Four Decades of Negativland
As I sit in quarantine in a bunker on Howland Island my mind turns to my favorite things to occupy myself as the tedious days pass by. With the barrage of news misinformation and the deluge of disinformation it can be hard to stay positive and optimistic when all around me corporate and state surveillance collect my data to throw back at me in algorithm designed to make me buy. Yet happiness isn’t just a click away on the great big catalog of the Clouded sky. It isn’t a brand new Cadillac or the sound of cracking open a can of Pepsi. Happiness isn’t doing what the media tells me I should want to do. Questioning what my actual needs are versus mere or simple crybaby wants has also been known to cause cognitive and emotional dissonance once withdraw from corporate media is attained.
That’s how I first arrived on Howland Island in the first place. I’m not quarantined from covid-19 but from the media virius that has infected my thinking and way of life. Yet I’m lucky to have become acquainted with an antidote to mediated reality and that has been the music, radio and other media works of the multimedia collective known as Negativland. In this essay I want to share some of the joys I’ve had listening to Negativland over the years. They are one of the bright spots in the annals of American music and I want to open up their works for others who may need relief from the constant onslaught of sound bites and over interpreted reality. I’ve written about their Over the Edge (OTE) radio show in another piece, so here I am going to be focusing in on their studio albums.
Negativland are known best for their visceral reinterpretations of the media sphere. Their sample-based masterpieces, heavy on the spoken word, are gathered from every conceivable source: broadcast radio, television, movies, commercial and promotional recordings, homemade family tapes, old records, and found sounds from a plethora of obscure sources. In their most recent work they have taken to sampling the supersaturated mediasphere of the internet: podcasts, youtube, and who knows what all else. These snippets of words are handled with the same meticulous precision as a surgeon or forensic pathologist. The metaphor of pathology is an apt one as much of their creative energy has been used to dissect the psychotic and antisocial tendencies of gun toting capitalists, corporations, and media conglomerates. They’ve been at this game for four decades now. The time has taken its toll: in the last decade alone they have lost four members of their collective.
But who -and more importantly, where- is this Negativland of legend? What were their origins? How did they come to public prominence? And just what happened to snuggles? Walk over the edge with me into Negativland and you will find out the answer to all these questions and more. Settle in with a bottle of Nesbitt’s lime soda, and turn your radio ears, because you are about to be whisked away on a strange journey into some of the most Negative musical minds ever to cut a record in America.
It was out of the bowels of Contra Costa County that the beast first emerged. Two teenage kids had hatched a plan to rearrange the bric-a-brac of the media space into something more delightful, menacing, humorous, and true. Two highschool kids named Mark Hosler and Richard Lyons sat around listening to Neu! and looking for cheap kicks wherever they could get them found inspiration by looking at the everyday world with a skewed vision. They figured, being alive, and creative beings interested in sound they might as well make a record. And look where it got them today! Their self-titled album came out in 1980. They took the DIY approach of having it pressed and making and numbering the covers themselves.
For such pessimistic youth they were full of the necessary vim and vigor and pluck it takes to get shit done. Living on the edge of America, in California, they had no one to answer to artistically. Doing it themselves they had no one to answer to financially. Making records was just something they did. I’m glad they did, and you will be too, once you sit down and listen to the records.
But in a discography so vast and varied where do you start? Why not at the end, and work backwards to the beginning. By first listening to where they went, we can ultimately see the seed out of which they grew.
The World Will Decide (2020)
The World Will Decide is an album that steps away from reality to focus on our very human inability to define anything, even what so called reality is. This is the music of technology run rampant across irreality and surreality, a massage from the medium that keeps on instant messaging you.
This album asks all kinds of questions. Did that firefly really land on your finger? Would you like to be arrested? Does this app connect you to people, or replace them? Is this article an example of inauthentic behavior? Do people have to die?
We have to ask these questions now because sorting true from false has become a full time job, and not only in our own freak-fracking minds, but now that we live life alongside machines whose AI algorithms seek to collect all of the data, dada has become an objective response in the face of “too much”.
The Weatherman is back in his role of asking questions of Siri, Alexa and Ok Google, as a kind of lead singer vocalist, not to mention sound fanatic who has his house wired up with microphones. It’s a strange trip and only one the dumb stupid Weatherman could pull off. With lots of help from various cleaning supplies.
The second track on the album, “Content” sums up the total sourcecode from the album. “Once you have these inspirational provocations / your content / data whisperers will become the new messiahs / my content / to create ideas so contagious they cannot be controlled.” It’s the sound of a media vortex imploding in on itself, sucking everything in, and spitting it back out.
“Don’t don’t get freaked out” brings one of the central ideas of the album home: copying. Negativland has long questioned aspects of copying, being copied, copyright and copyleft. Now they are looking at the simulacra’s and avatars of ourselves occupying the online world. And the question of when we are online, who are we talking to, chatting with? Are these just other computers having copied humanity? Are they Russian web-bots posing as your friend from Alaska or Leeds, England? These are just some more of the questions that get copy and pasted around.
Jon Leidecker, Peter Conheim, David Wills and Mark Hosler, along with the rest of the band now only alive in their audio soundbites and errant memory, craft a slice of netweb media history that is so close to the cutting edge of technology and music that might even be danceable. The album features sound contributions from Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt of Matmos among many, many others.
This album then is the false positive mirror image of 2019’s True False. A la la land, of densely sampled voices culled from the cloud, whose textures evaporate into music before drizzling back down on a landscape experiencing the drought of human to human interaction. On this record they’ve achieved breathtaking levels of jaw-dropping genius in turning popular internet memes and youtube conspiracy channels, truth-in-advertising and the American way into an hallucinogenic, non-stop traffic accident of commerce and hyper-reality. It’s funny – the way the horror channel is funny – and it’s genuinely satirical; I mean it doesn’t secretly love the thing it disembowels. Dense and excoriating. And technically sans pareil. In the world as it is today, now seems to be the perfect time to face up to Negativland’s aesthetic and acclimatize to it, while you can. No one does this better. Not even the people who do it for real.
All in all the extent of mined data, internet surveillance, and copies of humans talking to human copies on the internet is not nothing to get freaked out about.
True False (2019)
How did the band get to this point? And how did so many of the members end up dead? Some even had their ashes distributed as merch on the Over the Edge vol. 9 Chopping Channel release. It was after a searching and fearless moral inventory that they decided upon making an albumatic inquiry into the very nature of misinformation itself. FOX news hosts, ecoterrorists, and your own sanity are all on full display here in this voyeuristic jaunt through a deeply divided internet called America. This is the true negative reflection of 2020’s album of not the same name, The World Will Decide. Have you decided?
True False was also the bands 13th studio album. Perhaps it was this number that exposed them to all the luck they had in the recording process. It was also the first album of the band to have a lyric sheet, including not just words sang or spoken by band members, but all the lyrics from the samples themselves, all congealed into one harmonious beautiful mess.
Any fans of the group who have survived this long, and are actually still alive, able to listen to it, and aren’t just social media memories in a cloud-based afterlife, would recognize many of the familiar concerns and touch points that reach back further into Negativland’s earlier discography. Shootings, bees, the right's rules for radicals, climate control, dogs pretending to be children, the oil we eat, capitalism, and the right of every American to believe whatever they want to believe. All part of the new normal. “The Fourth of July” from Free is revisited. The nervous system of reality making all of us nervous is explored. Juxtaposing Occupy mic checks with US militia rallies the internal divides of the united states never sound so appetizing.
As the entrenched political beliefs of the alt-right and the ctrl-left cleanly flip sides in under a generation the esc-center starts to reveal itself as a viable third option. When you put the word 'True' next to the word 'False' a dichotomy reveals itself. Outside the binary world of digital computers other options exist. This album explores all of this, and songs like “Mounting the Puppy” make me glad I live in the Midwest and not Silicon Valley.
True False and The World Will Decide were the first two albums to be released following the passing of band members Don Joyce, Richard Lyons, and Ian Allen.
It’s All In Your Head (2014)
I was lucky enough to be able to see Negativland when they were touring the material used on It’s All in Your Head. This material itself had been pulled from the hours materials used by Don Joyce on his radio show Over the Edge, which was a parallel universe for Negativland that all of the band members participated in over the years, even though it was Joyce’s own distinct entity.
The concert for It’s All in Your Head was presented as an actual episode of Over the Edge. When my wife and I walked into the ballroom of the Southgate House for the evening we were given piñata blindfolds and encouraged to wear them during the performance so as to experience the music as an OTE episode. Before the band went on and during the intermission they even played the opening theme for the show, the Vangelis song “12 O’Clock “from the album Heaven and Hell. While the song is a touchstone of OTE, it was doubly fitting as a precursor to an evening that saw Negativland and Don Joyce in his guise as Dr. Oslo Norway, exploring the psychological and social ramifications of monotheistic religion, one of the bands favorite topics.
During the set familiar samples often appeared, notably from their hit song “Christianity is Stupid”. All of the material used from the 35 stops on their “Bible Belt Tour” was then taken into the studio to make this album. Here they questioned everything and even attempted to tackle the subject of why humans believe in God. A voice kept popping up out of the sonic debate declaiming “There is no gawwwwwd!”
Followed by the sound of exploding suicide bombers. Other topics included more Christianity, more Islam, more Judaism, more monotheism in general, neuroscience, 9/11, cola, war, shaved chimps, and the all-important role played by the human brain in shaping our own beliefs.
Physically, it was an ambitious release. The double CD was packaged inside of a bonafide King James Bible that had been repurposed into a "found" art object. Combined with the found sound of all the different voices, music, dialogue, and the sounds of their blistering Booper’s this album ends up as an uneasy essay. Listening to it is akin to reading a dense, intellectual and highly entertaining text. I find this to be the case in general with OTE episodes and their albums. I always come away from them having learned something, and questioning the matrix of man mediated religion.
Mark Hosler has always been one of Negativland’s key songwriters, and on Thigmotactic he wrote all the material but had some contributions from other members. It’s also the first album by the group to be entirely organized around songs. Songs are even one of the conceptual structures around which this album coalesces. The name is a reference to thigmotaxis, an instinctive reflex in response to physical touch, as mentioned in a passage from Ann Zwinger's book on the deserts of the southwest, The Mysterious Lands. The reference was about a desert lizard with this thigmotactic ability. Sentences from this section of Zwinger’s book are excerpted on the inside CD cover.
Though Negativland has specialized in creating mind bending audio collages, this album showcases their catchy side, their kitschy side, which does also appears at frequent intervals throughout their oeuvre. It’s a perfect escape from noise for those negafans who enjoy the other song oriented pieces from the band, such as the “Nesbitt’s Lime Soda Song”, “Drink It Up”, and others. It also shows that Negativland aren’t afraid to twitch around and try other tactics, and do new things.
No Business (2005)
2005 was the 25th anniversary of the band’s first album. For this venture they wanted to explore and interpret the world of sampling from the copyrighted terrains they had so nobly trespassed on many times before. Yet there was something new to add to the mix, the record industry trying to put the kibosh on every music fans favorite internet fueled hobby: downloading.
According to the group “No Business is not only a term Negativland’s accountant can identify with, but is also a tenaciously pure attempt to make new music out of old, or old music out of new, whatever anyone cares to decide this dubious case may be. No Business may be a race with Walt Dizzy to commit legal suicide”.
Among the many tracks on this album are “My Favorite Things”, their reel-to-reel cut up of the song from the Sound of Music as sung by Julie Andrews. Here it is rearranged to say things that never would have come out of Julie Andrew’s mouth.
The elaborate release came with a very serious and stodgy 56-page essay about the cultural public domain. Also include was a rubber trademarked Copyright Whoopee Cushion. The enhanced CD also included a video of “Gimme the Mermaid”, from their Fair Use / Dead Dog Records book and CD release. The video for this gem of criminal music was made with a little help from a friend and former Disney animator who infringed on Disney by using Disney’s own computers to create and render it after hours when they weren’t looking.
This video was later included on their 2007 video retrospective Our Favorite Things which could also be viewed and listened to as a kind of greatest hits release. For these videos, Under 17 not admitted without adult, and might not be the best thing for people prone to seizures. For everyone else it’s a mesmerizing document of a prolific group of multimedia artists. (Videos from that DVD have been used in this post whenever possible.)
Deathsentences of the Polished and Structurally Weak (2002)
For Negativland there is no putting on the brakes of creativity. This album also came with a book of found material. It is also Negativland’s only purely instrumental album. Gone are the sampled and smeared voices. Gone are the surrepititiously sampled soundbites. For those familiar with the work of used car salesman Dick Goodbody, aka Richard Lyons, the album seems to follow a natural inclination. The book is actually a 64-page owners manual of material the group found on “scrapping” ventures at junk and auto wrecking yards. From these field trips they collected material out of the glove compartments, underneath the seats, and from the trunks of America’s disposed vehicles.
Disturbed is one way to look at this material. A negatively inclined voyeurism was also certainly part of it. For a glimpse behind the wheel it is an eye popping document.
The music on the CD could be described as ambient noise. There were no bass lines, no melodies, not a word of dialogue, no mangled singing, no beats to speak of. The Booper is present, and all manner of other sounds. Listening to it is akin to watching a car wreck in slow motion and is therefore perfect for fans of J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash, and those who enjoyed David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of the book. Hell, couples who are into that sort of thing might even use this as a soundtrack for their lovemaking.
Deathsentences is the most fetishistic exploration of the dark side of car culture and driving the band have explored. These themes have popped up again and again in Negativland’s music, from the album Free to True False, and here are zoomed-in on in a focused and unique fashion.
This album was also the inspiration for Found Magazine, created by Davy Rothbart, after he got all juiced up from this essential release.
The ABCs of Anarchism [with Chumbawamba] (1999)
While the perfume of Dick Goodbody’s car tree air fresheners hung around Deathsentences, the strong scent of the Weatherman’s favorite 409 cleaner is all over this EP that explores the anarchistic philosophy of Alexander Berkman, the title being a nod to one of Berkman’s tracts.
The EP is a collaboration with British anarcho-punk band Chumabawamba. Whether or not they actually had anything to do with it, other than be sampled and have their name put on the album by Negativland is a matter up for debate. For fans of both groups it’s a match made in heaven (or hell) and the result is certainly one of the more unique audio documents from the group. It could have also just been a way for Negativland to get themselves into the larger record stores.
At the time ABCs came out, Chumbawamba had gotten themselves a major chart topper “Tubthumping” out and it was being blared on the radio. However Negativland were most certainly familiar with Chumbawamba’s foray from punk into sampling and techno in the early 90’s on the never officially released album Jesus H. Christ. Chumbawamba's Jesus H. Christ was meant to be released in the early 1990's (possibly 1991?) as their follow up to 1990's Slap!.
Christ was never formally released because it was a collage that combined original material with riffs, lyrics and choruses ‘poplifted’ from other bands’ songs, and Chumbawamba were unable to persuade either the copyright holders to grant permission, or distributors to handle a record that would have been vulnerable to multiple copyright claims. It’s not that hard to believe the band thought they could have distributed the album in the version they first recorded it. After all, Vanilla Ice used samples of David Bowie in “Ice Ice Baby”, and countless other artists had samples cleared and used. But perhaps because they were anarchists, and their message was critical of capitalism and other western social norms, their record label wouldn’t stand by it, and the artists they sampled wouldn’t agree to letting their material get used. In any case, the brick wall they faced forced them to re-record the songs in new arrangements that excluded (most of) the copyright material. It was eventually released in 1992 as Shhh, with all the samples removed, and the accompanying artwork contained images of the rejection letters the band recieved from their sample requests.
The first track of this collaborative EP is the 13-minute long "The ABCs of Anarchism" – a train hoppers romp through the twisted railyard of an often misunderstood political point of view. By the time you’ve finished experiencing this ride, you’ll know what the world of anarchism is, and what it is not. This track is a great way to experience the outdoors and discover if anarchism is something that you want, that you want, that you really, really want.
The second track, "Smelly Water", is where all the pop punk anarcho fun happens, alongside some creatures known as the Teletubbies. It’s a very liquid experience. The collaborative effort finishes off with “© is for Stupid”, where the Weatherman finds himself in a faceoff with none other than the cookie monster.
In 2000 Chumbawamba used Negativland’s 1989 Helter Stupid album as one of their main sampling sources for their album WYSIWYG, in a kind of reply to the ABC’s of Anarchism. WYSIWYG is a computer and hacking acronym for What You See Is What You Get, a system where editing software allows content to be edited in a form that resembles its appearance when printed or displayed as a finished product; it’s a perfect name for an album that has much to say about the practice of sampling and editing various forms of media, and a band that despite their success with “Tubthumping”, refused to be sucked in to the more vapid aspects of the rock and roll lifestyle.
Happy Heroes (1998)
The Happy Heroe’s EP came out of black hole a tube and into this universe from a parallel world and was originally crafted in the laboratories of C. Elliot Friday. It comes with a dose of Mertz so you can make up your mind, because too many choices is no choice at all! Alongside the Mertz tablet comes a generous side helping of corn, green beans, Orson Welles, and the cult of celebrity.
The team at One World Advertising who helped put together the 1997 album Dispepsi worked behind the scenes on this album. The use of celebrities in advertising goes full tilt boogie in the Re-Media Mega Mix of the song Happy Hero. This tune has an almost country-western vibe that casual listeners would find appealing. The lyrics, however, reveal a deep concern with how superstars and other famous people can be convicted of atrocious crimes—both public and private—while still retaining the naïve loyalty of a fan base who are always willing to overlook the fact that these people beat their wives, have sex with underage children, or commit murders.
One of the more chilling Negativland pieces is on this release, "OJ and His Personal Trainer Kill Ron and Nicole.” Sitting side by side with songs about canned peas, the whole thing makes for an essential audio platter. But you’ll have to make up your own mind about what it all means.
The album starts with a soda can being opened: the click of aluminum as the tab is pressed down, the tsssh sound of carbonation being released into the air, the hissing fizz of cola. It ends with the sound of the can being crushed and thrown to the ground with a rattle and clunk. In this caffeine-fueled, densely layered and politically charged audio collage, we are taken on a ride through the billion-dollar advertising campaigns for Pepsi and Coke, the vagaries of the cola wars, celebrity endorsements, and torture. With its catchy hooks, upbeat rhythms, and memorable lyrics, Dispepsi remains a great “pop” album.
On the cover and spine of the album the title “Dispepsi” is not displayed coherently. The letters making it up were discombobulated into anagrams including "Pedissip" and "Ideppiss." A 1-800 phone number was given in the liner notes that had a recording where the proper name of the album could be heard. All this was a safeguard, albeit a thin one, against trademark infringement and the possible law suits that might ensue had they shown the actual title. Amazingly enough this is one album the copyright critics didn’t get sued for.
While there are plenty of moments of noise, weird sounds, and chaotic collusions on the record, the majority of songs are marked by strong hooks and catchy melodies that get stuck in my head as easily as the advertising jingles they mimic and mock. I am glad Negativland are engaged in subverting corporate messages. They have spent so much time denouncing the culture of advertising that they have a thorough grasp of its mentality. This psychological knowledge could have been more profitably channeled towards selling useless products but instead they spent two and a half years crafting an album that has given me countless hours of pleasure. I listened to it repeatedly just after it came out, and I still put it on a few times a year even now. When initiating new listeners to the vast territory that Negativland has explored this is an album I always start with.
“Drink It Up” paints in the greater landscape of pre-packaged beverages with lines like “when Diet Rite to me is wrong, my Country Time’s expired, my Minute Maid is an hour long, my Maxwell House won’t get my wired, when my pet milk turns on me, and my Five Alive is dead…” on through numerous other permutations. Then the triumphant chorus rings in, “and my mind just turns to Pepsi, and I think of it a lot, my Swiss Miss wasn’t pure, and Kool Aid isn’t hot, when a wall of smoothies rough me up, I’ll turn to a bigger cup of Pepsi, drink it up.” One of the main themes on the album is the use of celebrities in advertising to sell products. This starts on “Why Is this Commercial?” with the voice of Michael J. Fox saying, “Hi I’m me, I’m using this to sell you this.” It loops and repeats, lodging deep in my mind. The song continues to describe the corporate policies that determine how advertisements tend to use African-Americans in only traditionally perceived roles that are by extension racist—hence Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima—that white people can remain comfortable with, but not in those that expand the parameters. It continues with a sample of athlete Herschel Walker and ends with a quote that Michael Jackson was paid five million dollars to star in two 90 second ads.
“The Greatest Taste Around” has a wonderful children’s rompous room beat as the voice of Dick Lyons, reads out fun lines like, “I got fired by my boss” and then a loudly sampled “Pepsi” interspersed, before saying “I nailed Jesus to the cross” all in a happy tone that makes me thirsty for soda. Another highlight of the album is “Aluminum or Glass: The Memo,” where the Weatherman poses as an ad exec coaching his underlings on how to shoot the perfect commercial, or what he calls “a heightened reality vignette.”
At times the music of Negativland can feel suffocating as it is so saturated with media samples. I can only imagine how painstaking the process assembling it all together was for the band, but it was certainly worth the effort. Other ambitious concept albums have floundered, this one remains strong, and its artistic statement ever more pertinent in a world flooded competing commercial messages. Dispepsi has a smooth and satisfying finish that has yet to go flat.
Fair Use (book) / Dead Dog Records (CD) (1995)
The CD that accompanied the Fair Use book was my initiation into Negativland. With classic cuts like “Gimmee the Mermaid”, and “Please Don’t Sue Us”, it tilted my brain toward a love for skewed audio and skillful appropriation. The CD is an extensive example of copying, pasting, editing it, taking whatever you can and using to create something of your own- plus a 26-minute “review” of the U.S. Copyright Act by Crosley Bendix, Director of Stylistic Premonitions for the Universal Media Netweb.
Among the many samples used are some from members of Chumbawamba talking about how Led Zeppelin didn’t want them to use their music, even though a lot of what Led Zeppelin had done was copied off of what black blues musician’s had done years and years before. The phrase “copying is a criminal act” is used to great effect.
The overwhelming (and very funny) text of Fair Use takes you deep inside Negativland’s legal, ethical, and artistic odyssey in an unusual examination of the ironic absurdities that ensue when corporate commerce, contemporary art and pre-electronic law collide over one 13-minute recording. In 1991, Negativland’s infamous U2 single was sued out of existence for trademark infringement, fraud, and copyright infringement for poking fun at the Irish mega-group U2’s anthem “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” In 1992, Negativland’s magazine-plus-CD "The Letter U and the Numeral 2" was also sued out of freaking existence for trying to tell the freaking story of the first freaking lawsuit. So there was no other possibility but for them to write Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2, a 270-page book-with-CD to tell the story of both lawsuits and the fight for the right to make new art out of corporately owned culture.
The book presents the progression of documents, events and results chronologically, contains the suppressed magazine in its entirety, and goes on to add much more that has happened since, to illuminate this modern saga of criminal music. Also included is a (at the time) definitive appendix of legal and artistic references on the fair use issue, including important court decisions, and a foreword written by the son of the American U-2 spy plane pilot shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.
It’s hard to pick favorite’s from a band as gleeful and full of joy as Negativland. The album Free ranks up there with their best creations. It is a Freewheeling exploration of car culture, drunk driving, guns, bibles, more guns, more bibles, Cadillacs, liberty, freedom, the right to bare arms hanging out of an automobile after an accident on the freeway, torture, convenience stores, and the fact that freedom is waiting for you at the nearest 7-11. It’s also about shotguns, pistols, bayonets, knives, brass knuckles, submachine guns and an army.
Tracks like “The Gun and the Bible”, “We Are Driven” and “Our National Anthem” continue to hit home for listeners here in the land of the free, free to choose between Pepsi and Coke anyway. In the last song of the album the haunting truth that the tune for the “Star Spangled Banner” was lifted by Francis Scott Key from an old English drinking song in a blatant copyright rip off is revealed.
This was the first album to be self-released on their revived Seeland record label in the aftermath of their termination of association with SST following the bitter U2 disputes and lawsuits.
Guns is an EP that was created for a commission from NPR. It’s hard to underestimate the influence radio has had on Negativland’s music. The collection of audio media curated by the band over the years, including Don Joyce’s extensive archives that he built up for use on OTE, and all of the members deep skills in editing audio mean that their “musical essays” are perfectly suitable for transmission over the air and into listeners homes who could enjoy them as a theater of the imagination. And while some bands break new material while on tour, it has long been Negativland’s to work on their albums in progress over-the-air on OTE. Here a concise ballistic was formulated and aimed at NPR, as per their request.
The fact that the group continuously tackles difficult and controversial subject matter in a way that satisfies the intellect and does so with an ironic sense of humor is also one of the calling cards of the Negative generation. This EP was crafted before the Columbine shootings and the school shootings, and many other shootings like them had become a normal part of American life, much like the second amendment itself. It makes no statement over whether guns are good or bad, but presents material on six shooters, rifles, submachine guns, pistols, glocks and toy guns in a manner that lets the listener make up their own mind. In crafting this piece Negativland have shown that they are sharp shooters and gives ammunition to both sides of the gun debate.
Whoever sent Negativland the tapes of Casey Kasem cussing and screaming about a dead dog named Snuggles and a strange dedication request from a man in Cincinnati, Ohio was a genius. From these tapes, and Kasem’s belligerent quotes about the Irish band U2 saying “these guys are from England and who gives a shit?” a legend was born. When the song was released it put Negativland in the spotlight.
The two tracks include outtakes from American Top 40 host Kasey Casem over top of a parody of U2’s well known song, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", including kazoos and extensive sampling of the original song. The song “Special Edit Radio Mix” version features a musical backing to an extended profane rant from aforementioned disc jockey lapsing out of his more polished and professional tone during a frustrating taping, which was captured by several engineers, who had been passing it around for a number of years.
In 1991, Negativland released this EP with the title "U2" displayed in very large type on the front of the packaging and "Negativland" in a smaller typeface. An image of the Lockheed U-2 spy plane dominated the cover.
U2's label Island Records was quick to throw a lawsuit at Negativland, claiming that placing the word "U2" on the cover violated trademark law, as did the song itself. Island Records also claimed that the single was an attempt to deliberately confuse U2 fans, then awaiting the impending release of Achtung Baby.
With the lawsuit in place the punk rocker Greg Ginn and head of SST record didn’t want to have to pay to help out the band, and so they kicked Negativland off the roster in a way that can only be described as cowardly and acrimonious. Another legal battle ensued between SST and Negativland. This case was settled when Ginn/SST agreed to fully release most of Negativland's masters (mainly their OTE series of cassettes) in exchange for completing work on a live album that had been planned long before the legal battles began, as well as keeping Negativland's three SST releases on the label for a short period. Funnily enough these copyright have since reverted back to Negativland who are now famous for the use of “copyleft” and “N©” on their releases. One bit of detournement they aimed at back at their former label took the bumper sticker "SST: Corporate Rock Still Sucks" and made it into "Corporate SST Still Sucks Rock"
Several artists had already left SST in the late 1980s so Negativland was in good company. By 1987, just a year after signing with the label, Sonic Youth had grown disenchanted with it. Guitarist Thurston Moore said, "SST's accounting was a bit suspect to us", and the group's other guitarist Lee Ranaldo criticized the label's "stoner administrative quality”. The band was also dissatisfied with Ginn's newer signings. Unhappy that income from their records was ultimately helping to fund "lame-ass records", Sonic Youth acrimoniously left the label and signed with Enigma Records in 1988. Dinosaur Jr left SST for Blanco y Negro Records in 1990. Frontman J Mascis said, "I like Greg Ginn and stuff, but they wouldn't pay you."
In the end leaving SST became a good thing for the group, as they rebooted Seeland Records to release and distribute their music on their own, fully embracing the DIY spirit displayed so strongly throughout their work and catalog.
Helter Stupid (1989)
The role of the hoax is fully embedded within the works of the band and Helter Stupid remains a fine example of the power of a press release and a prank. It was also a bloodshed moment. High on the feeling of their hit song “Christianity is Stupid” from 1987’s acclaimed album Escape from Noise, the band was finally feeling like things had taken a positive turn.
The band had arrived. They had made it. SST was distributing their album and the future was looking rosy. A tour would be in order to play their music live in front of all the fans they were earning across the alternative music scene. The success of the album on the network of college radio stations had earned them endearing groupies all across the land whose couches they could surf and sleep on during the tour.
Little did they know but they were only just then entering the world of trials and tribulations. For an inconvenient ax murder had set the stage for hijinks and shenanigans.
Fast-forward to the beginning of March 1988: Lyons is working nights as a security guard. Two weeks earlier a teenager named David Brom in Rochester, Minnesota had chopped up his family with an axe. The story was still all over the newspapers. An article in the New York Times had made brief mention of an argument over a cassette tape that Brom had been listening to that had somehow offended his deeply Catholic family. Brom's frequent arguments with his piously Catholic parents over what music he was allowed to listen to as a teen possibly led to his despicable deed.
Reading about the case Richard Lyons got the bright idea that the tragedy could become a source of Free publicity for the band. He was at work after all and was thus deeply bored. So he decided to dash off a press release, a media art form in and of itself. In his missive he created the fictional “Federal Official Dick Jordan” who ordered the group to stop and cancel all concerts pending an investigation into the role “Christianity is Stupid” may have played in the Brom murders.
Slowly Dick’s deft PR spin caused a trickle of stories to start appearing. The underground zines were first to propagate the tall tale and it eventually got picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle and NPR. Once the virus had been released it could not be contained and the news media banged on their door-- with the band usually declining to comment and the reporters too lazy to fact check. Whatever band interviews commenced were sexed up and edited to fit the news.
Eventually their coup hit pay dirt when the local evening TV news for CBS wanted to run a story on the band. Negativland then had the genius to record the TV news segments about them and use the whole escapade as the basis for the first half of their next album, Helter Stupid, an investigation of the intersection of murder and music. The title cut is a sprawling inquiry into backwards masking, the Negative influence of heavy metal on impressionable youth, the ease with which the media can be manipulated and how that in turn manipulates the perceptions of those who take the media at face value.
It’s an album that raises thorny ethical questions. Don Joyce didn’t find any problem between the stunt and his conscience. “We always felt that anything out there in the mass media was fair game for artistic tampering. It didn’t seem to give us pause.”
Mark Hosler disagreed with his bandmate and expressed feelings of discomfort in “exploiting a real human tragedy.”
Many years later, Hosler would be confronted at a party in Olympia, Washington by a guy who went to school with David Brom. “This guy at the party was telling me how horrible we were for exploiting the murders and how our hoax affected their town,” he posted to an online message board that night. It seems that their hoax was more successful than the group could ever have imagined – to the extent that even in the town where the murders happened it remained widely accepted as the truth even many years later. “Our prank fueled the town and the parents’ fears that MUSIC was making their kids crazy and violent. This led to weird kids being kicked out of school (including the guy who was confronting me), being persecuted, beat up, etc.”
"Our act of creating a false association with such a tragedy will remain open to ethical interpretation," the band concluded in its liner notes for the 15th anniversary reissue of the Helter Stupid.
Side two of the album is an entirely different matter. It draws a lot of samples from "The Winning Score", a 1977 presentation by TM Century, producers of radio jingles and imaging. It was an expose on the collusion between record companies and radio stations, as well as commentary on the short sightedness of the imagination of those in radio who were then limiting their use of the medium (and still are for the most part) to formats that suck, playing music that sucks. Between jingles, commercials, and call-ins Negativland points the finger at the disc jockeys, record executives and radio stations who are only in it for the money.
Escape from Noise (1987)
1987 saw the release of their seminal (and best selling) fourth album Escape From Noise, which contained the track “Christianity is Stupid.”
About a year earlier Richard Lyons was crate digging in a Bay Area thrift store when he came across a record with the wonderfully off-the-wall title If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? It was a privately pressed recording of a feverish sermon by the Reverend Estus W. Pirkle. It presented a southern Baptists vision of a commie fueled apocalypse, a surreal narrative in which Communists take over America and set about brainwashing its citizens. In one particularly passage filled with brimstone and ire Pirkle foretells of loudspeakers throughout the country broadcasting the same message over and over again: “Christianity is stupid! Communism is good! Give up!”
Pastor Dick and the other members of Negativland were immediately taken by the peculiar musical quality of Pirkle’s voice. “Not just what he was saying, but how he was saying it” Mark Hosler explained. The band knew right away, that like their Californian forebears, they had struck gold. So they created their own piece of what Hosler called “brainwash music.” Pirkle’s rant became the lead vocal for the piece amidst a dirge of thudding four-four beats and crashing guitars. The song became an anthem for an entire generation of misfits.
The original album came with a yellow bumper sticker with black letters reading "Car Bomb" the name of one of the albums many classic cuts. It also contained a booklet outlining the history of the band, along with photos of band members and reviews of previous releases. In the booklet, Crosley Bendix describes how Negativland's studio/apartment and recording equipment were destroyed in a two-alarm fire discovered by Hosler at 11:50 pm late on "Friday the 13th of February, 1987".
The fire started in Smart Laundry, a dry cleaning business located at street level below Negativland's apartment, 10028 San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito, California. When he saw flames leaping up past their kitchen window, Hosler yelled to his friend Tera Freedman in the next room to call 911 to notify the fire department. Hosler and Freedman collected the finished master tapes and artwork for Escape from Noise and quickly left the building, just as fire crews arrived. Cleaning solvents in the laundry accelerated the fire and caused extensive damage to the building before fire crews gained control. Afterward, the band grimly assessed the total destruction of the recording equipment and the materials from previous releases. Together, they traveled to Los Angeles to meet with SST executives (aka Greg Ginn) and "reaffirm their album commitment".
Escape from Noise is a gem of American underground music. With catchy tunes like the “Nesbitt’s Lime Soda Song” and more insidious cuts such as “Michael Jackson” and the humorous narration of the Weatherman on “The Playboy Channel” it truly has something for listeners of every stripe.
A Big 10-8 Place (1983)
A Big 10-8 Place was the groups third record and their first to be a concept album, a format they have more or less stuck to ever since. It was a tape splicing extravaganza that was three years in the making and came in a wrap-around sleeve with poster, bumper sticker, inspection cards, hand embossed inner sleeve, and a baggy of lawn clippings with a bright yellow HAM OPERATOR CONVICTED card inside the bag.
It's an audio odyssey through a day in the life in Contra Costa County, Negativland’s home turf. Made out of painstakingly assembled sounds and ideas, as sheer sound collage it remains unlike anything else they've ever made.
The 10-8 in the title will be familiar to radio geeks who’ve happened to cut their teeth rag chewing on the citizens band. If you hear a CB operator say "10-8" it's just another way to say "In service, and taking calls."
The lyrics and sound clips on the album make frequent reference to the CB and amateur radio hobby, as well as mischief like jamming. This was the first album of the band to feature the talents of Don Joyce, who coined the now familiar phrase “culture jamming” which was directly related to this album and the OTE broadcasts that went on to make up the JamCon ’84 release.
The phrase comes from the idea of radio jamming: that public frequencies can be pirated and subverted for independent communication, or as way of disrupting dominant frequencies with counter broadcasts. In a Crosley Bendix radio review featured on JamCon ‘84 Bendix stated, “As awareness of how the media environment we occupy affects and directs our inner life grows, some resist. The skillfully reworked billboard... directs the public viewer to a consideration of the original corporate strategy. The studio for the cultural jammer is the world at large.”
Thus was born a practice Negativland pioneered and mastered.
The efforts of Ian Allen were also a major influence on this record and the band as a whole. “His impact, inspiration and influence on the group is impossible to overestimate,” the group wrote in a statement after his death at age 56. “There would be no group as we know it today, no Over The Edge radio show [on KPFA], no ‘culture jamming’ and no A Big 10-8 Place LP without him.”
“He was part of creating Negativland’s Points LP in 1981, introducing to the rest of us, on the track ‘BABAC D’BABC…,’ the idea of using tape splicing not just as a way to make loops and connect tracks but as a compositional tool unto itself. This revelation led to the exploration of this technique full-on in 1983’s A Big 10-8 Place, and he played a major role in the creation of that record and its unique packaging.”
Negativland also credits Allen for his contribution to the very concept of culture jamming. He also introduced the other members to artist and radio DJ Don Joyce who then became a member of the band. Allen was also an inspiration behind the collectives radio show Over the Edge.
It was Allen who pushed the band members in creative ways and suggested their 1983 LP should be a concept album. He also had a more unordinary influence on the group: “Ian was obsessed with the number 17, which is why it appears in various ways on so many Negativland projects and texts in the Eighties and Nineties.” He left this planet for the great culture jam of the beyond on January 17th, 2015.
The groups second album sees the group practicing with the forms that would become part of their basic toolkit: noise/music/text/loop pieces made in the bedrooms of California suburbs.
It also shows the influence of the group member David Wills, aka the Weatherman. David is an avid home recorder and had played with tapes and microphones since he was a kid. When he joined the group with then teenagers Mark Hosler and Richard Lyons he’d been working as a cable TV repairman, an occupation he held for a long time.
David is the quintessential radio, electronics, and recording nerd, and otherwise all around fascinating and strange individual who has OCD and obsessions with cleaning products. In his current home he has microphones wired throughout the house so he can make recordings from inside and outside at will. He has also been very interested in the radio monitoring and scanning hobby and collected many recordings off the airwaves that were used in various capacities on Negativland albums and on OTE.
So we return to the beginning with Negativland’s first release a project by some teenage kids bored in the suburbs and looking for something to do, something to make, something to create. Now their tactics and art practices are something any teen can do with a few clicks on their smartphone. The kind of sampling and appropriation of existing corporate cultural materials they pioneered in the audio realm is now being performed by grade school kids across the land who upload their creations to Youtube and other platforms.
This album also appeared on the infamous and influential Nurse With Wound list.
As Negativland enters their fifth decade as a subliminal cultural sampling service they are more than capable of making noise and of subverting mass media transmissions. That they do so without preaching a specific ideology allows them to find humor in all those things we usually don’t pay attention too, helping us to question the standard narratives, all the while laughing merrily along the way.
Need to hear even more Negativland? I can't blame you. Here is a two hour mix of Negativland's Top 40 Hosted by K. C. Cuss'em when he filled in for Ken Katkin on Trash Flow Radio back in November of 2019.
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.