Postivly Negativ

Sampling ad infinitum with America's sonic outlaws.

Encouraged by the phenomenal success of the hoax, Negativland embarked on what would become their pièce de resistance and signature work: 1991's U2 Negativland. A subject the band seems thoroughly tired of rehashing -- "Oh, that again," Hosler groans -- the infamous single is nonetheless one of the most subversive records ever made and nearly got the pranksters sued out of existence. A masterpiece of misinformation, the release was packaged to resemble an actual U2 record at a time when U2 fans were anticipating what would become Achtung Baby. Mutilating the Irishmen's blockbuster song "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," the mock-up featured a hilarious and profanity-laced tantrum by Casey Kasem ("These guys are from England and who gives shit!" he rails) set to kazoos and cacophony. But Island Records -- Bono and the boys' longtime label -- was far from amused: The company dispatched a legion of lawyers with a sledgehammer approach and loads of billable hours. A judge's restraining order on the work cited "deceptive packaging, copyright infringement, image defamation and potentially creating massive confusion among the record buying public" and demanded all existing copies be recalled and destroyed. According to the band's former label, SST Records, the punitive and trebled damages plus legal costs tallied up to over $90,000.

"It ended up being about half of that," Hosler notes. "To this day, they [SST -- namely founder and ex-Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn] continue to sell our [four] records and continue to not pay us any royalties even though we've been in the black over those losses for years." (So much for indie labels with mottos like "Corporate Rock Sucks," man.) "What I hoped would happen," Hosler concedes, "is that we'd make such a big public stink and that we would embarrass the people who went after us so thoroughly that at least they'd leave us the hell alone."

So far, so good. After Negativland broke ties with SST and established its own homespun Seeland imprint and mail-order company (www.negativland.com), each subsequent release has gotten off without litigious incident -- a few threatening letters, sure, but no lawsuits. And as the proud parent of so many beautifully independent Frankenstein monsters -- all patchworked with anally retentive, conceptual love -- Negativland maintains its continuing right to fish in the vast sea of media without paying a dime in clearance fees for licensed samples. "We've never cleared anything -- ever," Hosler says. "And we never will. There's no need to. When something hits the airwaves, it's literally in the public domain." Using its own tenets of free appropriation, Negativland's tactics call to mind the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp, the soup cans of Andy Warhol or the triptychs of local yokel Phil Bender. But rather than slapping a credit next to a manufactured object and calling it art, the outfit painstakingly splices and dices from a rising pool of publicly available, publicly influential material to come up with something familiar but completely original. The whole is literally the sum of its many, many samples.

You gotta accentuate the negativ: San Francisco's sound collective Negativland takes the Pepsi challenge.
You gotta accentuate the negativ: San Francisco's sound collective Negativland takes the Pepsi challenge.
1988's Helter Stupid chronicled a media hoax.
1988's Helter Stupid chronicled a media hoax.

Compiling a complete list of the unsolicited cameo appearances that pepper the band's recorded output is a staggering task to consider. It would include the Spice Girls, Michael Jackson, the World Wrestling Federation, Cookie Monster, the Teletubbies, Charles Manson, Grandmaster Flash (himself sampling from Chic), the Playboy Channel, CB radio, BBC radio, Mommie Dearest, Bobby Kennedy and Aunt Jemima -- and that's barely scratching the surface. Longer guest slots on 1998's Happy Heroesinclude a befuddled, stammering Colonel Sanders ("Chicken Diction") and outtakes of American icon Orson Welles reduced to shilling frozen peas and fish fingers ("Jolly Green Giant"). Snippets from O.J. Simpson's workout video are reworked into something sick and ironic on the less-than-subtle cut "O.J. and His Personal Trainer Kill Ron and Nicole" -- the Juice saying "This is just trying to get the blood flowing" to a background of barking dogs and shrieking.

Sometimes a given piece calls for very little vocal redistribution -- as in Kasem's case -- when the narrator conveniently crucifies himself, saving Negativland the time and effort of doing it for him. Consider a certain famous puddin' head, who, while enthusiastically endorsing Pepsi, undercuts his hard sell with a damning off-the-cuff remark: "People think I'm Bill Cosby. I'm really tooth decay." This flub appears on the track "I Believe It's L," part of the 1997 cola opus Dispepsi. An exhaustive analysis of our nation's seemingly endless thirst for nutritionless beverages, market research and brand loyalty, the album concentrates on a single mega-product as a case against multinational greed. During one sarcastic dis on the disc, a voice -- presumably that of a radio talk-show caller -- describes how classic Coca-Cola is used by the Mexican police to interrogate prisoners because of the burning sensation it causes when sprayed up the nose; the speaker refers to new Coke's lower carbonation level as a "humanitarian effort," as if this difference between the two products is something to be proven in a blind, side-by-side taste test. Dispepsi also tries to defend against what Negativland sees as a blatant invasion of privacy. "All of the cola commercials that were appropriated, transformed and re-used in this recording attempted to assault us in our homes without our permission," the liner notes claim.

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