Licensed to steal

In the grand scheme of things, Negativland exists on the fringes of the fringes, out where the air is thin and the mainstream does not venture. For more than a decade, they have perfected the art of sampling, splicing together any sound they could snatch from the ether--pieces of music and TV-show sounds, CB broadcasts, images and words stolen from satellite transmissions--and slapping them together in a series of releases that are more like aural collages than musical works.

Of all of Negativland's albums, none is more well-known (again, to a small few) than their 1991 U2, which was on the shelves for a matter of days before it was deemed illegal by the courts and forever doomed to be something you always heard of but never actually heard. A parody of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," the album--which bore a giant "U2" and the spy plane on its cover--was a work of genius: rather than merely sample and mock the original, Negativland used the original as a skeleton on which to hang various things (a chorus of male voices hums the chorus, intercepted CB transmissions, sarcastic recitations of Bono's original lyrics). But best of all were excerpts from an oft-bootlegged Casey Kasem outtake in which Kasem expresses his disdain for doing those long-distance dedications, especially to dead dogs named Snuggles: "I want somebody to use his fuckin' brain to not come out of a goddamned record that is, unh, that's up-tempo an' I gotta talk about a fuckin' dog dyin'!"

Shortly after its release, Island Records (U2's label) and song publisher Warner Chappell Music International sought to have the record pulled from stores, suing Negativland and its label, SST Records (owned by ex-Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn and former home to HYsker DY and the Meat Puppets, both of which left the label). Eventually, Kasem joined the act, and Island and Kasem claimed it was a joke that had gone too far--parody, perhaps, but art they would forever keep buried and away from an audience. For more than three years, Negativland has tried to regain ownership of its single from Island Records, and for three years they have failed.

Now they fight back not just on album (the newly released Dead Dog Records, which samples everything from Mark Hamill to Batman to U2 to Casey Kasem), but with Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2 (both are available from Negtivlandmailorderland, 109 Minna #391, San Francisco, CA, 94105). The latter is both a book and a training manual, its narrative spelled out in Xeroxed legal documents, threatening letters and phone calls, apologetic handwritten notes, and mock press releases; ultimately, it serves as literary performance art and as bizarre cautionary tale warning against the evils of all record companies, major and minor.

(When Island sued Negativland, SST turned around and demanded Negativland pay all costs even though SST released the record in the first place. Among the choices for answers to the question "Why did Greg Ginn sue ex-SST band The Meat Puppets?" are: "To slap them for their uppity ways while sucking their back catalog for all he could," and, "To thank the band for making his label successful.")

The book is dense with information, loaded with legal decisions and articles explaining how the U.S. Copyright Law is closed off to the notion of parody, commentary, and sampling; even worse, the law has failed to take into account the dispersion of ideas and music through the Internet, and how one person's creation becomes the basis for the art of millions.

"Art does not come to us as one 'original' idea after another," the band writes in the book. "The law must educate itself to the fact that ever since monkeys saw and did, the entire history of all art forms has been BASED ON THEFT--in the most useful sense of that word."

Art--whether it's a hit single, an art-house film that makes little money, or a masterwork painting--has been reduced to an "economic commodity," Negativland argues; the culture, they insist, is then driven by the exchange of money and not the exchange of ideas. Art, they write, "may even use examples of commerce to comment upon it." They adhere to the idea that once art is exposed to the masses, it becomes the product of the consumer and no longer belongs to the artist.

Negativland's "Still Haven't Found" perfectly fit the legal interpretation of parody because it created something new; it bore little resemblance to U2's version because Negativland's, in fact, destroyed the original. And yet when Island and Warner Chappell went after the puny Negativland and seized the product, the art was quashed forever. The band does not support bootlegging an artist's material, exactly duplicating another's material, but they do not "see significant harm in anything else artists care to do with anything available to them in our 'free' marketplace."

In that respect, they compare themselves to such visual artists as Warhol, Rauschenberg, and Braque; they liken themselves to jazzers and bluesmen whose work is based upon the idea of "creative theft." And if nothing else, Fair Use and Dead Dog Records make a good case for their claims, even if they are heard in a vacuum.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky