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 Noise drove 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 U2 EP. 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 Weak in 2002, the new No Business release 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.”

According to Joyce, the new album is a combination of collage and something the band calls “recomposition.” “There are certain pieces that are collage, just a bunch of different stuff from different places, but the songs 'No Business,' 'Favorite Things,' and the Beatles stuff, those are all made completely out of themselves. Nothing's been added.

“Basically, collage is a matter of combining disparate elements and putting them all in the same context. The recomposed songs are taking the original song and rearranging it — moving parts around to make it into a different piece of music.” Joyce compares this to the artistic concept of détournement, and points out that Negativland's cut-and-paste technique has much precedent in the art world, including in dadaism and Marcel Duchamp's found objects. “It's come to music now,” he says. “It sort of had to wait for the reproduction technology that visual arts already had, like photography. But music didn't get that until tape, and now digital. Now you can copy and paste anything you want, to any degree you want.”

Last year one of the biggest stories in the music biz was DJ Danger Mouse's The Grey Album, wherein he mashed together Jay-Z and the Beatles record commonly known as “The White Album” and was promptly served with a cease-and-desist notice by EMI, the label that owns the master recording of that particular album, aka The Beatles. Danger Mouse complied with EMI's order, though the bootleg is still available for free download online if you do a little searching. Despite what happened to Danger Mouse, Joyce says he doubts Negativland's repurposing of a Beatles recording will draw any serious consequences.

When asked how he would justify the wholesale use of a Beatles song in court, Joyce says that ideally he'd like to defend it as recomposition. “And [the copyright owners] would say, 'What's that?' Any kind of artistic defense gets nowhere. If they want to kill you, they will. They have plenty of lawyers. It's very cheap to send a letter that is very threatening. A lot of times that's all they'll do, because going beyond that will cost them money.” In reality, Negativland would probably have to invoke some sort of Fair Use defense, arguing that the use of a pre-existing Beatles recording was valid because the public is entitled to freely use portions of copyrighted materials for purposes of commentary and criticism. At times during our conversation it's an argument that Joyce seems all too willing to make.

“I would be very interested to someday find myself in court,” he says. “I'm sure my lawyer would advise me against doing it, but I would love to defend art against commerce, get in there and say how art works, what it is, what it needs to do, what it's always been.”

So what motivates Negativland to tempt fate to such a degree? Are the musicians trying to martyr themselves in protest of a culture in which copyright stifles creativity? Joyce says the band's art of infringement doesn't have a specific message per se; rather, it's an approach the Negativlanders have been drawn to since day one, and in recent years they've found themselves out of necessity having to defend it as what they see as a valid art form. “It's more like we're just averse to all this stuff,” Joyce explains, referring to the din of aural information that surrounds us all, “and it becomes our source material. It is all around us, and it is so influential.” But he admits that Negativland's newer work à la No Business has also become a de facto statement on copyright protection in the arts. “This whole climate of intense protection of cultural properties, I think the whole thing is sort of directed against that. It's a little guerrilla attack on that whole climate.

“I'm happy to push that envelope this far,” Joyce adds. “With an artistic motivation, it just gets out there. And if it's allowed to stay out there, the less people are up in arms about it, the easier it is to continue doing this stuff. It just becomes more accepted.”

All that said, Joyce does admit that sonically, the most dangerous material on No Business is the abundance of Disney soundtrack music and samples. “Disney is known for going after people on principle to protect its properties,” he says. “They are very litigious. Even though [the material is] all mixed up, if they realize what we're doing, we could bother them greatly. But how are they going to find out about it except for reading pieces like yours? I don't know why I'm talking to you. It's dangerous.”

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