Published Jan 01, 2006Bay 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.
Allen leaves, and Joyce and Grigg become full-fledged members. The ensuing five-piece line-up Grigg, Hosler, Joyce, Lyons, and Wills keep up their various explorations on the air and in the studio, not to mention irregular but creative and well-received live performances and occasional dabbling in video work. Their reputation grows to the point where they are formally signed to SST, the punk label run by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn, a decision that would have unexpected consequences later. In 1985, Over The Edge Vol. 1, JAMCOM 84 is issued on Seeland. The Over The Edge program introduces many of the members' numerous alter-egos, all of who add stature to satire with lengthy liner-note essays. In 1986, the show moves from the Sunday night graveyard shift to Thursday from midnight to 3 am. As Hosler recalls during a 1995 interview with KUCI 88.9, "the show had built up a real listenership, and the music director at the time seemed to enjoy pointing to our show as their one example of his innovative experimental programming."
But it isn't until 1987, with the release of their SST debut, that Negativland sets out on a string of media pranks that will culminate four years later in one of the most clever and well-orchestrated acts of sabotage in the history of 20th century pop culture. The album is called Escape From Noise, and it goes on to sell 35,000 copies, making it an unqualified success for an album so experimental in nature. Featuring guest appearances by Jello Biafra, Jerry Garcia, the Residents, and Fred Frith, Escape attempts to answer a musical question (is there any escape from noise?) and parody a perfect pop product. Unlike previous Negativland albums, it finds the thin line that is at once far enough to observe and criticise, yet also close enough to participate in what they distort and reflect. Tucked into a wide variety of sound collages and actual songs is "Christianity Is Stupid," a track featuring a mercilessly spliced-up evangelical sermon layered over a buzzing and droning groove, that will prove to be an enduring signature song. The "found" recording at the song's centre belongs to the Reverend Estus W. Pirkle, from a sermon recorded in 1968. Otherwise, the beginning of the SST years mark a hiatus for releases on Seeland, which will resume again by the mid-90s.
In an inspired turn, the group ties together "Christianity Is Stupid," conservative Midwest paranoia (at this time, Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Center was warning parents that rock could kill), and the media's appetite for scandalous narratives into one brilliant, ethically ambiguous hoax. On February 20, a story surfaces in many mass-media news services about the arrest of 16-year-old David Brom, who is accused of murdering his father, mother, sister and brother with an axe two days prior. A NY Times article mentions that David and his father, a devout Roman Catholic, may have argued over a music tape David was listening to at the time. Meanwhile, the unexpected success of Escape From Noise pits Negativland with the prospect of embarking on a money-losing tour. But by March 10, the possibility of touring grows too tenuous and they cancel all dates. As an experiment, the group sends SST a phoney press release for distribution to press and radio, which attributes the tour cancellation to an impending FBI investigation into connections between the group and the Brom murders. The press release implies that the song David and his father were arguing about shortly before the slayings was none other than "Christianity Is Stupid." Within a week, numerous music magazines have jumped on the story and are calling SST in search of comments from the group. In interviews, members remain evasive on the subject, never directly confirming or denying their involvement with the Brom case. But their ambiguity is enough for magazines to move forward with stories about the possible connection. As the story infiltrates mass media, the group steadfastly maintains its ambiguous commentary on the subject and news services begin to use other news services as their sources. The story takes on a life of its own, with no one willing to look beyond the initial press release and what had already been written on the matter to confirm or deny the allegations. Unabated, the story rises through the ranks into the San Francisco Chronicle, Penthouse, the Village Voice, and even further into the CBS Television affiliate, KPIX's Channel 5 news. Three months pass before anyone questions the validity of the story. In the meantime, the group has collected enough audio material from sources covering the Negativland connection to begin work on a twelve-inch, which then turns into the follow-up to Escape From Noise.
The result is Helter Stupid, the group's first all-out concept album. The concept, and much of the material, comes from the KPIX Channel 5 news program that was taken in by the media hoax. Other samples include those from Rev. Estus Pirkle (further samples from the same sermon used in "Christianity Is Stupid"); an interview with Charles Manson; and what is the band's most brazenly unauthorized sample to date, "Helter Skelter" by the Beatles. The liner notes detail the hoax's chronology and aftermath, clearly acknowledging the "electronic environment of factual fictions" of their undertaking. Conscious that the stunt might be perceived as callously profiting from the violent murders of four people, the liner notes go on to specify that "our lie was intended for and directed to the media, and it proved very effective in exposing the unreliable process of cannibalisation that passes for news.'" Alongside the methodical exposition of the media as a self-consuming entity, the group has succeeded in simultaneously accomplishing at least one other act of culture jamming. As an underground act, they have sabotaged mainstream news networks into unwittingly publicising their work to audiences otherwise out of reach. Steadfast proponents of amending "fair use" and copyright laws, the group allows their work to be sampled by other artists without permission. A number of underground house and techno artists sample Negativland. More interestingly, so do the 1989 MTV Music Awards and CBS/Columbia's release of A Guy Called Gerald's Automanikk. By doing so, these corporations contradict the copyright laws they uphold for their own property.
Core member Mark Hosler finally quits his day job and pursues Negativland full time. Everyone else still holds down other work. With the success of their albums and the added notoriety of their media pranks, the groups raised profile spikes interest in the Over The Edge broadcasts. SST issues four edited shows, bringing fictional alter egos like Pastor Dick, the Weatherman, and Dick Vaughn to wider audiences.
A pubescent Mark Wahlberg follows in his older bother Donnie's footsteps (who then is the oldest member of New Kids On The Block) and releases his debut album, Music for the People. Issued on Interscope/Atlantic, the title track samples close to ten seconds from Negativland's Escape From Noise. Neither Mark Wahlberg nor the label attempts contact with the group or SST. Music for the People goes on to sell over one million copies. But the year will be remembered as the year Negativland instigated one of the most notorious stunt in music history, an act that would question the nature of artistic appropriation within a competitive corporate structure, and ultimately pave the way for the sampling boom in mid-90s mainstream hip-hop. As if the fallout from the "Christianity Is Stupid" hoax wasn't enough, in August of 1991, Negativland and SST issue a single called "U2." The packaging is a masterpiece of deception. The cover features a small U-2 spy plane dwarfed by the huge lettering of U2. At the bottom, in small print, is the group's name. For all intents and purposes, the "U2" single looks like a U2 product called "Negativland." Furthermore, the timing of the single eclipses the long-awaited release of U2's own Achtung Baby. The single features only two versions of the one track, called "The Letter U and the Numeral 2," which crosses 35 seconds of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" (played on kazoo and synthesizer) with CB-radio conversation, nonsensical commentary from the Weatherman, and a profanity-laced studio tantrum thrown by all-American Top 40 radio icon Casey Kasem. Contrary to popular belief, it is the Casey Kasem recordings that inspire the single. Recorded by an engineer working at Kasem's radio station, the tape features malicious, uncensored off-air rants that contradict, to say the least, his public persona as the sugary, dedication-issuing father figure of American Top 40 radio. On the Negativland single, Kasem says, "That's the letter U and the number 2. These guys are from England [sic] and who gives a shit?"
"The bulk of appropriated material on our earlier releases was from fairly obscure stuff," says Joyce in a 1995 interview with Wired magazine, "and U2 marked the first time we had ever taken on pop music. It wasn't even something that attracted us, but it just became appropriate because we got these Casey Kasem tapes mentioning U2. It's nothing we'd have chosen to do otherwise." Within two weeks, Island files a suit attacking the "U2" single on two counts, claiming that the song's cover art violates trademark protection and that its music's "unauthorised use of a sound recording" violates copyright law. The label also contends that the single was an attempt to deliberately confuse U2 fans, then awaiting a new album. Furthermore, Island demands that every copy of the single and all materials for its promotion and manufacture be immediately delivered to the company for destruction and that "U2's" copyright be reassigned to Island. Island's explosive reaction apparently happens without the knowledge of U2's members, who later claim to have no real qualms with Negativland's single. Soon, Kasem finds out about the single, too, and launches his own lawyers onto the case. In less than a month, Negativland and SST Records stand to lose an estimated $70,000 U.S. This amounts to more than Negativland has made in 11 years as a group. On October 8, SST agrees, on Negativland's and their own behalf, to enter into a settlement agreement to pay damages to Island and Warner/Chappell. SST then tries to trick Negativland into signing a separate agreement, which will lay the entire blame and costs upon the group. On November 19, Chris Blackwell, president of Island, sends a fax to Negativland admitting that the members of U2 have given him a huge amount of hassle not to press for payment. But Blackwell still wants to be reimbursed for $55,000 U.S. in legal fees. The group responds by offering concessions to the single, such as changing the deceptive cover art, releasing the track as a B-side to a U2 single, and allowing SST to continue selling the single with all royalties going to U2 instead of Negativland. Blackwell does not respond. Buried in financial threats beyond their capabilities, SST and Negativland have no choice but to concede to Island's overwhelming pressure to recall the single, but not before 6,951 copies are sold. Negativland portrays the proceedings as an outrageous attack on free speech, a revealing display of corporate greed, and a semi-intentional dissection of intellectual property rights. By December, Negativland parts way with SST.
The U2 situation escalates when Greg Ginn unexpectedly turns on Negativland and sues them to recoup his financial losses. He does this even as SST issues the Guns EP, a 1990 recording originally commissioned by New American Radio, and a "Kill Bono" Negativland T-shirt, which leads fans to believe the group is instigating a full-fledged "Kill Bono" campaign. In June, U2's publicist contacts Mondo 2000 magazine on behalf of the group's guitarist, the Edge, with the idea of doing a rare interview concerning the group's Zoo TV tour and its use of technology. Without the Edge's knowledge, editor R.U. Serius contacts friends Don Joyce and Mark Hosler and invites them to participate in the interview. Once confronted by Hosler and Lyons, the Edge is affable and understanding and keen to distance himself from Island's lawsuits. By interview's end, Hosler expresses the group's interest in returning to Seeland, and asks the Edge for a $20,000 loan to get the label up and running again. The Edge expresses interest, but never follows up. Estranged from SST and seeking publicity for the case, the group returns to their original Seeland home and issues a 96-page magazine-and-CD set entitled The Letter U and the Numeral 2, which includes press releases, faxes, letters, the interview for Mondo 2000 with the Edge, and litigious threats from Kasem and SST. The 25-minute CD features a lecture that spells out its position in academic, if condescending, clarity. Two months after the magazine's release, SST files another lawsuit against the group, this time claiming copyright infringement based on reproductions of press releases sent to the press by SST. SST is suing Negativland for publishing the press releases in which SST threatened to sue them. Meanwhile, U2's globetrotting Zoo TV tour plods onward, infringing copyrights on a massive scale during every performance by broadcasting live satellite images on stage to paying audiences. They get away with it.
Back on their own label, the members of Negativland take a fresh direction with their fifth album, Free. Combining car manufacturer's slogans, sound effects, and a PSA warning against drinking and driving in "We Are Driven," they create a danceable phantasmagoria that confronts the cultural obsession with cars. The group tours for the first time in years, delivering both older hits and extended meditations on the still-ongoing U2 saga. Wills, who decides not to join Negativland on the road, prepares videotaped versions of his part for playback. The show is documented on the bootleg, Negativconcertland, which emerges later that year. Meanwhile, Virgin America issues the UB-40 CD single, "Higher Ground." "Chronic," the B-side, features a Negativland sample. No one from Virgin or UB-40 seeks permission to use the sample.
1994 to 1995
Funds exhausted, Negativland settles with Island out of court. Most copies of the single are recalled and destroyed. By the mid-90s, hip-hop has made sampling a common trait of popular culture, but the "U2" single remains illegal to sell in the United States (however, it's available for download through the band's website). Island finally agrees to return the single to Negativland for re-release, under one condition: they must secure Kasem's permission before doing so. Kasem refuses the request. Negativland fans deluge Kasem with letters pleading for him to sign the release form. One fan even writes a death threat to the radio personality. Kasem calls the FBI, who investigate every member of the group. Island's olive branch is not without its thorns. To this day, there remains a court injunction against the group tampering with any more U2 music. Violation could mean jail time for contempt of court. Over the two-year period, four more Over The Edge volumes are issued, one of which is a partial reissue of Over The Edge Vol. 1: The Staring Line with Dick Goodbody, aptly referred to as Over The Edge Vol. 1.5. Two others emerge as double-discs, and the third, Sex Dirt, includes a detailed "sexual IQ test" in its liner notes, along with a custom-printed moist towelette. No longer bound to conditions set by outsiders, the flurry of releases continues on Seeland, which grows to become a home to other like-minded artists, such as John Oswald and the Evolution Control Committee. The group also expands and reissues the 96-page The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2 into the full-blown book-size 275-page Fair Use. Added to the package is a lengthy appendix compiled for artists wishing to examine fair use provisions, as well as a 45-minute collage addressing the subject, using appropriated material that exemplifies the techniques the group advocates. Among those sampled are Led Zeppelin and Walt Disney. Sonic Outlaws, a 16 mm documentary film by Craig Baldwin on cultural appropriation and culture jamming, uses Negativland's U2 scandal to explore a whole sub-culture of plunderphonicists, among them John Oswald, the Tape-Beatles, the Emergency Broadcast Network, the Barbie Liberation Organization, and the Situationists.
Notorious and bankrupt, the group finally releases Dispepsi, their first proper studio album in four years and their first without Chris Griggs, who decides the year previous to part ways for good. Bearing album art that crosses the Yin-Yang (symbol of the ancient Chinese understanding of how things work) and a Pepsi logo, the album seems prepared to weather another corporate shitstorm. Initial pressings of the design do not bear the album title. Instead, a sticker on the cover asks fans to phone a "word of mouth" line to claim the actual title. But, three months after its release, PepsiCo issues an official statement claiming it has no intentions to sue the band for copyright infringement, and so the group begins using the title in album promotions. However, Greg Ginn still has a chip on his shoulder. He releases Negativ(e)land: Live on Tour to compete with the Dispepsi album. Although the packaging reveals no dates, the recording is of a June 1989 New York concert at the Knitting Factory. Despite what the liner notes state, the album is not "made possible by special agreement with Negativland." Live On Tour is an incomplete version of what was supposed to be the two-disc Live Stupid, part of a legal obligation to SST dating back five years, a result of the U2 settlement. Originally intended for release in 1992, the 1997 version is a re-edited and shortened hack job that changes song titles at random and throws out the already-in-place original artwork, photographs and extensive liner notes, replacing it all with a generic black and white cover that misspells the band's name in a snide nose-thumbing. The disc is rushed to release in a blind cash-in attempt.
Cashing in on the mainstream acceptance of sampling culture, MuchMusic and Fatboy Slim both sample Negativland, yet only the latter takes the time to ask permission. The sampled material appears on Better Living Through Chemistry. Unaware of the problems between group and label, a well-intentioned Norman Cook goes to SST for permission. The label charges him $1,000, money they never share with the group. Ironically, Negativland would have let him use the sample for free. To compound irony, the group had appropriated the sample from a religious flexi-disc originally issued in 1966, a record stolen out of a Concord church basement. As irony grows exponential, Cook licenses his track for use in a Coca-Cola commercial.
After 20 years, Negativland activities are slowing down. The group collaborates with UK anarcho-punks turned pop-sensations Chumbawumba to produce the single The ABCs of Anarchism, which is largely based around the writings of Alexander Berkman and cut-up versions of Chumbawamba's hit song "Tubthumping," the theme tune to the children's program Teletubbies and the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy In the UK."
2000 to 2003
Although they embark on the well-received True/False 2000 tour, there have been no new major works from the camp since 1997. In 2001, the "U2" single mysteriously resurfaces on a bootleg album called These Guys Are From England and Who Gives a Shit, released on the conspicuous "Seelard" label. Over The Edge volumes continue to find their way onto disc and more than 20 years on, the radio show is still on the air every Thursday night from midnight to 3 am.
Late in 2004, Apple issues the iPod U2 Special Edition to promote the Irish band's new album. Fittingly, a Negativland fan named Francis Hwang sets up an eBay posting for a modified version of the U2 iPod, which includes Negativland's seven albums. eBay removes the item. "This unauthorised iPod modification is an artful mash-up of the forces of corporate mega-rock and obscure experimental music, and a provocative symbol of the ongoing struggle between those who would confine culture and those who would free it," Hwang writes in the auction listing. "With the recent release of Apple's iPod U2 Special Edition, and the continuing legal battles over the sampling and copying of music, there has never been a better time for such a tribute to the impact of technology on the flow of culture."
This year sees the once young tape-splicing culture jammers celebrating their 25th anniversary. This month sees the beginning of a deluge of new material by members of the group. Seeland is reissuing 1989's axe murder hoax, Helter Stupid. At the same time, frequent Negativland collaborator and satellite member Jonathan Land is publishing The Spam Letters, a book-length collection of hilarious correspondences with spam writers. 2005 will also finally bring a new official Negativland album, the CD/book No Business, which will be released in May. Late this summer, the group will issue a feature-length DVD collection called Our Favorite Things, which will also contain a bonus CD. Mark Hosler will also release his first-ever solo album. The group is even looking to hit the road. In the face of virtual music, the ambitious possibilities of cassette technology are no longer something today's generation can fully appreciate, but the art of mash-ups, both musical and cultural, is more alive now than ever.
The Essential Negativland
Escape From Noise (1987)
Escape From Noise is the most cohesive Negativland album and their most musical, having advanced their penchant for audio collage into the biting satire that will soon become their trademark. The album features "Christianity Is Stupid," arguably the best single track in the group's catalogue.
Helter Stupid (1989)
After their first major media stunt, Negativland issued this all-out concept album, shifting the direction of their career. Its extensive liner notes document how the group manipulated the David Brom axe murders for their own benefit. The first half is an aural document of how various media outlets jumped on a story that was too good to be true, while the second half is a good entry point into their use of alter egos.
A single that is the holy grail of all Negativland rarities. The track embodies everything Negativland ever sought to achieve with their media pranks. The packaging alone, designed to look like an actual U2 product, is a work of callous mastery. In its original form, it's almost impossible to find, but numerous bootlegs and reissues do exist.