Key Tracks: Negativland’s “Helter Stupid”

The original “culture jammers” talk about the track that made them (in)famous.

In the winter of 1987, Negativland found themselves in a position which will be familiar to most people that 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.

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 boasted cult classics like 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.

If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?

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 founding 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? The album, a privately pressed recording of a sermon by the Reverend Estus W. Pirkle, presented 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 explain. 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.”

There was a kind of whirlpool of self-reference where the only sources of information were other news outlets and gaps in logic were glossed over in a haze of fuzzy language.

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 tossed 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 “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.

As increasingly major news outlets started picking up Negativland’s entirely spurious story about the supposed connection between “Christianity is Stupid” and the murders committed by David Brom, one of the things that struck the members of the band was the sheer eagerness of the media to believe what seemed like such an obvious falsehood. At one point Joyce even stared a TV news anchor in the face and told him it was a hoax – and, still, they reported it as fact. From BAM Magazine to CBS, there was a kind of whirlpool of self-reference where the only sources of information were other news outlets and gaps in logic were glossed over in a haze of fuzzy language: “it's unclear whether…,” “sources claim…,” “some say…”

XIPK Eyewitness News - Negativland

Many years later, Hosler would be confronted at a party in Olympia, Washington by a guy who went to school with David Brom. “This guy at the party was telling me how horrible we were for exploiting the murders and how our hoax affected their town,” he posted to an online message board that night. It seems that their hoax was more successful than the group could ever have imagined – to the extent that even in the town where the murders happened it remained widely accepted as the truth even many years later. “Our prank fueled the town and the parents’ fears that MUSIC was making their kids crazy and violent. This led to weird kids being kicked out of school (including the guy who was confronting me), being persecuted, beat up, etc.”

In the end, they decided that the only ethical response was not to withdraw, but go even further.

Negativland member Don Joyce doesn’t recall the thorny ethical questions raised by the stunt being much discussed at the time. “We always felt,” he told me recently, “that anything out there in the mass media was fair game for artistic tampering. It didn’t seem to give us pause.” But Hosler disagrees. He remembers debate and distinct feelings of “discomfort” that they were “exploiting a real human tragedy” even if their intention was all about “artistic experiment” and “seeing how the media works.” In the end, they decided that the only ethical response was not to withdraw, but “go even further.” They decided to develop the whole thing into “an elaborate art project,” one that “exposes the whole truth of what we did. Exposes our lie.”

That project became their next album Helter Stupid. Its whole first side is effectively a single 22 minute track mashing up all the various news reports about the incident with clips from one of Lenny Bruce’s rants from Religions, Inc., suggestive b-movie dialogue, interviews in which Charles Manson name-checks The Beatles, as well as “Helter Skelter” itself, along with an extended take from the Reverend Pirkle and perhaps most curiously of all, Bebu Silvetti’s 1977 instrumental disco smash “Lluvia de Primavera.” The result is a complex, multilayered narrative as well a rich and compelling work of sound art. Some nine months in the making (“a gruelling grind,” Joyce recalls, “full of decisions and indecision”), for Hosler it’s a “milestone” in the group’s history.

Negativland - Helter Stupid (Part 1)

If there’s something lost in the mainstreaming of the mash-up, it may finally be this very self-awareness.

Listening to the record today is a delirious experience; the precision of its myriad tiny cuts cloaked by an overwhelming impression of being churned up inside a baroque device for the mulching of human souls. “‘Helter Stupid’ is the first record we made where the collaging and juxtaposition and the music underneath [was] all of a piece,” Hosler tells me. “That record was a big step in the evolution of our work, and I think it holds up really well to this day. I hadn’t heard it in about ten years, and I think it’s terrific.” For Joyce, the record “did what I wanted it to do, and still does. My impressions of the high hype and mixed up constraints of the commercial music industry.”

If the album had few peers in its own day; today, its febrile blend of archive crunching and avant-trolling seems almost commonplace. Nowadays, we are all culture jammers in one way or another. Every Tumblr blog, every YouTube channel is haunted by the mashed spirit of Over the Edge. “I’ve done lectures about our work now for maybe 15 years or so,” Hosler told me. “When I spoke to young college students, I used to have to carefully walk them through this argument as to why it was OK for us to quote-unqoute ‘steal’ things and re-use them.” It’s an argument he no longer needs to rehearse. For college-age millennials, it’s made redundant by self-evidence. “They just know it. And I don’t think they even know that they know it.”

If there’s something lost in the mainstreaming of the mash-up, it may finally be this very self-awareness. Working on the fringes, struggling for legitimacy (before courts and critics alike) seems to have politicised Negativland, as well as strengthening their sense of historic mission, their awareness of continuities with older collagists, from dada to Situationism. As much as Mark Hosler likes the music of Girl Talk, for instance, and recognises in Gregg Gillis an heir of sorts; it’s with a certain world-weary shrug that he observes how an album like Night Ripper works precisely “because it's completely unpolitical. It’s not a critique of anything. It’s just fun to dance to.”

This feature is part of a week of articles guest curated by Levon Vincent.

Says Levon, “I was working in a record shop at the time Christianity Is Stupid came out. We got a fax one day from SST Records, with the label saying that some kid in Oklahoma had killed his family as a result of the record. It seemed kind of believable, especially at the time because there was all this stuff going around about music with backwards hidden messages. Helter Stupid was ingenious. And to just hear the staggering amount of work they did, and the social commentary that’s on top of that... It was such a mind-opener about what is possible.”

To check out more of the features that Levon Vincent picked out, check out his guest curator hub page.

By Robert Barry on March 5, 2014

On a different note