In the winter of 1987–88, Negativland found themselves in a position which will be familiar to most people who have been in bands – especially in these days of diminishing record sales and tightening label budgets. Escape From Noise, their first album on a ‘proper’ label – SST Records – was a hit. It wasn’t Slippery When Wet or the La Bamba soundtrack, but in comparison to the group’s previous four self-released LPs, it was doing pretty well. There were good reviews, sales were up, and that combined with daytime plays on mainstream college radio made the members start to think it was time to take this show on the road. They were going to go on tour.
That’s where the problem started. As this was their first attempt to play live outside their immediate neighbourhood, and SST Records – despite a back catalogue that could boast such cult classics as Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade and Double Nickels on the Dime by The Minutemen – had no money for tour support, it soon became clear that the nationwide tour they had booked was going to run financial losses that none of the band members could afford. It’s a familiar problem. But how they responded to the situation was anything but industry standard.
About a year earlier, one of the group’s founder members, Richard Lyons, was in a Bay Area thrift store when he came across a record with the wonderfully off-the-wall title If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? This album, a privately pressed recording of a sermon by the Reverend Estus W. Pirkle, presents a kind of southern Baptist apocalypse, a feverish future narrative in which communists take over America and set about brainwashing its citizens. In one particularly fiery passage, Pirkle foretells of loudspeakers throughout the country broadcasting the same message over and over again: ‘Christianity is stupid! Communism is good! Give up!’
Lyons and the other members of Negativland were immediately taken by the peculiarly musical quality of Pirkle’s voice. “Not just what he was saying, but how he was saying it,” as the group’s Mark Hosler would later say. They knew right away “we’ve got to make him the vocalist for a piece.” Backed with a dirge of thudding four-four beats and crashing guitars – “brainwash music” as Hosler would put it – Pirkle’s chant became the hook to the biggest anthem on Escape From Noise, ‘Christianity is Stupid’.
Fast-forward to the beginning of March 1988: Lyons is working nights as a security guard. Two weeks earlier a teenager named David Brom in Rochester, Minnesota had chopped up his family with an axe. The story was still all over the newspapers. An article in the New York Times had made brief mention of an argument over a cassette tape that Brom had been listening to that had somehow offended his deeply Catholic family.
Bored at work and depressed about the prospect of having to cancel the upcoming tour, Lyons tosses off a quick press release quoting a fictional “Federal Official Dick Jordan” who had supposedly ordered the group to cancel all concerts pending an investigation into the role their song ‘Christianity is Stupid’ may have played in the Brom murders. At first nothing happens. But gradually the story is picked up, first by some underground zines and a local arts mag, later CBS News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and National Public Radio…
Read the rest of my article on Negativland’s Helter Stupid at RBMA.Tweet
A startup is developing machine-learning technology that mimics the way the ear works, which it believes will make it easier for smartphones and wearable devices to constantly listen for sounds of danger.
One Llama will show some of its capabilities in an app called Audio Aware, which is meant to alert hard-of-hearing smartphone users and “distracted walkers” (an issue previously explored in “Safe Texting While Walking? Soon There May be an App for That”). The app, planned for release in March, will run in the background on an Android smartphone, detecting sounds like screeching tires and wailing sirens and alerting you to them by interrupting the music you’re listening to, for instance. The app will arrive with knowledge of a number of perilous sounds, and users will be able to add their own sounds to the app and share them with other people.
Ever busy, A Little Orchestra are also all over the forthcoming album by The Understudies. Due out one week later, The Understudies will be launching their record, Let Desire Guide Your Hand, with a live performance at The Lexington on Pentonville Road, London, on March 30th. A Little Orchestra will also be playing (along with special guests). Tickets here.
With a bit of luck, copies of both records will be on sale at the gig.
Experiment with a pick-up coil and a DVD player.
If you see a mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb, you’re supposed to stick your arm out and hold your thumb over the cloud. If the cloud is larger than your thumb, you’re in the radiation zone and should evacuate. This is what Vault Boy is doing in the Fallout series.
*Handy rule of thumb there
George Clinton, paterfamilias to the ever-growing p-funk family, has been in town.
And he’s been busy. Between sessions with Rudimental and Joss Stone, hanging out with Prince and Jalal Mansur Nuriddin (of The Last Poets), recording a whole album direct to vinyl, and chowing down on a chicken doner in a Goldhawk Road kebab shop, Dr. Funkenstein found time to impart his (other-)worldly wisdom at a Q&A session held at Shoreditch House, at a masterclass for young producers at Metropolis Studios, and over a can of ginger beer with your reporter.
The afternoon was already stretching into evening by the time I was admitted into the studio control room where Clinton, resplendent in a silk tie and black fedora with a plume of red and blue feathers in its band, sits back in the producer’s chair, chuffing on a pastel-coloured electronic cigarette as fat as a cigar. The previous night, Clinton had been here till gone four, working on a new track with Omar, Dennis Bovell, and Boy George. At Metropolis studios, Clinton seems right at home. With its high ceilings, it reminds him, he tells me, of United Sound in Detroit, where he recorded such classic albums as Computer Games,Trombipulation, One Nation Under a Groove and the acid-fried masterpiece, Free Your Mind …And Your Ass Will Follow.
Read my interview with George Clinton for Fact here.Tweet
In France, there is a popular children’s song whose lyrics go ‘Lundi, des patates / Mardi, des patates / Mercredi, des patates / Jeudi, des patates / Vendredi, des patates / Samedi, des patates aussi’. The plodding rhythm and limited melodic compass perfectly compliment this litany of days of the week, each one borne down by the same drab meal: potatoes, potatoes, potatoes. We could be in the world of Bela Tarr’s (2011) film The Turin Horse, in which a herdsman and his daughter inhabit a greyscale vista at the end of the world; every day subsisting on the same unadorned spud. It was while watching another film that I first heard this song. In Agnés Varda’s The Gleaners and I, it provides the soundtrack to a scene of people scavenging through fields for potatoes missed by the harvest in an image that recalls Jean-François Millet’s painting Les glaneuses.
Only with difficulty can we separate the potato from association with the soil. What other supermarket item sits on the shelf still muddied, like an unwiped bum? To think of the potato is to conjure toiling peasants like Millet’s. When a restaurant serves up fries that resemble even slightly the vegetable they were cut from, they call them ‘rustic’, or ‘country style’ as if each chip were transported by time machine from some pre-industrial golden age.
All of which would have caused some dismay to Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, the potato’s great promoter in directoire France, for whom the humble tater was a ‘revolutionary food’ – the very essence of modernity.
Read more on Potatoes as Revolutionary Food and Tuber Sacer in my Object Lesson for The Atlantic.Tweet