I’ve never been much of a U2 fan. Oh, I suppose I liked the War album back when it came out (oh man, that was more than twenty years ago — I’m nearly as ancient as they are!), at least until I realised that The Edge copped his best riffs from Brian Eno.
So count me in with the ‘couldn’t care less’ camp when it came to the Bonomania that apparently swept through Vancouver with news of their series of concerts here. In fact, when I learned that my colleague (and weblog hero) Michelle Chua was a massive fan, my admittedly cranky reaction was to assemble a mix CD of tracks that prominently featured the classic forbidden single – U2/Negativland. I also made sure she knew the backstory, in which our idealistic quartet passive-aggressively backed the corporate crushing of the culture-jammers:
You see, Negativland had made a crucial error in judgment. Partly to find out whether fans would be able to distinguish their record from a genuine U2 record, they made sure that the U2 on the cover of the record dwarfed the word Negativland. As it turned out, one of the first to notice that U2/ Negativland was not a U2 record was the legal department at Island Records–U2’s record label. Before you could say “Can’t you take a joke?” Island had deposited a lawsuit on Negativland’s doorstep. Without, by the way, the knowledge of Bono and the boys–not that it mattered, as Hosler explains.
“At one level, U2 is just these four guys making some music. But they’re also not that at all. They’re so huge that it becomes something else entirely. They’re like Coca-Cola. As a commodity, as a corporately manufactured and distributed entertainment commodity, they — to me — become totally legitimate targets and you don’t have to worry about what their feelings are or ask permission or anything.”
Naturally, Island’s battery of fine legal minds saw things a bit differently.
The irony is that at the same time that Island was suing Negativland, U2 was taking its “ZOO-TV” tour around the world, illegally incorporating live satellite feeds into their video-driven stage show, a circumstance Hosler finds particularly galling.
“We were both doing the exact same thing!” he says. “[U2] should have turned around and gone to their label and said “Goddammit, if you don’t stop this [lawsuit] right now, there’ll be hell to pay! We won’t deliver you any more records, we’ll break our contract, we’ll cancel the tour!” They should’ve gone and done something very serious. But they aren’t about to do that. They claim they had no sway over Island, but of course the truth is they just weren’t willing to play hardball over some little piddly record.”
If you haven’t seen it, Craig Baldwin’s film Sonic Outlaws is a fun treatment of the story, and features an unforgettable scene in which Negativland confronts the The Edge live during a radio interview.
Maybe it was the ferocity of my reaction, or maybe she just worried about her job security, but a couple weeks back Michelle told me that learning the whole Negativland affair had actually cooled her excitement for the show. All I could think to tell her in response was that she shouldn’t let a bunch of grumpy old anarchists like Negativland (or me) ruin her musical fun. What a horrifying thought.
Well, it all more than balanced out on the karmic front. If you can believe it, Michelle was pulled up on stage, and escorted about hand-in-hand by The Bono Man himself. If you can’t believe it, photographs exist — this one is especially remarkable.
My estimated running tally in the competition for Michelle’s musical loyalties:
U2 – 234,567,876,876
Brian the Music Snob Grouch – 1 (goal is under review)