Essential Listening: The KLF – Chill Out (1990)

KLF chill out blog postGiven the title of this blog was chosen in reverence to a track from this album, and the background faithfully depicts its album cover, providing an impartial view of Chill Out’s true value becomes a problematic endeavour for me. Clearly I think it’s terrific.

But it’s not all peaches and kittens, as “Chill Out” is continuously dubbed a concept album. The term has always bothered me, particularly as most concept albums aspire to make a deeper connection through their music, with the intention that the idea that drove its creation and direction would become the subsidiary concern post-production. The term ‘concept album’ is a trite and lazily prescribed when a piece of work is viewed as experimental, or cannot be categorised under the jurisdiction of cemented genres. Therefore it now carries a certain stigma; it primes you to expect something esoteric, weird or abrasive. “Chill Out” is none of these things.

Chill Out’s construct isn’t new – it’s a continuous piece of music – combining the constituent pieces to imbue, or help create, depending on your point of view, its narrative; it’s a seamless mix of vocal samples, blissed chiming or lap steel over spacious choired ambiences, sound effects of all kinds and edits of classic songs that soundtrack an individual experience of journeying through the American south. Compositionally the forty-five minutes is too varied, spontaneous and random to be dismissed as just, just an ambient album. The idea the drives “Chill Out” carries too much scope and the effect of its execution is ubiquitous – a romanticised yearning for a specific time and place and or the notion is being somewhere better is an element which anybody can immediately identify with – to dismiss it so clumsily.

Of course anyone can conjure an idea, then attempt to assign it a suitable ambiance to flesh it out (Matthew Herbert, for example, released a thoroughly depressing, borderline masochistic, album about the entire life cycle of a farmed pig), the key part is pulling it off. And that’s where the context that surrounds both the KLF and “Chill Out” can produce doubts before the fact. I’m evidence of that. I was only a kid when the rave scene and acid house, the genres that much KLF’s discography belongs to, were at their height, so I suspect I wasn’t alone among the retrospective arrivals to the church who were expecting “Chill Out”, provided it wasn’t your first exposure to their discography, to be something other than what it was.

Because the KLF were anarchist pranksters, the question of whether Chill Out’s brilliance is intentional can be posed. Publicly burning a million quid on Jura during the aspirational nineties, money which was mostly made from the sales of “Chill Out” and “The White Room”, may lead some to conclude that it was all bullshit and “Chill Out” a highfalutin ruse to rope unsuspecting chin-rubbers into the KLF’s orbit. You could easily get too defensive on its behalf, and claim Chill Out’s random and illogical juxtapositions borrow from the surrealism of Albert Camus’ method, it analogously represents the KLF’s philosophical views that art, not money, matters most, and that therefore “Chill Out” was ‘intentionally’ posited as an antidote to typical KLF club kitsch, with the expectation that it wouldn’t sell well.

In truth it’s difficult to come up with a proper context to analyse something this sui generis. Trying to decipher the constituent elements of ‘Wichita lineman Was A Song I Once Heard’ requires the application of a highly presumptive context, as none of it appears to have anything to do with the song made popular by Glen Campbell. A loose metaphorical connection can be made between the lyrics; ‘I know I need a small vacation’ sang Campbell, while Bill Drummond’s comment is far more vague ‘I’m from somewhere, right here’. However, Drummond’s commentary does arrive after an jumbo jet takes off, indicating both a shift in tempo from the mellowness of the album’s first stanza, and implies nostalgia and or to belong to a specific time and place. A sense of excitement is created through an immersion of sound, as the breathless preacher evangelically rants over ravey beats and keyboard bars as the sound of train running over rails flits in and out, before it fades out with a fragmented commentary from a commercial scam of some kind.

After multiple listens the intrigue of the samples used, why they’re there and where they originate from, increases. I wanted to glean a deeper understanding behind the motivation for inserting random cultural vignettes, such as a local radio report of a car accident, was he alive or dead? Did he survive? Is it actually real? But thematically it becomes quite obvious why they’re there – as an additional layer of authenticity that helps us to visualise the trip. Even better, or impressively, some samples have no indigenous relation to the setting but offer a score that we believe could match someone’s mood in such a setting.

Applying Tuvan throat signing to ‘Dream Time In Lake Jackson’ works wonderfully. What does Tuvan throat signing have to do with the American south? Absolutely nothing, but its ethereal accent, while the assorted sounds of swamp nature salubriously beat throughout, and in particular the song culminating with the Tuvan throat singer’s high pitched crescendo, entices us to create an image of euphoric introspective calm at fulfilling the promise of finding true rural solitude and tranquillity.

The album cover is decidedly off-piste. Docile sheep sitting in a rural field you’d find in the UK’s generic temperate climate. It’s clearly relevant to the KLF’s genesis and willing status as perpetual outsiders. Such fields were the sort of place where raves were commonly held in the UK throughout the mid to late eighties, the closest we’ve seen to an earnest counter-cultural awakening since its progenitor. The sound of sheep wailing on ‘3am Out Of Beaumont’ promotes one of the KLF’s main mottos; their love of sheep (before they retired and sacrificed them, again, metaphorically), and that art is at its most interesting when it’s random and unpredictable, and so are the cultural juxtapositions that can occur when ideas aren’t willingly constrained.

It’s one of the main reasons why Chill Out’s overarching narrative is accessible and resonates; people are unafraid of artistic experimentation and reinvigoration when a level of cultural familiarity is offered as a compromise. Drummond and Cauty drive the point home by employing famous melodies throughout the album, which in their fragmented or altered state, are likely to evoke direct or indirect (borrowed) nostalgia.

The spaciousness found on ‘3am Out Of Beaumont’ is aided by the sound of sheep and the dulcetness of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’, the sound of a small crop plane taking off at the start of ‘Magrugada Eterna’ encourages you to visualise vastness, imagery that marries with its sorrowful countrified lap-steel that ultimately morphs into a new version of Elvis’s ‘In The Ghetto’. But it’s the distorted version of seagulls wailing over Acker Bilk’s ‘Stranger On The Shore’ used on ‘A Melody From A Past Life Keeps Pulling Me Back’ (don’t they always?) that brings us the closest to Chill Out’s opaque message – the fickleness of personal nostalgia.

A nuanced reimagining of Elvis’s ‘In the Ghetto’, on ‘Elvis On The Radio, Steel Guitar In My Soul’ best emphasises the evocativeness of familiarity. The strings are isolated, with only the two lines from the original song cascaded and, of course, the sound of a train moving across rails remains in the background. Bound together it becomes like someone’s memory of Elvis’s song, and within Chill Out’s narrative, one that’s been tied to a specific time and place. As we’re still able to recognise it as the original ‘In The Ghetto’, its new form is something we can all identify with, as our memories of songs, and when and where we heard them, are unreliably personal, often differing from their actual construction.

With mainstream music being incessantly abused by artistic blandness and convention it’s good to know you can return to something whose uniqueness was designed to provoke a bespoke interpretation from each listener. But “Chill Out” does something better than that, it reminds us all, that provided music is offered ideas and they’re executed like this, it will continue to be interesting, even if it never truly changes.

About Wichita Lineman Was A Song I Once Heard

Wichita Lineman Was A Song I Once Heard. 'Mediocre blogger and a piously boring and unfunny writer'. Enthusiastic purveyor of the KLF sheep.
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