All's Fair in Love and Negativland
Bay Area media-artists Negativland are considered one of the most subversive, curious bands to emerge from the last 20 years of the 20th century. A collective of staunchly independent and fiercely intelligent media pranksters, their records bridge the gap between Faust and Kid606, between the Residents and 2 Many DJ's. Since their inception in 1980, they've thrown an entire history of counterculture, from literary satire to folk to punk to musique concrete, into a creative blender and come up with a mishmash of ego-debunking tape loops and bristling social attacks. As culture-jammers, they pulled off some of the most audacious media hoaxes in music history. As advocates for Fair Use and amendments in copyright law, they've been embroiled in some of the nastiest legal battles. Now celebrating their 25th anniversary, after an extended absence from the public spotlight, they return this year with a fistful of CDs, DVDs, and books. If any one group has deserved the notoriety of being considered "dangerous" by the mainstream, Negativland is it. We dust off the hoaxes, the infamous lawsuits, and the label wrangling that made Negativland the cult legends they are today.
In the sleepy Californian suburb of Concord, located 29 miles north of San Francisco, high school friends Mark Hosler and Richard Lyons start making experimental music and sound collage projects together. They name themselves Negativland, after a song from the self-titled 1972 album by German krautrock pioneers Neu! Multi-instrumentalists Hosler and Lyons use tape manipulations as the locus of their experiments. Soon after forming, the duo recruits David Wills, a local cable TV repairman who will become better known as the Weatherman in later years. Wills contributes the laconic, drawling vocals that will become the group's trademark. The three share a passion for home recording, as well as an interest in the pointed absurdity of radio dramatists Firesign Theatre. Their abstract collage approach also has roots in the musique concrete of Karlhein Stockhausen, the 1950s tape experiments of William Burroughs, and the cut-ups of early Faust records.
With ambitions to move their collaborations beyond their suburban basements, the trio form their own record label and, dipping into the Neu! catalogue once more, decide to name their new home Seeland. With the help of Peter Dayton (who will go on to contribute to numerous Negativland releases), the trio performs, produces, records, mixes, and consequently self-releases their self-titled debut. Negativland is most notable for its unique packaging. In what will begin a career-long habit of culture baiting, each copy features a hand-made, cut-and-paste front cover composed of advertisements from old magazines. The album's tracks flood traditional instrumentation with field recordings culled from Concord's aural environment, as well as decontextualised snippets of mass media, resulting in an album that prompts Recordings magazine to refer to it as a "suburban stream of consciousness." The album goes on to sell 15,000 copies.
Teaming up once again with Peter Dayton, the trio record Points, their second album, and release it on Seeland only nine months after their debut. Points is a more musical album than its predecessor. Alongside the contributions of Wills' mother (accordion) and Hosler's mother (kitchen noises), the album also features puppies, oven grills, insects, meat, and paper. But 1981 is most notable for the introduction of Don Joyce into the fold. Joyce hosts a free-form radio show on Berkeley's KPFA 94.1. Over the Edge airs in the station's graveyard shift, Sundays from 2 am to 7 am. Topics vary wildly, from copyright issues to UFOs to the CIA. Listeners who call are placed on the air without prior screening. Developing noise manipulation as an art form, Joyce uses collage techniques to present his ideas. The audience of callers is considered just another vocal element in the live artistic creation. In July, Joyce invites the local group to perform on his show. The session sets a landmark in Negativland's history. Joyce becomes a contributor to the group and, much in the vein of Firesign Theatre, they begin to perform regularly on the radio. Broadcasting adds new focus to their development. By saturating the airwaves with samples of cultural production and detritus, the Negativland project begins to cultivate its recordings in the direction of pointed satirical arguments. Radio allows them an outlet by which to reflect back onto mass media from within, a pattern that will deliver them their most notorious moments in the decade to come.
With the group slowly coming into fruition as a collective of like-minded artists, Negativland issues its third album, A Big 10-8 Place, in October of 1983 with an altered core line-up. Ian Allen, who contributed to Points, replaces Lyons, though both Lyons and Joyce figure heavily into the album's mandate. A Big 10-8 Place is considered by many to be the band's breakthrough. It also bears the influence of their time on Over The Edge. As much a loving tribute as a scathing indictment of suburbia's soulless facade, the record is a richly detailed, remarkably complex combination of theatrical cohesion, mass market audio technology, and subversion.
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