Negativland is an experimental music and sound collage band which originated in San Francisco in the late 1970s. They took their name from a Neu! song. The current core of the band consists of Mark Hosler, Richard Lyons, Don Joyce, David Wills, and Peter Conheim. Negativland has released a number of albums ranging from pure sound collage to more musical expositions. These have mostly been released on their own label, Seeland Records.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, they produced several recordings for SST Records, most notably ‘Escape from Noise,’ ‘Helter Stupid,’ and ‘U2.’ Negativland were sued by U2’s record label, Island Records, and by SST Records, which brought them widespread publicity and notoriety.
Negativland started in Concord, California, in 1979 around the core founding members of Lyons and Hosler (who were in high school at the time), and released an eponymous debut in 1980. A number of releases followed in the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until after the release of their breakthrough sample and cut-up sonic barrage ‘Escape from Noise’ in 1987 that Negativland gained wider attention. Vinyl copies of the album came with ‘CAR BOMB’ bumper stickers, in reference to the album’s song ‘Car Bomb.’
Following the somewhat unexpected success of this album, Negativland faced the prospect of going on a money-losing tour. To prevent this, they created a press release which said Negativland were prevented from touring by ‘Federal Authority Dick Jordan’ due to claims that Negativland’s song ‘Christianity Is Stupid’ had inspired mass murderer David Brom to kill his family. The press release went on to denounce the purported connection between Negativland and the murders. While Brom had in fact argued with his father about music shortly before Brom killed his family, no one had ever claimed that Brom was spurred to murder by Negativland’s music. The scandal became the foundation for Negativland’s next release, ‘Helter Stupid,’ which featured a cover photo of TV news anchorman Dave McElhatton intoning the Brom murder story, with the news station’s caption ‘Killer Song’ above his head, and a photo of the ax murderer.
Negativland’s next project was the ‘U2’ EP, with samples from ‘American Top 40’ host Casey Kasem. In 1991, Negativland released a single with the title ‘U2′” displayed in very large type on the front of the packaging, and ‘Negativland’ in a smaller typeface. An image of the Lockheed U-2 spy plane was also on the single cover. The songs within were parodies of the group U2’s well-known 1987 song, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,’ including kazoos and extensive sampling of the original song. The song ‘The Letter U And The Numeral 2’ features a musical backing to an extended profane rant from well-known disc jockey Casey Kasem, lapsing out of his more polished and professional tone during a frustrating rehearsal which had gone out to many stations as raw feed and was taped by several engineers, who had been passing it around for a number of years. One of Kasem’s milder comments was ‘These guys are from England and who gives a shit?’ (U2 was actually formed in Ireland.) U2’s label Island Records quickly sued Negativland, claiming that placing the word ‘U2’ on the cover violated trademark law, as did the song itself. Island Records also contended that the single was an attempt to deliberately confuse U2 fans, awaiting the impending release of ‘Achtung Baby,’ into purchasing what they believed was a new U2 album called ‘Negativland.’
In 1992, R. U. Sirius, publisher of the magazine ‘Mondo 2000,’ came up with an interesting idea. Publicists from U2 had contacted him regarding the possibility of interviewing The Edge, hoping to promote U2’s impending multi-million dollar ‘Zoo TV Tour,’ which featured found sounds and live sampling from mass media outlets (things for which Negativland had been known for some time). Sirius, unbeknownst to Edge, decided to have his friends Joyce and Hosler of Negativland conduct the interview. Joyce and Hosler, fresh from Island’s lawsuit, peppered the Edge with questions regarding his ideas about the use of sampling in their new tour, and the legality of using copyrighted material without permission. Midway through the interview, Joyce and Hosler revealed their identities as members of Negativland. An embarrassed Edge reported that U2 were bothered by the sledgehammer legal approach Island Records took in their lawsuit, and furthermore that much of the legal wrangling took place without U2’s knowledge: ‘by the time we [U2] realized what was going on it was kinda too late, and we actually did approach the record company on your [Negativland’s] behalf and said, ‘Look, c’mon, this is just, this is very heavy…” Island Records reported to Negativland that U2 never authorized samples of their material; Evans’ response was, ‘that’s complete bollocks, there’s like, there’s at least six records out there that are direct samples from our stuff.’
Negativland are interested in intellectual property rights, and argue that their use of U2’s and others’ material falls under the fair use clause. In 1995, they released a book, with accompanying CD, called ‘Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2,’ about the whole U2 incident (from Island Records first suing Negativland for the release to Negativland gaining back control of their work four years later). The book ends with a large appendix of essays about fair use and copyright by Negativland and others, telling the story with newspaper clippings, court papers, faxes, press releases, and other documents arranged in chronological order. An unfortunate side effect of the Negativland-Island lawsuit was another one brought on between Negativland and SST, which served to sever all remaining ties the two had. To get back at Negativland (while wryly circumventing their name), SST founder Greg Ginn later released the ‘Negativ(e)land: Live on Tour’ album on SST.
In 1999 Negativland collaborated with UK anarchist band Chumbawamba to produce the EP ‘The ABCs of Anarchism,’ which is largely based around the writings of Alexander Berkman and cut-up versions of Chumbawamba’s hit song ‘Tubthumping,’ the theme tune to the children’s program ‘Teletubbies’ and the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK.’
In 2003, members of Negativland contributed their efforts to Creative Commons, a non-profit organization devoted to expanding the range of creative works available for others to legally build upon and share by providing alternative copyright licenses. In 2002, Negativland spoofed Clear Channel radio stations in an audio track broadcast by pirate radio broadcasters jamming a Seattle Clear Channel station while the National Association of Broadcasters met in the city.