Even before they put their money where their matches were, the KLF, also known as the Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu, furthermore known as the JAMMS, were the most brilliant pop-artists of the decade. They were witty with the left hand and baffling with the right; they had a sense of timing and event like nobody since Maclaren; they appeared to not give even the merest hint of a fuck; and they made records which were the best shotgun wedding of concept to rhythm this side of Kraftwerk. Ladies and gentlemen, they were a quite extraordinary band.
The general dreadfulness of their big-hit album The White Room and their typically quixotic decision to delete all their product on the day they called it quits has left pop’s memory of them fuzzy, and a couple of legend-sullying comebacks haven’t helped either. But before they quit in 1992 they never, ever, put out a bad single, though they did put out a couple of incomprehensible ones. One of which is “It’s Grim Up North”, which....well, which starts with steam train noises and keyboard shrieks, and turns into a list of Northern England towns and counties (“Grimsby...Glossop...Hebden Bridge...”) recited in an urgent, sinister Scottish accent over crashed-sequencer squiggles and a juddering bass pulse. A voice repeats the title over occasional clattering crescendoes, and then, gradually, the dance music drops away to be replaced with an immense orchestral arrangement of Parry’s “Jerusalem”. And as that too swells and recedes, we’re left with the sound of the wind across the moors and the occasional crake of a lone crow.
Maverick and compelling, “It’s Grim Up North” may be some kind of tongue-in-cheek tribute to the glory of the North, and if that’s the intention it works. As a Southern jessie born and bred, I’ve put it here for two reasons. Firstly it makes for a gorgeous sound. Bill Drummond’s delivery is syllable-perfect, reciting the history-steeped placenames like a great psychogeographical spell; the music which backs him up is restless and grand; the segue into the hymn is funny, audacious and surprisingly powerful. But secondly, “It’s Grim Up North” is a document of one of pop’s most individual bands at their imaginative peak. It boils down to a man in his late 30s, and a mate, doing exactly what they want to do, without fear or compromise or cant, and getting it into the Top 40 to boot. And that makes this not only an excellent single, but a genuinely inspirational one.
"It's Grim Up North" is still one of my favourite records of the 90s, of ever really, but it's a hard one to pin down and I don't think just describing it does the job. In particular, my justification in the last paragraph is a little weak - it applies just as much to Nizlopi, after all. Listening to it again when it came up on poptimists what really struck me is how well it works as a propulsive piece of rave music, even though its not structured as one. Great dance records often create their own internal logic where whimsical or baffling bits of 'content' fit precisely and effectively in the sound-world the track is creating: "It's Grim Up North" is an excellent example of this.
My wife absolutely hates this record, and my colleagues thought it was completely awful when I played it to them, too. Maybe you had to be there.