Thursday, November 25, 2021

That Time Tammy Stood by the JAMs

One of my favorite recordings from the 1990s is “Justified & Ancient.”

The first version of this song by British electro/hip-hop band The KLF appeared in 1987. Four years later, another version featured on the band's 1991 album The White Room.

Yet it was the third version of the song, released that same year, which become a massive worldwide hit.

It is this third version, released 30 years ago today, that is one of my favorite songs of the ’90s. Why? Because not only does this version, subtitled “Stand by The JAMs,” contain the wonderful music of The KLF, it also includes verses featuring the vocals of none other than the First Lady of Country Music, Tammy Wynette. (The song’s subtitle was a nod to Wynette’s hit “Stand By Your Man.”)

I have no doubt that it was this truly unlikely collaboration that played a large part in making “Justified & Ancient (Stand by The JAMs)” an international hit. The song reached number two on both the UK Singles Chart, and the US Dance Chart, number 11 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, and number one in 18 countries, including my homeland of Australia, where at the time I was living and teaching.

In the US, Larry Flick from Billboard commented, “The decision to enlist country music queen Tammy Wynette for the lead vocal was a stroke of pure genius. Her distinctive style provides a weird-but-appealing contrast to the British dance duo's electro/hip-hop instrumental noodlings. Sort of sounds like the theme to a space-age spaghetti western.”

According to the website SongFacts, “The title ‘Justified & Ancient’ refers to the KLF’s pseudonym and earlier incarnation, ‘The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu’ (The JAMs). The JAMs took their name from Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s sci-fi tinged, conspiracy theory-laden Illuminatus! book series in which The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu are a fictional subversive cult who have been around since pre-history. The song lyrics describe the Justified Ancients making their way to Mu Mu Land in an ice cream van.”

SongFacts also notes that “Tammy Wynette admitted to NME that she thought the track was called ‘Justified And Anxious’ until the day KLF’s Bill Drummond turned up in Nashville with the tapes under his arm.”

One line in this song, “Make mine a 99,” references an ice cream with a Flake chocolate bar in it. To promote the song, The KLF drove an ice cream van around Liverpool and gave out free 99s. This promotional stunt stunt is mentioned in the line, “They’re justified and they’re ancient, and they drive an ice cream van.”

Reflecting on “Justified & Ancient” and the music of THE KLF in general, one YouTube commentator notes the following:

The KLF were aiming to make “non-commercial” music that shocked the industry and audiences. Their whole concept was based around their desire to lampoon the industry and make music that was so different it wouldn't fit into any of the mainstream genres or work with typical Top 40 radio playlists.

“Justified & Ancient” achieved all of that and more because it was a weird melding of country western (Tammy Wynette), hip-hop, and the early house/techno that was starting to dominate clubs and raves around the world. This song (and several other bangers by KLF) stood out as something very unique and special and I miss the positive vibes and unapologetic lack of pandering to commercial interests. The whole notion was of a celebratory journey to Mu-Mu land – a magical, mystical place where a nomadic tribe of people from all walks of life could unite in their love for good times and good music; where they could be united not by color, creed, or nationality but rather, slick beats and peace, love, unity, and respect. This nomadic tribe was “the tribe of the JAMs.”

Following is an appreciation of “Justified and Ancient" from the website No Words, No Song.

“Justified And Ancient” . . . 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. [NOTE: The song also features the vocals of Maxine Harvey and rapper Ricardo da Force (right).]

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 themselve, “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, 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.


For a 30-min video documenting the making of the music video for "Justified & Ancient (Stand by the JAMs)," click here.

For a 1993 interview with Tammy Wynette, in which she talks about working with The KLF, click here.

Previously featured musicians at The Wild Reed:
Dusty Springfield | David Bowie | Kate Bush | Maxwell | Buffy Sainte-Marie | Prince | Frank Ocean | Maria Callas | Loreena McKennitt | Rosanne Cash | Petula Clark | Wendy Matthews | Darren Hayes | Jenny Morris | Gil Scott-Heron | Shirley Bassey | Rufus Wainwright | Kiki Dee | Suede | Marianne Faithfull | Dionne Warwick | Seal | Sam Sparro | Wanda Jackson | Engelbert Humperdinck | Pink Floyd | Carl Anderson | The Church | Enrique Iglesias | Yvonne Elliman | Lenny Kravitz | Helen Reddy | Stephen Gately | Judith Durham | Nat King Cole | Emmylou Harris | Bobbie Gentry | Russell Elliot | BØRNS | Hozier | Enigma | Moby (featuring the Banks Brothers) | Cat Stevens | Chrissy Amphlett | Jon Stevens | Nada Surf | Tom Goss (featuring Matt Alber) | Autoheart | Scissor Sisters | Mavis Staples | Claude Chalhoub | Cass Elliot | Duffy | The Cruel Sea | Wall of Voodoo | Loretta Lynn and Jack White | Foo Fighters | 1927 | Kate Ceberano | Tee Set | Joan Baez | Wet, Wet, Wet | Stephen “Tin Tin” Duffy | Fleetwood Mac | Jane Clifton | Australian Crawl | Pet Shop Boys | Marty Rhone | Josef Salvat | Kiki Dee and Carmelo Luggeri | Aquilo | The Breeders | Tony Enos | Tupac Shakur | Nakhane Touré | Al Green | Donald Glover/Childish Gambino | Josh Garrels | Stromae | Damiyr Shuford | Vaudou Game | Yotha Yindi and The Treaty Project | Lil Nas X | Daby Touré | Sheku Kanneh-Mason | Susan Boyle | D’Angelo | Little Richard | Black Pumas | Mbemba Diebaté | Judie Tzuke | Seckou Keita | Rahsaan Patterson | Black | Ash Dargan | ABBA

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