The mid-’90’s was an interesting time for Negativland. With the U2 debacle leaving them financially drained but in the eye of the public, they were now revered underground heroes, and poised to pull a media prank worthy of their previous efforts. The tour they undertook after Free in 1993 was probably their biggest one yet for a band that had largely avoided them in the past. (Some of the members are agoraphobic.)
They had just done a documentary with Craig Baldwin that introduced the public to the creative philosophy of the group, along with other’s who are using music for both activism and artistic expression. Having built their career on manipulating media – and manipulating the way media is used to talk about art – they had already taken a number of pot shots at their favorite targets, from Guns to drunk drivers, suburban sprawl, religion, government, and they were making some noise outside of the art world, too.
Their collective – a group of suburban weirdos with a passion for home-brewed electronic music meets post-modern folk – had accomplished some pretty crazy stuff since they started fooling around with recorded work in 1979. Really, after closing their last album with a deconstruction of the National Anthem, with samples that explain which drinking song the tune was stolen from, where do you go next?
Previous albums had remained somewhat brief with regard to subject matter, and unless it was an EP, they rarely let a project take over an entire record. But Don had found all of this incredible audio about Pepsi, and the concept was not just to do an album, but make a pop album. With all the attention they were generating because of U2, it seemed reasonable that they could try and make a release what was their twisted version of a pop record, which was sure to get radio play around the time of its release.
Dispepsi, the album in question, was proceeded by a 7″, which contained a track from the record and two new cuts by Negativland. Initially concerned that they couldn’t be so bold with the title of the forthcoming album, they developed a promotional campaign where the CDs were not released with the letters in any particular order, resulting in a “call this number, hear this message” strategy to hearing a sample of the album, and The Weatherman telling us the real name of the record.
The album spun off a single – “Happy Hero” – which was included on a follow-up EP, with even more new Don Joyce edits (some from his radio show), and “The Remedia Megamix” of the single. As if that weren’t enough, they used this creative juice to release a re-mix record with Chumbawamba shortly thereafter, where they re-interpreted their huge hit “Tubthumper” in a typically Negativland-esque manner.
This was all done to put attention back on the band and the world that they do, and to draw attention away from the SST release, Live on Tour, a disc that completed Negativland’s contract with their former label, in spite of the fact that the band members did not get any say in the way the release was packaged (or what was included on the disc). Negativland was hoping that, if there was enough new material on the market that they had actually created, the SST Release would be conveniently forgotten, and rightfully so (The SST Release sounds terrible, from an audio perspective). Fan’s at the time made stickers that explained the travesty, and would go into stores selling the SST Release and put the stickers on the discs. It pretty quickly languished in the cut-out bin, where fans picked it up for a much more reasonable price a few months much later.
Negativland’s Seeland Records, on the contrary, faired pretty well for themselves during this period. The new album charted at college stations, and Pepsi make it public that they had no intention of any legal action against the band, which allowed the band to reveal the album name publicly, and garnered even more press. (Even “Entertainment Weekly” plugged the record, and the head of Pepsi commented, “It’s no Odelay [by Beck], but it’s a good listen.”)
Negativland was hoping they could “cancel a tour” and spend the time documenting a new lawsuit with Pepsi, but instead, they played a few shows here and there as they were able to, and used this creative spurt to push on into several new projects thoughout the next 20 years, including released by their heroes Plunderphonics, as well and championing a new generation of oddballs who all grew up on Negativland records, like Wobbly and People Like Us.
For many bands, the kind of punishment they took over the creative use of sampling would destroy any future they might have had. But Negativland’s deft navigation of their financial devastation has not only led to their status as elder statesmen of the experimental music scene, but as the fathers of DIY collage art in the modern age. Many artists owe their careers to their pioneering records, and they are worth exploration if for no other reason than to experience audio art that is unlike “music” that you might be familiar with elsewhere.
In many ways a cornerstone of their career will always be the U2 lawsuit, born largely over the use of some Casey Casam blooper tapes in a deconstructed “cover” of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. While the band themselves were very clearly influenced by (and fans of) blooper tapes, their own fans got into the habit of sending the band any number of rare and influential tapes that were making the rounds among collectors and aficionados, born out of this fiasco.
Don Joyce was particularly interested in material like this, as his interest in audio splicing and editing had enormous potential with some of their more famous creations. As Dispepsi was largely about the soft drink, this Happy Heroes EP could be the perfect place to include a track dedicated to a similar institution, Kentucky Friend Chicken. The blooper tape of “The Colonel” not being able to nail his own line had been floating around for years, and even Mr. Bungle had used it on their self-titled debut. But using the same Dispepsi approach to integrating jingles into a sort of musical refrain, “Chicken Diction” illustrated the kind of hypnotic editing that Don was particularly great at.
While it is clear that Negativland will continue without Don, his contribution to the band with tracks like this were completely unique and excellent additions to their aesthetic, and it will absolutely be missed.