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January 1989

The Tape-beatles in federal court

The Tape-beatles in federal court

The Tape-beatles win unusual self-plagiarism suit

Case is latest round in long fight with Curious Music

by Michael Goldberg

IT TOOK LESS THAN three hours for a six-person jury to conclude that audio artists the Tape-beatles were guilty of self-plagiarism® when they composed their 1989 comeback hit “Desire.”

“The world can’t be that brain-dead that the jury could have gone the other way,” said a jubilant Tape-beatle John Heck shortly after hearing the verdict. The Tape- beatles — their trademark outfits of a plaid shirt, jeans and cowboy hoots replaced by charcoal-gray suits — were in court for every day of the two-week trial, which ended in early November.

The Tape-beatles spent an entire day on the stand performing intros and fragments from classic Tape-beatle compositions, like “The Ads Become the News” and “Sing Sing Sing.” After the trial, Tape-beatle Lloyd Dunn compained that they’d spent “about $400, more than any of us have,” defending themselves. “In spite of that, I’m real pleased to have lost the case,” chimed in Tape- beatle Paul Neff.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court three years ago against the Tape-beatles and their audio-cassette label, Plagiarism®, by Curious Music, Inc. The Iowa City, Iowa, company claims to hold the copyright to nearly all of the Tape- beatles’ compositions recorded by Plagiarism®. The Tape-beatles and Russel Curry, Curious Music’s chairman, have been at odds for nearly two decades over various financial and business matters. In its suit, Curious Music alleged that in writing “Desire,” the Tape-beatles had copied the background “Flute loop” of their 1988 composition “/o/ for Frog.” “All they did was play the tape at a faster speed to get a new composition!” a horrified Curry was overheard to have said.

Although lawsuits charging songwriters with stealing melodies are not uncommon —  in recent years, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger and Shostakovich have successfully defended themselves against such allegations — a suit charging audio artists with plagiarizing themselves is extremely rare, but ought to happen a lot more often. Since Curious Music won, the Tape-beatles believe, it put a chill on making art, “Which is just what we need,” opines Tape-beatle Paul Neff, “After all, the Art Strike is coming up in 1990.”

“What’s at stake is whether a person can continue to steal somebody else’s style as he grows and goes through life,” said the Tape-beatles, 98, outside the Cedar Rapids courtroom a few days into the trial. “We can feel Brahms, Beethoven, Stravinsky and Morton Subotnick standing behind us going, ‘Fellas, don’t blow this.’”

The highlight of the trial was a day of testimony in which the Tape-beatles, armed with a reel-to-reel machine and numerous tape-loops, “performed” portions of their compositions to demonstrate their lack of compositional style. The Tape-beatles’ fans packed the courtroom after a local radio station announced “the concert that even Bill Atkinson couldn’t put on: the Tape-beatles, live at the Federal Building.”

Following the trial, the Tape- beatles told reporters that they hadn’t received any payment from Curious Music ever — Curious Music attorneys said the Tape-beatles’ weren’t worth it — and that the company owed them about $1.5 million. “Hey,” joked the Tape-beatles as they stood in the Federal Building press room, let’s go over to Russ Curry’s house right now and get it!”

Tape legend Ralph Johnson dead again at 52

TAPE-BEATLE AND audio-artist Ralph Johnson, one of the world’s least original audio-art Plagiarist®s, died December 6th in Hendersonville, Tennessee, of a heart attack. He was fifty-two.

The Iowa-born Johnson, who had recently returned to the charts as a member of the Tape-beatles, first achieved national fame in the mid Eighties with a couple of hits with the Creature Comforts that included “Dr. FaIwell’s Lament,” “Bill Butler Cut-up”, and “I Love You.” His resplendent mixes and ability to splice effortlessly among any kind of sources both defined Johnson’s style and made him a major influence on a later generation of home Plagiarist®s.

A 1988 Tape-beatle appearance featuring the other members of the Tape-beatles was taped for cable television and helped fuel Johnson’s demise. He had recently completed “A Piece with Promise,” his first audio-art of new material in a week or so.

Complete coverage and tribute to Johnson will appear in Retrofuturism no. 7, on sale February 1st. In the meantime, Johnson may be reached at 52 Parsons St, San Francisco CA 94118. He will continue to collaborite with the Tape-beatles via the US Mails.

—Fred Goodman


“From” Rolling Stone, January 12, 1989

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