16
Mar 11

THE KLF ft THE CHILDREN OF THE REVOLUTION – “3AM Eternal”

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#659, 2nd February 1991

“Faceless”. I don’t know who first used this particular epithet against dance music’s pop takeover, but the concept stuck. Facelessness became a stick used to beat the new music with – by suddenly-old DJs, faux-concerned critics, frustrated executives and not a few confused former pop fans. The idea was that club music didn’t create stars, marketable individuals, long-term careers and audience focus points – in the longer term these claims were proved wrong but in the wide-eyed, loose-limbed climate of the early 90s they seemed credible. In fact they didn’t go far enough – what the dance singles filling the charts were doing was turning the existing purpose of a ‘single’ on its head. Singles had long been a promotional medium – an advert for something, be it an album, a tour, a film or TV show, a comedian’s career. Dance tracks, though, weren’t announcing anything – they were instead the echoes of events which had already happened. A rave record’s moment of currency was when it spread through DJ sets, not when it entered the charts. This had been, for a long time, the logic of the holiday hit, “Y Viva Espana” et al – but now extended to encompass an entire subculture. No wonder the old guard were horrified.

This meant that the public face of rave music – on TV music shows, for instance – was enormously variable. Sometimes the acts genuinely didn’t seem bothered, sometimes they were woefully amateurish… and sometimes they seized the opportunity, redefined “facelessness” as a blank pop canvas and worked to bring a bit of spectacle into the charts. Altern 8, with their boiler suits and face masks; The Orb, playing cosmic chess on Top Of The Pops. And before them, the KLF.

Bill Drummond had been creating pop events for more than a decade – it was his signature tactic as a manager, it had carried successfully over into the early, sample-driven KLF days and it had taken him to the top of the charts already. He’d been a student during glam rock, managed at the start of the video era – he knew how important concept and imagery were to pop. And I think his insight with the KLF at their (and his) mainstream zenith was something like this: if rave music is always the aftermath of a party that’s already happened, the ideal pop incarnation of rave music needs to be the aftermath of an entirely imaginary party, the greatest party that ever could happen.

So the Stadium House trilogy – the trio of hits which includes “3AM Eternal” – is all billed as “live” from some imaginary geographies (Trancentral, the Lost Continent… though “SSL”, the cryptic location of “3AM”, is rather prosaically a mixing desk). The group’s work is full of jumbled references to their own private mythology, which almost certainly was never even as barely coherent as the songs made out. But the robes and horns and cars looked great, the “ancients of Mu Mu” chants sounded great – the group dressed and acted like nobody else around. In a way it was pure gimmick, just the Timelords again on an even bigger scale: but they gave the impression of enough going on in the background for deep cult appeal, and there was enough happening in the hits to cross over completely. Because, after all, none of it would have worked if the Stadium House material wasn’t instant pop, thrilling and energising even if you never paid attention to anything else the KLF did.

“3AM Eternal” is the rushiest, most exciting, most modern-sounding Number One since Adamski – but it’s also the weakest of the Stadium House hits for me. “What Time Is Love?” has even bigger hooks; “Last Train To Trancentral” is even more euphoric. What “3AM” does have is the amazing, machine-gun fire intro, and Wanda Dee floating pure and serene over the crowd noises and crunching breakbeats, and an oddly wistful, high synth line picking its way through the bombast and into your brain. And it has Ricardo Da Force, not the first or last dodgy rapper we’ll encounter in the early 90s, spouting amiable nonsense on roughly a Turbo B level. The whole thing is similar to “The Power”, in fact, but everything seems faster, more flamboyant, more baffling and more of an event. It’s a shot of abstracted pop thrill-power and still an enormously welcome one.

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Comments

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  1. 31
    Cumbrian on 16 Mar 2011 #

    #27 Yes Tom, the description of The Black Room sounds a hell of a lot like it could have been Ministry. Given it was their most successful record to that point, it might have been ok for The KLF. But Ministry successful and KLF successful are two rather different beasts. It probably would have been perceived as a mis-step.

  2. 32
    wichita lineman on 16 Mar 2011 #

    Re 28: I meant that if I was 16 it might have all felt fresher, and I wouldn’t have known the originals of Always There, Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing, Midnight At the Oasis etc.

    Re 30: Must revisit Dream On Dreamer! I always imagine the title as a line Phil Mitchell might come up with. Or evil Mike Reid, in the (genuinely) apocalyptic kids tv show Noah’s Castle.

  3. 33
    Tom on 16 Mar 2011 #

    Yeah I don’t disagree – I wasn’t really commenting on the perceived success of it, as you say it would have gone down like a lead balloon no doubt.

    It is easy for me to overestimate the success of Psalm 69, going to university in 1992 that record was EVERYWHERE.

  4. 34

    Three things:
    Acid Jazz as a label and an idea actually preceded Soul II Soul, and at least some of the “political” resistance was a hangover from the pre-88 world of the London world of clubbing, when it was a lot more exclusive in the sense of people not being allowed in if they “looked wrong” — the huge expansion of the audience for dancemusic in the late 80s rendered this moot I think. (Basically this retroactively overrides the dadfunk issue…)

    Second: there was a BIG battle going on within jazz broadcasting c.86-88, which the danceworld basically won, to the extreme bitterness of the pre-existing (older) jazz audience, which momentarily glimpsed a settlement in which it got a much better media shake, only for it to be stolen away by crowds of pill-head kids.

    Third: one of the things that routinely got writers and editors backs up at the time was that a lot of it was actually really LOUSILY written about. (Again the Weller dimension was at work here: he didn’t seem to attract quality journalism!)

  5. 35
    Steve Mannion on 16 Mar 2011 #

    Add me as another who prefers all of the other KLF hits (It’s Grim Up North may be the deepest and most powerful but I’m not sure it really outstrips the sheer fun of the others especially Justified And Ancient), but it was such a pleasant surprise that this reached the top. That said I’m sure I’ve heard this one played out and danced to more than the others over the years. Must be because its slower groove is more condusive in those situations.

    Anticipation of the ‘What Time Is Love?’ follow-up was big (fuelled by the duo’s excellent and inspired interviews here and there including a couple of Record Mirror ones focussing respectively on crop circles, a dance music discussion in which Drummond peddled his Stadium House concept to the approval of Richard Norris, and a Q&A in which Drummond reviewed 1990 as Michael Jackson for some reason) and this was the pay-off in an increasingly chaotic chartscape peppered with nods to mysticism and darkness (including both Enigma and Queen).

    The ‘best-selling UK act of the period’ stat is still remarkable and their spectacular run of top 5 hits suggested commercial consistency was viable for rave-inspired acts with an unconventional approach to ‘face’ (Altern 8 as mentioned but more importantly The Prodigy). Unfortunately the KLF had to share their Best Group award at the ’92 Brit Awards with Simply Red.

    As for Acid Jazz, I did indeed love it when I was 16 (despite initially hating the Brand New Heavies…who were essentially to AJ what M People were to House – too pedestrian a gambit) but I seemed to be trying to love everything that felt vaguely ‘alternative’ at that point, with some success.

  6. 36

    I agree with Wichita’s point about being too old not to be aware of — and basically prefer — precursors, feeling they were very hard done by: again, the huge phase-shift that came round 88 took care of this in terms of the numbers, and in terms of rendering awareness of histories of prior black music an irrelevance

  7. 37

    Sorry: third bite — the aspect of the scene that you’re arguing, correctly, has been left out of “continuum” type histories was I actually think a lot more balkanised that retrospect would indicate

    SOMEWHERE I have a diagram — maybe from in i-D or the Face — which did a kind of Pete Frame on all the sound systems and clubs mid-70s to mid-80s: what I’m getting at is that a “logical extension” as intuited from 25 years later might well, on the ground at the time, have been seen/heard as an absurd smooshing together of bitter rivals!

  8. 38
    23 Daves on 16 Mar 2011 #

    If I had to name the one band I actually obsessed over as a teenager to the point of worrying my parents and the people around me, it would be the KLF. They clearly kickstarted something in me too, because from the point of me buying the “Shag Times” compilation (my introduction to them) I began to demand more from the bands I was a fan of. I wasn’t as impressed by angst anymore, I wanted fantasy, absurdity and a sense of possibilities. From my perspective as a bored teenager in a dull little town, Drummond and Cauty lived the ultimate life, hatching pie-in-the-sky schemes and making them work, having elaborate ideas which they refused to reveal the meaning of (I wrote to Drummond as a teenager twice asking for explanations, and his responses weren’t particularly helpful, although I suppose he did at least respond). They gave me the sense that there were broader horizons to be had, that you didn’t need to wait for permission to create interesting work or do memorable things with your life (my punk rock moment, if you will). They caused the trad indie bands I loved beforehand to work their way slowly towards the back of my bedroom record pile, and I’m genuinely grateful to them for introducing me to the idea that music could be mysterious, intelligent, vibrant and adventurous without seeming earnest or miserable.

    I’m aware the above sounds like fanboy gushing, so let me deflate all that by saying that I agree with the posters above who say that “3AM Eternal” isn’t their best Stadium House work. In fact, in all honesty I prefer “Doctorin’ The Tardis”, “Burn The Bastards”, the needlessly maligned “Kylie Said To Jason” and “It’s Grim Up North” over and above “3AM Eternal” as well. At the time, though, any KLF release felt like such an event, and certainly in my area sales for the single were berserk. I went to my local record shop a few days after the Monday release date, and was told that I would have to have a cassingle or nothing – all other formats had already sold out. I think it remains the only cassingle I have ever bought, so desperate was I to bring a copy in any form at all home.

    Never the best “Pure Trance” single in its original form, “3AM Eternal” is similarly not their best piece of pop, and sounds very opportunistic in places – those Sheffield beeps after “KLF a-ha a-ha” are one of the few instances I can think of where they’ve blatantly tried to mimic somebody’s else’s gimmick, which seemed disappointing at the time. Still though, I was as pleased as punch when this got to number one, and even a below par KLF at this period in the careers outscored other acts. It also seemed like a rare treat for a band I genuinely cared about – rather than merely liked a lot – to reach the number one spot. At the time “Doctorin’ The Tardis” hit, I had no idea who or what they were, just that I really liked the record. This time around, I was in on the joke and the celebrations, and that felt important to me. 8 seems like a fair score, but if I were able to mark the moment itself, it would be a 10.

  9. 39
    Steve Mannion on 16 Mar 2011 #

    Ah yes those bleeps previously featured on 808 State vs MC Tunes ‘Tunes Splits The Atom’, and there was the similar effect on Sweet Exorcist’s ‘Testone’ but ‘3AM Eternal’ did seem to make more of them, playing with their pitch to create a ‘tune’ of sorts. Wanda Dee’s “A-ha”s were themselves later sampled on EMF’s ‘They’re Here’.

  10. 40
    thefatgit on 16 Mar 2011 #

    Oh, my! So much has been said already, but I’m in total agreement that IGUN stands as the pinnacle of their output. I’m a sucker for list songs, and from a southerner’s perspective, with occasional forays to Lancashire and Yorkshire under my belt, this confirmed my personal view of the North, in much the same way The Fall’s “Hit The North” and John Cooper Clarke’s “Chickentown” had done a few years earlier, but with that Stadium House bravura bass drum, sounding like elephants tumbling out the back of a C-130 transporter landing on taut drumskin stretched over the Grand Canyon. It’s the largest, most incredible noise, feeling like an alien bursting out of your chest cavity, when you hear it in a club environment.

    Next to IGUN, 3AME is noticably weaker, but it’s much more knowing, immediate and compelling than SNAP! “The Power”. Butter vs marge.

  11. 41
    admin on 16 Mar 2011 #

    I’d put good money on KLF – not the Pet Shop Boys – being the most referenced act on FT. IGUN has 2 articles dedicated to it (partly because of Tom’s retrospectively archived Top 100 of the 90s). Only What Time is Love seems lacking any focus article. Why don’t we do something about that?

    (I think I still have the cassingle of it that I bought at the time.)

  12. 42
    anto on 16 Mar 2011 #

    I think this is marvellous just in itself. The KLF mainly passed me by but I always liked 3AM Eternal and still think it sounds incredible.
    There’s a sublime contrast between urgency and serenity that I’m sure stood out even in 1991. If you look at the number ones around it there’s a surplus of blandness and novelty that makes one feel a touch nauseous so if a track like this was managing to rise above the malaise than that’s reassuring.

  13. 43
    wichita lineman on 16 Mar 2011 #

    Re 39: Oh how I love that pure tone! Here’s my favourite single of the era to incorporate it into a melody; also includes one of the deepest basslines ever recorded, and a touch of electro nostalgia… which makes it sound oddly timeless but still very ’91.

    Mark, I was speaking from a purely personal ‘political’ pov, but I think you’ve sort of got what I didn’t like about AJ. It seemed snobbish and buttoned-up in the least buttoned-up age since the late 60s. Acid jazzers felt (to me) like wall-building killjoys. So, the “huge phase-shift that came round 88” doesn’t really come into it. They didn’t want the barriers to melt away.

    I was asked to dj at a club in Newcastle in ’92 and the promoter, who was also putting on Galliano, looked truly horrified when I pulled Felix’s then-new Don’t You Want Me out of the box.

    Again, we played a 40 minute set in Japan and – in spite of the incredible politesse of the Japanese – one Acid Jazzer told me sniffily that the Brand New Heavies had played for three hours the week before.

    So, y’know, it’s personal!

  14. 44
    Billy Hicks on 16 Mar 2011 #

    I had never heard of The KLF, or any of their songs, until fairly recently. My parents were 23 when this came out, raising a young child and their pop knowledge was even by now long behind them (the last record in their collection was bought in 1988), so it passed them by as well.

    That changed in January 2004, when VH1 broadcast every single number 1 of the last two decades, and 15-year-old me sat transfixed in front of the screen all day. Exposed to hundreds of new songs in an instant, it was the dance number 1s that grabbed me the most – ‘Ride On Time’, two other future tracks from 1992 and 1993, and this. I didn’t know about their history, who they were, anything about them, I just knew that ‘3am Eternal’ blew modern-day pop out the water and was one of the most exciting things I’d ever heard.

    It’s only in the last few months I happened to discover the rest of their back catalogue, and wonder what on earth I’ve been missing. ‘What Time Is Love’, ‘Last Train to Trancentral’ and ‘Justifed & Ancient’ all make me envious of those who were around at the time, experiencing them new. No one my age has heard of the KLF, I rarely see them mentioned, and by all rights I shouldn’t know about them either…but wow am I glad I do. Easiest 10 since Black Box.

    ‘It’s Grim Up North’, meanwhile, is one of my top ten favourite songs of all time. The combination of the heavy beat and orchestral ‘Jerusalem’ ending never fails to send chills down my spine every time, even when listening to it on tinny iPod headphones. Most of my top ten have yet to be released in ‘Popular time’, as they postdate 1991. For the next, we have to wait until 1994 and Britpop…

  15. 45
    swanstep on 16 Mar 2011 #

    The record’s new to me, as are the rest of KLF’s output (if Doctorin the Tardis is excluded). Perhaps you had to be there – this record’s busy without being at all memorable or interesting I find, and Last Train and IGUN aren’t obviously better. ‘Stadium House’ – well I never! Strange, but also inevitable, how some micro-generations and -scenes of dance music can completely pass one by. And when one gets around to hearing them, they strike you as completely inconsequential compared to whatever damn thing you happened to be caught up in at the time (Aphex, but also Belgium and Frankfurt stuff among others at this time for me) or would be caught up in later (Underworld’s Dirty Epic blew my mind in ’93’94, it’s a favorite to this day, etc. – the way people are talking about IGUN here kind of reminds me of myself about that record! But to me the difference is night and day! But maybe there’s a gulf of intelligibility here that can never be crossed.)

    I’m not convinced by Tom’s ‘dance records are echoes of prior events vs normal pop records are forward-looking ads for albums’ idea. Where to start? Well there have always been more singles-oriented than album-oriented acts (and I don’t see that there’s *that* big a difference between something that gets consumed first as a radio earworm and something that’s first heard out at a club). And what about compilation/collection/scene albums and general scene-participation as the thing that’s finally advertized? Not just the ‘Solid Gold Hits Vol 5’, ‘Now, that’s what I call music’ stuff but on the dance side surely all of us have cds floating around called things like, Heavenly Hardcore, Northern Exposure vol 4, Frankfurt Trax 3, Jungle Madness, and so on. Which brings me to:

    ‘faceless’
    But, hang on, that’s a feature not a bug. I thought that the endlessly proliferating pseudonymous authorship in the ’90s dance scene was utterly intentional. You’d pick up a compilation record and there’d be two columns of sentence fragments listed on the back. Often it would be unclear which column was artist names and which was song titles. That was disturbing but also exhilirating. In a genre devoted to dissolution of boundaries between self and other on a dance floor the arrival of ‘the death of the author’ as a genre feature just about made the Comp. Lit/Cultural Studies people I knew wet themselves. Say with pseudo-Russian accent: ‘In dance culture, the song plays you’. Or something. I’m not sure that Tom (or anyone else here) disagrees with any of this, but doesn’t that perspective cast a slightly awkward light on KLF’s alleged effort to answer the charge of ‘facelessness’? They’re solving a non-problem with a non-solution. (There must be a way of connecting that with Punctum’s interesting observation that KLF were less impressive as art scene provocateurs than as perverse pop stars, but will need to think more about how.)

    Anyhow, back to 3 a.m. Eternal. I give it a curve-ruining:
    4 or 5

  16. 46
    Steve Mannion on 17 Mar 2011 #

    I recommend The Orb remix of this btw – heavy delay, funkier percussion and a big burst of The Blue Danube halfway through: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ilqzxmOXnPk

  17. 47
    lockedintheattic on 17 Mar 2011 #

    There was another stage in the journey between the original pure trance version and this, the stadium house number one. An extended sample of 3am (along with Justified & Ancient, and Last Train to Transcentral) also make an appearance on 1990’s Chill Out, which also features bits of Elvis & Fleetwood Mac.

    It’s definitely streets ahead of most of the other ‘chill-out’ works that followed (including the number one before last)

  18. 48
    Mark M on 17 Mar 2011 #

    Classic meta-Popular artists moment: Drummond’s encounter with Peter Green as recounted in 45. Which has, as almost all his post-pop stuff including the gloomy million quid burning business, a rather depressive edge.

  19. 49
    pink champale on 17 Mar 2011 #

    i think that’s right that there’s slightly depressive, knowingly worthless, aspect to a lot of drummond’s post klf activities. there’s a bit in 45 where he describes as his greatest achievement and the summation of his life’s work, the look of slight but perceptible disillusionment he sees in the face of one of his long-term admirers after the barbican debacle. I mean, this is a great line and everything, but you get the feeling that he almost means it, which is kind of sad.

    other than that, i’m with the majority in loving the bangin’ness and silly conceptual grandeur of prime klf stuff.

  20. 50
    Conrad on 17 Mar 2011 #

    I find it really annoying that such mediocre pop music can inspire so much discussion, really based on nothing more than an entertaining manifesto. Drummond should have written a weekly column for NME (perhaps he did?), and avoided recording studios altogether.

    Rave music for people who don’t go to raves. Made by people who almost certainly can’t dance.

    This is almost as dire as the Timelords record and to say it hasn’t aged well would be an understatement.

    1.

  21. 51
    Izzy on 17 Mar 2011 #

    I was fourteen when this came out, loved it, and certainly lapped up the image-building. I certainly wasn’t ever sure that Stadium House wasn’t an actual thing – I have a drawing I did at the time of a KLF gig in a massive natural forested arena somewhere, with 80,000 in attendance, white everywhere, the bleeps and crowd noises a perfect soundtrack in my mind. It made perfect sense, if the likes of Springsteen or The Rolling Stones could play stadiums, how big must a band who had actual #1 hits be?

  22. 52
    the pinefox on 17 Mar 2011 #

    I didn’t remember how this went. I found it on youtube and it is playing now.

    It sounds pretty horrible. I never liked this band and their music at all, except that there was a brief (sampled?) section in ‘Last Train To Trancentral’ that was more uplifting.

    The youtube track has just ended and I’m stunned by how worthless it was.

  23. 53
    Mark M on 17 Mar 2011 #

    The notion of 3AM being eternal makes me think of being forever trapped in the moment during a night out when you’re regretting not having taken the last tube home, can’t face waiting for a night bus, don’t want to shell out for a cab, and know there are three bleak hours before the underground is working again…

  24. 54
    LondonLee on 17 Mar 2011 #

    ..and the only food available is the blokes selling burgers in Trafalgar Square. I swear I ate three of those nasty things on the way home one night I was so starving (booze and drugs induced most likely). My vegetarian girlfriend at the time wasn’t too happy.

  25. 55
    Erithian on 17 Mar 2011 #

    Add to that the moment when you’ve decided you have enough money left for a drink OR a kebab, not both, and when you bite into the kebab you realise they’ve doused it in chilli sauce you hadn’t asked for and it’s a while before you’ll have a drink. Mind you it depends what you do with your 3 AM’s.

  26. 56
    punctum on 17 Mar 2011 #

    If I’m travelling on the National Express overnight to Scotland, then it’s 3AM at Charnock Richard Services, when my mind is sufficiently disorientated at that point to make me think I’m in Blackpool (they have a huge picture of the Tower on the side of their mall for no good reason; the ‘Pool is not exactly up the road. Disturbing when you’ve only just been woken up).

  27. 57
    Jimmy the Swede on 17 Mar 2011 #

    C,mon, Erithian. Surely you can’t have a kebab sans chilli sauce…

    Before the days of home satellite tv, I used to roll up at the Odeon Leicester Square to watch the great boxing matches of the day – Leonard/Hearns, Holmes/Ali, Hagler/Hearns etc. These routinely began at around 3 AM and the trick was to find a pub which did “afters” and then roll into the Odeon. In between, the inevitable munchies kicked in but Leicester Square was great for garbage food. And after the boxing was finished and the sun was invariably up, I dropped in to Maccy D’s for eggy muffins, OJ and coffee before grabbing a couple of hours kip. Then, whether I was at the office or not, it was straight back into the drinker at lunchtime and then back out again in the evening for Evensong.

    Happy Healthy Days!!

  28. 58
    pink champale on 17 Mar 2011 #

    re: 50
    music made by people who can’t dance = klf
    music made by people who can dance = andrew stone

  29. 59
    Mark G on 17 Mar 2011 #

    For me, it was about the Dunkin Donuts, round the back at Picadilly Circus..

  30. 60
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 17 Mar 2011 #

    My guess is that many people who make EXCELLENT dancemusic are themselves studio-bound boffins, but — even though it’s not really relevant to the actual quality of this particular record — I still think the question is interesting WHICH good dance music is made by people who can dance! Can you tell if they can just by listening?

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