they will do with your remains after that happens. Usually, band reunions are a denial of age and mortality. Your favourite band will always be there, still playing the songs you first fell in love to. You’ll never get old, nothing will change, and no-one will ever die. The JAMs are saying the opposite. They will not be getting the band back together. You will never be 23 again. They are going to die, and so are all of us. Accept it. And then glory in it. The Callenders lead us in singing "Don't be afraid, you're already dead," over and over, until this collective hymnal becomes first euphoric, then hypnotic, and finally is internalised and absorbed. We are already dead.
Oliver Senton returns to the stage, and reads the sleevenotes from 'It's Grim Up North' in a declamatory, Shakespearian style. Then, to chants of "Mu Mu!" the funeral procession enters: the Toxteth Day of the Dead banner, followed by bizarre bishops in pointed hats made from traffic cones with the bases sawn off and bearing strange staffs topped with birds, fish and fox heads. Two coffins are borne in by 16 Koffin Karriers, and finally the choir in yellow hooded robes take to the stage, accompanied by one completely hooded figure in dark blue. As they begin singing a version of 'Justified And Ancient' this figure throws back his hood to stand revealed as Jarvis Cocker, who delivers the lead vocal in typical half-spoken style. Some lyrics are altered to reflect the occasion, while others take on a new significance in light of what’s gone before. Jarvis walks down the aisle, getting us all singing "Mu Mu Land, Mu Mu Land, All Bound for Mu Mu land" over and over, as the procession leaves and then we all follow, in the dawning realisation that Mu Mu land was Death all along.
The Great Pull North is a three mile procession through the centre of Liverpool, led by a lollipop lady, a piper and a marching drummer, followed by the Toxteth Day of the Dead banner, and then the 23 pullers tugging the Ice Kream Van, which contains Bill, Jimmy and the two coffins. This is followed by the gravediggers and the bishops, the choir and the koffin karriers, the ragwort and buddleia bearers with their wheelbarrows and shopping trolleys, people rolling tyres, and then everyone else. We march down main roads and across busy junctions. After the first mile I get in harness as part of leg two. Although there are concerted efforts to make it look like we're really struggling and sweating, we aren't really, although we do have to manoeuvre round some tricky corners as we lead the van down to the docks. As dusk falls we hand over to the final leg. The police show some interest but don't try to stop us, despite the moment when Gimpo leads a group of volunteers in pushing a police van out of the way so that we can get the Ice Kream Van past a parked car. "You'd better not stop us ‘cause we're coming through."
Finally we turn onto a large patch of waste ground beside the Mersey, where traffic cones have been used to mark out a drive and then a large circle around a pyramid-shaped pyre. The circle is marked out by volunteers with flaming torches. The Ice Kream Van stops at the far side of the circle, and the koffin karriers are assembled to carry the coffins onto the pyre. Bill and Jimmy strap giant ivory horns- The JAMs’ ceremonial headwear- onto their foreheads and light the pyre. We watch the fire burning.
This is the climax of the Rites of MuMufication. There are many rumours as to what was actually in the coffins, but to me they symbolise the death of The KLF -the mythical pop duo invented by The JAMS- and a symbolic death and rebirth for all of us. We have been reborn into death, into the knowledge of our own death and the real understanding that although time may be eternal, we have only a very little of it. We have been reborn into the awareness that everything is process, that we are not nouns but verbs, and that nothing lasts. The act is all, and the documentation, the product, the reward, is nothing. Everything is done in the moment for its own sake. The perch are already dead, as are we. There is only The Situation, a new kind of art that has always been there, and always will be.
Pop songs and images that have been with us all our life become deep signifiers of adult myth and reality. The Last Train is already in motion, pulling out of the station. You can’t stop it, we’re all aboard. We’re justified and we’re ancient, and there’s still no master plan. What Time is Love? Now, always. There is no other time. It’s always 3am Eternal. We are all the secret masters of our own universe. We are all the illuminati. There is no-one to judge you, no-one to help you, no-one to damn you, or those who do you wrong. Above us only sky. And if the central figure in the painting The Scream represents all of our collective existential anguish, and The JAMs, as they claim, are the two top-hatted figures in the background, then what does that make them?
The Ice Kream Van is waiting at the gates. The last chime is sounding. Will we get our passports stamped as we cross the final threshold? You and I are going to die. We can do anything we want to before then. We can create art. We can be pop stars, if we still think that is worth it. You don’t need permission for anything. No more heroes. No more Beatles. No more KLF. No more religion (or start your own). Complete self-empowerment- then death. Oblivion and obscurity. That’s the deal, and The JAMs are the brokers.
Daisy Campbell has since said that Bill and Jimmy may also be representatives of Horkus, the son of Eris who binds people to their oaths. This might be so. Do it, they say, before everything is burned! Fulfil your promise!
There is an afterparty at the Invisible Wind Factory, a cavernous nightclub where Greg Wilson and DJ Food are on the decks till 3. At midnight Badger Kull make their one and only five minute performance, accompanied by a drum machine and a barrage of strobes. To be honest it’s a bit of a blur. Bill and Jimmy are on hand to sign our graduation certificates. We dance to the MC5, and Kick Out The Jams. Of course we do. Of course.
Saturday 26th August: "War is over, if you want it"
We all go back to the Dead Perch Lounge one last time, before it reverts back to being the Static Gallery, and we revert back to whoever we used to be, before the situation started. There's one last chance to buy merchandise, and a first chance to sign up for MuMufication. Many people are already handing over their credit cards. Architect Paul Sullivan discusses the specifics of the pyramid's design and construction, and we're invited to view an art installation, a pyramid of TVs showing different flickering images, relevant to the situation, in a small back room. And Little Alan finally makes an appearance, balanced on Stephen’s arm but protected by one of Jimmy Cauty’s giant smiley face riot shields.
I buy one last coffee and keep the paper cup, with the Starbucks logo altered to show the face of Yoko Ono and the legend 'War is over'. Outside, giant black and white posters declare 'Mu' and 'Why? Because we're fuuking stupid. We ran out of ideas and now we need the money back'.
Was it worth it? Definitely. In strict 'what did you get for your money' terms, Welcome To The Dark Ages may have seemed slightly overpriced, but the commitment of a significant body of cash without knowing what the fuuk was going on was a part of the ritual, a leap of faith that ensured that once you were in, you were in deep. And of course, in terms of the overall experience it was priceless. I don't think anyone came away feeling cheated or ripped off: rather, they came away feeling as though they'd been through a transformative magical ritual that may just have changed them forever. This wasn't about passively paying for an "experience"; it was about having the opportunity to actively create that experience, along with hundreds of others, all of whom are now bound together as The 400, quite possibly for the rest of their lives. All our personal myths have been bound up together with the central myth of The JAMs, Illuminatus and Discordianism as the binding agent. Daisy Campbell, synthesising her father and Alan Moore, has been promoting the idea of choice five: a story so complex and self-referential it is, to all intents and purposes, alive. This feels like where we're at now.
The Discordian prime lesson is that we all create our own reality. The Discordian prime directive is to find the others. Throughout Welcome To The Dark Ages we achieved both. It was challenging, certainly; for some of us at points it was downright traumatic. But there were also multiple moments of boundless joy, ecstasy and self-actualisation that will never be forgotten. This was Wonderism: the opposite of terrorism, the creation of situations of wonder for their own sake and for the sake of waking us all up to the strangeness and possibility of our own lives.
It will take a long time to fully process, but what I got from Welcome To The Dark Ages was essentially the same thing I got from The JAMs when I first encountered them, as a 16-year-old back in 1987: the realisation that anyone can do it. Interwoven with that is the thrill of a complex, contradictory mythology that is encouraging and empowering rather than enslaving or dogmatic, and that stands in amused and angry opposition to the monolithic body of lies we’re constantly fed to keep us passively consuming, perpetuating a system of alienation and inhumanity. The JAMs are always silly and serious, stupid and clever, all at the same time, and suggest that anything worthwhile should also really be all of those things simultaneously. Mystery and provocation are important, as are flaws and mistakes. Don’t explain. Don’t pretend to know the answers. Provoke questions instead...
This is Radio Freedom.
Over to you.