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Negativland Press Photo: Just Say Bo-No!

Negativland Releases “U2” Masters, Kasem Outtakes & All

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.

Negativland "U2" coverAfter 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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4 Responses to Negativland Releases “U2” Masters, Kasem Outtakes & All

  1. EAPlatt June 19, 2014 at 2:18 am #

    Oboy, another sloppy article on the SST/NL/”U2″ debacle. Having lived through the whole thing (as an observer and U2 fan), I probably know a little too much about it all…but will succumb to temptation to emend and/or clarify things:

    — It’s not a “cover” of U2’s song; it’s in fact the album track by U2. Yes, the full song, not samples or bits ‘n’ snips. If memory serves (I heard it even before the lawsuit was filed), it was the full album track off “The Joshua Tree,” with some noodling/distortion of the music, and the Casem tapes mixed in. SST/NL ( before their breakup) argued that anyone anywhere can take a song (or album, movie, book, etc.) and slap their name on it and sell it for their own profit, and that was OK under “fair use” (in their eyes). File under irony: Curious fans had to pay real $$ buy the NL/U2 disc.

    — The cover art argument was quite valid–fans and record stores alike were schnookered by the “U2” name/graphics, etc. A friend of mine worked at a Tower Records in San Francisco, and yep, one of their clerks ordered a bunch of the NL/U2 disc, mistakenly thinking it was the (typically) overdue U2 album. The disc was also bought by U2 fans, who knew U2 had a habit of releasing EPs between full length albums.

    — Note that all this unspooled right around a time (late 80s – mid-90s) that SST was losing a lot of their marquee-name artists (Sonic Youth, Dino Jr., et al). Accusations of bad bookkeeping and just generally ripping off their bands–could this whole stunt have been some attempt to make SST look better, and to advance the idea that musicians aren’t supposed to get paid for their work?

    — The case wasn’t settled — from what I recall, SST/NL had a judgement entered against them, and overall just got their asses kicked. Apparently, U2 themselves leaned on their business cohorts (and it wasn’t just the label; the music publisher was also involved) to not collect the judgement. The harm to Negativland came from SST, who had pledged to cover legal costs, etc., but after the loss in court, turned on NL and reneged on their pledge. SST actually sued NL for restitution, if memory serves.

    — Sidebar: If someone made unlicensed Black Flag/SST merch, SST would sue them for copyright infringement. Ha! Ha. Funny.

    — You’re kind of forgetting that in the midst of all this, Greg Ginn and SST put out that “KILL BONO” t-shirt, which led to NL breaking ranks with SST. That shirt wasn’t ironic at all; I had an SST bigwig (in private conversation) admit that it really was meant to put the murder idea into people’s heads, and that Bono (or anyone else in U2) would be killed before the whole U2/NL lawsuit was done. So, not only should musicians not get paid–they should be killed. I can see why SST dwindled away before the decade’s end; even the most DIY-dedicated punk is going to see that sort of thing as just plain crazy.

    — People keep acting like that “Mondo2000” magazine interview (w/RU Sirius) was some sort of huge, earth-shaking confrontation. Any confrontation just flopped–again, checking memory here, I was told at the time that NL thought The Edge was pretty cool about the whole thing. (I think that was another personal conversation.) RU Sirius might have been a pit peeved by the utter lack of blow-up, though.

    There’s probably more, but it’ll take more caffeine to get it out.

    As a parting shot: Is is really so good for music fans (and especially radio folks) to still espouse that Napsterismo nonsense about not paying for music (or anything else)? (Sidebar: “Napster” was really Hummer Winblad VC, one billion bucks and counting…) The emergence of the Internet helped speed up radio consolidation, and over the past decade, we’ve witnessed the loss of live music/theatre performance spaces, radio stations, music shops of all kinds, newssagents, arts nonprofits, bookstores…you name it. Working musicians and artists have to leave town because of high rents. We could save a few bucks here or there, but pay a bigger price socially.

    Food for thought. I’m off to bed.

    — eaplatt
    (San Francisco, CA)

  2. Paul Riismandel June 19, 2014 at 9:22 am #

    Strangely enough, I did not rely on memory in writing this, and did actual research, including listening to the “U2” tracks again.

    With regard to the question of whether or not this is a cover version, I’ll let people listen to the track themselves to decide:

    The music track sure as hell doesn’t sound like U2 to me. No sign of Bono’s vocals–the vocal melody line is replaced by an off-kilter synth.

    A “cover” song is one in which another band has re-recorded a song by another band, but playing it themselves. This track surely qualifies.

    Negativland actually pride themselves on being actual musicians, in addition to being brilliant collage artists. I think this track demonstrates this clearly.

    Also, I have no idea what relevance Napster has to this story. The case of the “U2” album has nothing to do with file sharing or not paying for music. It has to do with parody and pushing people to think about culture and culture laws critically. It’s not even a sampled track.

  3. Johnny Utah July 1, 2014 at 11:44 am #

    “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.”

    Is that a photo of the cover art up there? I’m reading you to say no one would confuse that cover with a U2 cover, or maybe just to say that no one intended such confusion. If not, my apologies. If so, are you kidding me?!!!!

  4. Gargie July 9, 2014 at 2:52 pm #

    It’s worthwhile seeking out the interview between Negativeland and the Edge. I suppose they thought they were clever ambushing him, but what Im assuming they didnt expect was him turning out to be an articulate and surprisingly magnanimous artist that (if memory serves correct) even resumed the conversation after the line was abruptly disconnected at one point.

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