Accentuate the Negativ

Fathers hide your intellectual property: The Bay Area's original culture jammers are back

In its 25-year history, Bay Area- based musical collective Negativland has never shied from controversy. The band once perpetrated a successful media hoax when it sent out a bogus press release alleging that the track "Christianity Is Stupid" from its 1987 album Escape From Noisedrove a teenager to murder his parents, and it has taken stabs at Pepsi, the gun industry, religion, and countless other sacred cows, institutions, and banalities of contemporary existence. It is even credited with coining the term "culture jamming."

But Negativland is probably best known for being sued by a major label. Perhaps you remember: In 1991, the band was thrust into the eye of a legal cyclone with the release of the U2EP. With a cover featuring a spy plane and the characters "U2" in huge type, the record included farcical renditions of the Irish rock group's song "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and recordings of a trash-talking Casey Casem bad-mouthing Bono and company.

Within days of the EP's release, U2's label, Island Records, filed suit against Negativland, alleging trademark and copyright infringement. Later, Negativland's own label -- independent SST -- went after the group to recoup expenses. The subsequent legal machinations are enough to fill a book -- in fact, Negativland eventually published a tome, titled Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2, documenting the entire episode. In the end, Negativland settled out of court, agreeing to demolish all available copies of the offending release and paying SST some $80,000 to compensate for business losses and court costs.

Most artists would eschew revisiting an aesthetic tactic that had burned them financially, but then again, Negativland is not most artists. The band has just unleashed what is probably its most unlawful release since U2: a daring rework of 100 percent appropriated material titled No Business.

"It's certainly illegal," says Negativland co-founder Don Joyce of No Business, via phone from his Oakland home/studio.But he quickly adds that with piracy and file-sharing being the main concerns of the recording industry these days, he hopes the album's recontextualized sounds won't incur any legal problems. In fact, Joyce sees the collaged images covering the packaging as perhaps running a greater risk of baiting corporate lawyers than the music within. "There are actually trademark infringements all over [the packaging], as I look at it," he says. "There's Mr. Peanut, there's Mickey Mouse, and Smokey the Bear. All I know is that even with U2, they seemed to be more worried about our cover than the music. Again, I don't think anything's going to happen."

And if something does, well, Negativland will put up one heck of a fight.

Formed in 1980, Negativland has always trucked in and commented on pop culture's audio detritus. The band hasn't listed personnel on any of its releases in years but currently comprises five members: Joyce, Mark Hosler, Peter Conheim, David Wills (who goes by "The Weatherman"), and Richard Lyons, aka Pastor Dick. Negativland and its radio ancillary -- Joyce's long-standing KPFA show Over the Edge -- both thrive on collaborative salons; frequent contributions to the mix from other musicians and artists are common.

Humor has long played a role in Negativland's work, with a back catalog and history that exhibit a pranksterish sense of fun. Following a more serious noise/art package called Death Sentences of the Polished and Structurally Weakin 2002, the new No Businessrelease is a return to form of sorts. Plastered with iconic images of numerous pop-culture characters like Mighty Mouse and McDonald's Mayor McCheese, the unusually shaped 11-by-6-inch sleeve contains a whoopee cushion, a 56-page treatise titled "Two Relationships to a Cultural Public Domain," and a CD featuring a Disney-meets-Black Flag animated video called "Gimme the Mermaid" as well as nine audio tracks that manage to be both avant-garde and comedic.

The album cuts are composed entirely of reworked analog recordings: According to the liner notes, no elements original to Negativland were used. Starting off with a chopped-up remix of the Beatles song "Because" -- forcing the seven-part harmonies to repeat the phrase "Old is new" -- the disc then trots through a blenderization of two versions of Ethel Merman singing "There's No Business Like Show Business" (informing us, "There's no business like stealing people's music"). This is followed by a tongue-in-cheek anti-downloading screed featuring a riot of samples wrapped around a speech by former Grammy head Michael Green pontificating on the evils of file-sharing. Then comes an absurdist scramble of the Sound of Music chestnut "My Favorite Things," reworked so Julie Andrews sings the praises of things like "wild white girls that melt into nose cream."

And those are just the first four tracks. Subsequent pieces draw from such sound sources as a TrailBlazer commercial, the Disneyland installations "Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln" and "Captain Eo," and an unknown 1950s radio drama reconfigured as chuckle-inducing slapstick involving a persistent pie salesman.

Joyce notes that while No Business started as a technical experiment in juxtapositioning pre-existing recordings, the appropriated source material soon presented itself as ripe fodder for whimsy. "When I started editing it, it became funny very quickly," he recalls. "I just like humor, and I think it's a big part of the way I think and the way I work. It's all kind of done with a smile. I think it's maybe a saving grace; it's harder to be offended by something that is indeed funny."

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