We like song lyrics around here. Finely-judged, well-honed, insightful lyrics especially.
But even though we’re lyric enthusiasts, I recognise that on occasion we can become a little over-earnest in our interpretation and critique of some of the finest song lyrics ever written.
Perhaps we don’t acknowledge often enough that lyrics can be complete nonsense and still be great.
“Justified And Ancient” is a case in point.
It features what is, by several orders of magnitude, by far the unlikeliest pairing of two different artists in a hit song — avant-garde music industry rebels and transcendental house band The KLF and one of country music’s biggest stars, Tammy Wynette.
The KLF’s anarchic approach to music earned them a loyal, if probably slightly puzzled, following. They were critically-acclaimed, if not necessarily commercially successful, through the late 1980s.
That all changed in the early 1990s when the sort of commercial success that every artist dreams about came thundering along soon after the release of their song “Justified And Ancient”. It reached Number 2 in the UK charts, Number 11 in the Billboard charts and hit the Number One spot around the world.
Inspired by the hip-hop revolution of the late 1980s Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, the duo who made up The KLF, were inspired to work on their own beats and jams and developed a style all of their own.
The track on “Justified And Ancient” remains to this day one of my all-time favourite dance tunes. It’s wonderfully compiled and stunningly-produced with a richness to the sound that’s usually missing from more conventional hip-hop’s harder edge. It’s nothing short of brilliant.
Now, I’m by no means certain that this is what happened…and the history books are silent on the subject, so this is pure conjecture on my part…
But I’ve always fondly imagined The KLF realised they’d managed to write and produce a truly brilliant track (as “Justified And Ancient” is). But with that brilliance came something of a dilemma.
This isn’t the sort of thing you do when you’re an avant-garde music industry disruptor. “Justified And Ancient” was in danger of being excellent, but far too conventional…especially by the already pretty way-out standards of The KLF.
So I imagine…perhaps after a very long evening in the pub…Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty thought to themselves… “what’s the most bizarre left-field thing we could do with a brilliant dance track to turn it into some artistic statement about what life is really like in the late 1980s and early 1990s?”
“I know,” one of them said, “why don’t we record ‘Justified And Ancient’ with a big country music star instead of another vocalist listeners would be more likely to hear on a dance track. No-one’s going to be expecting that!”
Indeed we didn’t…
How they got to Tammy Wynette, we’ll never know. Why she agreed to do it is a mystery too. But I’m glad she took what must have seemed to her as something of a creative risk.
In all the interviews I’ve read with her, Tammy Wynette comes across as slightly bemused by the experience of working with The KLF, although grateful for the recognition it gave her outside her traditional country music fanbase.
And that’s probably a good thing. My reading of The KLF is that leaving the audience slightly bemused is exactly what they were shooting for most of the time.
When you watch the video below, you’ll probably be slightly bemused too…goodness only knows what Tammy Wynette thought was going on around her when it was being recorded.
Before we go, I do need to say a quick word about the lyrics.
They are complete nonsense of course, but delightfully so. It’s a bit like watching The Teletubbies…I’ve absolutely no idea what’s going on and I’m not much wiser by the end of the programme than I was at the beginning, but it’s a very pleasant experience to immerse myself in nonetheless.
Anyone who can get a legendary country singer to perform these lyrics is doing something right…
They’re justified and they’re ancient
And they drive an ice cream van
Maybe these are finely-judged, well-honed and insightful lyrics…but if they are, the point they’re making has passed me by completely.
Thankfully, I don’t need to understand what Tammy Wynette and The KLF are on about to enjoy their work together.
Every time the distinctive intro to “Justified And Ancient” comes on the radio a big smile spreads across my face which stays there long after the song has ended.
And any song that does that every time you hear it has fully earned its place in the annals of the greatest songs of all time.
If you can listen to this through headphones, you’ll appreciate the craft that went into putting this track together. It’s clearly inspired by hip-hop, but it’s something so much more than that.
After many years of trying, music industry disruptors The KLF finally managed to harness their creative brilliance and cross over the boundary into commercial success. It’s a truly phenomenal track.
Here’s The KLF ft Tammy Wynette with “Justified And Ancient”…
The video is below — it might not surprise you given the write-up so far that The KLF didn’t do anything conventional like put their best-known track up on Spotify, so I’m afraid this article comes with a YouTube-only performance for your listening pleasure…