Friday, December 21, 2007
This will probably be the longest description for a single that I ever post on this blog, and with good reason. I don't believe that any other single has generated as much controversy as this one did at the time of its release.
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. 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's members are in fact from the Republic of 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, then awaiting the impending release of Achtung Baby.
In June, 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 Dave Evans (aka "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."
The "U2" single (along with other related material) was re-released in 2001 on a "bootleg" album entitled These Guys Are from England and Who Gives a Shit, released on "Seelard Records" (a parody of Negativland's record label Seeland Records). It is thought likely that Negativland themselves were responsible for the re-release, and that U2 gave their blessing; although the Negativland website refers to this release as a bootleg, it is available from major retailers like Best Buy, Amazon, and Tower Records, as well as Negativland's own mail-order business.
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), Ginn later released the Negativ(e)land: Live on Tour album on SST.
Negativland were the main subjects of Craig Baldwin's documentary Sonic Outlaws, detailing the use of culture jamming to subvert the messages of more traditional media outlets. There are many other artists who push the boundaries of copyright law in a similar way to Negativland, including John Oswald, the Evolution Control Committee, The Bran Flakes, Countymojo, The Tape-Beatles, Sir Mildred Pierce, and People Like Us.
(Year of Release: 1991)
1. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For (1991 A Cappella Mix)
2. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For (Special Edit Radio Mix)
Download: Negativland - U2 (12MB)