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Friday, 24 July 2015

Negativland: No Other Possibility ("...dying is easy, comedy is hard")


RIP radio master Don Joyce #negativland #KPFA @kpfa: image via Derk Richardson @Derk Richardson, 23 July 2015

DON: Well, dying is easy, comedy is hard. That 19th Century actor's death bed confession could hardly have suspected that making fun is not only hard, but that someday there would be nothing left to make fun of! I think a longer view will show that there is plenty left to make fun of now, even if there is nothing "new" to make fun of. Let's start with ultra serious religionism before it kills us...

-- from interview with Don Joyce and other members of Negativland in Wired, October 2008

RIP Don Joyce of Negativland (1944-2015) father of "culture jamming" #donjoyce #negativland: image via Kutmusic @Kutmusic, 23 July 2015

Don Joyce (February 9, 1944-July 22, 2015)

Words cannot do justice to the loss of Donald S. Joyce, Crosley Bendix, C. Eliot Friday, Omer Edge, Izzy Isn’t, Bud Choke, Leland Googleburger, Wang Tool and Dr. Oslo Norway, who all died yesterday in Oakland, CA of heart failure at age 71. Perhaps a loud, mournful squawk from Don's “Booper” feedback oscillator would better sum up the feelings of Negativland, his comrades and partners in art for 34 years, who are devastated. It was Don who coined the term “culture jamming”, and who devoted his life to the art of sound collage and his weekly live radio program, "Over the Edge", on KPFA FM in Berkeley, where it has continuously lived on the dial on Thursday nights at midnight since 1981, without interruption.

Don was a DJ at the station when a mutual friend, Ian Allen (who died this past January) introduced him to a group of Contra Costa County noise/music artists called Negativland, who entered the station one night, armed with stacks of recordings and electronic gear, and immediately transformed Don’s “normal music show” into a free-form collage sound odyssey, totally blowing open Don’s idea of what a radio program could be and what a DJ could “do”. And in Don Joyce (whose initials were conveniently also “DJ”), Negativland had found its “lead vocalist” without even realizing they were looking for one. It was Don who took the idea of reshaping previously recorded words -– in a pre-sampling age –- and ran with it to an extent and depth never before heard, and never equalled. “Recontextualization” became his weapon, with the 1/4” tape machine and razor blade his ammunition, and the radio “cart player" –- an entirely forgotten piece of broadcast history using endless-loop tape cartridges, which he used until his death - – his delivery system.

When he and Negativland discovered their mutual love for “found” sounds, an intensely collaborative creative partnership was cemented. It continued non-stop for the ensuing decades, with Don endlessly scanning the airwaves of radio and television, along with his massive LP collection, for new material, day by day, week by week. There was often a TV and a radio on in his room simultaneously, cassette recorders always at the ready. And as an extremely shy and often quite reclusive person, radio was a perfect medium for Don. He could reach thousands of people each week without having to deal with very many actual humans, just as he preferred it. Creating art was not only Don’s full-time pursuit, it was literally his life’s work. He had made it clear to the group as recently as a few weeks ago that he was happy and satisfied with what he had been able to achieve in his life, and were he not able to continue to work, his life would feel as good as over.

Don Joyce’s singular editing style was laced with profundity and silliness in equal measure. His work was that of a dada humanist, able to wring unforgettable sentiments and statements out of material which originally spoke something entirely different. Hugely inspired by both the droll radio of Bob and Ray and the reckless free-form of the Firesign Theatre, he created a wicked language of repurposed purple prose which has inspired legions of other collage artists over the past three decades. He was the father of the form. One need only to listen to his work on “Time Zones” (on the Escape from Noise album) or “Piece of Pie” (in the No Business CD/book) to immediately tune into his unique wavelength.

He was also an animal lover, a Bob Dylan fanatic, a staunch atheist, a convicted (but never jailed) draft dodger, and slept with the radio on. Cranky, curmudgeonly, loyal and fair, brilliant, hilarious and uncompromising, he was steadfastly devoted to the creation of his art, full-time, for more than three decades. He leaves behind not only his massive recorded legacy via "Over the Edge", but his work on nearly 30 Negativland albums, two books, three DVDs, and his giant, meticulous paper collages.

There was Negativland before Don Joyce (though not by much), and there will be Negativland after (indeed, Don stopped touring with the group in 2010), and he made it clear that he wished for the group to continue on in some fashion if he was the next member to go. At the very least, there are two nearly-completed albums in the works and possible live shows, and, in late 2015, all 34 years of “Over the Edge” (5000-plus hours' worth) will be available until the end of time on the Internet Archive, the result of a multi-year archiving project. But there will never be another Don Joyce.

Don Joyce was born in Keene, New Hampshire, where he spent his childhood obsessed with drawing, leading to him getting a masters degree in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design. By the late 1960s, he had relocated to Northern California (with a brief stint living in Toronto during Vietnam) where he lived, in Oakland, until his death. He is survived by his sister, his brother, a spider plant which thrived on a window sill through decades of choking cigarette smoke, and his Negativland family.

Don Joyce obit via Negativland, 23 July 2015

Negativland live!  Doing a faux radio show about atheism! | by skyfaller

Negativland live! Doing a faux radio show about atheism!: photo by Nelson Pavlosky, 5 August 2007

Negativland | by fo.ol

Negativland. Taken at 12.50 AM -- cameraphone upload by ShoZu: photo by fo.ol, 28 November 2007

It's All in Your Head FM | by Rádio Zero

It's All In Your Head FM. Negativland no Auditório de Serralves, 18 de Maio de 2008: photo by Rádio Zero, 18 May 2008

Negativland - A Big 10-8 Place | by kevin dooley

Negativland -- A Big 10-8 Place: image by Kevin Dooley, 31 May 2009

Ian Allen

Ian Allen: photo courtesy of Peter Montgomery/Sharon Jue via Rolling Stone
Ian Allen (December 15, 1958-January 17, 2015)

Past Negativland member, and long time friend of the group, Ian Allen, died on January 17, 2015 from unexpected complications and infections following heart valve replacement surgery at Stanford Hospital in California. We are extremely shocked and saddened by this news. He was with dear friends of his at the time of his death, and is survived by his brother, Pyke Allen.

Ian was very active with Negativland from 1981 to about 1987, and his impact, inspiration, and influence on the group is impossible to overestimate. There would be no group as we know it today, no Over The Edge radio show, no "culture jamming" and no "A Big 10-8 Place" LP without him.

Ian struggled with various serious health issues his entire adult life, and while they lead to his gradual withdrawal from active participation with the group by the late 80s, he remained a good friend and supporter, attending all of our live shows whenever we performed in the SF Bay Area. With Ian's blessings we were thrilled to recently revive and rework an early 80's unfinished tape loop based work of his called "Like Cattle Act," and made it a part of our current live set. He was part of creating Negativland's "points" LP in 1981, introducing to the rest of us, on the track BABAC D'BABC, the idea of using tape splicing not just as a way to make loops and connect tracks, but as a compositional tool unto itself. This revelation led to the exploration of this technique full-on in 1983's "A Big 10-8 Place," and he played a major role in the creation of that record and its unique packaging. He was instrumental in helping to create and articulate the group's idea of "culture jamming," and pushed the group into making "A Big 10-8 Place" our first ever concept LP. From then on that was the standard for us, and nearly every single Negativland release, up to and including our current one, "It's All In Your Head," has been a concept project. He came up with the idea of making four-channel tape loops (as we couldn't afford early expensive samplers back then) and this became a technique that was used extensively on 1987's "Escape From Noise." Ian was obsessed with the number 17, which is why it appears in various ways on so many Negativland projects and texts in the 80's and 90's (please note the day he died!). In the summer of 1981 he introduced the current group members to radio DJ (and now long time Negativland member) Don Joyce, and thus our weekly audio collage radio show Over The Edge was born, still broadcasting to this day.

For those who knew him, he was a visionary, magical, impish, playful and eccentric thinker, a true genius who was light years ahead of all of us with his ideas about art, sound, society, and technology. He will be dearly missed.

Ian Allen obit via Negativland, 21 January 2015

Cover Photo

Recently deceased Negativland founding members Ian Allen (d. December 2014) and Don Joyce (d. July 2015), early to mid 80s...: photo courtesy of Negativland 

Negativland - A Big 10-8 Place | by kevin dooley

Negativland -- A Big 10-8 Place: image by Kevin Dooley, 31 May 2009

Free High Speed Internet (Vallejo, California): photo by efo, 21 January 2014

Sad news,  #don joyce of #negativland has passed. Give "Escape from Noise" a spin: image via murraybradmurray @mrrybrdmrry, 23 July 2015

Rain (Albany, California): photo by efo, 8 June 2013

@jobsworth #London in the 1929s: #Telephone #Engineer /v @oldpicsarchive: image via Alexander Ainslie @AAinslie, 8 January 2015


TC said...

Negativland: Time Zones

Negativland: The Mashin' of the Christ

Negativland: Piece of Pie

tpw said...

Thanks for this, Tom. I don't think I ever heard of him. Though I might have long ago & since forgotten. You know how it is. I thought the Christianity video was bizarre & funny. And, of course, a little creepy.

TC said...


Negativland thanks you for being the one person in the known universe to click on the links!

This post was a meagre memorial in acknowledgment of 32 years' worth of Thursday-night-into-Friday mornings' worth of insomniac nightowl entertainment provided by Don Joyce and the assorted cast, and still ongoing, and still crazy, and still free, after all these years, on KPFA, in the show called Over the Edge.

For me, the razor blade and quarter-inch tape method, the buck-rogers-y "booper" and the whole panoply of curious home-made low-tech instrumentations -- Don Joyce's futuristic orchestral answer to Spike Jones, Bob & Ray and the ambient polyvocal babble of 70s Altman films -- remain to be classified.

I don't think these guys have yet made a dime, they kept up their art at the expense of, and in order to avoid, touring and becoming famous.

About the Christ track -- that video is an afterthought, the work came out originally on vinyl, and like anything you first experienced on vinyl, in what's left of my mind it will be be vinyl forever.

And there are several videos. Perhaps my favourite is:

Negativland: Christianity Is Stupid

As to the track itself -- a story goes with it.


10/20/87 Negativland releases their fourth album, Escape From Noise and begin preparations for their first ever national tour. The album includes the cut “Christianity Is Stupid,” which features the “found” vocal of the Reverend Estrus W. Pirkle from a sermon recorded in 1968.

Mark Hosler (Negativland): The tour was going to lose money, and none of us could afford to take time off from our jobs. We were all pretty poor.

Don Joyce (Negativland): We needed a good reason to cancel. One of the band members, Richard Lyons, found this news article in the New York Times about a kid, David Brom, who had killed his family in Minnesota with an ax. The story said that his parents were very religious.

Mark Hosler: So Richard wrote a fake press release based on the newspaper article. It had mentioned that music in some way provoked the murder, so he implied that our song “Christianity Is Stupid” caused it.

Don Joyce: On “Christianity Is Stupid,” we collaged a sound bite from an LP of sermons by an old southern preacher, Reverend Pirkle. He was talking about communism, and at one point he described Korean prisoner of war camps that had loudspeakers that would keep repeating: “Christianity is Stupid, Communism is Good.” So we used that sound bite as the basis of our song.

Mark Hosler: What really made the story work and what gave it legs was that it was tied into the fears about backwards masking and hidden messages in rock music that were being sensationalized by the media.

Don Joyce: The press release said we were cancelling the tour because we were under investigation by the FBI, and eventually reporters started writing about it.

Mark Hosler: What we wrote was used pretty much verbatim in a local ’zine. Then that report got picked up by a statewide music and culture magazine, BAM, which came to the attention of the CBS news affiliate in San Francisco. We couldn’t believe what was happening.

Channel 5 CBS Newscast: Good evening. Topping Nightcast–a possible link between murder and music. … Four members of a Midwestern family were murdered. The sixteen-year-old son is the prime suspect. Members of the experimental rock group Negativland have been drawn into the case.

TC said...


Don Joyce: It just kept going. Reporters started calling us and Channel 5 from San Francisco came over with a big van and interviewed us.

5/11/88 … Much of the interview time is spent discussing the American news media, their appetite for the sensational, their tendency to create their own “news” and related topics. All of this discussion is cut from the aired tape. Channel 5 CBS Newscast: Attorneys say David and his parents frequently argued about religion and music, even on the night of the murders when a Negativland album may have sparked the last family dispute, and in particular, the song “Christianity Is Stupid” may have been involved.

5/14/88 After seeing the Channel 5 news feature, the San Francisco Chronicle’s religion writer calls Negativland requesting an interview. The group again claims they’re unable to discuss the case.

Don Joyce: It just started spreading, appearing in newspapers and music magazines and such. I realized later that this is just the kind of story that sucked the news media in, because it dealt with music, murder, and all this stuff that was going on in the 1980s.

The Chronicle prints an article on page three of their front news section restating the proposed connection, but get many of the “facts” wrong…It’s now abundantly clear that a major source for news stories is often other news.

Don Joyce: Especially with a story like that, I think that the lurid nature of the topic was so enticing for the media. No one seemed to be checking facts to see if this was real or not. The only exception, I think, was the Village Voice.

6/7/88 The Village Voice publishes an article on the Negativland-Brom link. Music critic R. J. Smith recounts the original press release’s version of the rumored connection with some skepticism. In researching this piece, Smith and Voice media critic Jeffrey Stokes go so far as to track down a Negativland member at his job for confirmation of the story. R. J. Smith: I do remember sitting there at the Voice processing this story, which I might have heard about through a Negativland press release. I was talking about it to Geoffrey Stokes, watching his response and just thinking it didn’t smell right, that it seemed outlandish on the face.

Don Joyce: When it had all blown over we decided to make a record out of the whole thing. It was about fears about Satanism and music’s influence over people and how it can make people kill. Helter Stupid was also about the media and how cannibalistic they are.

Mark Hosler: We explained in the liner notes our lie, saying very clearly how we manipulated people and what we’d done. You know, it’s not enough to just hoax someone and laugh at how you fooled them, ha ha. There has to be a point to it all. So we recorded all the media coverage of our hoax, and we built up an archive of all this other material about how people blame rock and roll for kids killing themselves and killing their friends.

Don Joyce: We were astounded to see how easy it was to fool the media, and how you could spread a story that was a complete lie. So on the one hand, we were feeling a little guilty about doing it, and on the other we were fascinated with the results.

Mark Hosler: We were really conflicted about it because we were exploiting an actual, real, horrible human tragedy. So we increasingly felt a bit weird about it. To be honest I don’t think I’d do that type of thing now with the age I’m at now, and it’s definitely not something that I need to do over and over and over again. We did it once and we learned a lot. I feel like now I see and read TV and news and information so utterly differently than when I started out as a band in 1980. It was a real eye opener.

tpw said...

Amazing stuff. I remember when radio in NY & DC seem to offer all kinds of inventive, sui generis programming.

Anyone you would associate with Bob & Ray/Spike Jones has to be great.

Wooden Boy said...

I once gave a talk on copyright to a group of small businessmen in Stoke and used his U2 parody as an example. They were all bemused.

He was a real one off.

TC said...

That sounds like an entirely post Ricky Gervais occasion.

"Bemused" is good.

The U2 parody, classic bit of trouble-causing that became a sort of Negativland signature piece.

Listening to the original track again now, I'm struck by how closely it resembles, in texture, the weekly radio show -- which in fact has served as a sort of ongoing trial ground for the weirdly evolving and perpetually recycling "material".

They actually managed to hoax "The Edge" into sitting still for an interview on the copyright violation "scandal"... halfway into which, they revealed themselves as the violators.

At which point "The Edge", somewhat embarrassed, blamed the daft attempt to prosecute on... the record company, of course.

If you could take notoriety and infamy to the bank, these guys would have made a fortune.

My impression was, they surmised (correctly) that anything that marred their reputation might provide a useful excuse to not tour.

A swing through the Potteries climaxed by a gig for the small businessmen of Stoke, thus highly unlikely.

Negativland: I Still Haven't Found What I Was Looking For (The U2 Song), from U2 (1991)

Negativland: U2's lost song

"At the end of the day" (like they say), though, for me the track that best exemplifies Joyce's razor blade and tape cart editing method is Piece of Pie, see link above. Without the distraction of the video, the brilliant comic timing can stand out pure and simple.

The timing greatly influenced by the comic team Bob & Ray, which Terry remembers...