In medieval times, a form of recreational torture involved placing a condemned person's head inside a heavy, cast-metal church bell and ringing it until he or she went insane. Forget about going deaf. We're talking flipped-out, gone-down-the-road wacko, Nurse Ratched. Such nerve-shattering law and order instilled fear into a nation's beleaguered masses; more important, it guaranteed the nation's monarchy a steady supply of obedient ding-a-lings.
Inspired by such extremes in human depravity, Negativland -- an experimental music and art collective from San Francisco -- released Escape From Noise in 1987, a landmark album that dabbled in forms of auditory punishment much more fun than Quasimodo could ever imagine and took the group's prior experiments with noise perversion to new levels. Obsessively reassembling found sound, spoken word, rhythm loops, field recordings, car bombs and generous helpings of cartoon noise, the massive collaborative effort resulted in an astonishing work of studio-enhanced kitchen-sink sound collage. Escape amuses, educates and disturbs -- sometimes simultaneously.
Today, after devoting twenty years to the game -- and amassing a body of work that includes eighteen CDs, the video Sonic Outlaws and a body of text on copyright law titled Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2 -- Negativland is once again bringing its traveling media circus to the people. In what is perhaps the group's final outing, the True/False 2000 Tour attempts to discern fact from fiction in today's stifling, desensitized shut-up-and-buy culture. It purportedly embodies what founding member Mark Hosler defines as "psychic self-defense," a healthy response to the ever-growing chaos of commercialized 21st century info glut. "The self-defense that we're practicing -- dealing with this kind of corporate-media advertising-overloaded society we're in -- is the work we do," Hosler explains. "That's how we process it and deal with it. To literally take it in and chew it up and spit it out again, hopefully into something artistic and compelling. But if I try to just reduce it to a simple little soundbite, I think it's gonna make the show sound kinda dopey."
After a seven-year break from touring, True/False 2K promises anything but brand-name music for brand-loving listeners. (In its last outing, Negativland employed the slug- salting talents of perennial Denver goofballs Little Fyodor and Babushka as openers; this time around, with a show nearly three hours long, there's no need for a warmup act.) The thirteen-person "band" includes Hosler, Don Joyce, Richard Lyons, Peter Conheim, Pastor Dick (who provides the opening prayer and convocation for each performance), Crosley Bendix (the man credited with discovering squant, our oft-overlooked fourth primary color) and Marsha Turnblatt (who often discusses the benefits of spanking children), plus various auxiliary performers and "emergency backup humans." Using mostly analog A/V equipment -- old 16mm film and slide projectors, dated radio-station cart machines, synthesizers and turntables -- the spectacle will also offer a puppet show Hosler guarantees to be "appropriate for all ages." In other words, the revolution will not be digitized. And don't worry about the physical absence of David Wills, the "Weatherman," who needs to stay home and tend to his cats and germs. "He's in the show in a huge way, but he's not actually there," Hosler notes. "He appears via the miracle of high technology." Despite such logistical configurations, Hostler maintains that the content of the performance is in no way predetermined. "It is very live, what we do. It's all being thrown together in real time as you hear it. Which means it's fraught with the possibility of it all falling apart and going wrong. Eighty percent of the show you will never have heard anywhere on any Negativland record. We sample ourselves and recontextualize it into new pieces."
Such sleight of hand has always been Negativland's stock and trade, a quality that places the group in the musique concrète with experimental composers like Stockhausen, Edgard Varèse, John Cage or the Tolerated. Negativland still draws comparisons to satirists like the Goon Show and Firesign Theatre and has been dubbed "sonic deconstructionists," "hick-nerd wise-acres" and "information highwaymen" in varied critical reviews over the years. "Culture-jammers" is the term the collective coined for itself in 1984, four years after the founding members (Hosler, Lyons, Wills, Joyce and Chris Grigg) met at the Audience Studies Institute -- an after-school job where they phoned people about their favorite TV shows -- and discovered a mutual interest in making funny noises. They began dragging gear to one another's bedrooms to experiment and create. "For me, it was like discovering fire or something," Hosler recalls. "Miking faucets and running it through a phase shifter. I was absolutely thrilled to death to combine all these sounds together."
Over the years, the group garnered a reputation not just for manipulating sound but for manipulating the press as well. Consider Escape's 1988 followup, Helter Stupid, an album inspired by David Brom, the Minnesota teenager who killed both of his parents with an ax in 1987. Taking a cue from the media scrutiny surrounding the alleged suicide-provoking qualities of Judas Priest's music and the urban legends of subliminal messages encoded in the back-masking of Beatles songs, Negativland issued a phony press release implicating itself in the murders; the release suggested that the tune "Christianity Is Stupid" (from Escape) might have driven Brom to bludgeon his mom and pop to death. (Featuring the "found" vocal of Reverend Estus Pirkle, the cut contains the repeated slogan of its title and others like "Communism is good!" over a droning metal score). Neg's press release also included a decree from a fictitious federal official named Dick Jordan, who advised the band not to leave town pending an investigation into the slayings. Soon afterwards, the press came a-sniffin', and the band received requests for interviews from the San Francisco Chronicle, Pulse, BAM, Penthouse, The Village Voice and several fanzines. Determined to satisfy the public's appetite for the sensational, CBS television's Bay Area affiliate KPIX ran a lead story emphasizing links between murder and music and supplied footage of the Brom family -- killed two time zones away -- being carried from their home in body bags. After exposing the incompetence that passes for news, Negativland decided to depict the entire media odyssey on Helter Stupid, an outrageously strange and funny brand of public performance art.
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.
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 Heroes include 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.
Oddly enough, one of Negativland's creations actually ended up in an advertisement for Coca-Cola, albeit unwillingly. British trip-hop producer Fatboy Slim paid SST a thousand dollars to sample a track from Escape From Noise (the track, incidentally, is called "Michael Jackson," after the once-staunch Pepsi endorser who scorched his noggin during a moment of pyrotechnic overkill in 1984); Fatboy used this sample on his 1998 album Better Living Through Chemistry, then licensed the music to be used in a Coke ad. It gets better. The original "Michael Jackson" appropriated, without permission, a 1966 flexi-disc that the group stole out of a church basement -- so Coca-Cola unknowingly engaged in copyright infringement. It was a bubbly piece of ironic justice that Negativland was quick to exploit -- the band immediately issued a press release pointing out Coke's intellectual-property infringement.
"The funniest thing was that after that happened we got a call from Fatboy Slim's record label [Astralwerks]. They were very mad at us for publicizing it," Hosler says. "In fact, they were kind of threatening. If Coca-Cola found out that they had just licensed a track from a guy that had a sample in it that actually wasn't properly authorized...maybe Coca-Cola would freak out. They said we hurt Fatboy's feelings." No such freak-outs ensued and, in the end, SST made another thousand dollars that Negativland will never see. And Fatboy could've had the sample for free, had he contacted the c-jammers first.
"We don't care. You can sample from Negativland all you want," Hosler maintains.
Such art-before-profit generosity must seem like malarkey to most record-company execs. Considering that many of Negativland's core members are now pushing forty, it's refreshing to know there's a band whose subversive ideals haven't been compromised with age. "If we really wanted to be doing something, I guess we should be going out and blowing up banks," Hosler chuckles. Instead of being bitter, though, the group is out performing puppet shows -- something U2's Zoo Tour never considered -- and recycling sounds for a better tomorrow. Negativland is like the Ralph Nader of the underground fringe: Deep down, you sense the bandmembers won't really change this increasingly corporatized American nightmare long enough for any of us to complete a goddamn thought, but you admire their foolish temerity to stare down the charging rhino, peashooters drawn, laughtrack cued and ready to blare.
Let freedom ring.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.