No-one noticed that Negativland founder Richard Lyons died this week, at the age of 57. Why does this matter? Well, if I had to make a “100 songs to take to a desert island” list, there’s a fairly good chance I would have to include Negativland’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – Special Edit Radio Mix” (video below). In spite of the fact that I’m otherwise pretty ignorant of their body of work, Negativland has always held a special place in my heart for their seminal work as culture jammers and mashup artists. The track just mentioned was on an EP they released in 1992 called “U2”, which was quickly withdrawn from circulation* when lawyers representing Island Records – the record label of the band U2 – sued over what they claimed was misleading artwork and the use of unauthorized sampling. Never mind the fact that “U2” is the name of a product belonging to Lockheed (the U2 spy plane) or the fact that U2 was already prepping for their “Zoo TV Tour” (which relied extensively on sampling itself), Island claimed that the Negativland single was an attempt to deliberately confuse U2 fans, then awaiting the impending release of Achtung Baby. Negativland was actually inspired to do the mashup because they had gotten their hands on off-air recordings of Casey Kasem cussing up a storm while trying to lay down a U2 promo spot, in which he said things like “These guys are from England and who gives a shit?” Here’s the track, which is still unavailable for purchase anywhere*. Casey’s potty mouth renders it very NSFW:
In June of 1992, U2’s publicist contacted LA’s Mondo 2000 magazine with the idea of doing an interview promoting U2’s upcoming tour and its use of technology, and – in a minor masterstroke – Mondo editor R. U. Sirius invited Negativland to participate. Unbeknownst to U2’s Edge, Don Joyce and Mark Hosler of Negativland were actually conducting the first part of the interview. Surprisingly, it all ended on a civil note, with Edge doing his best to distance himself from Island’s actions. But nothing changed; the EP remains unavailable*, and as an establishment act with foundations in the post-punk era, U2 obviously had no interest in wrangling an issue like this. You can read the transcript of the interview here .
Did Negativland Inspire a Murder?
No. But this is one of the more hilarious examples of how their exploits were more about culture-jamming and intellectual property law than about trying to cash in on U2 album releases. When the band’s 1987 release Escape from Noise became more popular than they anticipated, they faced the prospect of going on a money-losing tour. So they brilliantly crafted a press release which said Negativland were prevented from touring by “Federal Authority Dick Jordan” because of claims that Negativland’s song Christianity Is Stupid had inspired David Brom to kill his family. The willingness of the press to spin this story onto the wire with little or no fact checking inspired the band’s next release, Helter Stupid. For more on Negativland’s exploits, check out this 1995 Wired piece or the Negativland website.
*Here’s a fun little secret: the track IS in fact available, but on a “bootleg” that Negativland themselves released called These Guys Are from England and Who Gives a Shit