Ancestry’s indexing experiment with firms in China

I follow genealogist Michele Lewis on TikTok. She recently found an unusual transcription from the 1820 Federal Census. Check out the handwritten first name. What does it look like to you?

ancestry index outsource to china

Now, I get it that a 200-year-old handwritten scrawl can be hard to read. But how could a transcriber even consider “Elizabether” in this case?

I think I know the answer. In 2008, I worked for an online technology publication, The Industry Standard (no longer online). I interviewed Tim Sullivan, CEO of The Generations Network, which was’s official corporate until 2009. The article was published on October 3, 2008, on the website of The Industry Standard (see image below).

In the interview, Sullivan noted that computers were “not even close” to being able to read handwritten records, especially those from disparate sources such as census records which have many different styles of handwriting.

So Ancestry turned to human transcriptionists. Paid transcriptionists, not volunteers like on FamilySearch. Sullivan told me:

“The vast majority of the investment we’ve made in the last 10 years is not in acquisitions costs or imaging costs, it’s in the indexing costs.”

At the time, Sullivan said Ancestry was paying $10 million per year to transcribe old records. To cut costs, Ancestry hired overseas partners in China where English was not widely spoken, but they can get census records transcribed for less money:

So how did The Generations Network import the data from millions of old census forms into its online database? Sullivan says the company spent about $75 million over 10 years to build its “content assets” including the census data, and much of that cost went into partnering with Chinese firms whose employees read the data and entered it into‘s database. The Chinese staff are specially trained to read the cursive and other handwriting styles from digitized paper records and microfilm. The task is ongoing with other handwritten records, at a cost of approximately $10 million per year, he adds.

If you have ever tried to read old handwriting in an unfamiliar language, I am sure you can appreciate how difficult this task would be. But the lack of quality checks and nonsensical transcriptions is stunning. Keep in mind that Ancestry charges customers lots of money (up to 25% more as of January) but its main focus is generating profit for a string of private equity firms. Its current owner is a Wall Street PE firm, Blackstone Inc. It’s not clear if Ancestry still outsources its transcriptions to overseas firms, or if the OCR technology is good enough to hand off the task to computers.

Regardless, what’s especially frustrating is Ancestry customers have attempted to correct this particular error. The actual name is “Christopher Orr.” They’ve added the correct annotation multiple times, but Ancestry still shows the name from that 200-year-old census return as “Elizabether Orr.” Lots of people searching for this ancestor will never find him, thanks to Ancestry’s cost-cutting moves 15 years ago and lack of quality checks to correct such errors.

As Lewis notes at the end of her video, “Maybe you’re going to have the hand-search the indexes one at a time” to determine what the actual name is.

Archive of “Google stays mum on plans for public documents, points to OCR hurdle.” By Ian Lamont. Published 10/3/2008, The Industry Standard.

ancestry china outsource index transcription 2008


Inspired by the Harvard Extension School Spirit Awards (and surprised!)

One sign that the Harvard Extension School community is really coming together is the first annual HESA awards. The Harvard Extension School Student Association has been a part of campus life for decades, but this year decided to recognize the many undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, officers, and clubs who are integral to supporting students and building community. Only students could nominate or vote. Here’s the list of winners:

Harvard Extension School Awards 2022

I urge you to watch the announcement of the winners (Zoom recording) which was really quite inspiring … it was a chance to recognize and celebrate these achievements, and hear some of their stories. I recognized many of the names, including my former ALM proseminar instructor from nearly 20 years ago, Doug Bond.

You may notice a familiar name toward the bottom of the page. I did not know that someone nominated me until last Friday. I unfortunately could not participate in the ceremony on Sunday as I was on the way home after attending IBPA Publishing University in Orlando, but I did send a statement:

Sorry I am unable to participate in person owing to work-related travel. I am truly honored that current Harvard Extension School students chose to nominate me for “Most Active Alumni.” I’ve been blogging about the Extension School for more than 15 years, ranging from sharing my own journey as a history ALM concentrator, to highlighting the University’s long-standing second-class treatment of HES students. One thing that’s changed in that time is there is now a palpable sense of Extension School student spirit and pride … and a desire to come together to lift ourselves higher. Congratulations to the other nominees in all categories, and many thanks to HESA for organizing this event.

In all the years I have been blogging about the Harvard Extension School (and tweeting on @HarvardExtended) there has never been any public acknowledgement from any official group associated with the University or the Extension School. I was truly touched to be named the winner. Thank you students, and thank you HESA.



Using genealogy books to answer “why” questions about immigrant ancestors

Today I am writing about genealogy books. One of the holy grails for family historians is answering crucial “why” questions about ancestors and the decisions they made:

  • Why did the Pinnix branch of the family move from North Carolina to California?
  • Why did my great-great-grandmother Hanora have a different last name on her son’s marriage certificate?
  • Why did Jonathan Gould list a completely different occupation in the 1880 census?
  • Why didn’t Valeria Rodriguez have her parents’ names listed on her death certificate?

The list of such questions is endless. That said, unless you’re fortunate enough to contact a living relative who knows the details, or good documentation (such as a family letter or a newspaper account) it can be very difficult to find answers.

That’s why I pay very close attention to research published in genealogy books or by local genealogy societies about families or places that have some connection with our own family history. Such genealogy books are huge time-savers, as they let genealogists answer questions that would otherwise take untold hours to research.

genealogy and history books

I am reading one such book now – For the Grass of a Cow: Marion Tiernan’s Irish ancestors from County Meath to Saint Lawrence County, New York, 1820–1999.

The author, Charles M. Carletta, was seeking to answer “why” questions about his own ancestors, and share the answers with his family and descendants.

However, his research also touches topics of interest to anyone with 19th-century Irish immigrants and ancestors who settled in this remote area of northern New York. He addresses crucial “why” questions that apply to our own research:

  • Why was this area so sparsely settled compared to other parts of New York State?
  • Why did immigrants from a particular area of Ireland – County Meath – choose to settle here before 1830, even though it was a frontier wilderness?
  • Why did so many immigrants from Ireland land in Canada instead of New York City before the Famine?

The author’s easy-to-understand answers apply directly to two branches of my family. The book also answered some of the basic “why” questions above, including the one about occupations in the 1880 census (the author notes census enumerators in 1880 were professionals for the first time, and as a result got more accurate answers). Carletta, a retired professor, also included extensive footnotes listing specific shipping and land records, as well as other books and historical resources to follow up with.

Where can you find genealogy books and articles that relate to your own family’s ancestors? Amazon has some titles, but we’ve found that specialty publishers and genealogy societies have books and journal articles that can’t be found elsewhere. I have found some great genealogy books at the NEHGS bookstore.

I have also had luck with the local history rooms at town libraries, as well as small-town historical societies. If you’re planning a genealogy road trip this summer, make plans to visit these repositories!

Substandard “luxury” housing construction, from New York to Newton

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an article titled They Expected Luxury. They Got Leaky Ceilings and Broken Elevators. While the article was about pandemic-era construction, the comment from someone who claimed to have worked in Manhattan real estate development pointed to a problem that has been ongoing for many years:

I worked in luxury construction in Manhattan for nearly two decades, building and installing every type of bespoke metalwork that architects and designers could imagine. I was almost always appalled by the dysfunction on job sites, even on projects with multi-million-dollar budgets. In my opinion most of it was the result of construction companies hiring the cheapest possible labor and pushing them to go too fast. I can’t count how many times “bargain” laborers damaged my work or that of other craftspeople involved, simply because they were inexperienced or poorly managed. Until developers and general contractors begin to truly respect EVERYONE involved, whether they’re skilled artisans or merely sweeping up the sawdust, these problems will continue.

Another commenter said that the problem wasn’t only in New York:

Not just New York! I moved into a BRAND NEW “luxury” mid-rise in Florida in 2020 (building opened December 2019). Such terrible terrible awful construction! So glad I was only there for some months. Worst living experience I’ve ever had and that was the most expensive place I’ve ever lived in my life. Examples: Slanted (instead of straight) handing kitchen lights. Super thin walls – could hear my neighbor sneeze rooms away. The three elevators (placed in very awkward locations) took turns being broken every single month. Broken coffee machine. Thin exterior walls – could never sleep bc you can hear the highway all day and night. Leaning cabinets. Peeling wooden floors. Warped balcony doors. Low water flow (wouldn’t send solids down the toilet so I’d have to pour water in to manually flush!). And remember… this was a brand new place. I was the first ever occupant.

A third person said:

The best builders and contractors and sub-contractors have to turn down work because they’re in such high demand and so who gets those jobs instead of then? A lot of people who are learning on the job and making a lot of mistakes. Many of those “luxury” buildings are not luxury construction. EVEN in super high-end buildings you still get issues so it’s no surprise that with the sheer amount of building in NYC places that claim to be “luxury” are certainly not and full of behind the sheetrock fixes. If you’re going to buy find out who the builder is and do your research. I’m not talking about the developer, I’m talking about the company in charge of the actual building process. Then look up one of their buildings and see how it’s doing a couple of years down the road. And look in the cabinets and check the finishing work. Look at the plumbing under the sink and behind the toilet… How well is it finished? Go to the basement and get into the service areas and see what it looks like where there’s no sheetrock. Walk down the stairs and look at the concrete and the electric conduit and water pipes. You’ll start to see how much care and oversight was put into a building.

Reading these comments, I was reminded of the scenes outside of Trio Newton when it first opened on Washington Street in Newtonville, on the site of the former Orr block (Karoun, Ken Kaye Crafts, Newtoville Camera, etc.). Trio is the luxury apartment block built by Mark Development after steamrolling opposition from local neighbors and northside ward councilors with the help of the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce and pro-development politicians like Newton’s former Mayor Setti Warren (see “Upzoning” in Newton: A tool to turn over the city from one class of people to another?).

When going to the Newtonville Post Office next door to Trio in 2020, I noticed long straps of plastic-like material hanging from an overhang above (below the 2nd floor of Trio). One strip was so low to the ground that someone could jump up and pull it down.

I wasn’t the only one to notice something was amiss. In April 2021, Ward 2 Councillor Julia Malakie compiled a list of other construction problems she had observed at Trio Newton under the heading “Is Trio Tired?” and shared it with her newsletter subscribers:

trio newton construction 2

Mark Development Construction

That wasn’t all. Other parts of the brand-new Trio showed signs of poor construction:

mark development newton luxury construction

mark development newton luxury 2

Despite Mark Development promising the moon to neighbors and councilors, this is what Trio looked like less than one year after its official opening. These problems have since been fixed, but I wonder about other issues that can’t be seen from the street. If anyone has knowledge, please leave your comments below.

Keep in mind that Mark Development has been given the green light by the Mayor and a bloc of pro-luxury development City Councillors (mostly from south-side wards, far away from any of these projects) to build not only overpriced rentals for the rich, but also science labs for pharmaceutical companies … and potentially housing for Newton’s seniors.

Mark Development is now planning another giant 7-story development on the Newtonville/Lake border. As noted by Ward 1 Councillor John Oliver in his newsletter:

Two concerns that I have heard most frequently, and share, are that the building exceeds even the generous allocation in the Washington Street Vision Plan, as well as how the developer intends to satisfy their Inclusionary housing requirements (ie., affordable units).

Substandard work on these types of buildings is not only unacceptable, it risks the safety of Newton residents.

Yet we hear nothing from Mayor Fuller and the pro-luxury development bloc in the City Council. Has any City Councillor from the southside wards ever challenged Mark Development about stuff falling apart at Trio, or the implications for future construction at Riverside in Auburndale or Washington Street, including scientific labs and housing for senior citizens?

Why is that?

Best printer in Newton or Waltham

Best printer in Waltham or Newton is Red Spot Printing I’ve used a lot of printers in Newton and Waltham, from small shops to the big national chains. I even had my graduate thesis at the Harvard Extension School bound by a book bindery located on a Waltham back street. Currently, I print hundreds of thousands of sheets every year for my business including consumer stationery, ISBN reference sheets, and direct mailings. The best service and quality comes from the smaller printers, and among that select group, one company stands out: Red Spot Printing at 182 Newton Street in Waltham.

I first got to know Red Spot Printing in 2015, when we needed a new local printer to work with. Julie and the Red Spot team not only provided wonderful service, but were also willing to work with us on all kinds of new genealogy sheets requiring special paper, ink, or printing techniques. Some of these designs, including the large print genealogy sheets and the Genealogy Kit for Kids shown above, are printed nowhere else. All are printed on acid-free paper on Red Spot’s array of offset and digital printers.

Why we like local Waltham and Newton businesses

Red Spot, like our own company, is a family-run business. We like that, and value the face-to-face contact. Julie’s father founded the print shop in 1974, and some of the employees have been there for decades. When we are doing pickups, family members and other staff will often help us load up the car. When Julie’s kids are old enough, I expect they will pitch in with the family business, just as our son for our own does from time to time.

While we could search for cheap printers services overseas, switch to a national chain, or opt for less-expensive paper, Nicole and I wouldn’t dream of doing so. For our core partners, trust, quality, and personal service are paramount, and Red Spot checks all the boxes. We think when you handle our high-quality genealogy charts or technology cheat sheets in person, they will check all of your boxes, too!

Redesigning our Genealogy Kit for Kids to include fillable PDFs

Last month, my company redesigned the PDF edition of our popular Genealogy Kit for Kids using fillable PDF fields. This means kids and grandkids can type into the PDFs using the free Adobe Acrobat Reader app on a PC, Mac, or iPad, and print out the results.

Many family historians, ourselves included, were bitten by the genealogy bug when we were young. It often starts with simple questions:

  • Why do we have this last name?
  • Where was grandma born?
  • Why do we celebrate certain events?
  • Why do we eat special foods in our family?
  • How is this cousin related to us?

The Kids Genealogy Kit taps into this natural curiosity with interview sheets, simple ancestry charts, and maps to trace global origins. It really encourages children to talk with their parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents in order to better understand family history, origins, and cultural traditions. For instance, it includes maps covering every inhabited country that kids can mark up with ancestors’ home regions, and includes interview sheets that children can use to talk with cousins, siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives about family history and traditions.

These conversations is where some of the best learning experiences can take place, revealing stories and clues that can become the foundation of family history in the years to come. It also helps to build family bonds through personal conversations.Genealogy for Kids

When we officially unveiled the Genealogy Kit for Kids at the RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City a few years ago, we got a LOT of positive feedback. Some attendees liked the fact that it wasn’t yet another screen-based activity for children. A few educators were excited about the possibilities of including the kit in classroom activities.

Last year, the following review really touched us:

I bought this for my 12-year-old niece, who has recently begun asking questions about her heritage and family history. It has made a wonderful introduction to Genealogy, and a great guide to asking the important questions of their older relatives. This Kit has passed the time at family gatherings and on car trips. It has gotten everyone involved in collecting and recording a gold mine of family information, stories, and anecdotes.

However, this same reviewer also had a request: Would it be possible to make fillable PDFs so her daughter could type the information using her iPad on long car trips? It took some time, but the fillable PDF set is finally here. You can learn more about kids’ genealogy PDFs on the EasyGenie website.

Harvard College UC supports Extension School students on degree name issue (updated)

Updated – see below. Big news this morning: The Harvard College Undergraduate Council unanimously supported a bill that supports a student-led movement to remove “in Extension Studies” from Harvard Extension School degrees. The Extension School ALB candidate who is responsible for getting the bill in front of the UC, Kody Christiansen, described what happened on a private Facebook page:

Yesterday (March 27th, 2022), I was asked to speak at the UC meeting last minute by the Harvard College student body President. I went, I spoke my truth, told my story about how I got to Harvard, and told them how much their support for the bill I proposed last semester (a bill asking for the College students to support the removal of “in Extension Studies”) meant to me and so many others. In a wonderfully surprising move, a student sitting next to me, proposed they move my bill to the top for an immediate vote when the meeting was nearly over.
The board approved to move it up.

Then they voted…..

And it passed with all hands raised in the room! 👏🏻👏🏻

The UC bill contains some interesting language. First, it raises the level of publicity that the UC is willing to give to efforts to remove the “in Extension Studies” designation from ALB degrees. Second, it gives support to HES undergraduates in getting answers from the University on why the change hasn’t been made yet:

Harvard College UC support Extension School Students

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The only way to get “in Extension Studies” removed from Harvard Extension School degrees is through vocal, public demands for change. Having the voice of the Harvard College UC makes a real difference.

But what if the University still doesn’t listen?

In my opinion, if the University continues to do nothing, it will likely be necessary to hold demonstrations and other protests that cannot be ignored, just like Harvard graduate students and other groups have done in the past. These public demonstrations will need to take place in front of Mass Hall, where the University administration is headquartered, as well as outside of FAS faculty meetings, gatherings of the Board of Overseers, and meetings of the Harvard Corporation.

ESRI, HESA, and The Crimson

Christiansen leads the Extension Studies Removal Initiative (ESRI) and has been very active lobbying on this issue. He was one of the students interviewed by The Crimson last year and has also laid the groundwork for a Crimson editorial calling for the removal of the demeaning “in Extension Studies” designation from Extension School degrees:

the Extension School’s vague degree labeling process lacks reason and rationale, trivializing the achievement implicit in years of specialized study at the Extension School. Indeed, at the Extension School, students of all backgrounds, ages, and levels of experience are able to spend years honing in on targeted areas of study within disciplines such as global studies, technology, education, and business and management. Ultimately, their degrees ought to reflect their mastery and celebrate the effort students expend to hone and refine their individual interests.

Instead, the degree-naming system stands as a troubling marker of unequal treatment, one that treats field-specific recognition as an exclusive courtesy, rather than as a basic, requisite, and hard-earned honor deserved by all students.

Amazingly, with the recent Crimson and UC support, ESRI has made more progress on this issue in the last two years than the Division of Continuing Education (which oversees the Harvard Extension School) has made during the tenure of the last two deans. Indeed, the current administration went so far as to rig the rules for Harvard Extension Student Association (HESA) elections last year to prevent Christiansen from running and any other HESA officer from getting involved in certain issues that the Division of Continuing Education supposedly is working on.

The Facebook post detailing the vote is on a private page.

UPDATE: The Harvard Graduate Council followed suit. Quoting from the Crimson:

“I just think this is really important for the dignity of our students, and we represent the entire graduate student community who I think would very forcefully be in favor of this,” said Gabrielle “Gabe” L. Crofford, a Harvard Law School student, while expressing her support for the bill.

Ultimately, the Graduate Council voted to be a signatory on the bill.


Should diaries and other private papers be left to descendants?

We had a conversation recently about a book on Swedish Death Cleaning. It sounds morbid, but it got us talking about the types of papers we want to hand down to the next generation, which might be important to family historians and genealogists of the future. This ties into our family business, which designs and sells high-quality genealogy charts. for recording ancestry and family stories.

While we do not advocate saving papers of limited value (business records, financial statements, school reports) what about other types of documents, that may be considered core genealogy, like a diary?

1918 pandemic diary

Such documents could include personal letters, journals, or writings that reveal something of a person’s life or perspective. We had conflicting ideas about this:


What I wouldn’t give for a copy of my great-grandmother’s diary!


A journal is a very personal place for expressing random, rambling, and sometimes unsettled thoughts. It’s therapeutic – once you put it on paper, it makes you feel better. But I wouldn’t feel comfortable for people to look at my private thoughts.

She makes a great point. Privacy concerns extend to other types of documents, too. Would you want an old letter to an ex, written when you were 20 years old, preserved and shared with descendants? What about an angry letter, or a document detailing painful medical issues?

Famous authors sometimes request the executor to destroy private papers. Franz Kafka, Edward Albee, and others had specific instructions governing letters, manuscripts, and other documents.

Core genealogy documents for the next generation

Core genealogy documents for the next generation

We read an article a few days ago titled “How to Discover the Life-Affirming Comforts of ‘Death Cleaning’” Despite the morbid title, it’s a thoughtful discussion of cutting down clutter so your loved ones don’t have to later.

The article also got us talking about the types of papers and other documents we want to leave to our descendants … and those which should be trashed.

The company I founded is all about preserving and sharing core genealogy data, genealogy stories, and family photos on paper, which is the only proven long-term storage medium that’s relatively affordable and easy to use.

For instance, we have copies of a handwritten family tree and other notes written by great-grandmothers, cousins, aunts and uncles, some of which has survived close to 100 years. If they had computers in the 1930s, we doubt any of this would be available now, any more than we can easily read a floppy disk from the 1980s, a computer punch card from the 1960s, or a defunct online genealogy forum from twenty years ago.

But what about other types of information stored on paper that might be cluttering your basement right now? Consider the following:

  • Report cards
  • School assignments
  • Diplomas
  • Business records
  • Invitations
  • Holiday cards
  • Used notebooks
  • Bank statements
  • Tax returns
  • Property deeds

While there might be mild curiosity over these papers 100 or 200 years hence, such documents do not fall under the umbrella of “core genealogy.”

Unless there is something truly remarkable or special about an individual document in the list above, they should not be preserved or left for your loved ones to deal with. They are bulky. They are difficult to sort through. In some cases, these documents are redundant to information that will be readily available from other sources such as school yearbooks, business directories, or census returns.

Learning from a pop music experiment: My time with The KLF

KLF Pyramid Blaster

I posted over on my personal blog a recollection of my first media job 30 years ago, working for Lillie Yard Studio in London (See “An education with The KLF“). This later turned into a job with KLF Communications, the record label for Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s unusual pop music experiment, The KLF.

I’ve written about my time in London before (see “How dance music was made circa 1991“):

Working at Lillie Yard in 1991, I must have heard remixes of The KLF’s “Last Train to Trancentral,” “What Time is Love,” and “3 am Eternal” as well Nomad’s “I Want to Give You Devotion” several hundred times as the crew worked through the tracks and tried different beats, sounds, and speeds using the software.

The results The KLF was able to achieve were quite amazing. I was never a big dance music fan, but I respected what Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond were doing. I mean, what other pop act would have thought to meld 70s country music with the club sounds of London, and not only make it work, but turn it into a global pop sensation? Bringing country music legend Tammy Wynette into the studio with a rapper to do a club dance song (“Justified & Ancient”) seems absolutely bonkers but it worked.

Breaking music industry rules

I worked for Lillie Yard and The KLF for only a year, but I learned a lot about the media industry. It was a fantastic education in how to break the rules.

For instance, The KLF never made a pound touring or DJing. Their success and much of their impact was tied to European club playlists, the sales of singles, album sales, and media coverage.

This was rare then as it is now. Most bands need to perform, even dance-oriented acts (think Moby, DJs, hip hop artists, etc.).

But for a smaller number of top artists before the year 2000, record sales served as the sole source of income, and enabled them to do amazing stuff. Besides The KLF, XTC falls into this category. Andy Partridge apparently had terrible stage fright, hated touring, and basically stopped after the late 70s. During the 80s they recorded some truly groundbreaking albums on the strength of their songwriting and studio talents, and were able to survive on record sales based on a strong fan base and very limited radio airplay to promote record sales.

The KLF were experts at building up mystique that went totally against the early 90s pop music publicity playbook. The pyramid blaster logo, shown above, looked like some sort of Illuminati fantasy. They used a 1968 Ford Galaxy police cruiser in many of their videos (kept in a London parking garage, IIRC), with the lights and paint intact but modifications to the seal and motto (using “To Serve and Protect” and the band’s Pyramid Blaster logo). You can see a picture of it on the back of some of their 45s (see and I know they drove it around London for the 3 A.M. Eternal video.

But sometimes The KLF got burned by experiments.

One day we received in the mail a cassette tape and a letter from a law firm representing a composer or publisher (I can’t remember which) of a famous Broadway soundtrack from the 1960s. The letter accused The KLF of infringement. The cassette contained one of the songs on the Broadway soundtrack, an instrumental section of which repeated a three note riff that sounded a lot like the same three-note sequence from one of the KLFs biggest hits. The rhythms and song structures were otherwise nothing alike.

It didn’t seem like an obvious example of copying, and it was quite possible it was a coincidence or some obscure influence on The KLF or their core musical collaborators, who would have been youths when the Broadway soundtrack was released.

“Are you going to fight this?” I asked Sallie Fellowes, the president of The KLF’s record label, KLF Communications.

Her answer: “No.”

From The KLF’s perspective, it wasn’t worth a long, expensive legal fight they might lose. I think a lot of it related to the problems it encountered with the “1987” album, which had been partly done to ridicule the record industry but really took a lot of energy to deal with when the legal troubles emerged.

Also, the label president didn’t say it, but potential bad press could have also been on her mind. At the time, The KLF had the British music press eating out of their hands, and a public legal fight could change the narrative of The KLF as being brilliant pop iconoclasts to something less favorable.

The KLF and the press

While the British music press loved The KLF, the mainstream media never quite got what they were about.

One thing that the media have a tough time dealing with is the fact that Bill and Jimmy are experimental artists who took over the pop charts … and then proceeded to do what experimental artists are wont to do in such a situation. They gave a huge middle finger to the industry, by barnstorming the 1992 Brit Awards (the big UK music industry award ceremony, akin to The Grammies). They played  a death metal version of one of their dance hits and fired blanks from an automatic weapon over the crowd. They also dumped a dead sheep outside one of the after-parties, which got a lot of tabloid coverage. Later, they deleted their entire back catalogue and then burnt a million quid on video.

What does the media remember The KLF for? More often than not, it’s the one-off act of Burning a Million Quid.

Their ground-breaking music, the books, the anti-establishment statements and art … it’s seldom taken seriously or given much respect these days. Sometimes Bill and Jimmy’s exhibitions will get some coverage, but I hate to see the same old background factoid trotted out. It’s as if reporters writing about John Lennon always referenced “The Beatles are bigger than Jesus” quote to define him.

I left London in April 1992 for Asia. I never had contact with Sallie or Bill or Jimmy again. I know Drummond and Cauty proceeded to do lots of other experimental stuff, ranging from writing some excellent books to artistic activities such as Cauty’s model village. I don’t know what happened to Sallie.