Negativland

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Not many bands can claim to have invented an entire genre of music, but Negativland actually goes one better than that: They invented an entire art form, a technique called culture jamming, that is now such an accepted part of consumerist, mass media culture that it’s hard to imagine anyone having to invent it. From Adbusters to Banksy to self-aware Sprite commercials to fake BP Twitter accounts, the basic concepts of culture jamming are part of our everyday vernacular at this point. But yep, Negativland coined the term back in 1984. Before that, it was hard to know what to call the band’s mix of intercepted CB-radio conversations, sampled radio announcers and commercial jingles, krautrock, processed guitars, and ambient noise. Except really, really weird.

Negativland was started all the way back in 1979 by Mark Hosler and Richard Lyons, who were then still going to high school in the East Bay. Early on, they recruited a reclusive cable TV repairman named David “The Weatherman” Wills to join the group; his homemade devices, like cellphone scanners and a sampler/oscillator called The Booper, really helped the group perfect their sound collage approach to making music.

The group’s 1987 album Escape From Noise got them a little attention, but what really put Negativland on the map was their 1991 U2 EP, which famously featured a spoof of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” accompanied by a profanity-laced, anti-U2 rant by Top 40 radio DJ Casey Kasem. The track earned Negativland its first lawsuit, from U2’s label, Island Records. After a four-year legal battle, chronicled in a book called Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2, the two parties settled—Island dropped their suit, and Negativland stopped distributing the U2 EP (although they later reissued it as a “bootleg” under the fairly awesome title—quoted from part of Kasem’s anti-U2 rant—These Guys Are From England and Who Gives a Shit).

Thirty years later, Negativland are still at it: They’ve got a new project called It’s All in Your Head FM v2.0 due out later this year, along with a handful of reissues, and band member Don Joyce continues to host a public radio “audio collage” show called Over the Edge on Berkeley’s KPFA. And hey, kids—you can book one of two totally different Negativland shows in your local planetarium, art gallery, or high school auditorium! Take your choice between either a “two-hour-long, action-packed look at monotheism” or “a wordless wall of electronic sound.” Either way, you’re bound to impress all your snooty art friends and vastly increase your chances of scoring with girls whose panties drop at words like “semiotics” and “Noam Chomsky.” [Update: That link is now dead, so apparently they’re not playing planetariums anymore. Sorry.]

We’ll leave you with a classic Negativland video from their 1989 opus No Other Possibility. The cigarettes are probably a metaphor for something, but we prefer not to dig too deep on this one and just appreciate it for its delightfully Pythonesque silliness.

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Laibach

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Sorry things have been a little quiet here at TWBITW—it took us longer to sleep off our South by Southwest hangovers than we had anticipated. Also, our ears are still ringing from seeing GWAR. If you’ve never been sonically assaulted by Oderus and co. before in person, seriously—we can’t recommend it highly enough. Just plan on taking a few vacation days after the show—you’ll need them.

Anyway, today’s weird band is another oldie but goodie, and comes to us all the way from the former Yugoslav Republic of Slovenia. Formed in 1980, when Yugoslavia was still under Communist rule, Laibach was a sort of proto-industrial rock band-slash-performance art project that managed to simultaneously celebrate and mock the trappings of totalitarianism in all its forms. They’ve described their own music and iconography as “radically ambiguous” and, judging from the range of responses they’ve gotten, they seem to have succeeded: Detractors and critics (not to mention the censorship-happy Communist regime in Yugoslavia, which frequently banned the group’s performances) have accused them of being fascists, Stalinists, Nazi sympathizers and/or radical Slovenian nationalists, while their fan base seems to include everyone from arty types who treat the band’s militaristic costumes and Wagnerian martial-industrial music as sly satire of fascist/skinhead culture to…well, actual skinheads.

Is all of this starting to sound a little too much like a post-modernist graduate thesis project? Well, not to worry, because here’s the most brilliant thing about Laibach: Much of their music is actually highly accessible, and frequently takes the form of Teutonic/industrial-style covers of familiar pop music. Laibach have tackled everything from the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” to the Beatles’ “Let It Be” to Europe’s “Final Countdown.” They even did “Jesus Christ Superstar” and an album of national anthems called Volk. If you thought Jimi Hendrix did weird things to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” wait till you hear Laibach’s version of it.

As great as Laibach’s covers can be, their most memorable musical moments tend to come on their original compositions, when the jackboots hit the dance floor and all “Heil!” breaks loose. (Sorry, we couldn’t resist.) Although the “Fear the Kittens” video for this song (courtesy of Rathergood.com) is pretty awesome, it still can’t top the original.

You might also like: Rammstein, Aesthetic Meat Front, Einsturzende Neubauten

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(Bonus factoid: Laibach may be the only industrial band to have a winery named after them. Suck on that, Rammstein!)

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Sparks

Some bands, when you first encounter them, might seem a bit quirky, but they don’t strike you as especially weird. Then you find out they’ve been at this for 40 years—and during that time, they’ve gone from everything to glam-rock to disco to New Wave to chamber-pop to (no joke) Swedish radio musicals. Oh, and one of the guys favors creepy Hitler/John Waters mustaches.

Sparks was started in 1968—1968!—by a pair of brothers from L.A. named Ron and Russell Mael. Originally calling themselves Halfnelson, they signed to Todd Rundgren’s Bearsville record label, changed their name to Sparks, and put out a couple of albums of eccentric but unremarkable, Pink Floyd-influenced psychedelic rock. Their first big break came after they parted ways with Bearsville, relocated to London, and got involved in the glam-rock scene. Their two 1974 albums, Kimono My House and Propaganda, were big hits in the U.K., even landing the band on Top of the Pops. Their music from this era was sort of a weird mix of Roxy Music, T. Rex and bubblegum pop, and seemed to anticipate the rise of New Wave.

By the time the rest of the rock world had caught up to Sparks, the Mael brothers had moved on, teaming up with disco/electronica pioneer Giorgio Moroder for their synth-heavy 1979 album, No. 1 in Heaven. The band continued to explore various synth-pop and New Wave styles for the next decade, scoring their first U.S. hit in 1983 with “Cool Places,” a song they recorded with one of their biggest American fans, Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s.

After a late ’80s/early ’90s hiatus, the band resurfaced in 1994 with Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins. Although not a commercial success—except, for some reason, in Germany—it was one of the most well-reviewed albums of Sparks’ career and was instrumental in establishing the Mael brothers as icons of campy, outsidery pop music. Ron, the principal lyricist, was writing increasingly eccentric and sometimes flat-out goofy songs like “(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing” and “Now That I Own the BBC”—both of which kind of sound like send-ups of the Pet Shop Boys, except that the Pet Shop Boys actually stole most of their ideas from Sparks in the first place.

Since then, Sparks have released an album of alternate versions of their own songs (called, appropriately, Plagiarism, and featuring cameos from Mike Patton, Erasure and Jimmy Sommerville), an experimental symphonic album called Lil’ Beethoven, a satirical concept album about modern romance called Hello Young Lovers, and this year, a radio musical commissioned by Swedish National Radio called The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman. Clearly, these guys will try pretty much anything. In 2008, they even performed all 21 of their albums on consecutive nights in London (Ingmar Bergman was album #22).

Taken individually, any one Sparks song—or even any single album—isn’t that weird. With this band, it’s more of a cumulative effect thing. Still, much of the material on 2006’s outstanding Hello Young Lovers stands as some of the weirdest stuff they’ve ever recorded—and how many bands can claim to be out-weirding themselves 38 years into their career? To quote the song featured in the video below, “Screw the past!”

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Magma

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How is it possible that we have yet to write about a prog-rock band on TWBITW? Clearly, we’ve been slacking! Let’s fix that right now.

Like any weird band worth their salt, France’s Magma don’t really fit neatly into any one genre; they just get called prog-rock because they share a lot of prog bands’ fondness for long, meandering instrumental passages, weird time signatures and sci-fi imagery. But musically, they probably owe more to Sun Ra and Carl Orff and David Axelrod than they do to, say, King Crimson. Led by drummer, singer and all-around freakazoid Christian Vander, the band has been around in one form or another, off and on, since 1970, and continues to tour and release new material to this day, although most of their more recent output has been in the form of live albums and DVDs.

What really pushes the band into full-blown Weirdland, however, is the incredibly elaborate mythology Vander has built up around the group. All of Magma’s music tells various stories of the planet Kobaïa, which is settled by refugees from Earth in some distant future. And most of it is sung in a made-up language called Kobaïan, which fans of Magma have actually learned to decipher and speak to one another the way Trekkies speak Klingon. Magma’s music and Vander’s Kobaïan language have even inspired their own sub-genre of music, called “Zeuhl,” which is Kobaïan for “celestial.” Next time you hear a bunch of French dudes chanting nonsense lyrics over music that sounds sort of like Pat Metheny on acid, you’re probably listening to a Zeuhl band.

Here’s some great video of Magma performing in their heyday back in 1977, when this stuff probably didn’t sound quite so weird. It was the decade of Yes and Jethro Tull, after all. That’s Vander behind the drum kit—all kidding aside, you can see why a lot of other drummers worship the guy. Oh, and don’t skip the user comments, in which the Magma faithful offer up their translations of the lyrics. Apparently, it’s all secretly religious music.

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DEVO

devo

Another old-school weird band that probably needs no introduction, unless you’re only acquainted with them by way of “Whip It.” Oh, there’s so much more to these guys!

Lots of bands have concept albums, but DEVO (or Devo, or occasionally DEV-O) are sort of a concept band. Their name is short for de-evolution, a quasi-satiric concept developed by the band’s founding members when they were art students at Kent State University in Ohio in the ’70s. Basically, the idea is that humans are actually devolving into less sophisticated life forms, and DEVO are here to save us from our slow descent into mindless puerility—or possibly speed the process along. Or at the very least make merciless fun of it in the form of catchy yet deliberately mechanical songs with lots of synthesizers and spastic vocals.

Part of the DEVO mythology centers around the group’s matching outfits, usually brightly colored jumpsuits that look like a cross between factory worker and Star Trek alien combined with a round, multi-tiered hat called the Energy Dome. According to band member Gerald Casale, “the Dome collects energy that escapes from the crown of the human head and pushes it back into the Medula Oblongata for increased mental energy.” It also makes you a total babe magnet. (Okay, that last part might only be true at DEVO shows.)

Fun fact: in 2008, McDonald’s released a Happy Meal toy called “New Wave Nigel” sporting the signature DEVO Energy Dome hat. Initially it was reported that the band sued McDonald’s for trademark infringement, but DEVO’s law firm later insisted that no suit was filed and the dispute had been “amicably resolved on mutually agreeable terms.” (Which we’re pretty sure is lawyer-speak for “McDonald’s paid us a crapload of money.”) You can’t get New Wave Nigel in your Happy Meal anymore, but last we checked, he was going for $2.95 plus shipping on eBay.

DEVO broke up in 1991, and although they’ve continued to make public appearances over the past decade or so, they haven’t done much in the way of new material. But they’re going on tour this November to promote the reissue of their two most seminal albums: their 1978 debut Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! and 1980’s Freedom of Choice, the set that featured “Whip It.” So this seemed like an appropriate time to give them a spot on TWBITW.

Good to have you back, guys! Now here’s a clip of DEVO performing on Letterman way back in 1982. Pop music was so much more interesting in the Eighties.

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GWAR

GWAR

At this point in rock history, just putting on crazy outfits really isn’t enough to qualify your band as weird. Slipknot? Not weird. Hollywood Undead? Please. Even KISS, the original crazy costumed band, doesn’t seem all that weird in retrospect. Really, they’re just a bar band with face paint and really good pyro. Hose them down and songs like “Beth” could be .38 Special for all I can tell.

But there’s something about GWAR’s particular brand of costumed mayhem that beats down the gates of Weird City, blood cannons blazing, and enslaves every puny pretender to the Weird Throne that’s come before or since. Compared to GWAR, KISS is almost cuddly. I mean, these guys take the whole costume thing to another level.

GWAR has been around for 25 years—not as long as KISS, granted, but they also never had KISS’s level of success, either. The guys behind these monster masks are in it for the love of the game—especially one David Brockie, the man behind lead critter Oderus Urungus and the only constant member of the band. The guy’s straight-faced dedication to GWAR’s mix of sci-fi and horror camp, thrash metal, and juvenile humor is almost as superhuman as Oderus himself. At this point, he must sweat spirit gum and latex every time he goes to the gym.

By the way, it’s worth noting that other current and past members of the band have included Flattus Maximus, Balsac the Jaws of Death, Jizmak Da Gusha, Hans Orifice and Nippelus Erectus. Did we mention they’re kinda juvenile? But in a good way!

With the band celebrating their 25th anniversary and the arrival of their 11th (11th!) studio album this year, GWAR seem to be enjoying some kind of resurgence…if a band that was never more than a cult oddity can ever be said to have a resurgence. Oderus is even becoming something of a media personality. He has an advice column on MetalSucks.com and has been making regular appearances on Fox News. No, we’re not making this up.

But really, it’s all about the music. So here’s a concert clip, too video featuring their insane live show. All hail the mighty GWAR!

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Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band

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When I was in college, I went through a phase where my opinions were easily swayed by those of Big Influential Music Critics. In particular, I remember owning a book Rolling Stone put out called “The 100 Greatest Rock Albums of All Time” or something similar, based on polling hundreds of critics, musicians, record execs and probably whoever else Jann Wenner had in his Rolodex in 1987. It was a pretty standard list—lots of Beatles and Dylan and Rolling Stones—but in the top 10 was an album I had never heard of called Trout Mask Replica, by a Frank Zappa associate named Don Van Vliet who went by the admittedly awesome name of Captain Beefheart. So, dutiful acolyte of the music cognoscenti that I was, I immediately went out and bought the album, on cassette, without having actually heard a note of it. We used to do that back before the Internet.

The punchline, of course, is that I hated it. It was a double-album made up almost entirely of what, to my collegiate ears, was just noise: lurching, arrhythmic guitars and saxophones stumbling along over halting, start-stop drums and occasionally what sounded like some drunk hollering nonsense over the top of it like, “Pies steam stale/Shoes move broom ‘n pale/Moon in a dime store sale.” It sounded kind of like The Doors, I supposed, but mainly it just sounded like a bunch of pretentious jackasses who’d done too much peyote and wanted to make a record that would Freak Out The Man. (Come to think, not an altogether inaccurate description of The Doors, either.)

The only parts me and Jake liked were the brief spoken word sections, where Beefheart would intone nonsense like, “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous…got me?”, right before his band came stampeding in with another flurry of atonal guitar licks. We used to play these parts for anyone in the dorm whose attention we could get for two minutes, and then laugh our asses off while they looked at us with a mix of confusion and disgust before bolting from the scene.

I have no idea whatever happened to that cassette, but here’s the even better punchline: I’ve since gone back and relistened to a lot of those old Trout Mask Replica tracks and some of them ain’t half bad. Either my taste has gotten weirder or Beefheart was truly a man ahead of his time and it’s taken the rest of us 40 years to finally be able to pick up the signal of whatever frequency he was tuned to. Probably a little of both.

That being said, Captain Beefheart is still one hell of a weird dude and Trout Mask Replica still ranks as one of the weirdest albums ever released on a major label (it came out on Warner/Reprise in 1969). Produced by Frank Zappa, most of the album was allegedly recorded in only about six hours of studio time after the band spend months rehearsing the tracks at a house in the San Fernando Valley. On it, Van Vliet sings (sort of) and plays various woodwind instruments, mostly sax; his band, to whom he gave such colorful names as Zoot Horn Rollo and The Mascara Snake, played various guitars, bass, drums and the bass clarinet, which gives many of the tracks a spooky, free jazz vibe. Some of my favorite tracks on the album were recorded by Zappa on cassette tape in the style of primitive “field recordings,” as if Van Vliet was some old bluesman he had discovered in the boonies. Of these, “China Pig” is probably the most memorable, featuring Van Vliet’s Tom Wait-ish, stream-of-consciousness lyrics and guitar by Doug Moon, who was in the original Magic Band even though he doesn’t appear on the rest of the album. Give it until about the 1:30 mark and it gets interesting, trust me:

Beefheart and His Magic Band continued making albums until the early ’80s, including at least one more, 1980’s Doc at the Radar Station, that’s widely considered to be almost as much a classic as Trout Mask. He retired from music in the early ’80s to take up painting and has rarely performed or recorded since. [Update: Since we originally wrote this post, Van Vliet passed away, in 2010, at age 69.] Which is a shame, really, because I think the world needs more performances like this one, don’t you?

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