by Beth Lucht
The Tape-beatles insist they’ve never heard the Beatles before. When a cut from Abbey Road comes on the jukebox, they play dumb. “Oh? Is this the Beatles?” asks Tape-beatle Lloyd Dunn, seemingly excited to hear them at last. It seems appropriate — the Tape-beatles are not a band, really, not exactly music, either, and certainly not ‘Art,’ though member John Heck claims, “Great Art” is a registered trademark of Tape-beatles Productions.
The Tape-beatles believe in plagiarism. In fact, Plagarism® is the name of their tape-only, self-created label. Their tape sounds are created by borrowing noises from other sources — television, radio, records. They create sound collages by mixing various noises, making tape loops, speeding up or slowing down tracks; the emphasis, says Dunn, is not “on sources, but how they are played.” Their live performance looks more like an intense studio session than a normally audience-oriented, energetic gig. But that’s the way it’s supposed to be as far as the Tape-beatles are concerned. They are interested in stretching their appearances farther into the realm of performance art, but for now are interested in the machine-oriented, mechanized side of their work.
The group started last summer with an open organizational meeting. Dunn, Heck, Ralph Johnson and a now-departed member referred to as “Chuck,” were the only people who showed up. They had all worked together on similar projects before. Dunn had been involved in editing the Xerox and mail-art magazine Photostatic since 1983; starting in the summer of 1984, he had been producing its audio counterpart, Phonostatic. Heck and Johnson have been involved with both sides of Dunn’s project; their work appeared on the original Phonostatic compilation and in many issues of Photostatic.
Ralph Johnson uses the line a lot of musicians use — “We don’t fit into a category, we’re trying to create a category,” but this time the comment seems extraordinarily apt. The Tape-beatles barely have a genre to call their own. Johnson and Heck both claim the art movements Surrealism and Situationism as inspirations, while Dunn rattles off a list of television shows: “Laugh-In, the CBS Evening News, Monty Python, Wheel of Fortune, The Bold and the Beautiful.” He thinks Ted Koppel “is the greatest thing on earth.” Musical influences include industrial artists Throbbing Gristle and SPK and electronic music pioneer John Cage.
OK, now to the real dirt — what is the point of all this mumbo-jumbo and jargon? Why do the Tape-beatles do what they do? John Heck says, “By dealing with images in this way we hope to point, with humor, to the way images and hype function as communication and the emptiness of claims made by institutionalized organizations, primarily corporations.” Whew. Put more simply, Dunn explains that they are fighting against “making art into another realm of real estate.” They don’t believe in originality in a society where everything is disseminated by a media run rampant; therefore, their belief in plagiarism. Translated into post-modern art speak, Johnson says they are interested in ‘appropriation and recontextualization.’ They do this recontextualization by means of primarily low-tech equipment — chiefly a Yamaha portable four-track cassette deck, and a Sony Walkman. Dunn explains that they support the homespun aesthetic — “Art you can do too,” as one of their many posters proclaims.
Future plans include more hype, more delving into the nature of borrowed noise, more broadcasting (their “Big Broadcast” was delivered on KRUI in September), more performing and hopefully a calendar for the fiscal year which provides a ten-second bit of noise to set the tone for each day. They have added a fourth member as it should be, they point out), Paul Neff, a former member of Stiff Legged Sheep (as is Johnson). And so they are carrying on — John, Paul, Ralph and Lloyd. Lloyd is complaining that he doesn’t want to be George, but Ralph is perfectly happy as Ringo. Their only problem may be that they have too many ideas to put all of them into action. As Dunn commented when I asked him for a light, “The Tape-beatles don’t carry matches — they have fire in their minds.”