In the wake of New Romanticism, Post punk, and Synth-pop, the British music scene in the late '80s and early '90s was awash in a sea of artists struggling to create something inspiring. The Britpop explosion was still years away, and it would be another decade before the British music press gave any credence to the hip hop and dance scenes that were bubbling underneath the surface. One group, the KLF, managed to use this nadir in the British music scene as a way to make grand artistic statements while creating top 10 hits that they recognized as pop trash. In 1994, after the duo disbanded and reformed as the K Foundation, they made a final piece of art by burning one million quid in bundles of £50,000. Why did the K Foundation burn a million quid? Unfortunately, there isn’t a singular answer for a very simple question, but there are myriad K Foundation theories, many of them stoked by the members of the group.
Why did the KLF burn a million pounds? You’re not wrong to ask the question. That’s a lot of money regardless of whether or not you’re adjusting for inflation. And even if the K Foundation's nihilistic art leanings play into your personal aesthetics, you’re probably tallying up all the things that you could do with that kind of money. It’s likely that this is one of the points of the KLF’s choice to set their earnings on fire. Or maybe there was no reason at all beyond the fact that the group wanted to watch their money burn. Keep reading to look at the reasons the KLF burned all that money.
In 1995, the K Foundation appeared on The Late Late Show with Gay Byrne and Joe Elliott from Def Leppard to discuss why they burned a million quid on a solitary Scottish island. Byrne, the show's very annoyed host, asked if the two men were attempting to create a "denial of the material world." Bill Drummond, the group's elder statesman, claimed that it was possible that's what they were doing, but also maybe not. "Some days it is [the denial of the material world], but it's not really that. We wanted the money. But we wanted to burn it more."
Even when the duo gave a straightforward answer about their work, their remarks still felt enigmatic, as if they realized that after nearly a decade of pulling media stunts, even the truth was suspect. The K Foundation's interview on The Late Late Show provides some of the most bare answers to why they destroyed a million pounds of their own money. When asked why the duo didn't simply donate the money to charity, Jimmy Cauty said, "We thought there's plenty of people who wanted to give money to charity. We wanted to do something more interesting." At this point in the interview, the studio audience clutches their pearls and gasps themselves back to Austerity, but Cauty makes an interesting point.
No one tuts at a pop star when they flaunt their wealth by purchasing a giant house or driving around in a Lambo, which may look cool but also aren't charitable actions. To say that the K Foundation was irresponsible for burning piles of cash is to ignore the fact that there are people with vast amounts of wealth who only use it as a means to continue their extravagant lifestyle. Bill Drummond sums this up later by noting that the two men didn't burn any bread or apples, only that "[there's] nothing less in the world than a pile of paper."
While examining all of the artistic and intellectual reasons for a stunt like burning one million pounds, it would be irresponsible to not toy with the idea that The K Foundation set all of their money on fire just to be shocking. The two men that make up the duo, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, spent years going out of their way to create pop music disguised as art disguised as pop music (or was it the other way around?), and they were perfectly aware that the only way to get someone to listen to their music was to create a scene. One of their strangest moments came at the 1992 Brit Awards when the group performed a version of their hit "3AM Eternal" with the crust-grindcore band Extreme Noise Terror. At the end of the performance, Drummond used an AK-47 to fire off blanks into the audience. Was this anything more than a thumbing of the nose at the British music establishment? The same thing can be asked of the group's decision to burn a million pounds.
Journalist and long time friend of Drummond, Jim Reid - who witnessed the K Foundation burning the million quid - believes that by burning a million pounds, his friends were finalizing a myth around themselves that had reached its narrative conclusion. Not only had the duo left "a dead sheep outside a pop awards ceremony, faked corn circles and [given] pounds 40,000 to Rachel Whiteread," but they also released a book about how to write a hit record and essentially made complete fools of themselves to make a point about what you have to do to reach a specific level of success. It would be impossible to continue upping the ante on such chaotic behavior, and the only possible ending to this story was for the two men to decide to destroy everything. If this was the K Foundation's plan, it certainly worked.