All the chances I’ve blown: The KLF – Build a Fire (1989)


The KLF never really had many tender moments. From 1987-92, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty set their stall out as acid house outsiders, giving the finger to baggy Second Summer of Love hedonism with situationist art pranks and acts of virtual rave terrorism.

The KLF aka The Timelords, “also known as the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, furthermore known as The JAMs”, were one of the most subversive chart acts of the era, infecting the industry from the inside out while creating some of the greatest ever dance music hooks.

In their early years they released a series of white labels that brazenly nicked chunks of songs by Whitney Houston, ABBA, Samantha Fox and the Beatles, and hacked them up in busted samplers.

Screen Shot 2017-06-14 at 00.40.12They knocked even more noses out of joint in 1988 when they sold a million copies of Doctorin’ the Tardis — a mash-up of the Doctor Who Theme and Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll, and in 1991 they roped in country legend Tammy Wynette to sing about their fictional cult on Justified and Ancient.

Following their manifesto The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way) to the letter, Cauty and Drummond were the biggest selling singles band in the world in 1991 — with self-proclaimed Stadium House belters 3AM Eternal and Last Train to Trancentral following the smash What Time Is Love?

When the KLF ever get reduced to a mention in an ‘I heart the 90s’ talking heads show, their two most notorious acts always get dragged up — the time they sprayed blank machine gun bullets into the crowd at the BRITs in 1992 then dumped a dead sheep at the after-party, and the time they burned a million quid as a work of art.

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This is radio freedom… Bill Drummond at the BRITs in 1992

But back to their tender moments – they actually did have a few, and Build a Fire off their 1991 album The White Room is the stand-out. The year before, Drummond and Cauty had already created their ambient masterpiece Chill Out, a woozy US road trip concept album. Like Chill Out, Build a Fire is strung together with a delicate recurring pedal steel motif, but does away with the sense of prickly dread that runs throughout the album – the frantic preachers and salesmen on the car radio, the untethered trance synths, throat singing and the rattle of passing trains.

Instead, Build a Fire is The KLF’s only ballad, and the pedal steel guitar isn’t the only nod to country music. Even in a thick Scottish accent, Drummond’s softly-spoken lines are straight out of a Nashville lyrics generator – whether it’s stopping at a roadside bar or heating beans over an open fire and pondering about blown chances. He even gets in a reference to Lee Marvin’s Wandering Star, and the way he rolls his r’s as he hums the tune “to all the girrrls I’ve known” could drag a tear out of a craggy-faced cowboy.

And unable to resist further pop culture plundering, the melancholy four-note bassline is lifted straight from the Twin Peaks Theme – around the time it was the biggest cult TV show in history.

Even though it appeared on The White Room, Build a Fire had been around since 1989 as the soundtrack to a scene in the KLF’s ill-fated road movie The White Room, which folded under money woes. The hissy, grainy video has made it to YouTube and instead of frontier men on horseback, Drummond and Cauty tackle the arid west in their modified cop car the Ford Timelord – all bound for Mu Mu Land.

Build a Fire is the first track on the flipside of The White Room, following the gurning trance, rave pianos, breakbeats, acid, frantic rapping, machine gun fire, braying horses and sirens on side one. It’s more than just a breather though – Build a Fire is The KLF’s most straight-up beautiful song.