Sunday, June 14, 2009

The KLF / JAMS - It's Grim up North

Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty have always been up to wierd stuff. Cauty is from Liverpool, and Drummond is from Scotland. For a few years in the 90s, they formed "The KLF" together, and launched in to a bizarre and temporary career as art-pop terrorists, foisting a unique, strange and fascinating series of pop/dance singles on the charts.

One of their later singles was "It's Grim up North", and although I didn't understand it at the time, it's come to seem more and more significant to me as I've grown up.

The "North" in the song refers to the North of England. A place of stunning scenery, post-industrial waste-towns and cities, riven with unemployment, it's generally experienced from one of the few major motorways that arc across this part of England. The main artery (the M6) runs from Birmingham directly North, passing between Liverpool and Manchester before trailing up all the way to the border with Scotland. On the other side of the country, the oscillating disaster that is the M1/A1 grinds slowly up the East Coast, passing Hull, and eventually reaching Newcastle, before snaking up and around in to Edinburgh.

Linking these two is the M62, which cuts directly East-West from Liverpool to Hull. Driving from, to or through "the North", you spend a lot of time on these motorways, gliding past parts of England forgotten or deliberately neglected for huge parts of the 80s by London and Thatcher, with the attendant social problems and unemployement that resulted.

In "It's Grim up North", the KLF somehow captured this atmosphere in one of the most surreal tunes ever to make the UK charts. Set entirely in front of a rain-drenched motorway underpass, a searing industrial kick drum thunders out underneath klaxons and horns, as a litany of distored Northern English placenames is intoned from a guy standing in the driving rain in front of the biggest pile of back-floodlit speakers. Political parties seeking to fight the BNP should at least have to watch this video and soak it up a little bit.

It somehow captures the bleak and resiliant spirit of the North, in the context of the never-sleeping dirty motorways that constantly stream through it. The most amazing moments of the tune are halfway through, as the grinding industrialism breaks and slowly melts into the plaintive and powerfully epic "Jerusalem". Tied up in "little England" psychology (check Jerusalem at the last night of the Proms from London for some idea), nothing is guaranteed to fill the hearts of middle class England with more pride.

Two completely disparate atmospheres, one track. As musical pivot it's incredibly skilfull - as a cultural counterpoint, it's jaw-dropping.

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