by Mark Dery
“Plagiarism is necessary,” declared the proto-surrealist poet Lautreamont. “Progress implies it.” To the Tape-beatles, the French writer’s pronouncement constitutes a mini-manifesto.
The Iowa-based quintet—Lloyd Dunn, John Heck, Ralph Johnson, Linda Morgan Brown, and Paul Neff — espouses Plagiarism®, a trademarked (!) approach intended as a sledgehammer blow to the cornerstone on which commodity culture is built: the notion that ideas can be owned. “The assumption that an idea can be treated as real estate should set off bells and whistles in people’s heads,” insists Dunn. In a democratic society, ideas should be absolutely free for people to use in any way that they see lit.”
Like William S. Burroughs, whose “cut-up” novel Nova Express incorporates “layered samples” of James Joyce and Shakespeare, the Tape-beatles use collage to stretch traditional artistic structures out of shape. Like the 1965 comedy album Welcome to the LBJ Ranch!, which employs studio wizardry to make the actual voices of political figures indict themselves, their ad hoc art takes evil glee in the public airing of dirty laundry. And, like Malcolm McLaren and Mark Kostabi, they revel in the fact that their art renders originality a moot point. Even the ragged, uproariously funny Tape-beatles “interview” that begins their cassette, A Subtle Buoyancy of Pulse (available, as is the rest of their catalog, from Box 8907, Iowa City, IA 52244), is ersatz, cobbled together from archival recordings of — who else — John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
But audio montage, in the hands of the Tape-beatles, is more than formal innovation or counterculture comedy: It is razor-blade detournement. Conceived in the ’60s by the Situationists, a sociopolitical movement based in France, detournement is semiotic guerrilla warfare in which cultural symbols — ads, artworks, announcements — are torn from their original contexts and repositioned in surroundings that invest them with revolutionary meanings.
A Subtle Buoyancy uses the tony, nasal voice of William F. Buckley to adjure listeners to “Recognize, resist,” cuts Beatles songs to ribbons, and makes a church chair sing the phrase “Yoke of Bondage” over and over until it sounds positively obscene. On their latest release, Music With Sound, the group deconstructs late-night testimonials in which just plain folks describe their reincarnations as instant millionaires through the miracle of real estate and Nietzschean “motivational training” tapes used by corporations to inspire their sales teams. In “Beautiful State,” the creepy, sedative murmurings of a hypnotist, assuring the listener that he “won’t feel anything from this point on,” are punctuated by incongruously loud, melodramatic orchestra hits.
Dunn describes the process used to detourne “found” materials. “We rummage through Salvation Armys and Goodwills, looking for cast-off cassettes and records,” he informs, “and we tape things off radio and TV. Often, the way somebody says a phrase will suggest a way in which new meaning could be extracted from it. Also, the tone of voice may sound like the beginning of a melody, or one of us will have the feeling that if it were repeated it would create a strong rhythm.
“Once we’ve made our decisions about what materials to use we record bits from one cassette onto another, using standard home recorders — a Yamaha K-350 and a Technics M-33, both of which we prefer for their old-fashioned mechanical pause buttons, which are much more precise than the new ones. We also use the Yamaha MT-2X four-track recorder, which has a nice six-channel mixer, and a TEAC two-track reel-to-reel for mixdowns. Lately, we’ve been using a Macintosh computer, with Farallon’s SoundEdit software and MacRecorder Sound Digitizer hardware. The computer is great for making really clean, precise edits that are very time-consuming to do with a pause button.”
Caustic humor and pirate aesthetics notwithstanding, the Tape-beatles are cautiously optimistic. They hope for a future where the garbage pail kid — the computer hacker, the billboard bandit, the audio Dadaist — can be an agent of social change. “If digital technology continues to trickle down to the masses,” predicts Dunn, “the legal constraints that prevent people from taking and re-taking and re-re-taking from cultural sources will crumble away. There’s no way to control the copying.” An ominous note creeps into his voice. “Not in a democratic society, at least.”