Prison, lawsuits and a glovebox of fake cash: the film the KLF didn’t want you to see

The enigmatic rave duo refused to approve Chris Atkins’s documentary on them – and then he got five years for tax fraud. He explains how he channelled their anarchic spirit and made it anyway, Ford Timelord and all

In 2009 my long suffering producer Ian Neil sent me a text: “You should really make a film about the KLF.” This enigmatic and brilliant band were a mainstay on Top of the Pops in my youth, and were best known for burning all their money in the mid 90s, when I was a middle-class teenage anarchist and thought that torching a million pounds was by far the best thing you could do with it. “Aren’t they dead?” I replied.

It turned out that the two members of the KLF, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, were very much alive, but had gone to extreme lengths to destroy their legacy. They had deleted their entire back catalogue in 1992 and written a vow of silence on a car, which they promptly pushed off a cliff. A few enquiries revealed we weren’t the first people to suggest making a documentary, but the band had told everyone else to piss off.

However, I had just made a documentary, Starsuckers – in which we sold fake stories to the tabloids – that was partly inspired by the KLF’s own press-baiting stunts. This coincidence got me a sit down with Bill and Jimmy, and they insisted on meeting in a dingy cafe in Farringdon, London, like the one in The Apprentice where the losers gather before getting fired.

The pair were then in their mid 50s, and patiently listened as I explained how our film would chart their extraordinary journey from sampling stolen records in a south London squat to becoming one of the biggest bands in the world a couple of years later: six UK Top 10 hits in 18 months that crashed an entire mythological rave universe into transatlantic pop culture. They nodded sagely, and very politely told me to piss off.

Normally that would be the end of it. The rules of film-making dictate that music documentaries require the artists’ consent. No access meant no rights to music, and no first-hand stories. But I kept ruminating on this exasperating paradox: that the band with the most unhinged story imaginable was slipping into obscurity because they didn’t want their story to be told. It was my cameraman Chris Smith who made the mistake of drunkenly asking: “Well, what would the KLF do?” The answer was suddenly obvious: they’d stuff the rules and get on with it. Which is exactly what we did.

To make Who Killed the KLF? we started by reconstructing the band’s more dramatic gestures, and kicked off with the big one: Bill and Jimmy igniting £1m cash on the remote Scottish island of Jura. The Bank of England has pretty tight rules about reproducing the Queen’s currency, for obvious reasons. But my mother found an old £50 Houblon banknote, long out of circulation, and printed off half a million quid’s worth. We drove to Scotland where I hired a couple of extras who fleetingly looked like Bill and Jimmy, and took the ferry to Jura. Burning money is extremely satisfying; we got a bit carried away and accidentally set fire to a hut. Thankfully, my fake Bill was also a fireman and it was quickly extinguished.

I later took my car for an MOT and got a very worried call from the garage. “There’s 50 grand cash in your glovebox, mate.”

“Don’t worry, it’s all fake,” I replied, before realising this probably didn’t help.

the real Bill, Jimmy and Ford Timelord, on the trail of Abba in Sweden
All abroad, all abroad … the real Bill, Jimmy and Ford Timelord, on the trail of Abba in 1987. Photograph: Lawrence Watkins

We next recreated the KLF pushing a car off Cape Wrath. I tracked down the identical model, a Nissan Bluebird. My lookalikes pushed it towards the cliff’s edge before the elderly owner slammed on the brakes. In retrospect we should have used stuntmen and safety ropes, as his eyesight wasn’t too great and it twice nearly went over.

Bill and Jimmy always brought witnesses on their original adventures, who were only too happy to give us first-hand testimony. The journalist James Brown, later editor of Loaded, was still a teenager when he accompanied them to Sweden in a doomed attempt to persuade Abba not to sue the KLF for illegally sampling Dancing Queen. It turned out Abba lived in Henley-on-Thames, so they burned half the offending records in a field and threw the rest into the North Sea. Claire Fletcher was a young Radio 1 producer who was told to get on a plane with no idea where she were going. She landed in Jura where her passport was stamped with the KLF logo, was handed a yellow cape and joined a huge Wicker Man ceremony. Claire met her future husband at the rave afterwards and they now have four kids, one of whose initials spells KLF. We gathered many similarly surreal tales, but still had the same central problem: I was making a film about two people who refused to talk to me.

They may have written a step-by-step guide to having a No 1 hit, but the story of the KLF is a reminder that you rarely make anything interesting by doing things the right way. Our anarchic approach was rewarded when a contributor arrived with a couple of dusty audio cassettes, that had sat in his loft for years, containing old interviews. The quality was scratchy but the contents were gold; some parts were really dark, others had me crying with laughter. The pair were finally opening up about their emotional journey, and the story could now be told in their own words. However, I could still remain completely objective, unlike in most music docs where the narrative is tightly controlled by the artists themselves.

burning £1m on Jura, as recreated in Who Killed the KLF
The heat is on … burning £1m on Jura, as recreated in Who Killed the KLF? Photograph: Bohemia Euphoria

Everything was going swimmingly until I was given a five-year prison sentence for tax fraud in 2016. I had used a dodgy tax scheme to fund Starsuckers, and HMRC prosecuted everyone involved. I spent nine months in HMP Wandsworth (recounted in my book A Bit of a Stretch), after which I was moved to an open prison. The conditions were far more relaxed, enabling Chris to sneak in my laptop so I could quietly start editing. Being incarcerated was extremely beneficial for the creative process: free from the distractions of social media, alcohol and idiotic executive producers.

I was released in December 2018. I had a rough cut that mostly resembled a radio play, with amazing audio commentary but nothing to look at. Within three weeks I was filming more reconstructions in an abandoned biscuit factory that we turned into Trancentral, the south London squat where the KLF started their empire. I tracked down the band’s sound engineer and sourced the same equipment they used on hits such as 3am Eternal and What Time Is Love? More stand-ins were hired; I think we went through four Bill and Jimmys.

But there was one central character missing. The KLF drove everywhere in a battered American police car, Ford Timelord, that featured in all their music videos, and even appeared on BBC Breakfast. The original car was long destroyed by Jimmy, but I found an ardent fan who had lovingly recreated this legendary vehicle, right down to the seat fabric and tax disc. We took Ford Mk 2 filming in Suffolk, and were chased out of a field by an irate man.

A more difficult obstacle was how to deal with the music. My lawyer Simon Goldberg came to the rescue, and said that as long as we were critiquing the music, we could make use of a copyright exclusion called “fair dealing” for the purposes of criticism and review. That way, we might be able to use limited clips of their music, as long as we gave them appropriate acknowledgement. Thankfully, my film is chockful of critique, not least from the KLF themselves, so this all worked out.

Everything was going swimmingly (again) until there was a pandemic. We filmed the very last shot on the 23 March 2020, hours after Boris Johnson’s stay-at-home order. I broke into some waste ground in Turnpike Lane, London, and buried a fake Brit award, as the KLF did with their real award at Stonehenge. We edited the film through lockdown, and waited until now, when cinemas are thriving, to release it.

But the KLF were not going to stop being unpredictable. Despite vowing to never reissue their music again, the band released their biggest hits on Spotify on 1 January 2021. Bill and Jimmy said they wanted to assemble these tracks into one place, before they died and their kids had to deal with it.

Shortly afterwards, we were sent a string of legal threats from the duo’s publisher, Warner Chappell, accusing us of copyright infringement. Apparently they neither appreciated the irony that an underlying meaning of KLF is Kopyright Liberation Front nor that the very music they were harrumphing about was riddled with uncleared samples.

A few weeks ago Bill asked me for a coffee with him and Jimmy, in the cafe we had met in a dozen years before. I went with both hope and trepidation: their blessing would make any issue with Warner Chappell much easier, but would they try to block the film?

In the end, they were extremely kind and welcoming. “We’ve seen it,” Bill grinned. This knocked me for six, given we had avoided sending out links before the release. “And we love it.” Jimmy had a quibble about the sequencer we had used in the reconstruction, and Bill noted that he wasn’t the stage manager of Ken Campbell’s epic 1976 production of Illuminatus!, but the production designer. I recounted how I had spent more than a decade following in their footsteps, feeling like an honorary member of the KLF.

“What are you doing now?” I asked. “Working,” replied Bill, with no further explanation. Enigmatic and brilliant to the last. “See you back here in 10 years,” I told them, and I was on my way.

• Who Killed the KLF? is available now to buy or rent on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV and other streaming services, and screens in select cinemas at the end of April.

Chris Atkins

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
'I'm isolated': Joel Corry on bodybuilding, reality TV and his sacrifices to reach No 1
After years of slogging through DJ sets and obsessional exercise, the London producer had one of 2020’s biggest and best pop hits. But his brutal work ethic is ‘a gift and a curse’

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

11, Mar, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
Hot Chip: ‘Joe once hit Alexis with a baseball bat!’
Joe Goddard and Al Doyle answer your questions about their favourite remixes, working with Jarvis Cocker and what really is the best sauce for hot chips

As told to Dave Simpson

04, Aug, 2022 @3:51 PM

Article image
‘Music dug up from under the earth’: how trip-hop never stopped
Fused from jungle, rave and soul, trip-hop filled the coffee tables of the 90s, and is now inspiring Billie Eilish’s generation. So why is the term so despised by many?

Joe Muggs

11, Nov, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
‘You can smell the sweat and hair gel’: the best nightclub scenes from culture
Writers and artists including Róisín Murphy, Tiffany Calver and Sigala on the art that transports them to the dancefloor during lockdown

Peter Bradshaw, Claire Armitstead, Keza MacDonald, Simran Hans, Ammar Kalia, Lanre Bakare, Lyndsey Winship, Alexis Petridis, Arifa Akbar, Aniefiok Ekpoudom and Jonathan Jones. Artist interviews by Ben Beaumont-Thomas

18, Feb, 2021 @4:00 PM

Article image
‘We have a hostility to being boring’: Sparks, still flying in their 70s
Their Adam Driver musical sent Cannes into raptures and Edgar Wright has made an all-star documentary about them. The Mael brothers explain why they’ll always be hopelessly in love with pop

Daniel Dylan Wray

16, Jul, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Stevie, Gladys, Nina … Summer of Soul uncovers a festival greater than Woodstock
As the US boiled with violence, 1969’s Harlem cultural festival nourished spirits with soul, jazz and gospel. Now, Questlove has turned lost footage of it into a brilliant, pertinent documentary

Stevie Chick

15, Jul, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
‘I was decadent, I was stupid, I was a fool’: the dark days of Donna Summer
In public she oozed glamour, but in private the disco star battled depression, self-loathing and suicidal thoughts. Her daughter speaks about the film she made to understand Summer’s silent struggle

Daniel Dylan Wray

28, Apr, 2023 @5:00 AM

Article image
‘A summer of love!’ Musicians on the awesome, tearful return of gigs
From Sleaford Mods in London to Mogwai in France, bands and performers talk about the strange and wonderful experience of returning to the stage after 16 months of deprivation

As told to Michael Hann

02, Sep, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
‘It’s just good energy!’ How TikTok and Covid made drum’n’bass hot again
The 90s genre is being freshened up by young, often female artists mixing hyper-fast breakbeats with soft vocals. But why is it so suited to our post-lockdown, attention-deficient era?

Alexis Petridis

22, Apr, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
Arca: Kick ii, iii, iiii, iiiii review | Alexis Petridis's albums of the week
Four new albums of extravagantly warped electronics offer listeners a lot to take in – and her most pop-focused music to date

Alexis Petridis

03, Dec, 2021 @6:00 AM