The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, 2023: a trilogy, faber and faber, 2017.
Well we're back again,
They never kicked us out,
twenty thousand years of
SHOUT SHOUT SHOUTDown through the epochs and out across the continents, generation upon generation of the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu have told variants of the same story - an end of days story, a final chapter story. But one with hope, even if the hope at times seems forlorn.
The story contained in this trilogy is the latest telling. Here it is presented as a utopian costume drama, set in the near future, written in the recent past.
Read with care.
Everything is slippery and everything is meta. Meaning and myth are virtually indistinguishable in this deliberately obtuse and playful novel. The reader is a detective, extrapolating meaning, or thinking they are extrapolating meaning, whilst the writers delight in spreading little breadcrumbs throughout.
It’s overwhelming. What the fuck is going on? From conspiracy theories to esoteric philosophy to number 1 pop hits the KLF, The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, The Timelords, K Foundation aka Bill Drummond and James Cauty are surrounded by myth and mystery. The quintessential question is why did they burn their million quid on the island of Jura in 1994? They know we wonder and its dangled tantalisingly throughout the book. Their last performance was in 1992 on the Brit Awards, collaborating with Extreme Noise Terror and firing blanks into the audience. They later retired and deleted their entire back catalogue. Promising to be silent for 23 years. The number 23 is very important to them. Check out their wikepedia page for the significance, but suffice to say it keeps popping up, right down to their 2017 reunion happening at 00:23 on 23 August, 23 years after the KLF ended in 1994, with the release of this book
They have of course written books before, most famously The Manual: How to Write a Number One Hit The Easy Way, though they’ve each separately flirted with the pen, such as Bill Drummond’s 45.
2023 is overflowing with in jokes and peculiar references that build on themselves and seemingly lead back to well, it’s hard to say. For instance this book was written by the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, but really it was George Orwell, well not really because George Orwell was a pen name for Roberta Antonia Wilson. You get the picture. Yoko Ono pops up. Not the real Yoko Ono, she pops up later. The fake Yoko Ono writes a book about grapefruits, sends it to 23 (that number again) people and changes the history of art – in the future. But actually that’s not entirely true as this is a work of fiction, written in real time by Roberta on the island of Jura, and at the end of most chapters are her diary entries where she details her experiences writing the book. Drummond and Caulty appear, though they’re undertakers, or members of Extreme Noise Terror, as is Alan Moore. 2023 is a utopian future where corporations have ensured world peace and the Big Five, GoogleByte, Wikitube, Amazaba, FaceLife and AppleTree run the world. Benevolently. The writers (whoever they are) borrow, liberally from the world around them, switch genders, at times even confuse themselves, there’s homage’s, even blatent theft within these pages.
“I expect the reader’s palette is reasonably broad, so they will notice I have borrowed from two monuments of twentieth-century literature. I do not feel the need to defend this on artistic grounds. I just hope that if this book is ever published, the holders of the copyright in both of these previous works of great literature will only feel honoured I have chosen to embrace them in my work of fiction.”
It’s drowning in pop and corporate culture and its not so much skewering it (which would be too easy), as embracing it, fundamentally believing in the message to it’s illogical conclusion. It’s self help corporate style. Everyone has a destiny particularly corporations as people and larger than life artists who have become so successful that they are known via a single name and have become brands themselves. All you need is an unsolicited unexpected book about grapefruits to arrive in the mailbox.
Caulty and Drummond believe that myths should stay mythical, and like every fiction writer they play hard and loose with the facts. There’s so much of the KLF in here, but its been manipulated Burroughs cut up style, so it bears little semblence to even what we know. It’s all just fodder. Enjoy it and play the game.
Well that pretty much describes everything. Now read the book. - Bob Baker Fish
As with any book that has a number for a title, one expects a little numerology, and it’s no surprise that the grand precursor of this genre is used to balance an equation and establish a mise en scène. In 1948 George Orwell writes Nineteen Eighty-Four on the isle of Jura; in 1994 Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty go to the selfsame island to burn £1m of royalties from their group the KLF. They vow not to talk about this event for 23 years, which takes us up to 2017 when they produce 2023, a “utopian costume drama”, supposedly written on the island of Jura in 1984 by Roberta Antonia Wilson using the pen name “George Orwell”. The significance of the numbers 23 and 17 can be traced to the “23/17 phenomenon” mentioned in the Illuminatus! trilogy (1975), a series of novels that featured fictional conspiratorial group the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (who lend their name to Drummond and Cauty’s earliest musical incarnation), written by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.
“I expect the reader’s palette is reasonably broad,” Roberta Antonia Wilson remarks at the end of the first chapter of 2023, “so they will notice I have borrowed from two monuments of twentieth-century literature.” The use of palette, the range of colours used by a painter, rather than palate, meaning a sense of taste, is curious. A simple mistake a more diligent editor might have spotted? Or something unconsciously deliberate, that the reader must take the role of artist in mentally ordering the material used? For there certainly is much creative reading needed to get through this book.
There are flashes of playfulness – an early alternative novel by “George Orwell” is Fish Farm, set in Scotland (which is particularly apt since there is currently a campaign to prevent such an industrial complex being sited on Jura). And one has to acknowledge the ambition in creating a utopian rather than dystopian setting. In 2023 world peace has been achieved, there is sustainable energy, abundant food and universal social and religious tolerance. Everything is controlled by the “Big Five” corporations of Googlebyte, Wikitube, Amazaba, Facelife and Appletree, all headed by female versions of familiar chief executives such as Marcia Zuckerberg and Stevie Dobbs.
We follow Winnie Smith as she muses that “it would be great if there was a secret society that actually controlled everything”, which reflects that peculiar wishful thinking that inhabits the mind of conspiracy theorists. It was this cognitive dissonance that was pursued by the writers of Illuminatus! when the genre still had only cult status. In the 1980s and 90s the KLF channelled a hypnotic alchemy of arcane wisdom and pop culture references to take the music business by storm; by 2017 a post-truth world treats conspiracy theory as mainstream and internet message boards buzz with accusations that leading R&B acts are members of the Illuminati.
Winnie’s 2023 testimony soon gives way to a frenzy of disparate backstories. The Beatles attempt (and fail) to end the Vietnam war, M’Lady Gaga is driven around in a pink Rolls-Royce by Parker from Thunderbirds, Banksy plans a Christmas No 1, Subcomandante Marcos appears on horseback on the Westway flyover, Vladimir Putin invades Poland and so on. There is a Discordian sense of chaos, a riotous subplotting against any dominant narrative, but we are never really involved as all is rendered as exposition or reported action. There is a running commentary, but we never get close to any of the characters. An impressive guest list continues: Nina Simone, Michelle Obama, Angela Merkel, Arthur Scargill, Bob Hoskins, EH Gombrich – but we’re left thinking: what if everybody turned up and there was no party? The tone eventually becomes timid and apologetic, acknowledging that the reader might get “totally bored with these knowing references” and “if you don’t like the style – and I would hate it – then there is little I can do about it.”
Which is a shame because they clearly still have a compelling story to tell. Their work forms a most intriguing chapter in the history of popular music and conceptual art. And Drummond certainly can write engagingly, as proved by his excellent memoir, 45 (2000). Fiction, of course, is another matter. Part of the problem here is that there is too much borrowing and simply not enough stealing. The KLF’s boldness in making other people’s riffs their own in music is utterly lacking in their prose style. Perhaps they forget that Orwell himself “sampled” whole sections of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s earlier dystopian novel We (1924). His own kind of pop sensibility created linguistic mash-ups that still resonate: newspeak, thoughtcrime, doublethink and terrifying concepts that inadvertently anticipated reality TV franchises such as Big Brother. Instead 2023 is enslaved by its sources, and we’re merely left to notch up the references along the way.
The KLF and/or the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu were a “utopian costume drama”, their strange fusion of dance music and ceremonial magic created exuberantly theatrical performances, at once sublime and ridiculous. Despite all the occult references and oblique strategies they probably worked best as showmen rather than shamen. Their most provocative act, burning the money, was actually their most banal. If it seems more a reverse conjuring routine than a ritual sacrifice perhaps that was the point. Drummond has said: “They thought we were using our money to make a statement about art, and really what we were doing was using our art to make a statement about money,” and 2023, despite all its formulaic cleverness, neither adds to nor subtracts anything from that. • Jake Arnott https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/07/2023-trilogy-justified-ancients-of-mu-mu-review
I SPENT A LARGE CHUNK of my free time in high school working my way through the public library’s science fiction collection — a single bookcase crammed with mass-market paperbacks. When I came across Robert Anton Wilson’s Masks of the Illuminati, I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first. I remember that bright red cover with the eye in the pyramid staring out at me, with the promise that Albert Einstein and James Joyce had teamed up in Zurich in 1914 to solve a terrifying mystery. Well, I knew who Einstein was, of course, and I’d at least heard of James Joyce, thanks to a passing reference in Philip José Farmer’s biography of Lord Greystoke, even if I hadn’t read anything he’d ever written at that point. Plus, it was published by Timescape, the science fiction imprint that had introduced me to Philip K. Dick — that was a good sign. And then there was that tagline: “Peel back one evil, and find another…” Okay, I’m sold, let’s take this home and give it a whirl.
A quick summary, for the uninitiated: Joyce and Einstein are drinking the night away in a tavern in Zurich on June 26, 1914 (which historically informed readers will recognize as the eve of World War I). A panic-stricken Englishman, Sir John Babcock, runs into the bar, insisting that he’s being pursued by a demon. They decide to hear him out, and he tells them the story of his instruction in the occult sciences, and how he gradually came to be tormented by supernatural forces which, he believes, are being orchestrated by Aleister Crowley — who, although I hadn’t known it before then, was indeed the most notorious occultist of the 20th century. Babcock is not, shall we say, entirely wrong.
There was enough material in the novel that I knew to be real, along with material that my impressionable teenage mind had tentatively accepted as real (namely, strategically placed references to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos), for me to accept Wilson’s occult material without hesitation — including its connection to the Illuminati, a secret order stretching back centuries that was either interfering with or outright controlling historical events in the political realm. You need to understand that, in the pre-internet 1980s, the Illuminati was genuinely obscure; there were virtually no references to the group in the mainstream culture, and the few books on the subject were not readily available in suburban public libraries, or even the bookstores of Boston and Cambridge. (I probably could have found stuff in the local occult bookstores, but the insistence of 1970s pop culture that satanic forces were real had already left its mark on me, so that wasn’t an option.) Somehow, my hometown library did have a copy of Crowley’s autobiography, but that just reinforced my impression that the dude was bad news, and so matters largely stood until someone with an esoteric bent happened to donate a box to the library’s used book sale and I was given first crack at its contents. That’s how I discovered The Illuminatus! Trilogy, the sprawling three-volume novel Wilson had co-written with Robert Shea a decade before Masks.
Masks is a stylistically experimental work, deliberately evocative of Joyce’s Ulysses in many respects, but it’s also a carefully calibrated narrative. Illuminatus!, by contrast, is all over the place, changing perspectives seemingly at random, sometimes in the middle of a paragraph. Rather than refuse to give answers about the Illuminati, it gives all the answers, blatantly contradicting itself, then calling attention to those contradictions, with liberal doses of a parody religion, Discordianism, created by Shea’s and Wilson’s friends. I wasn’t necessarily any closer to understanding the Illuminati when I was done, but I did start keeping an eye out for anybody else who might have read the book. Then, roughly half a decade later, a band out of England put their Illuminatus! fandom front and center.
In 1976, just before embarking on his career as a musician, Bill Drummond was working as a carpenter and set designer in Liverpool, when Ken Campbell decided to develop a stage adaptation of Illuminatus! A decade later, after producing albums for Echo & the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes — as well as a frustrating stint as an A&R man for the WEA record label — he started talking with fellow musician Jimmy Cauty about launching a hip-hop band. Cauty, as it turns out, had worked on the London run of Illuminatus! (well after Drummond had abruptly walked out of the Liverpool theater and never come back), and their mutual enthusiasm for the novel inspired them to name their band The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, or the JAMs for short, an accidental misspelling of the name of a secret society of anarchistic rebels Shea and Wilson created to do battle with the Illuminati from before the fall of Atlantis to the present day. As the JAMs, they were reasonably successful in the United Kingdom, then managed to land on the top of the pop charts with a mash-up of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll (Part Two)” and the Doctor Who theme. They released the song as The Timelords, before changing their name yet again to The KLF.
It was under this last name that they’d achieve their biggest fame in the United States, building an underground fandom with dance tracks like “What Time Is Love?” and “3 A.M. Eternal,” then bursting into the mainstream with “Justified and Ancient,” a song they’d first recorded as the JAMs at the start of their run. For this version, however, Drummond and Cauty recruited country music legend Tammy Wynette to sing lyrics like, “They’re justified / and they’re ancient / and they drive an ice cream van” behind a choir announcing “All bound for Mu Mu Land.” In the video, Wynette sits in a throne atop a pyramid with steps leading down to the water, where two hooded figures who may or may not be Cauty and Drummond ride off in a submarine as Wynette and the backup singers and dancers gleefully wave goodbye.
It’s hard to convey the level of excitement I felt discovering a band that called themselves the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, even with the spelling mistake. For those with more mainstream literary tastes, imagine a band in 1990 calling themselves Trystero or maybe the Yossarians. (Apparently there are bands going by those names today, and it turns out there actually was a band back then called the Droogs, which was going to be my next choice…) Anyway, a band comes along with a public persona that clearly references that novel that totally blew your mind back in high school? It’s pretty cool.
But it was not to last. Drummond was always ambivalent about success; as he wrote in 45, a collection of autobiographical sketches published in 2000, “Successful bands by their very definition are as interesting as packets of corn flakes.” And so he and Cauty set about sabotaging themselves in spectacular fashion. Invited to perform at a British music awards show, they had the grindcore group Extreme Noise Terror join them onstage, ending the performance by firing blanks from a machine gun into the amphitheater. (That was a step back from the original plan to douse the crowd with buckets of sheep’s blood.) Then, on August 23, 1994, the band converted its earnings into hard cash — one million pounds — took it to the island of Jura, just off the coast of Scotland, and set it on fire, capturing the whole process on film. A year later, they would begin screening that film for befuddled, often angry audiences. Soon after, they announced that the KLF would go on a 23-year hiatus, which also involved removing all their recordings from circulation.
And that brings us to August 23, 2017.
I first heard about the promise of a new book by the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu in early February. 2023: A Trilogy was described as “a utopian costume drama, set in the near future, written in the recent past,” and that was basically the full extent of the information publicly available about the book until late June, when Faber & Faber sent out advance reading copies. There was a twist, though: apart from a two-page table of contents, a seven-page introduction, and a four-page afterword, those advance copies were completely blank. The material we were allowed to see in advance presented a framing story, in which two undertakers named Cauty and Drummond visit Jura, discovering a memoir that tells the story of a pair of young Ukrainian women who called themselves the KLF and released an “acid opera” called Turn Up the Strobe (a lyric from “Justified and Ancient”) that may just have helped tip the former Soviet Union over the edge. This version of the KLF was, in turn, inspired by a novel called The Twenty Twenty-Three! Trilogy, written in 1984 by “George Orwell,” the pen name of Roberta Antonia Wilson, which, after finding a Ukrainian edition and translating it back into English, the undertakers Cauty and Drummond have arranged to have republished by Dead Perch Books.
The table of contents confirmed that Illuminatus! was a substantial influence on 2023. Wilson and Shea titled the first two sections of their novel “The Eye in the Pyramid” and “The Golden Apple”; the opening volumes of this new trilogy were “The Blaster in the Pyramid” and “The Rotten Apple.” The novel itself was embargoed until the August 23 publication date, so it wasn’t until then that we’d learn just how deeply the JAMs had mined their source material.
I’ve often joked, when novelists are caught blatantly plagiarizing from their predecessors, that they should invoke the Kathy Acker defense — that, to quote the narrator of My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini, a writer “can talk by plagiarizing other people’s words that is real language, and then […] make something” out of that stolen intellectual property. The JAMs fully embrace this approach. The epigraph to “The Blaster in the Pyramid” twists the Ishmael Reed quote that precedes “The Eye in the Pyramid,” and then the opening lines reveal the other primary source:
It is a bright warm day in April 2023, and the clock is striking thirteen. Winnie Smith, her Levi’s slung low and her T-shirt freshly unbranded, strides through the gates of Victory Mansions.The posters from 1984 are there, too, only now they say “AppleTree Is Watching You.” (AppleTree is exactly who you think it is, and along the way they’ve bought out Sky News and Al Jazeera, the latter of which now forms the backbone of the iPhone’s news service, iJaz.) Instead of “WAR IS PEACE,” Winnie’s local Starbucks brandishes the slogan “WAR IS OVER” (the company cut a deal with Yoko Ono). She’s bought a blank book, along with a bottle of ink and a Parker fountain pen, so she can start writing a diary, “like Adrian Mole or even Anne Frank.” She even experiences “vivid, beautiful hallucinations” of sexual violence aimed at a stranger she glimpsed on the street, and realizes afterward that while she was going through that flash of hatred — which almost certainly lasted two minutes — she’s written five lines in her diary:
I HATE GOOGLEBYTEThere are further borrowings from Illuminatus! as well, from the conceit of the narrator’s shifting consciousness to the presence of Winnie Smith’s boss, Celine Hagbard, who was once a man named Hagbard Celine, the most prominent antihero of the source novel. Roberta Antonia Wilson, whose diary entries appear at the end of each chapter, is unapologetic about her plagiarisms:
I HATE WIKITUBE
I HATE AMAZABA
I HATE FACELIFE
I HATE APPLETREE
I HATE WIKITUBE
I HATE AMAZABA
I HATE FACELIFE
I HATE APPLETREE
I expect the reader’s palette is reasonably broad, so they will notice I have borrowed from two monuments of twentieth-century literature. I do not feel the need to defend this on artistic grounds. I just hope that if this book is ever published, the holders of the copyright in both of these previous works of great literature will only feel honoured I have chosen to embrace them in my work of fiction.It would be unfair to call Drummond and Cauty’s approach “cut-and-paste,” because they do tweak the texts. Instead, we should think about their borrowings as détournements — the Situationist term for cultural appropriations performed in service of deliberate subversion and counterargument (or, perhaps, the development of a new argument only tangentially connected to the source material). It’s also a literary form of collage that mirrors the sampling techniques the JAMs employed in early releases like “The Queen and I,” which superimposed record scratches, electronic drum beats, and a synth riff that sounds like Donald Duck singing along to the chorus of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.” (The Swedish pop stars were not amused, and every unsold copy of the album on which the track appeared was destroyed.) Or the brazenly titled “Whitney Joins the JAMs,” which loops riffs from the themes to Mission: Impossible and Shaft around the chorus to “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” while Drummond cheers jubilantly in the background: “Ha! Ha! Ha! Whitney Houston joins the JAMs!”
(Were Drummond and Cauty aware of Canadian multimedia artist John Oswald, whose lecture on “plunderphonics,” or “audio piracy as a compositional prerogative,” was presented two years before the JAMs released their first record? If they were, nobody seems to have ever asked them about it publicly.)
Eventually, 2023 scales back on the direct borrowings, but it still remains a heavily collaged work. Although the novel’s central conceit is that it springs from Roberta Antonia Wilson’s emotional breakdown in 1984, it’s clearly a work with our 2017 very much on its mind. Its cast includes Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Michelle Obama, Banksy, Subcomandante Marcos, and even Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond, recast as two-thirds of Extreme Noise Terror, backing up lead vocalist Alan Moore. At times, it looks like the authors are weighing in on what’s been happening in the music world since they withdrew from the scene, like the frequent skewering of “M’Lady Gaga […] a popular singer whose star has been fading.” But there are other themes that seem to nag at them on a more personal level, such as the prominent role given to former pop impresario Jonathan King (whose enthusiastic response, as producer of the awards show where the KLF shot at their audience, is said to have further broken the band’s spirits). As even Wilson acknowledges at one point, “readers who are not of a certain age and did not grow up in the UK [may] get totally bored with these knowing references to icons of a very localised popular culture.”
Indeed, 2023 is not, as a novel, terribly welcoming to readers who aren’t already familiar with the JAMs, and from a classical literary perspective it’s actually something of a mess — but that’s the point. In another essay from 45, Drummond passes along an insight from another of his collaborators, that “the prime motivation of the artist is to create masks with which to hide his true self.” 2023 presents a whole series of “Cauty & Drummond” masks: the undertakers who discover the novel in its prefatory frame, the members of the fictional version of Extreme Noise Terror, the “real-life” friends of Roberta Antonia Wilson … but also Winnie Smith and a young conceptual artist who renames herself Yoko Ono, who team up to become the novel’s Justified Ancients of Mu Mu and immediately become the most famous artists in Britain, as well as the barely glimpsed Ukrainian duo who performed as the KLF in the early 1990s and were, according to legend, due to reappear in 2017.
And we haven’t even touched upon the afterword, which details Dead Perch’s plans to launch 2023 on August 23, 2017, “in a boarded-up derelict Victorian terraced house in the Dingle area of Liverpool” while footage of the Ukrainian KLF’s music video for “2023: What the FUUK Is Going On?” plays in a room upstairs, with books for sale at a nearby corner shop. It turns out that a three-day book launch began at precisely 12:23 a.m. on August 23 at a radical indie bookstore in Liverpool — and though that shop is actually a few miles north of Dingle, it is the closest bookstore to the Florrie, a Victorian-era community center that had fallen into disuse but was restored and reopened in 2013, and was the site of a volunteer-choir performance of “Justified and Ancient,” with Jarvis Cocker filling in for the late Tammy Wynette. Even viewed through YouTube footage well after the fact, it’s quite the spectacle — and, much like the novel itself, an example of what Drummond described in 45 as “the grand — but at the same time private — gesture,” a provocative public display that appears to have an intricate personal symbolism deeply embedded in its structure.
It’s been suggested that neither Drummond nor Cauty had actually read Illuminatus! all the way through when they formed the JAMs, and that they just latched onto the general idea as something that sounded really cool. I’m not convinced. And if there was a point at which they hadn’t read it fully or closely, one or both of them have caught up since then. Through its appropriated details, 2023 indicates a fairly close reading of Shea and Wilson, even as it uses those details to reach significantly different conclusions. But that’s what we all do with the pop culture we consume, isn’t it? We tease out what strikes us as the shiniest bits, then shore those fragments against our ruin, crafting from them an identity that only we ourselves can ever fully understand. - Ron Hogan
The Wikipedia entry for events due to take place in 2023 is bare, currently. London is due a new, £4.1 billion ‘super-sewer’ by that date, while ‘the Compact of Free Association between the United States and the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands expires’. Otherwise, no Olympics, no World Cup, not even a Commonwealth Games.In Bill Drummond’s new novel, 2023, the year is the peak of a new techno-corporate utopia, a time of peace when prisons are abolished, famine is ended, the planet is powered by natural resources, hate crimes have fizzled out, and even ‘Litter is a thing of the past’. A reader aware of Drummond’s past as a pop strategist, art-world antagonist, money-burner, beard-tugger and tail-puller could guess that such a world is an anathema to Drummond, and, indeed, the novel proceeds to unravel this future paradise as swiftly as it’s conjured.
I say Drummond is the author of 2023, but it’s credited to ‘The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu’. Music fans of a recently middle-aged vintage may recall the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu was Drummond’s band in the late 1980s, from whose ruin Drummond and bandmate Jimmy Cauty launched another band, the far more successful KLF, whose ‘stadium house’ singles, ‘3am Eternal’, ‘Last Train to Transcentral’, the still-thrilling ‘What Time is Love?’, hogged the top end of the charts in 1990 and 1991, to the extent the KLF was awarded the 1992 Brit Award for ‘Best British Band’. In the same year, the KLF announced their retirement from the music industry, which most assumed was a publicity stunt. It wasn’t.
Fans of American Seventies sub-Pynchon anarcho-lit will recognize the source from which Drummond lifted his first band name. ‘The Justified Ancients of Mummu’ are a secret society dedicated to the promotion of chaos and the nemesis of the authoritarian Bavarian Illuminati, secret rulers of the world, in Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy, a patience-testing epic that wove together every conspiracy du jour into one macro-theory.
To get anything out of 2023, not only must you be acquainted with the life and works of Bill Drummond, a fresh reading of The Illuminatus! Trilogy would be helpful. The titles of the first two ‘books’ that make up 2023 are spins on Shea and Wilson’s titles (‘The Blaster in the Pyramid’ for ‘The Eye in the Pyramid’, ‘The Rotten Apple’ for ‘The Golden Apple’); characters like Celine Hagbard are gender-reversed revamps of Illuminatus!’s Captain Nemo-ish Hagbard Celine, while one location, Fernando Poo, a West African island, reappears as Fernando Pó. There’s barely a page in 2023 that isn’t a callback to Illuminatus!
The other work of fiction Drummond feeds into the meat-grinder of his imagination is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. ‘It is a bright warm day in April 2023, and the clock is striking thirteen,’ the main section of the novel begins. The star of Drummond’s own future hell is ‘Winnie’, an unhappy programmer who works for Celine Hagbard, gender-reassigned head of one of ‘the Big Five’, corporations (AppleTree, WikiTube, AmaZaba, FaceLife, GoogleByte) whose funds are so great, they’ve bought the world’s countries and dispensed with politicians. Like Orwell’s Winston Smith, she lives at ‘Victory Mansions’ and keeps a secret diary; unlike Winston, she fancies a bloke at work called ‘O’Brien’.
Drummond’s fondness for reworking and re-contextualising other people’s work dates to his JAMMs / KLF days. One explanation proffered for the KLF’s name was an acronym for ‘Kopyright Liberation Front’. The JAMMs first single ‘All You Need is Love’ sampled, without permission, the Beatles and Sam Fox, and was swiftly the subject of three record label injunctions. The avant-plagiarists’ subsequent album 1987: What the Fuck is Going On? (a title more relevant to 2017 than it ever was thirty years ago) was sued out of existence by Abba, who Drummond and Cauty pirated. Thanks to YouTube, you can hear those tracks today, but, word of warning: don’t. Not unless there’s a gap in your life you think can only be filled by hearing a man pretending to be a Glasgow docker badly rapping over ‘Dancing Queen’.
In addition to Illuminatus! and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the well-prepared reader will have an above-average knowledge of Drummond’s storied past. 2023 takes place in a through-the-looking-glass parallel dimension where Drummond’s biography is remixed. Drummond is an actual character, both in the plot of 2023 and the novel’s meta-scaffolding. For there is a book-within- the-book: Winnie’s struggle is annotated by end-of-chapter reports; here, we learn that ‘The Twenty Twenty-Three! Trilogy’ is being written in 1984 on Jura by ‘George Orwell’, the pen-name of ‘Roberta Antonia Wilson’.
Drummond was born in 1953 in South Africa, the son of a Church of Scotland minister. His parents returned to Newton Stewart, where he lived from the age of 18 months until he was 11. Newton Stewart, as far as Drummond is concerned, is notable as the filming location for 1970s pagan-schlocker The Wicker Man, Drummond going on in 1991 to burn his own 60-foot wicker effigy in 1991 for a publicity stunt, an incident referenced in 2023. After living in Corby, and studying in Northampton, Drummond washed up in Liverpool in the late 1970s. Aged 23, he landed a job as set designer for Ken Campbell’s legendary nine-hour production of, yes, The Illuminatus! Trilogy. Drummond was to make his mark first in another form of live entertainment, in Liverpool’s incredibly fruitful music scene, which was centred on the legendary nightclub, Eric’s. After playing in bands, Drummond ended up managing the two greatest British post-punk bands of the era (after Joy Division, that is): Echo and the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes.
Drummond belongs to the Tony Wilson-Malcolm McLaren school of rock management, which is to say, big on concept; contractual obligations, not so much. Such managers tend to be praised by fans and journalists; musicians, on the other hand, have more mixed feelings, and little wonder, for its their earnings financing their manager’s Big Idea. Drummond and the groups would eventually part company, but not before some memorable wheezes. In 1984, for example, he sent Echo and the Bunnymen on a British tour determined not by commercial sense, but where ley lines intersected. To be fair to Drummond, he did, in the end burn through a million pounds of his and Cauty’s own money, non-metaphorically; the KLF burned £1,000,000 in wads of £50 notes on Jura in 1994. Drummond and Cauty’s uncertainty as to why they roasted their savings didn’t dent the act’s reputation as the only genuinely punk gesture by a band ever.
Drummond’s next move is perhaps his most surprising, because so ordinary: he joined A&R at WEA. A company man. At least he got to keep wasting other people’s money. He spent £300,000 of WEA’s money on an album by high-profile duffers Brilliant, which flopped, but did lead to him meeting the band’s guitarist, Jimmy Cauty. I’ve been referring to Drummond as the sole author of 2023, for the same reason I suspect Cauty was, largely, responsible for the JAMMs / KLF’s music. Cauty was in several bands, pre-KLF. After resigning from WEA at the symbolic (for vinyl connoisseurs) age of 33 and a 1/3rd, Drummond made, with help, one album, the eccentrically folky The Man, on which he sounds like Ivor Cutler.
Since retiring the KLF in 1993, Drummond had moved into writing. In fact, his writing debut precedes the KLF’s mothballing. In 1988, Drummond and Cauty published The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way), which purported to tell readers how they could piece together a novelty chart-topper, as they did earlier that year. Under the moniker ‘The Timelords’, Drummond and Cauty fused the Doctor Who theme and Gary Glitter’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and scooped a surprise number one. In his fiction, Drummond sits comfortably with psychogeographers and graphic novelists, underground filmmakers and situationist saboteurs; one might raise at this point names like Andrew Kötting, Alan Moore (who appears in 2023 as a character) and Iain Sinclair. Drummond appears as himself in Sinclair’s 2002 non-fiction record of his circumnavigation of the M25 orbital ring, London Orbital. Sinclair describes him as ‘an interestingly complex mix of artist and anti-artist, performer and hermit, scholar, iconoclast, polemicist, prankster and well-grounded human. More than most, he honoured the past – particularly his own – even when he had to invent it. His Scottishness was important to him, although he’d lived for years in England: Corby, Liverpool, Buckinghamshire.’
His early books were preposterous fictions posing as literature vérité. Bad Wisdom (1996) charted a supposed journey to the North Pole to bury a statue of Elvis to ‘radiate good vibes down the longitudes, bringing about world peace’; nine years later, he published an account of a Werner Herzog-style trip to war-torn ‘Zaire’ in The Wild Highway. More profitable, I think, are his forays into non-fiction, 45 (2000), a collection of autobiographical essays prompted by attaining the titular age, the self-explanatory How to Be an Artist (2002), and 17 (2008), a chronicle of the choir he formed to perform improvised music scores, a reaction to the iPod.
Like that choir, one is never quite sure whether the message of 2023 is revolutionary or counter-revolutionary. We learn early in the story that the world of 2023 is about to fall thanks to something Winnie does, or rather, doesn’t do; her failure to act leads to the internet crumbling irrevocably, never to return. Drummond demonstrates how his utopia doesn’t work for people at the very bottom of society and has induced an artistic and cultural inertia – but is that enough to tear down a frictionless global polity? Especially when his animus is largely powered by a wish to turn the clock back to a time before the web and mobile phones, when Doctor Who was worth watching and the Christmas number one mattered. As the last season of, of all things, South Park brilliantly explored, there is a direct line connecting the nostalgia that led to the making of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the political atavism that juiced Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan. When Drummond writes, only partly impishly, ‘This is how things start. You need things to fall apart for new things to grow. Things need to be out of control’, one suspects a significant portion of Trump’s supporters could get behind such sentiments.
More problematic for this reader at least, is Drummond’s Brechtian disruptions, the diary entries at the close of each chapter. Here, Roberta Antonia Wilson includes her agent’s and her own thoughts on how the novel is going. ‘Reading back through the stuff this morning, it feels like it has been written for an audience of less than half a dozen. It feels like I was just trying to layer the whole thing with all sorts of reference points to impress…’ ‘Right now, the story has to move along, before readers who are not of a certain age and did not grow up in the UK get totally bored with these knowing references to icons of a very localized popular culture.’
Commenting on your novel’s faults does not neutralize them, but is of a piece for the contempt the author shows for the literary novel. ‘The canal towpath is always popular with runners, but what they are thinking about we do not know or even care about because they are not in this book.’ Drummond’s chutzpah extends to inserting whopping anachronisms into the text. Remember, Roberta Antonia Wilson is meant to be writing ‘The Twenty Twenty- Three! Trilogy’ in 1984, yet includes in her story Harry Potter, the Gherkin, Twitter and Lady Gaga. He just doesn’t care and a reader’s response to 2023 will depend, finally, to the extent they care that he doesn’t. - Colin Waters
2023 is ascribed to 'The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu', whose "current representatives [...] are Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond", the familiar faces/voices behind one-time hit-makers The Timelords and the music/performance-art/money-burning group the KLF. From their chosen name -- close to (but: "not to be confused with") 'the Justified and Ancient of Mummu' -- to the novel's trilogy-format to the name of narrator-author who is ostensibly writing the novel (in 1984, under the pen name 'George Orwell'), Roberta Antonia Wilson, they and the novel owe an obvious debt to Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's The Illuminatus! Trilogy, with much of the content also borrowing and riffing on Illuminati!-lore, such as the significance of the number 23.
Known for their musical sampling, the authors also borrow extensively in this novel -- stand-in author Roberta noting;
I expect the reader's palette is reasonably broad, so they will notice I have borrowed from two monuments of twentieth-century literature. I do not feel the need to defend this on artistic grounds. I just hope that if this book is ever published, the holders of the copyright in both of these previous works of great literature will only feel honoured I have chosen to embrace them in my work of fiction.
Beyond the literary borrowings, 2023 also features many real-life characters (and some from fiction), and some fictionalized (and often sex-changed -- Roberta Antonia Wilson and Winnie Smith (as in the Winston Smith of 1984)) alternates. Both the real-life Yoko Ono and a younger counterpart going by the same name figure prominently, as do the actual authors, Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond (in more bumbling roles). Alan Moore, Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin, and Damien Hirst are among those figuring in their more or less real roles -- projected to 2023 -- while alternate histories and names for some famous personalities and corporations suggest how the near-future has evolved. So, for example, the five dominant companies ("who have now solved all the world's problems") in a world where the nation-state no longer exists are even bigger versions of familiar present-day juggernauts, now called GoogleByte, WikiTubes, AmaZaba, FaceLife, and AppleTree -- though Starbucks is also still going strong by its old name. Meanwhile, the Turner Prize has been renamed, too -- it's now the Hockney Award (and also plays a role in the story).
The plot includes Winnie Smith having completed a singularity-like GoogleByte upgrade, where: "people around the world can plug in to have their brains connected and death will be over"; all she has to do is hit 'Send to upload it -- but she hesitates ..... Vladmir Putin is happily retired -- but also has a hidden army lying in wait for the right day ..... And there's FUUK-UP, the "First Universal Uber Kinetic-Ultramicro Programmer" -- "where it all started" -- the Internet, that is ("FUUK-Up became Google, for obvious marketing reasons") -- and, now, the possibility of bringing it all down (as -- *spoiler* -- happens, the internet collapses and shuts down, with even the i23 phones not working any more).
Central to much of what happens is a new version of Yoko Ono's iconic Grapefruit, the one-hundred-instruction manual, Grapefruit Are Not the Only Bombs, published only in a very limited edition (of twenty-three), and distributed only to a very select group (on whom it tends to make a big impression).
Rather crowded with ideas (and characters), 2023 does offer a quite fun limited vision of this new world, and there are certainly clever bits to it -- not least the nicely expressed (if not entirely convincing):
Like so many other trades before it, being a Revolutionary, along with being a milkman, had become redundant. Pints on the doorstep and manning the barricades were things now only found on the History Channel.
2023 offers conspiracy, commentary on modern commerce and technology and the role of art in contemporary society. It's not quite a thriller, but is reasonably exciting; the use of real and real-fictional characters (and variations on them) of course helps add to the intrigue, an easy shorthand that obviates the need for more character-building. As in music-sampling, the echoes of the familiar also make for recognition-enjoyment -- the satisfaction of being in on the joke -- but, while familiarity with Drummond and Cauty's previous work and Illuminati!-lore (and much else) certainly enhance the pleasures of the text, it's approachable and basic enough, with the meanings to many of the references sufficiently explained, that readers who aren't in the know won't be too flummoxed or put off.
It is still kind of a mixed bag -- for one, because so much is stuffed into it. There's quite a bit of structure to it, but with so many pieces it all feels, or at least reads, a bit frail. And while sampling is all well and good, there has to be more to it, and while the authors certainly gamely go at it, the whole is a bit ... baggy. There's enough action and variety to entertain all along, but not quite enough more to it; it's certainly an amusing and quite entertaining read, but not enough of all that meat really winds up clinging to the end-product.
Good fun -- especially for the fans -- but not too much more. - M.A.Orthofer
Ever since reading John Higgs’ mindbending book The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds, I have been utterly entranced by the work of British musicians/pranksters/chaos magicians Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty.
After all, who has the balls to go to an obscure Scottish isle and burn 1 million pounds? Who destroys their back catalogue of music (as The KLF, the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, etc.?) and is it for the sake of art? What is achieved? What is the statement? Will anybody even care?
And why did Drummond and Cauty – as the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (or “The JAMs”) – wait 23 years after burning said money to return to the public eye, this time in the form of an utterly bizzare, challenging and discordian book called 2023?
Because they can. It’s in their blood to raise questions while bleeding sacred cows to death. Making them into Big Macs for vegetarian Buddhists.
I did manage to read 2023 from cover-to-cover, all 376 pages of it. I was confused by much of it, as much as I wanted to understand it, if that is even possible. But maybe that’s the point? The question is – interestingly enough – being asked of director David Lynch and his decision to reboot Twin Peaks, a show that is baffling in its dense mystery and puzzling peculiarities. Plus portals, time shifts, bottled screams, ZZ Top, tree stumps. steampunk tea kettles ... who knew that was in the stew, my grandma used to say ...
So, jumping right in, we find that in the year 2023 (only six years in the future, my friends) that much has been achieved: the world is at peace, there is food and housing for pretty much everyone and our benevolent overlords, in the form of familiar, faceless corporations (“Facelife,” anyone? “Googlebyte”?), there is a desire to be free of the bonds of peace and serenity.
Or, maybe it is 1984, when the writer Roberta Antonia Wilson (she wrote Fish Farm, ya know), a year that has had many lives before and after it appeared on the calendar, is actually a “George Orwell,” while Beatlebuster Yoko Ono the Older (there is a Yoko Ono the Younger) “cannot sleep.” Why? She regrets throwing a “yellow book with the grapefruit on the cover over the railings of her balcony. Maybe there was a fan letter in the book. Maybe it would have been a good book. Maybe it would have inspired here. So little inspires her these days.”
Only the 23 chosen ones get Grapefruit Are Not the Only Bombs. It is the Bible of our story. A new era, a “new messiah” will be born in a London prison ... as Echo & His Bunnymen told us all those years ago (link is external), back when Roberta was writing in her journal on the magical Scottish isle of Jura. A safe place to ride out a nuclear holocaust, said Mr. Blair.
Yoko Ono? Brian Eno? Oh no! And we know Ono believes “PEACE IS POWER” but that is not proclaimed in 2023, since peace has already been achieved, but many people have utterly no power and McDonald’s no longer offers the mantra: “Big Mac with Fries” the way it used to, inspiring Tibetan monks high in the Himalayas – like the nomadic and driven fast-food fan Chodak.
PEACE IS POWER? (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)
Winnie Smith (or is it Winston Smith’s sis?) knows nothing of Divine, a Congolese woman whose destiny is yet unclear, but does require her to leave her squalid village on a stolen boat on to a better life. She is one of the The Three Shepherdesses. Fate, was up against their will, ya know?
S'ALL GOOD, MAN ...
Ultimately, 2023 is about women. They are the heroines. And it's about the decline and fall of “The Age of Men” and how women (Angela Merkel, “M’Lady GaGa” “Tracey Tracey” (not “Tracy Tracy” of The Primitives, sadly), Michelle O'Bama ... will finally take their proper role in running the world, after millennia of men fucking things up.
SPOILER ALERT ...
"It's a girl. A baby girl. A beautiful baby girl. Winnie, you have a wonderful healthy baby girl. Do you want to hold Her?"
The New Age arrives . . . but you knew that already.
But will Drummond and Cauty - "The Undertakers to the Underworld" - along with Utah Saints and Tammy Wynette - begin working on the Great Pyramid of the North? A "people's pyramid" and not one for hip-hop illuminists and "The Three Popes"?
2023 is an utterly batty-and-brilliant book, which will be shown to be waaaaay ahead of its time by the time 2023 actually appears on our wall calendars. By then “world peace” will be more than a wishful bumper sticker slogan, laughed at by Alex and His Droogs, “Saul Goodman,” Dudley Dursley, “John Lennon the Younger” and Vladimir Putin. Alan Moore is no longer on drums on this ill-fated tour of Extreme Noise Terror ...
No, this is a guide, preparing those “with the all-seeing-eyes-that-see” that better (but maybe worse) days are ahead of us as the Internet Age crumbles and leads us into a shining-new-Dark-Age where new beginnings are allowed. After all, look at our good pal Chodak. He runs the McDonald's in Lhasa and gives away free hamburgers to street kids each Christmas, a holiday he doesn't celebrate, per se.
Sure. Most people reading this think that 2023 is utter rubbish. But it's all fucking true. Every last word. They told me so. -
The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (aka the KLF) redefine the book launch
KLF Online site
KLF Mainpage site.
"The current representatives of The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu are Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond" -- the minds and voices also behind The KLF and The Timelords. As The Timelords they had a number one hit with Doctorin' the Tardis. As The KLF and The JAMs they have been sued by ABBA, tried to recruit Whitney Houston to sing with them, and convinced Tammy Wynette to do so (on the brilliant "Justified and Ancient"). As trustees of the K Foundation they have burned a million quid.