The dearly learned moral of Negativland’s story is simple: those who test gas leaks with lit matches encounter a lot of bad smells and occasionally blow themselves to kingdom come. The albums documenting Over the Edge, the absurdist San Francisco Bay Area troupe’s KPFA radio show (imagine Prairie Home Companion as envisioned and performed by twisted urban culture snots and executive produced by prankster Alan Abel), are generally obnoxious, exhausting and cloying proof of why tape recorders and microphones shouldn’t be allowed to fall into the hands of multi-media hicknerd wiseacres with access to the airwaves. Drop the laser needle (or the tape head) anywhere and you get a collage of found sounds, put-on phone calls, dryly offbeat sketches (shades of The Goon Show filtered by the Firesign Theater) featuring regular characters, old records, in-jokes and whatever else can be plucked from the supermarket shelves of America’s vast sonic wasteland. On early albums like Escape From Noise and Points, there’s even original music in the mix.
Negativland, each copy of which is uniquely and attractively packaged with a different kind of wallpaper, isn’t really music and it isn’t merely sound effects. Lots of different things blip by, while voices allude to subjects that one never really gets a grip on. Evocative yet very elusive.
Points adds more music to the mix. Beginning in rather a childish mood, it turns increasingly darker and more despairing, finally fading out into a monotonous industrial hum.
A Big 10-8 Place is a musical exploration of the band’s Contra Costa County home (just over the hills from Berkeley). As much a loving tribute as a scathing indictment of suburbia’s soulless fa‡ade, the record is a richly detailed, remarkably complex combination of the inorganic (electronics and industrial atmospherics) and the human (voices discuss whatever).
Since Negativland’s real stock in trade is conceptualization, not execution, implicit in the group’s bunker ambitions is a grander vision of its potential activist role in pop culture. Having constructed a self-willed alternate reality (the media analogue of a child’s cardboard box house) on the radio, Negativland moved to expand its surreal conceits beyond the simple limits of album tracks. (The early cassettes are straight dubs of the band’s weekly free-form radio show, Over the Edge; the first of these to be released was later divided into a pair of CDs: JamCon ’84, with previously unissued material, and The Starting Line. Pastor Dick offers absolution on a budget, while The Weatherman tries to drag listeners out of their closets. Innovative and loose — the way radio oughta be. The 1996 CD reissue of Pastor Dick, subtitled Muriel’s Purse Fund, has added material and new art.)
Escape From Noise attempts to answer a musical question — “Is there any escape from noise?” — and parody a perfect pop product. Amid a wide variety of sonic constructions and actual songs, you’ll find “Christianity Is Stupid” (which consists of that slogan, and others like “Communism is good!,” repeated in a JFK-like voice over plodding martial metal), a little girl with hiccups singing “Over the Rainbow” and calculatedly negligible guest appearances by Jello Biafra, Jerry Garcia, the Residents, Fred Frith and Mark Mothersbaugh.
As inspired propagandists coming to terms with an ability to manipulate the truth, Negativland shifted their mindfuck campaign to a higher plane with Helter Stupid, turning Escape From Noise‘s “Christianity Is Stupid” into a full-fledged prank that backfired into a success beyond their wildest dreams. Wielding a hoax press release as its weapon, Negativland implied that the song might have been responsible for inspiring the murder of a Minnesota family, and that was all it took. The media fell for it like a stock crash, as the group’s fatal role was accepted as truth and explored incompetently by various news organizations. The liner notes of Helter Stupid detail the stunt’s chronology and aftermath, clearly acknowledging the “electronic environment of factual fictions” of their undertaking.
Their power as cage rattlers thus amply proven, the cunning stunt team — basically Richard Lyons and Mark Hosler, joined by various permutations of David Wills, Don Joyce, Ian Allen, Peter Dayton, Chris Grigg and others — began to rationalize its role as cultural empiricists, searching for buttons that, if pushed, might produce Negativland’s unique brand of public performance art. (Exactly how this differs from, say, covering a street in petroleum and then smashing a department store window to see what might happen when the police arrive is unclear. Therein lies the crux of Negativland’s creative flaw.) They evidently didn’t have far to look. Following three more volumes of radio show transcriptions, Negativland released their pièce de resistance — although whether they had any clue as to what they were getting into, legally, culturally or personally, is subject to extremely unsteady hindsight. There’s actually a documentary film, Sonic Outlaws, on the subject.
Packaged as a masterpiece of disinformation, the U2 CD, to all intents and purposes, looks like a U2 single entitled “Negativland.” Inside, on the brilliant “Special Edit Radio Mix” (the “A Cappella Mix” is comparatively dull), Negativland crosses U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (played stupidly on kazoo and synthesizer) with various angry voices and a profanity-laced studio tantrum thrown by swell-guy radio star Casey Kasem (“That’s the letter U and the number 2…these guys are from England [sic] and who gives a shit?…names that don’t mean diddleyshit”). The track is a sublime cut-up editing job that makes no point but has a wonderful time doing it, a good yuk by some merry pranksters thumbing their noses at a couple of cultural institutions. Ooops.
What seemed like a harmless if nasty joke quickly called down a shitstorm of legal trouble — from U2’s record company and music publisher and SST Records — on the band. Buried in a flurry of lawsuits, financial battles and personal imprecations, the band and the labels agreed to a settlement by which the record was recalled and destroyed; the copyrights of its contents were reassigned and damages paid. Meanwhile, the bloodied but wry Negativland portrayed the whole fiasco as both an outrageous attack on free speech, a revealing display of corporate greed and a semi-intentional dissection of intellectual property rights (or something like that). The resemblance to I-meant-to-do-that excuse-making and Marcel Duchamp’s readymade tactic of putting a credit next to a manufactured object and claiming it as a piece of art should not go unremarked.
Negativland took on something safer than U2 in its identically designed next release: Guns. Dedicating the two dull tracks of Western movie sound collage to “the members of our favorite Irish rock band, their record label, and their attorneys” might have been taken the wrong way, but Negativland got no mileage of any sort out of this dud, and the group — having published a book about their personal culture wars — went back to issuing radio escapades without further incident.