1991: Last Train to Trancentral (The KLF, The White Room)
Please don’t think me completely oblivious to the somewhat seismic events in music that occurred in 1991. I’m aware that this was the year both Nirvana and Pearl Jam hit it big, firmly putting Seattle and the grunge sound on the map and dooming the better part of the 90s to mopey, mumbled attempts to duplicate their success. Thing is, while I’m certainly cognizant of their significance and their talent, neither band really spoke to me all that much. They made good music that I more appreciated than felt, and to be honest, I was always more of a Stone Temple Pilots guy myself. So while Nevermind and Ten are definitely seminal albums of the decade, and Nirvana and Pearl Jam important bands, this list is going to have to struggle along without them.
All of which is to preface my selection of a song by a band mostly known for a song riffing on the theme from Doctor Who. How’s that for historical importance?
But this was never meant to be a musical history lesson, but a musical tour through my life, and believe me, I was as surprised as anyone by how much I played The KLF’s The White Room during the summer of 1991. Part of the appeal for me was that, as modern as it was, it also sounded like something that could have come from the weirdness of the early 80s. That’s going to be a pretty big recurring theme as we move forward; a lot of my favorite bands and songs of the last twenty years have been ones that remind me of the songs of my youth. Maybe it’s a childish adherence to nostalgia, and it’s not like there hasn’t been new music that’s appealed to me, but if you can evoke the late 70s/early 80s, you’re on your way to winning me over.
It didn’t hurt things that my first exposure to The KLF came when they released “Doctorin’ the Tardis” as The Timelords. Mashing together the Doctor Who theme, the voice of signature Who villains the Daleks, Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Parts 1 and 2,” Sweet’s “Block Buster!” and the kitchen sink, it’s a completely silly yet intensely catchy bit of fluff. I remember slipping it into the mix for a party we threw in my dorm in college and being immensely pleased at the sight of people dancing about while Daleks shouted, “EXTERMINATE!” over the samples. I was making them geeks without their even realizing it.
I wasn’t aware of the connection between The Timelords and The KLF when I heard “3 a.m. Eternal,” their big hit from The White Room, but I was drawn in by its trippy mix of hip-hop-style beats and electronic theatricality. I had no idea what the hell a “Mu Mu” was, but the song was catchy as hell, enough so that I tossed the album in as a selection in one of the 9,000 different times I joined the Columbia House Music Club just for the free CDs.
Fortunately, I liked the rest of the album as well, but it was “Last Train to Trancentral” that stood up and knocked me out. It sounded like the soundtrack to every cyberpunk novel I’d ever read, conjuring up images of sprawling metropolises draped in neon and crawling with angst. It’s all so excessively 90s, even if it popped up only one year into the decade, full of gloriously cheesy excess hidden behind a driving beat that barrels along like the train in the title. It’s what I call a speeding ticket song, where if you’re not careful, you’ll slam the pedal to the floor as you listen to it and likely end up getting pulled over.
The KLF sort of vanished after the huge success of The White Room, seemingly unhappy with being forced out from the underground into the spotlight. The album exists as this weird artifact, standing as it does at the beginning of the 90s, awash in the muddy buzz of grunge and the ultra-sanitized hip-hop that white America finally deemed acceptable. The album sounds millennial nearly a decade before the millennium, this feverish look ahead that promised a much more interesting 21st century than we actually got.