By all rights, Nevermind Nirvana, It's Grungicide!, a 1995 EP released by the Christal Methodists, shouldn't be funny. It's little more than a cheap shot, a 10-minute dance on the grave of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain put into circulation to play off the fame, notoriety, and violent death of grunge's high priest. The recording is a collection of a series of crank calls made by a so-called Methodista, in which a fake grunge promoter calls up golf pro shops (“Hi, I'm looking for some low-cost flannel golf pants”), and a faux Cobain phones record stores (“How many units have we sold?”), and radio stations to give IDs (“Hi, I'm Kurt Cobain from Nirvana, and I want you to support the S.F. Needle Exchange”; “This is Kurt Cobain from Nirvana, and when you're out there getting your grunge, don't drink and drive”). But cheap shot or not, it's hilarious.
Part of the amusement is that the Methodists were willing to joke about Nirvana's crisis of indie-rock-meets-mega-sales well before Cobain's suicide made it an easy joke. But more generally, the Methodists — a loose collective based in Chicago and San Francisco — spend time taking aim at a more lasting target: God. Or more precisely, Christian talk radio, where across three records the Methodists have layered roller-rink synth music over cut-and-paste tapes of crank calls to radio hosts.
On the recent Satanic Ritual Abuse, the tracks range from absurdist joshing about religious philosophy (“I consider myself an ecumaniac, and that's why I go to as many churches as possible”) to the more frightening “Raped, Can I Get a Witness?” on which the caller claims to be a woman raped and beaten by her boyfriend. The host's response is disturbingly flip. “Well, you know, that happens. The fact is, you allowed yourself to get too intimate with him. … Romance and trying to get somebody saved never goes together.” Asked if she should press charges, he tells her that she can try, “but it probably won't stick anyway. If I were in your shoes, I would put it behind me.”
Joel Schalit, aka Khmer Ribs, is the self-declared “coordinator of activities” for the Christal Methodists, and he invented the Christian crank-call concept mainly out of boredom. “I started listening to Christian talk radio because I couldn't stand rock radio,” he says. In 1988, when Schalit began his anti-crusade, he was already deeply immersed in religion as part of his studies at Reed College in Oregon, which merged with his political interests growing up in Israel. “[The combination] never seemed to be an odd thing for me, given the way it is in Israel. But in the United States, of course, people always make a division between religion and politics.”
Schalit found co-conspirators: Jody Bleyle of Portland's gay-positive punks Team Dresch, the Chicago-based Dr. Kritikal Dubbs, and in the Bay Area, Adrian Diamond to handle the group's visual installations and Guy Wire (not his real name) to handle recording issues — not to mention a cast of friends and colleagues willing to make the actual calls. Schalit's own background in liberal politics (as co-director of the Berkeley leftist journal Bad Subjects) and punk rock (as associate editor of Punk Planet) helped to fuel his conviction that crank-calling Christian radio stations could help him do — well, what?
Certainly not convince a Christian talk show host of the errors of his or her bigoted and sexist ways, at least not on air. And probably not get the Christal Methodists' records to reach an audience other than folks who already agree with the Methodists, either: None of the group's albums has moved more than 1,000 copies, though Schalit does say he gets the occasional piece of hate mail from Christians.
Schalit believes that college radio, supposed to be the left-of-the-dial bastion of radical political thought, isn't doing its job. And he also believes Christian talk radio is dangerous: “It disseminates information and preys upon people's highly acculturated religious sensibilities in a manner that potentially mobilizes them in a violent, anti-democratic way,” he says, adding, “It teaches people to accept their own suffering as though it's legitimate and as though it's part of nature, and that is morally wrong.”
Guy Wire says the Methodists' real hope is to use the Christians' own words against them: “The goal is to lure the talk shows into saying something that is particu-larly stupid. Perhaps somewhere, there will be some Christian who will be listening to that.”
Getting the point across, at least artistically, is taking some doing. In 1988, a nascent version of the Methodists, under the name the National Hardwood Floor Association, released Savage Vigilance for a Rug-Free America, a collection of mostly infantile calls that ranted about coke habits and played a game of ding-dong-ditch with the hosts. But starting with the 1994 cassette Scripture Lips & Filter Tips (which will be reissued on CD with the Grungicide EP later this month), the jokes got smarter, the ideas scripted for the phone calls sharper, and the music more listenable. Mixing together old spoken-word records, Kraftwerky riffs, and processed vocals, the group's recent works are as much song as they are commentary. Satanic Ritual Abuse, says Schalit, “is our first real serious record. We've been dicking around for years.”
Inevitably, the business of “repurposing” sounds leads to a host of copyright problems. (Most famously, Negativland felt the crush of legal frustrations when it released its 1991 U2 EP, which used samples from U2 and Kasey Kasem's American Top 40 radio show. Negativland argued art; lawyers argued theft. The lawyers won.)
“It's been a big headache,” says Schalit of the Methodists' use of recorded conversations — along with their use of “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Also Sprach Zarathustra” as background music — “especially when we've dealt with larger labels who are interested in us.” Schalit says he was once approached by Time Warner, whose rep had scanned some of the group's press clippings and figured he had the next Jerky Boys on his hands. Once the rep heard the actual music, however, “we gave him a heart attack.”
If the Christal Methodists use tapes to expose the hypocrisy of Christian radio, Ralph Johnson uses tapes to mess with everything else: God, sure, but also corporations, government, pop culture — the entire American Experience.
The East Bay-based experimental musician started his career in 1986 in Iowa City, where he began toying with old cassette decks and reel-to-reel players with his University of Iowa schoolmates Lloyd Dunn and John Heck. Together, they formed the Tape-beatles, cutting up corporate-speak and political rhetoric into engaging pastiches of sound. Musical samples include “a lot of old, bad Latin jazz from the '50s and '60s,” while other ingredients are “odd spoken-text records, [and] a lot of radio material.”
The results are three records that function as both social commentary and art for art's sake. What Alanis Morissette knows about irony couldn't fill a thimble, but 1993's The Grand Delusion is sick with the stuff. Riffing on rhetorical catch phrases (“America Is Confident,” “Behold a Republic”), it spins its found-sound concepts around intentionally grandiose orchestral music — particularly “Zarathustra,” apparently the composition of choice for artists wishing to make ironic comments about today's society.
A film meant to be watched with the music hammers home the points with images of American iconography: bald eagles, politicians, proud revolutionaries for the American Way. In performance, the audience itself was implicated. As tape spooled out of a reel-to-reel player, Johnson and Dunn would wrap the audience in it. Unlike the Christal Methodists' work, the Tape-beatles' oeuvre doesn't spring from an angry need to respond politically. But like the Methodists, their humor is based in the presentation of the mechanics of rhetoric — supposed “truths” about God and country turn out to be more entertaining once you've mucked with them.
The Tape-beatles broke up, if they ever were truly a group, soon after Delusion's release. Heck moved to Prague and Johnson moved to the Bay Area, where he now works and studies at Mills College in Oakland. Still, Dunn and Johnson continue to collaborate across the country, and their latest recording, Good Times — which uses tapes of corporate-speak to comment on workplace ennui — will be released later this month under the name Public Works.
Johnson is proud to be a plagiarist, devising the concept of Plagiarism¨ to explain — and justify — his approach to rearranging the recorded detritus of musical and political history. “Plagiarism with a lowercase P is what they're terrified of in academics,” Johnson explains. “That's stealing somebody else's work and claiming it as your own. Plagiarism with a capital P, registered trademark, steals other people's work but never claims it to be your own.”
“We claim to be thieves,” he says. “We say we're thieves, but we mean that, under the current topsy-turvy ethics of cultural property, we are thieves.
“Beethoven stole. 'Ode to Joy' is a folk melody, and yet who had copyright over that? Stravinsky admitted that he was a thief. Art is dependent on thievery.