Features

The KLF's 'Chill Out' is Still the Best Comedown Album Ever

With rumours abound that they might be reunited, we revisit Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty's masterpiece.

by Josh Baines
05 January 2017, 11:06am

This post ran originally on THUMP UK.

You're in the back of an Austin Allegro and in possession of one million pounds. In cash. It's just there, stuffed in your rucksack, sharing valuable bag-space with a tatty issue of Viz and a tin-foiled batch of ham rolls. As the minutes fly by, beads of sweat dampen your paperback copy of Simon Reed's Wassailing: the British Midwinter Blessing Custom, and your heart beats faster than techno. Soon you'll be there. Soon you'll be doing what you've decided to do. Soon there'll be no turning back—not for you, not for anyone, not for anything. Soon, that million pounds will have vanished, never to return. Soon, sooner than you'd think, that million pounds will be nothing more than cold, hard ash.

You are Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty. You are the KLF and you've just set a million quid alight on the remote island of Jura. For just over an hour, you threw fifty pound notes onto a bonfire in the name of art. From this day forth, you'll always be thought of as a pair of pranksters, an easily-invocated reference point for any musician or musicians who attempt to suffuse their serious art with a sense of humour. You are the KLF and four years before you burnt a million quid you recorded the best ambient album in the world ever.

Chill Out, first released in February 1990, is an unequivocal masterpiece, a comedown companion only matched—and even then only just—by Brian Eno's Ambient 4: On Land. It's an intuitive, innovative, engrossing and deeply, deeply engaging piece of music, a downbeat musical mansion of sorts, and one that gives you glimpses of room after gilded room you're never really given explicit permission to enter. Instead, you let an eye be drawn here and there, catching a snippet of this, a smidgen of that. As you weave in and out of it's many corridors, something happens: you cease to exist.

And you cease to exist because Chill Out does what all good ambient music does—it is literally and metaphorically transportive and transformative. That's what good ambient music does. Bad ambient music—and it does exist, in swathes, in droves, in endless piles of burnt plastic rotting in the bottom of landfill sites in the middle of the Indian ocean—sits like a fart in a lift. The truly great stuff, the stuff that hovers near a kind of pure and total transcendence, the stuff like Harold Budd's The Pearl, or Tim Hecker's Harmony in Ultraviolet or The Caretaker's An Empty Bliss Beyond this World, reconfigures the listener's understanding of both spatiality and temporality. The "you" that you are is relocated elsewhere for the duration of the record, subsumed into something else, something Other.

The KLF record is a truncated musical interpretation of a literal, physical journey through the Gulf Coast of the United States, a stargazing territorial essay that takes in Elvis Presley, Aker Bilk, Tuvan throat singers, a Radio 1 rock show jingle, dialogue from long-forgotten 50s sci-fi flick The Brain from Planet Arous, and Fleetwood Mac. You're whisked away from reality into a semi-recognisable dreamscape, a place where the liminality has quietly, subtly, taken control.

The album, a continuous blur of elegiac half-memories coming into view, drifting into the narcotic haze of the never-really-there, was allegedly recorded in one take at the duo's mystical studio, Trancentral. Trancentral, the group's spiritual home and a foundational element of the mythology they created and curated, a mythology sustained by an inquisitive press and a devoted fanbase, was in fact a squat in Stockwell, south London. That geographical specificity is important when considering Chill Out's place in both the annals of electronic music history, and why this 44 minute long exploration of drug addled-consciousness is still utterly, utterly perfect today.

There's a drive within most of us to romanticise the rural, to imbue the pastoral with an underserved and ultimately damaging sentimentality. When we think of the countryside we tend to focus on rolling hills, shaded woods, turning the difficult realities of rural life into a Robert Frost poem fridge-magnet. As far away as this seems from club culture, we can't ever forget or overstate the part that the wide open spaces of life outside of cities changed our understanding of what dance music and the function it plays within society—and, frankly, how could we, given the glut of Everything Was Better Back in the Old Days Mate articles that appear week in week out?

Chill Out, then, is undeniably pastoral, utterly bucolic, a kind of deep-cleansing spiritual guide to what happens after the club shuts and your mind begins to open. In it's own twisted, psychedelic, confounding way, it happily plays with the slightly patronising conventions of rural-ambience. But the idea that this ineffably gorgeous work of art was wrought from four hands working overtime in an environment which, as music journalist and author David Stubbs remembers was "heated by means of leaving the three functioning gas rings on at full blast until the fumes make us all feel stoned," adds another layer of pleasure to one of the most downright pleasurable musical experiences imaginable. This is a record about escapism made by escapists, attempting to escape an unforgiving urban environment.

It's also, unavoidably, a record about clubbing and comedowns. As Bill Drummond himself said in an interview with X Magazine in 1991, "When we're having the big Orbital raves out in the country, and you're dancing all night and then the sun would come up in the morning, and then you'd be surrounded by this English rural countryside...we wanted something that kind of reflected that, that feeling the day after the rave, that's what we wanted the music for." Drummond and Cauty succeeded in that aim. Big time.

Chill out music, and "chilling out" as an activity, has always been (rightly) viewed with a suspicion that borders on downright perversity. Estate agents "chill out" at the weekend and Telegraph columnists buy chill out compilation CDs. But, in its own way, chilling out is an inextricable part of the clubbing experience. The up is always followed by a down, and that down needs to be as comfortable and distant from life as lived as possible. Well, within reason, anyway. You don't want to be so removed from reality that you become convinced your hands are immovable lumps of molten lava and that your best friend's suddenly become fluent in Mandarin, obviously.

With its polyglottal cast of voices—evangelical salesman promising that you'll "COME BACK FAT AS A RAT...ALL DOWN THE WAY DOWN THE EAST COAST" battle with the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, who in turn battle with road accident news reports—gliding over and under the shimmering heat haze of synthetic ambience, Chill Out is just discomforting enough to ease you into the necessary state of unreality needed for dealing with the moment the (club) music stops.

The KLF may or may not be returning. It doesn't matter either way because we'll always have Chill Out and the world will always need it.

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