Stealing books from the KLF, Parts 1 and 2

Part 1

Sometime in c.1994 a fax arrived at the radio station where I worked which had me and my then drinking partner Brian punching the air with anticipatory glee. It invited whoever fancied it to Dublin’s most salubrious nitespot The Pod to hang out with none other than stadium-techno prankster Bill Drummond, who had just a short time before burned his bridges with the music industry and thrown every remaining penny it’d rewarded/bribed him with onto the pyre because whyever not. (You can see the resulting documentary ‘Watch the K Foundation burn a million quid’ here). The event was to mark the publication of a book he’d written about a trip he’d purportedly undertaken to the North Pole in the company of Zodiac Mindwarp (of minor 1980s pop fame). On the evening in question we ambled along and got stuck into the free Canadian beer, chatting with the other liggers who included minor Dublin pop aristocracy such as the erstwhile Paul Wonderful, aka the funniest man in the world, who would just a couple of years later introduce the world to his masterwork Ding Dong Denny O’Reilly. At some point a huge book started to circulate, a version of the work being launched, which was said to be bound in calfskin and to exist in a limited edition of only five copies. It was all a bit silly, and in our mounting giddiness we may have spilled a bit of free beer on some of the pages, which as I recall featured pornographic photos in which the faces of the participants had been replaced with the heads of Disney characters. Our sense of exhilaration at the absurdity of the occasion and the fact of our presence there hit new heights when Bill Drummond himself limped in, accompanied by some bloke wearing a frilly shirt and an expression of considerable self-importance. Emboldened by our or third or was it thirteenth free bottle of Molson Export or was it Big Rock, we pushed through the crowd and introduced ourselves, explaining to Bill (who, I seem to recall, had green teeth) why burning a million pounds was totally the right thing to do, displaying a indepth knowledge of his movements and motivations derived from obsessive lifelong study of the music press and generally (we thought) being uproariously entertaining. At some point it became clear that there were still some other people in the room who wanted to talk to Bill, a fact that Mr Frilly Shirt was keen to stress, but his constant interruptions only prompted Bill to utter the following deathless phrase in his uplands lilt: “Nooo, these are the only interesting people I’ve met all night!”. Confirmed in our ascendency to the position of Coolest People In The World For One Night Only, we continued to celebrate by chugging even more ice-cold free Canadian lager, which served to make the evening even more deliriously exciting, and also to disorient us to the point where we lost contact not only with Bill but with each other, and from the heights of fraternising publicly with one of the world’s hippest human beings (with whom we were, we believed, just on the brink of exchanging contact details in preparation for a joint trip to Shangri-La), the evening descended precipitously into a messy finale of fallen barstools, broken glass, heavy-handed bouncers, and an eventual fine of three thousand pounds imposed on Brian for, with catastrophically ill-judged overexuberance, jumping up and down on one or two cars in the immediate vicinity of Harcourt Street, which is, after all, where Ireland’s largest police station happens to be located. Luckily, by the time the gardaí got involved, I myself was stumbling northwards feeling like I’d been blessed by the Pope of pop himself.

The following morning, buoyed up with starstruck hubris and basically still drunk, I floated into work and bathed in the admiration of my colleagues, some of whom had no idea who Bill Drummond was but seem impressed that I’d managed to survive the whole escapade. Brian hadn’t, in the sense that he now in almost all certainty faced the prospect of having to find a proper job for a few months to pay off his debauchery. At lunchtime we staggered off down Wicklow Street towards a local greasy spoon which we hoped might soak up some of the excess blood in our alcohol streams. As we walked and tried to relive or at least recall the glory of the previous night, we were startled to be violently set upon by one of its protagonists: Bill Drummond’s frilly-shirted assistant, who ran across the street and set about trying to kick us both up the arse while shouting something about a missing book. We were nonplussed, and after some slapstick tomfoolery managed to get him to give up and fuck off. It was only when we got back to work that someone pointed to an article in the gossip section of the hot-off-the-press Evening Herald, which reported that former pop icon Bill Drummond had successfully launched his new book, but that in the process it appeared that someone has stolen a special edition of which there were only five in the world, and that he and his publishers were keen that it be returned in its original condition as soon as possible.

The whole experience was so exciting and so very odd that I promptly forgot to tell one of my very best friends (a fellow KLF enthusiast) about it for several years. When I finally remembered to do so, it turned out to be somewhat serendipitous, because he responded with the following anecdote: 

Part 2

Summer 1999. My girlfriend and I are living on a shared giro of £52.something pence a fortnight. She likes to spend much of this money on brand name suntan lotion which she applies to her entire body, every day, regardless of season. We can scarcely afford to eat, never mind go out and get drunk. She did have very soft skin, though.

We were living in a boring city in the UK where we, alongside our similarly financially endowed friends would seek out any free cultural events, no matter how mundane. So imagine my joy when I saw posters advertising a talk by fucking Bill Drummond from out of the KLF, a band I had loved since the 1980s, for free!

It was taking place in a posh and inevitably boring “brasserie” pub. The premise of the event was thrilling: Drummond had written his autobiography, 45. He was 45 years old at the time and most of the records he’d made played at 45rpm. The book was seven inches square to represent a 7″ single. But this evening, he announced that his publisher’s lawyers had said that twelve anecdotes from his text were unpublishable and as he anyway preferred the twelve inch single to the seven inch, he had decided to self-publish twelve copies of the book with the twelve unpublishable anecdotes published within, in a hardback twelve inch squared format. These twelve books were scattered around various tables at which we were sitting, and by each book was a packet of crayons.

He told us that if we wanted to, we could leaf through the book, read parts, make comments or drawings in it with the crayons, even destroy the book if we wanted to (no-one did), but that we couldn’t take the books home with us and that they were not for sale; could not be sold in fact because of the unpublishable material.

He signed my 12″ of Kylie Said to Jason with the highlighter pen that I gave him. I then had to put selotape over the autograph to stop it rubbing off because I couldn’t even afford to buy a permanent marker. As I did so I asked him what sort of music he was into at the time and he said he didn’t like music any more 🙁.

Unfortunately he then read an extremely boring passage from the book, something about the countryside if memory serves, and I remember thinking he was dressed in extremely boring clothing and glasses, a bit like the ironic country gent look that Vic Reeves wore at the time.

As I grew disenchanted with the evening’s entertainments I drank another cider and looked out of the window at the orange glow of the sunset on the pavement from the brasserie towards my house. Then I glanced at the book again, then I looked at my rucksack on the floor which was about an inch wider than the book. Then I looked at the book again.

Reader, I stole it.

A couple of months later I bought a copy of the actually published, publishing-lawyer-censored 7″ version of the book in a charity shop. I tried to impress on my girlfriend that the only way to extract the twelve scurrilous anecdotes from my … OK actually Drummond’s uncensored book would be to read the two books simultaneously, aloud to each other in bed.

Unfortunately I can’t tell you what these twelve stories are because she expressed her extreme disinterest in this project as she rubbed overpriced suntan lotion into her skin on that chilly late September night.

My life as a gangsta in 1990s Dublin

When it comes to early-90s Dublin thievery and skullduggery, Martin “The General” Cahill had nothing on me. Long before filesharing became the rage, I used to steal music. The radio station I worked at regularly gave away prizes, mostly in the form of Daniel O’Donnell and (get this) sub-Daniel O’Donnell CDs. Often the winners would come into town and pop into the station to collect their prize, and would be disappointed to be told (by me) that the disc in question couldn’t be found and that I’d personally dispatch a replacement directly to their front porch. What I was scrupulously careful not to tell them was that I’d stolen the CD, taken it to one of Dublin’s then-many record emporiums, made up a short entertaining anecdote about a generous but dotty elderly relative with a misplaced understanding of modern musical trends, and swapped it for some hiphop.

This went on for some time, during which I was able to amass quite a collection of the very latest releases from Redman, Mobb Deep, various Wu-Tang offshoots, and etc. To be fair, it was all just a means of feeding my family, although to be more fair my beloved sirelings all went by names such as ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx’, ‘Midnight Marauders’ and ‘Whut: Thee Album’. It was kind of a victimless crime in that a small record company would get to believe that their music was slightly more in demand than it actually was and some elderly Dubliner would acquire a nice anecdote about how they went all the way into town to pick up that CD they’d won and although it turned out they’d have to wait to get their hands on the prize they’d had a pleasant chat with a very well-spoken and charming Englishman with admittedly slightly shifty eyes and (unbeknownst to them) very sticky fingers.

Then there was the keg-of-Caffreys episode. Ah yes. Ahem. The 88-pint barrel of beer in question was the (as it were) prize prize of the year, as it was to be awarded to anyone who could (correctly) guess the winners of that year’s Caffrey’s Hot Press Irish Music Awards. There were numerous entries but they all shared two simple defects: 1) They were all sent and received before the winners had been announced and 2) The person who’d guessed (the ‘entrant’) didn’t work in the radio station which was hosting the competition. The radio station receptionist suffered from neither of these disadvantages and the fact that he seemed to be slightly eye-squiffy and wobbly on his feet every morning for the following month was not recognised as in any way connected to the seemingly above-board award of the (massive) vessel of ale to a (unbeknownst to them) pseudonymous version of his then-girlfriend.

Two things brought my budding criminal career to a close. Inevitably, after a certain point, my confidence, my hubris if you will, brought me down to earth, like an Icarus who had overestimated how many pilfered CDs and knocked-off pints of creamy beer he could take on his sunbound ride. One evening I happened to spot my boss walking through Temple Bar, which was a commonplace occurence as our office was just around the corner (at no. 3 Grafton Street, to be exact). The awkward thing was that at the very moment he waved hello I was sitting behind a pristine restaurant window with a fork halfway to my lips while a colleague-in-dishonesty gulped down the contents of one of many wine glasses. The fork and wine glass in question were both the property of a recently-opened dining establishment which had just the week before (via our radio outlet) offered vouchers for a slap-up meal for two to the first listener who could name the singer of Aslan (Christy Dignam). The vouchers in question had sadly not been to be found on the premises when the person who’d rightfully won them (the ‘winner’) had come to pick them up a couple of days previously, and I had apologised profusely and promised to get back in touch with the restaurant to replace them. It was only a short while later that my boss (Paul) called me into his office and in grave tones explained that we needed to do something about all these prizes going missing. His solution was to put me (the thief) (he didn’t say ‘the thief’) in charge of an investigative task-force to track down the culprit. Shortly afterwards, gangland boss Martin “The General” Cahill was shot dead near his home in Rathmines. In the words of Coolio, he was on his way to gangster’s paradise at last, and it was time to put a stop to my own life of crime just in case it should come to a similarly sanguinary end.

My days as an early internet scamster (and troll)


In the British sitcom ‘Only Fools and Horses’ Uncle Albert would always bore the shit out of everyone by droning on about life ‘during the war’. I used to wonder what my generation’s equivalent would be, and I didn’t have to wait long to find out. When I try to explain to my students that life before the internet, smartphones and etc didn’t just involve sitting round in black and white waiting for those things to be invented I can almost hear them groan. As it happens I was involved in one of the first internet scams, and was also one of the first people to realise the potential of the web for what would become known as ‘trolling.

The first ‘proper’ ‘job’ I had (I’d already done about 15 things by the time I left school, from delivering the world’s shittest newspaper and selling dusters door-to-door to being shouted at in restaurant kitchens), was with a company based in Battersea which went by the sublimely Delboy-esque moniker of Business Trade Bureau. My bosses were a resting Islington actor who worked a little on our RP vowels and a dapper elderly gentleman who had a touch of the Frankie Frasers about him; my colleagues included two ribald white Kip Tiwnians who had left Sith Ifrica after the end of apartheid because of all the (ahem) ‘crim’.

Here’s how the scam worked. ‘Our’ ‘secretaries’ would phone round numbers from regional editions of the Yellow Pages: one week it would be plumbers, the next electricians, etc. Their ‘bosswanted to talk to the sole trader about something important, some work, in fact – their company had been ‘recommended. This was the bait, and as it was recession-deep 1993 small contractors usually leapt like adolescent perch at it. Most called back and were put through to a pseudonymous version of ‘me’ (there was much fun to be had doing ‘rallies’ round the office, transferring the call until they hung up. I think the record was sixteen.) We would, sounding as pompous as humanly possible (I’d never seen or heard Boris Johnson at this point, but…), lead them through a bullshit questionairre designed to see if they could satisfy the needs of our ‘subscribers’, who paid us a ‘handsome’ sum to access our ‘website’ (a ‘sort of private computer database’ which they accesed via a ‘modem’, ‘a bit like teletext, but considerably snazzier’ ‘it doesn’t matter what it is, because it doesn’t exist’ – that last explanation I often omitted) and get the details of ‘topnotch’ ‘handpicked’ contractors in their area.

What’s a modem? people would ask, usually sounding a bit tired. I’d never seen one, and I wouldn’t get the chance to go online for another year or so, at which point I would mostly use it to get Simpsons scripts and send rude messages to members of the Wu-Tang Clan (I never got a reply, thankfully). Some people were satisfied to be told that the system was similar to Minitel (I didn’t really know what that was either). I usually explained that a ‘webpage’ was like a fax machine, but with computer information instead of paper. This wasn’t a bad guess as it goes.

My spiel was often interrupted by weary queries as to the inevitable cost of this to them, the contrators. I would imperiously bat away such footling concerns, telling them it was our clients who paid for the service. The trick came at the end when, having obtained their go-ahead, I would tell them I’d be faxing the contract right away and if they could send it back post-haste (suddenly speaking impossibly fast) along with a cheque for £145 plus VAT we’d get them set up asap (pronounced asap). Cue drawing of breath, cursing, remonstrations about twenty wasted minutes followed quickly by my slightly hurt-sounding placatory protest that it was merely the cost of designing their non-existent ‘website’ (I didn’t say ‘non-existent’) which was done by a crack team of (with all the fogeyness I could muster) ‘whizzkids’.

Desperate business. At least it taught me the vitally important life skill of sounding self-important while lying through my gums. Given that we were paid mostly on commission there was a strong incentive to work hard but what we were doing was clearly so sociopathic in nature I often just covered the phone with The Guardian (the desk had no computer on it – how quaint!) and pretended there were no calls. Often, when I was called or forced into action, the acting bit was fun but there was a certain point at which the caller, after a couple of minutes of spiel, would refer bitterly to an uncannily similar-sounding conversation they’d had a few months before with a representative of another telltellingly-banally-named firm which had ended up scamming exactly £145 plus VAT off of them. That firm had, as it happened, operated from the exact same premises on the exact same premise. After I got wise to this I began to anticipate it, saying there were ‘cowboys’ in any ‘trade’ and it was essential to weed them out. I stuck out the job until I got a much better offer consisting of going to live in Dublin and signing on for a couple of glorious but now somewhat smoky years during which my skills at mini-pool and my indepth knowledge of Aerosmith videos developed considerably but my job prospects sort of stultified.

Within a few years I had been corralled back into the workforce and was spending all my working day online. The job consisted of helping people with their computer virus issues and mind-numbingly dull problems with (nods off) utility software. The company was located in the uniquely uninspiring setting of a subsuburban business park in comparison with which central Slough would have been like Djemaa El-Fna. I also spent a lot of time trying to avoid answering the phone. At least I got properly paid, although this was Dublin, in 1998, which generally restricted my disposable income to three pints of Harp and a red lemonade for the lady. The day was spent employing the usual skives: donating blood at lunchtime and spending the afternoon in a selfless snooze, urgent private tete-a-tetes which actually just consisted of paper plane competitions, trying to get the French speakers to direct calls my way so I could get in some invaluable language practice, and etc. Luckily I found an original way to perforate the tedium: the virtual version of Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam. I’d passed through the real place a few weeks before on my way to Singapore so was tickled to find that I could return in the form of a (rudimentary) avatar. The trick was to walk up to ‘people’, engage them in innocuous conversation and then let fly a series of uproarious Afrikaans obscenities copied and pasted from another website we’d tracked down (‘Jy was uit jou ma se gat gebore want haar poes was te besig, ‘Ek wens jou vingers verander in vishoeke, en jou balle begin te jeu and the classic ‘Jou ma se hond se poes). This would usually result in the deliriously rewarding sight of seeing their insuffiently-pixellated digital representative wordlessly turn around and totter off ‘in’ the ‘direction’ of another non-existent ‘part’ of the poorly-rendered ‘luchthaven’.

I’m not particularly proud of either of these episodes, but looking back now I do sort of miss those times when I had all that spare time at work to mess around and totally waste my time on the…er…internet. These days, I have to…er…what time is lunch?