In my memorial of Casey Kasem yesterday I mentioned Negativland’s infamous “U2” single that integrated into cover versions of the band U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” blooper outtakes of Kasem generally losing his cool while recording America’s Top 40. It turns out that Negativland is making their own tribute of sorts by releasing the original master tapes of the U2 record.
According to a press release credited to “Hal Stakke, Legal Counsel/Seeland Records,” the band is releasing the masters in order to encourage “re-mixing, re-purposing and re-inventing in whichever way the listener may choose.” Negativland also encourages sharing those remixes at its website and Facebook page.
To put this in context, it’s important to know a little bit of the “U2” record’s ill-fated history. While these days we nearly take it for granted that remixes, mashups and tributes of nearly any form of mass media can be found all over YouTube and social media, most of the major entertainment conglomerates were even more hostile to sample and appropriation-based art 20 years ago than they are now, regardless of whether or not that art was legal under copyright Fair Use provisions.
After the release of the “U2” record in 1991 the band U2’s record label, Island, took exception to the albums cover art, which featured the letter U and the number 2 in large, prominent characters, along with a U2 fighter plane and “Negativland” in much smaller type. Island sued Negativland’s label SST claiming that the cover art violated its trademark protection for the band name U2, and that the use of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” violated copyright law.
Island argued–absurdly–that the record’s cover art was intended to deceive listeners into thinking they were buying an actual U2 album, cutting into potential sales of the bands forthcoming “Achtung Baby” album.
However, Island’s claims were never tested in court. Instead SST settled the case, agreeing to destroy of all remaining copies of the record and any promotional material. This ended up putting Negativland thousands of dollars in the hole.
Then in June 1992 members of Negativland finagled their way into an interview with U2 guitarist The Edge, facilitated by cyberpunk the magazine Mondo 2000. They confronted The Edge about the fact that U2 was itself using sampling as part of its Zoo TV tour–ostensibly without permission from copyright holders–at the same time its label sued Negativland.
For his part The Edge claimed that he “didn’t have a problem with it,” and that by the time he and the band realized that the label was suing Negativland and SST “it was kinda too late.”
Kasem also made legal threats, although he did not follow through with any actual lawsuits.
Negativland documented the entire affair in a book and CD package called Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2. Of course, the irony is that in the internet age it takes only a simple Google search to find Negativland’s original U2 record.
Negativland member Peter Conheim appeared on the Fogelnest Files podcast back in March and discussed the “U2” affair, along with the rest of the band’s colorful history.
So while it ended up being a very expensive endeavor, in many ways Negativland comes out the victor, passing on its legacy to a new generation of culture jammers with the release of these masters. Mix away!
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