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October 1988

The Tape-beatles, circa 1988

The Tape-beatles, circa 1988 (Photo by Forrest Rogness).

For the members of the Tape—beatles, the silence lasts 4 minutes, 33 seconds

A group of aleatory copycats just can’t get out of the Cage

by Rob Tannenbaum

If you saw the Tape-beatles hanging out before a performance, you might mistake them for any of a hundred other concrete music bands. The members throw food, fix one another’s hairdos, tell crude jokes, and don several layers of black leather, chains and buckles before posing for photos.

But there is one thing that makes the Tape-beatles unique: the band members talk endlessly about John Cage. They joke about the critics who complain that they steal riffs from John Cage albums. They mention Cage just to deny they sound like Cage. Even the fans who are admitted back stage want to talk about John Cage. “I’m so fucking sick of hearing about John Cage!” shouts lead singer Paul Neff. But minutes later, he’s talking about you-know-who again.

Small wonder. Thanks to the heavy air-play of its song “The Ads Become the News,” the Tape-beatles may be best known as “that band that sounds like John Cage.” Any band that plays heavy, loud audio art owes a debt to Cage, but Neff’s tapey rhythms are eerily similar to Cage’s, and the Tape-beatles have filled a niche for younger kids who missed out the first time around. By the time the band made its American concert début this spring, A subtle buoyancy of pulse, the band’s first cassette, had already gone into record stores. Never have grave robbers been paid so well.

“I don’t think about ‘How can I be original?’” Neff says. “Kids don’t give a fuck. There’s so many other bands. Let them be original.”

This band is Neff’s creation; the 26-year old singer selected his three mates from Iowa City’s pool of audiographers. He edits most of the sound himself and co-mixes the tracks with the band’s manager, John Heck.

Born in Hamburg, West Germany, Neff bought his first tape recorder when he was fourteen, after hearing Pierre Schaeffer’s “Etude aux chemins de fer.” Five years ago, a tape of one of Paul’s constructions came to John Heck, then a midwestern audio event promoter. When Heck invited Neff to Iowa City, the singer had a limited English vocabulary: “I knew ‘I love you’ and ‘fuck you’ and ‘I’m hungry’,” Paul says.

Neff adapted quickly to Iowa, dyeing his hair and discovering styling mousse. His first American go-round was with Smut Monkey, a concept that didn’t compose enough pieces to put out a cassette.

In January, two months before “The Ads Become the News” was slated for release, Plagiarism® Cassettes gave their studio executive a tape of the song. Lloyd Dunn, then a D.J. for KRUI-FM in Iowa City, decided to play the tape without identifying the band. The strategy, he admits, was to exploit rumors of John Cage coming out of retirement and the imminent release of his new album by playing a “mystery song.” It proved a whopping success: for a month, “The Ads Become the News” was KRUI’s most requested song, with listeners demanding that the station “play that Cage song again.” The Tape-beatles were so miffed that they could think of nothing else to do, and invited Dunn to join the group.

For several weeks, “The Ads Become the News” and Cage’s “Fontana Mix” were the top two songs on audio-art radio. But Cage didn’t find the Tape-beatles’ imitation flattering. At a London show attended by the Tape-beatles, Cage prefaced “Fontana Mix” by suggesting that the young artnoisicians might be able to sample a few new tricks from the song. Paul Neff argues that Pierre Schaeffer was a bigger influence on him than John Cage but says he won’t change “a fucking thing” for the Tape-beatles’ next cassette. “We’re certainly not gonna try to not sound like Cage,” adds manager John Heck. “I’m in this for the money. I won’t lie to you.”

Onstage, the Tape-beatles are sharp, but the band’s shortcomings are painfully obvious. During “Individual Choice,” Neff and tape-loop manipulator Ralph Johnson trade licks in a weak aping of John Cage and David Tudor. When microphonist Lloyd Dunn takes a solo — unmistakably similar to John Cage’s inventive phono-cartridge manipulations — he hits himself in the right eye with a canon plug.

“What do you think?” Heck asks as the last song ends. “John Cage?”

No way.


“From” Rolling Stone, September 22nd, 1988

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