In Jerry Rubin's most famous speech, the one that the Yippie co-founder made in Chicago in 1968 during the Democratic National Convention, he encouraged people to incorporate theater into their anarchy and stressed how an act such as throwing a bunch of cash money up in the air in the stock exchange and watching the pandemonium that would most likely ensue would be a much more profound statement than the stereotypical anti-capitalist protest of that era.
Although they were not there in Chicago, USA in 1968 (they would have been only kids across the sea in Britain) it seems that the two founding members of the K Foundation, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, truly heeded the true meaning of those anti-establishment words uttered by the Yippie leader, and accordingly carried out a major public act involving throwing money away that would catch the public's attention and confuse most people with their destructive anti-capitalist act that the two carried out on the early morning of August 23rd, 1994.
On that day fourteen years ago the two former members of the successful British pop band KLF burnt one million pounds sterling in hard cash bills (about two million dollars) on an island off the coast of Scotland. It took exactly one hour and three minutes for the cash - in 50 UK pound note denominations, packed in suitcases - to completely burn up.
The two unique (crazy?) individuals who undertook this unprecedented act of rebellion and/or performance art used the money they had earned from the profits of their successful hip-hop & sample based electronic-rock-pop group the KLF (formerly known as the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, aka The Jams, and also for a short time The Timelords). They had deleted their entire back catalog of music in 1992 and then set up the K Foundation with the intention of subverting the art world - just as they had done with the music world.
The collective hits of these various incarnations of the duo, from the late eighties into the early nineties, included "The Queen & I" (sampling Abba and the Sex Pistols) "What Time Is Love?," "3AM Eternal" and "Doctorin' The Tardis." This Dr Who-inspired "Tardis" single was their #1 hit as the Timelords in 1988 - the same year the always creative pranksters Drummond and Cauty penned and published the tongue-in-cheek case study of making that hit with their book The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way), which outlined the step by step approach to making a number one pop hit, and without any musical skill or talent. To me what these two did was more revolutionary and true to the real spirit of rock & roll and punk-rock rebellion than any other band I can think of, except maybe KLF's last public performance as a band before quitting the music biz, in 1992 when at the UK music awards show the BRIT Awards when they fired machine gun blanks into the audience and dumped a dead sheep at the awards aftershow party. Talk about really utilizing rock as a medium for making memorable statements!
Their unusual act of burning the million quid has been well documented in several places, including in the film they made of the act (check out the video clips below) and in the book K Foundation Burn A Million Quid by Brook and Goodrick and published in 1997 by Ellipsis. There have also been numerous interviews with the pair, including the one below with Irish television host Gay Byrne on RTE TV. But no matter where this act of theirs was reported or debated, the reactions were always as interesting as the act itself ,with the most typical response being one of either shock or total disbelief. Many just cannot believe that they actually burnt up all that money. But the documented fact is that they did indeed destroy the money. And it is that act that is so unfathomable to so many people.
Here are some of the reactions that the act got and as outlined in the book on the money burning - some are credited but many are just anonymous random reactions from the public at large at the time of the act. Below it are clips from the K Foundation's film about the act as well as that Irish television interview.
"It's art but it's bad art." - Anonymous
"...burning a million was unspeakable folly. It wasn't art, it wasn't creative, it was a mind-blowingly destructive prank which would've got them lynched if they'd done it in a city. The KLF had plenty of options if they wanted to control their money rather than it them."
- Angela Lewis, NME magazine.
"Arrogance beyond belief." - Anonymous
"Why burn one million pounds? The temptation is, of course, to see this thing as being some sort of artistic prank. Or some comment on the situation we now find ourselves in, increasingly, where shock tactics and all kinds of media scams become an involution of ironies and post-modern jokes and all kinds of situationisms. All of this should be placed more in and more in the realms of those ideas that we have about heresy."
- Jon Wozencroft, lecturer, Royal College of Art, London
"Here and now we're all fired up, but in a couple of weeks no one will care - and they'll have lost a million quid." - student, Cheltenham Ladies College
"You will go to your graves known as the men who burnt one million pounds, just as Divine was known as the man who ate dog shit." - Anonymous.
"They should be able to do what they want with their money. Everybody else does." - Trafford Matthews, brickmaker England.
"Was it a male version of PMT?" - woman at Ferens Gallery, Hull
"It smelled of the self-indulgence that rock aliens had always practiced: burn it, snort it, drink it, eat it - what's the difference? The gesture was boring. Cauty and Drummond were bored with it, these suitcases of drek....The truth is that people fear and dislike money. They're relieved not to be stuck with it, the responsibilities, the need to consume, invest, recycle. It's dirty, it's ugly. It's covered with engravings of people you wouldn't want in your house. Dead people." - Ian Sinclair