As I’ve listened to it throughout the years since its release in 1991 “Justified and Ancient (Stand by the JAMs)” feels like pop music’s best attempt at making a mad-lib into a legitimate hit. Acid House? Hip Hop? Tammy Wynette? “The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu”? And then there’s the video: Dancing on a throne? Submarines? An Ice Cream Van? Nothing about this song seems to make the slightest bit of sense but because of that, I’m still listening to it some 24 years later and enjoying enough to, ahem, “justify” its place among The Unskippables but I wish I could say why. Maybe a look at where this bizarre masterpiece of pop came from may help matters.
It turns out that The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu was one of the many early aliases of the KLF, a British house music act comprised of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, two music industry personalities who bonded over a shared love of conspiracy novels “The Illuminarus Trilogy!”. The pair’s interest in “Discordianism”, one of the books’ key themes and a growing shared love of hip hop led them to begin working together to challenge what they saw as a “stagnant” pop music scene.
The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu briefly gave way to “The Timelords”, a name under which they recorded and scored a number one hit with “Doctorin’ the Tardis”. The reason for the name change was simply that the police cruiser Drummond owned and featured in the video told him to. Yes, that’s what he really claimed when asked about it. The pair also literally wrote the book on musical success with “The Manual: How to have a Number One the easy way” as a joke at the expense of what they saw as an increasing number of “talentless” stars being stage managed to stardom.
In 1990 the boys changed their name again to the KLF and their sound to what they christened “Stadium House” using live crowd noise in their recordings to give a feeling of a live performance and sounding not unlike the sweeping anthemic EDM tracks of today. They found further success with tracks such as “3am Eternal”, “What time is love?” and “Last Train to Transcentral” before raiding their own back catalogue to rework “Justified and Ancient”, this time featuring guest vocals of who KLF described as THE first lady of country, Tammy Wynette.
There was seemingly no reason for Miss Wynette’s appearance on the track beyond Drummond was a fan, they asked and she said yes but the heady mix of her voice, a pounding tribal rhythm, rapper Ricardo Da Force imploring someone to “bring the beat back!” all come together to create something very pleasing to the ear but quite unlike anything heard before or since.
Remember me mentioning Discordianism earlier? The central theme of this “parody religion” is to spread its ideas through subversive humour in an effort to prevent its beliefs from becoming dogmatic and that’s what Justified and Ancient feels like upon learning about that. It feels like a joke on the professional music industry that something that should be impenetrable and featuring a mostly forgotten star in a business obsessed with the cutting edge and the next big thing should be so listenable and prove so popular.
And popular it was, KLF hit number 2 on the British charts second only to a re release of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and reached number 11 in the US, returning Tammy Wynette to the mainstream charts for the first time since 1969. This was undoubtedly KLF’s biggest hit to date but also their last. The world was seemingly their oyster, but that wasn’t the plan.
As the offers came in from other artists hoping to collaborate with the duo and revitalise their careers it became clear that KLF were no longer able to poke fun at the industry, they were in danger of becoming it, of becoming dogmatic themselves. In 1992 on the same night as highly controversial performance at the Brit Awards ceremony, the KLF called it quits and even went as far as to order their entire back catalogue be deleted. For a group so esoteric in everything it did, this was perhaps the only way it could have ended and it certainly was discordian of them.
Of course I had no idea of any of this back in 1991, I just liked how it sounded, it had lyrics about ice cream in it and the video was full of colourful costumes. I had no idea of KLF’s philosophy or beliefs but digging into this song and its creators I have an entirely new reason to like Justified and Ancient (Stand by the JAMs). Back then I liked how it sounded, now I like how it sounds and I appreciate it for the same reason the song came about: “just because”. Some records I enjoy for the production, the lyrics, some shredding guitar riff or I like something the song is associated with but with this one I simply love that it exists.
On and off this song has been a part of my life for over two decades, it made me smile as a child and it still has the power to raise a little smile whenever I hear it from time to time even as a cynical adult. This song was part of a joke on the recording industry that only gets funnier with age, like all the best jokes.
Thank you very much for reading and make mine a ’99.
Martin Dixon (@BunnySuicida)