Classic Album: The KLF - Chill Out

"an artistic blueprint that has formed a source of inspiration and imitation for many since"
The KLF - Chill Out
The truth has always been stranger than the fiction that surrounds Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty. Whether throwing money into the crowd at a Chipping Norton rave back in 1989, machine-gunning the audience with blanks at the Brit Awards and turning up with a dead sheep at the after-party, or, as the K Foundation, handing out lager to London’s homeless on Christmas Eve or burning a million quid in the name of art, experimentation and risk-taking have never held any fear for them.

Following their success as The Timelords with ‘Doctorin’ The Tardis’ in 1987, they wrote the rules of how to have a number one the easy way in ‘The Manual’, then rewrote the rules as the KLF through hits such as ‘What Time Is Love?’, ‘3AM Eternal’ and the Tammy Wynette crooned ‘Justified And Ancient’. The duo didn’t just send shockwaves through popular music, they knocked the whole institution down and rebuilt it in their own image.

Their ‘Chill Out’ album in 1990 was no different in the way it redefined and reshaped music, albeit in a quieter and more subtle way. Apparently recorded in one live take (“We’d get near the end and make a mistake, so we’d have to go all the way back to the beginning and set it all up again,” Cauty told Record Collector in 1991) they laid down an artistic blueprint that has formed a source of inspiration and imitation for many since.

Following on from Cauty’s drifting ‘Space’ album (apparently recorded as The Orb’s first album, Alex Paterson’s contributions were later removed when Cauty decided to focus on working with Drummond), ‘Chill Out’ carried on the ambient theme, but this was a more focussed work, a concept album. Essentially a collage of samples and original synth parts, the concept is based on a journey through the Deep South of the US with track titles plotting the route along the Gulf Coast from ‘Brownsville Turnaround On The Tex-Mex Border’ through to ‘The Lights Of Baton Rouge Pass Me By’.

Rather than being inspired by personal experience, the journey was an imaginary one. “I’ve never been to those places,” Drummond revealed to X Magazine in 1991. “I don’t know what those places are like, but in my head, I can imagine those sounds coming from those places, just looking at the map.”

The sounds of a train rolling past and chattering insects mingle with steel guitar and basic ambient chords to set the tone before samples of chanting throat-singers and bleating sheep make their way into the mix. The tracks drift from one to the next, in what has become typical ambient fashion, as different places are passed en route and the steel guitar playing of Graham Lee becomes the focus. ‘Elvis On The Radio, Steel Guitar In My Soul’ adds to this Elvis Presley’s ‘In The Ghetto’, wafting in and out of the mix as the train rolls through again.

Other well-known samples can also be found emerging through the rich audio soup. The strum of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’ fades in and out on ‘3AM Somewhere Out Of Beaumont’ before ‘A Melody From A Past Life Keeps Calling Me Back’ sees the seemingly incongruous 808 State’s ‘Pacific State’ and Acker Bilk’s ‘Stranger On The Shore’ eased naturally alongside each other.

The album also contains some of the building blocks for Cauty and Drummond’s future works. The chorus of ‘Justified And Ancient’ makes a few appearances and the triumphant chords used on both ‘It’s Grim Up North’ (a future top ten hit under the duo’s JAMs moniker) and ‘Last Train To Trancentral’ drench ‘Wichita Lineman Was A Song I Once Heard’ in euphoria, with the help of a ranting evangelist.

The album’s rich depth of layered sounds and samples set the yardstick for contemporaries such as The Orb, whose seminal ‘Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld’ stands shoulder to shoulder with ‘Chill Out’, and formed a huge progression forward from Brian Eno’s original minimal ambience. This was mellow music that could at times demand centre-stage as well as calming and complimenting its immediate environment.

Ronnie McPherson of Izu says, “‘Chill Out’ was directly and hugely responsible for making The Orb possible, and in turn The Orb fathered pretty much everything ‘ambient’ from 1991 onwards, so in that respect it was massively influential. The music it influenced has been an influence on me.” Thor Sideb0ard, who runs the Highpoint Lowlife label, agrees. “I don’t believe the ‘Chill Out’ album had that much reach or influence beyond the UK, but the people they did influence in turn greatly shaped and moulded the ambient soundscape.”

The KLF’s art-inspired exploits sometimes drag attention away from the music but they did contribute a unique legacy to electronic, cut ‘n’ paste, sample-based composition. The influence of ‘Chill Out’ can still be heard in some of today’s leftfield electronica, a huge achievement for an album that sold well but didn’t chart, is just 44 minutes long and, according to Drummond, took a mere two days to put together in Cauty’s squat-based Trancentral studio in South London.

“It made the electronic album viable and the dance producer was then allowed to indulge more,” Doug Hart of Chamber believes. “Kraftwerk were always the dons of course but KLF added madness and pop culture to mix. It really was the catalyst for a lot of amazing work through the 90’s by others.” While Ruaridh Law of The Marcia Blaine School For Girls simply states, “One: the KLF are the greatest band of all time. Two: ‘Chill Out’ may be one of the greatest albums of all time (certainly top ten). Three: anyone who disagrees with either of the above is dead inside.”

The year after the release of ‘Chill Out’, the KLF were the biggest selling singles act in the world and the following year they announced their retirement from the music industry. With Drummond and Cauty both now immersed in the art world, the KLF’s musical legacy may have been deleted at their own request but, above and beyond the heavily marketed chill out explosion of a few years ago, today’s down-tempo scene would be markedly different without it. A spectacular cultural bootprint on the face of popular music that will continue to survive down the years.

WORDS BY IAN ROULLIER

Fact File
Released: 5th February 1990
Recorded: Trancentral, Stockwell, London
Produced by: The KLF
Band: Jimmy Cauty & Bill Drummond - “composition, compilation and collation”
Graham Lee - pedal steel guitar
Nick Coler - programming and keyboards.

Track Listing
01 Brownsville Turnaround On The Tex Mex Border
02 Pulling Out Of Ricardo And The Dusk Is Falling Fast
03 Six Hours To Louisiana, Black Coffee Going Cold
04 Dream Time In Lake Jackson
05 Madrugada Eterna
06 Justified And Ancient Seems A Long Time Ago
07 Elvis On The Radio, Steel Guitar In My Soul
08 3am Somewhere Out Of Beaumont
09 Wichita Lineman Was A Song I Once Heard
10 Trancentral Lost In My Mind
11 The Lights Of Baton Rouge Pass By
12 A Melody From A Past Life Keeps Pulling Me Back
13 Rock Radio Into The Nineties And Beyond
14 Alone Again With The Dawn Coming Up

1990: In The News
• The first McDonalds in Moscow opened.
•Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Verster Prison, near Cape Town, South Africa.
• Sammy Davis Jr. and Muppets genius Jim Henson died on the same day.
• The 1990 FIFA World Cup is held in Italy.
• Blues musician Stevie Ray Vaughan died in a helicopter crash along with 4 others following a concert near East Troy, Wisconsin.
• Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister of the U.K.

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