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Many musicians, from Dolly Parton to Tom Waits have been successful at growing their success in music into film and television acting. But Negativland, without the charisma of a Bette Midler or David Byrne, should have stuck with their sound manipulations and KPFA radio show. This live performance video contains about four interesting moments scattered evenly through 150 minutes of noise.
For those who don't know Negativland, it is a loosely defined group of Bay Area guys who appropriate sounds from the flood of media and form them into new compositions, usually as a comment on the media and its pervasiveness. Their work is often very good, politically pointed, and sort of funny. Many of their albums are worth hearing and are readily available. Since there isn't much to say about the video this week, I'd like to take you on a scenic drive through the band's fascinating history and varied creative output.
Their self-titled first release (1980) is pretty hard to find, but like Points (1981), it doesn't yet have the political weight of later efforts, though both do present fascinating sound layering and splicing. Escape from Noise (1987), on the other hand, is a great album because the bits of sound create a wider range of song-like creations and all of these coalesce around a central theme: the ubiquity of sound. There are many great tracks on this album including "Over the Hiccups," "Car Bomb," "Yellow Black and Rectangular," "Time Zones," and the infamous "Christianity Is Stupid."
This may trigger memories of some of you. Negativland's players, skilled though they are in their chosen field of experimental sound, are perhaps more famous for the scandals and legal tribulations they have created around themselves in over 20 years of recording. After a teenager axe-murdered his family in 1989, Negativland managed to start a rumor that the troubled boy had been listening to "Christianity Is Stupid" before committing the murders. It was intended as morgue humor and was completely unfounded, but journalists got wind of the lie, assumed it to be true, and proceeded to broadcast it far and wide. Negland got its first major blush of notoriety as an example of how anti-Christian music causes violence in children. In fact, I wonder now if Tipper Gore might have let this fraudulent scandal influence her effort to enforce parental advisory labeling on records....
Negativland parlayed sound and text clips from this episode into the well-named album, Helter Stupid (1989). On this album, the tale (told in the liner notes) is more interesting than the "music," and the comment on sensationalism, though well documented, is heavy-handed.
Negativland's greater infamy comes from it's aborted release U2, a short cassette released just before U2's Achtung Baby. It was sued and counter-sued out of existence by Island Records, Polygram Records, and SST Records; and blocked from re-release "in perpetuity" by Casey Kasem, whose outtakes of cussing at his staff permeate the recording. People who were paying close attention to the music world in the early 90's will recall this, and the really savvy, who bought the recording, will grin knowing that Negativland's U2 now sells for $50-90 on eBay.
As usual, Negativland published a record--along with a 200-page book--called Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2. Anyone involved or interested in the music industry could benefit from reading this book, especially musicians, who tend to be the victims of industry greed, record-label abuse, and copyright litigation. This story is compelling and well compiled. Negland does a good job of illustrating their anti-copyright aesthetics. Did you know that the U.S. Copyright Law was written a century ago--when the technology for electronic duplication didn't exist--and has never been significantly revised? Let me recommend this book once more so I don't have to go into a full exposition. Good graphics and compelling documentary keep it interesting in spite of some repetitiveness. Again, a must for recording artists.
Negativland continues to create to this day. Dispepsi (1997) is my favorite of their albums. Set in the midst of the 80's cola wars, it discusses the way corporations saturate our lives and minds with their ideas. The songs on this album are most like pop songs and don't suffer from muddiness or over-mixing, as do some of the earlier works. Dispepsi is also an interesting legal risk considering the free lifting of Pepsi and Coke adds almost in spite of the U2 debacle. "Aluminum or Glass: The Memo" is one of the most fascinating songs I know. Remember Max Headroom, New Coke, Bill Cosby in the role of Tooth Decay?
Negativland has also released selections from its radio show, Over the Edge, the longest-running free-form radio show in history. These are hit and miss: The Willsaphone Stupid Show is funny, but very long. Sex Dirt has moments, but is mostly tame. There are many others.
What about the video? Negland created a live tour, its first in six years, and as a follower, I managed to get a copy of the official video. Though I can't find it on Amazon, I did see a few copies on eBay, if you're interested.
But you'd only be interested in you're already a die-hard Negativland aficionado. There are plenty of quotes from past albums, and new material as well. The Weatherman has a long solo that begins to bore, in spite of his funny voice. The visuals come from a slide show flashed above the heads of the band, who stand in white lab-coats at extensive banks of sound sampling machines. There's very little in the way of performance. Two-and-a-half hours is two hours too long for this video. You need to do something else while you watch.
Hello, this is Ricardo Mantalban.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.