Negativland Would Expose U2’s Hypocrisy
Back in 1991, the obscure band Negativland tricked U2 fans into thinking the band dropped an album in the summer of that year, when in fact they haven’t. Check out Rock N’ Roll True Stories video about it.
I want to thank one of my subscribers for suggesting this story to me. This story takes us back to 1991 and boy was it a year for some pretty major albums. You had Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Red hot Chili Peppers, Guns N’ Roses, REM, Metallica, Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden to name a few artists with big releases that year. Then you also had a seismic shift of rock music with alternative rock really taking over the for net several years. But there was another alternative rock band who had a huge release that year was U2 with their album Achtung Baby. It was one of the most highly anticipated albums of the year coming out on November 18th, 1991. But some U2 fans and record stores, thought U2 had dropped the album earlier in the year. But as it turned out, one band beat U2 to the punch and in doing so created a legal nightmare for themselves. As Wired Magazine put it in 1995 WHAT HAPPENS WHEN your art consists of sampling other people’s work? If your name is Negativland, you get your but sued by U2. This is a story about the big guys bullying and fighting the little guys and then having egg on their face. Stay tuned for the full story.
This story revolves around the band U2, and another band, an obscure experimental group named Negativeland whose origins dated back to the late 70’s. Negativland were notorious for being staunch advocates of fair use doctrine, which basically allows you to take someone else’s copyrighted work and transform it in some way whether it’s sampling music, parody, criticism or providing education. Now keep in mind there is no law called fair use, rather it’s a defense used in court. And while Negativland released many albums in their career it would be one release in particular that caught the attention of U2 and resulted in an expensive legal battle. By 1987 Negativland had built up a following when they released their album escape from noise. 4 years later they were given a tape of radio personality Casey Kasem who was best known for hosting America’s top 40 radio program. The tape consisted of Kasem bearting his engineer by yelling profanities at him and disparaging the Irish Band U2. Now keep in mind this was before the days of the internet, so tapes like this were rare. The members of Negativland thought they should do something with the Casey Kasim tapes and mix in U2’s music. And Negativland up to this point in their career had never sold more than 15,000 copies on any of their prior releases. Given how big U2 was, they surely would attract more attention this time around. Negativlnad Member Don Joyce recalled
“The bulk of appropriated material on our earlier releases was from fairly obscure stuff, and U2 marked the first time we had ever taken on pop music. It wasn’t even something that attracted us, but it just became appropriate because we got these Casey Kasem tapes mentioning U2. It’s nothing we’d have chosen to do otherwise” he’d remember
Negativland would end up putting out a single three months ahead of Achtung baby in August of 1991 on it’s label SST Records. The cover as you can see here had the word U2 in large letter with a U-2 spyplane and the band’s name in small letters.
The U2 single would feature parodies of the Irish Band’s well known 1987 song I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For including kazoos and extensive sampling of the original track. It would also be mixed with disc jockey Casey Kasem’s rant I talked about earlier.
U2 for their part had two massive releases towards the end of the 80’s with 1987s The Joshua Tree and 1988’s Rattle and Hum. Fans were eagerly anticipating what the band had in store to kick off the 90’s. Here’s Mark Hossler of Negativland explaining what happened after the band released their infamous U2 single. So it ended up turning into a single so side 1 was a cover version of the U2 song I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. We had a sort of dramatic reading of the lyrics by a member of the group ah David also known as the weatherman who butchered Bono’s lyrics and altered them. Now when you do a cover version of a song you don’t have to get permission, but if you alter the lyrics you gotta get permission so we did that. We used a 30 second chunk of the U2 song the beginning intro of course didn’t clear that. There’s bad words in this and they didn’t like that either, but the final thing that brought it to the attention of Island Records that really made them decide to nail our buts was that we ended up making the record look like this. And we thought, this would be funny. It’s confusing it looks like a new album from U2 that’s called Negativland and and we liked the idea that you put this in a record store and people are confused we liked creating at the moment of consumption you’re not quite sure what’s going on here and Negativland’s always been interested in creating that kind of moment of ‘What? What is This’ or ‘They Can’t Do That, But They Are, How’s This Possible.’ We’ve been able to do that a few different times in our career and it’s it’s very thrilling to ge to do.We also assumed people would figure it out, but never underestimate the inattentiveness of the average American because it turned out places like tower Records were putting up entire window displays of this record when it was coming out thinking it was the new U2 album.
What’s funny is that Negativland’s U2 single was pointing out how the irish band stole their name from a spy plane. By 1991 there already were court cases dealing with how sampling of music was to be handled from a financial and a compensation point of view. There was one court case in particular which had set a precedent for how future litigation would be handled. Musicians who sample another artist’s song would have to pay licensing, publishing and mechanical fees which could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. A few weeks after Negativland’s U2 release came out, they group was hit with a 200 page lawsuit both U2 and their label island records. The lawsuit alleged the band and their label were guilty of copyright infringement, trademark infringement and fraud as well as defamation of character because of the profanity in their single. The lawsuit claimed that placing the word “U2” on the cover violated trademark law, as did the song itself. Island Records also claimed that the single was an attempt to deliberately confuse U2 fans, then awaiting the impending release of Achtung Baby. It was rumored by Hosler that the whole lawsuit stemmed from one copy of the U2 single being sold in Athens, Georgia that was bought by REM’s then manager. He would inform U2 about the record, thus resulting in a lawsuit
As part of their lawsuit Island Records also demanded that every copy of the U2 single and any and all promotional materials be turned over to them and destroyed in addition to the copyright being assigned to them as well. In just one month Negativland and their labels stood to lose an estimated US$70,000, which was more than Negativland had made in 11 years as a band. The group did have fair use defense on their side to justify their actions, but the lawsuit would have likely dragged on for years and bled the band and their label dry. Hosler would tell wired magazine “It felt to me like my child had been kidnapped.” The band was pressured by their label to settle out of court, which is what they did. And Wired magazine summed it up perfectly, “Negativland couldn’t afford to prove themselves innocent.” The lawsuit also resulted in the band being dropped by their label.
Fast forward to June of 1992 and the magazine Mondo 2000 was going to do an interview with the guitarist, the Edge over the phone to promote the band’s Zoo TV Tour. Unbeknownst to the Edge, the members of Negativland were friends with the editor of the magazine who happened to invite two of the band’s members to sit in on the phone call. The members of Negativland revealed their identity to the Edge halfway through the interview. It would be ironic that U2’s zoo TV tour at the time featured sounds and live sampling from mass media outlets and negativland knew this. They would spend a lot of their interview with the Edge asking about his ideas about the use of sampling on their new tour and the legality of using copyrighted material without permission The Edge claimed that U2 didn’t agree with the aggressive legal approach that their label had enacted and that the band and advocated for negativland to their label, but it fell on deaf years.
The members of Negativland would chronicle the whole ordeal with U2, and their label in a magazine and CD release called Fair Use The Letter U and the Numeral 2. And the group wasn’t just done with litigation the members were later sued by our own record label SST Records who wanted to recover their legal fees. While Casey Kasem never sued Negativland he did at one point threaten legal action if the U2 single ever came to light again and Kasem was critical of the band’s work. So the members of Negativland urged fans to get in contact with the radio DJ to defend the band. That’s when the FBI got involved. Apparently one fan threatened Kasim over the phone despite the fact the band never gave out his phone number. There was also a documentary made about the whole ordeal called sonic outlaws. So that does it for today’s video guys. Thanks for watching. Be sure to hit the like button and subscribe and we’ll see you again on rock n’ roll true stories. Take care.