Public Works Productions

Reviews of Recordings and Presentations by Public Works and The Tape-beatles

“Good Times” by The Tape-beatles

The Grand Delusion

Disk reviews

Minneapolis Summit (EP)

Numbers (EP)

Good Times (CD)

Matter (CD)

The Grand Delusion (CD)

Music with Sound (CD)

A subtle buoyancy… (CD)

Show reviews

The Chicago Reader

at the Empty Bottle

at the ATA Gallery

at Illinois State U


Artpaper (Philip Blackburn)

Icon (Todd Kimm)

Tractor (Steve Perkins)

Synergy (Steev Hise)

E-mail (Erik Benndorf)

Radio Free Berkeley

X Magazine (G. Daniels)

Vital (Anton Viergever)


Daily Iowan (1) (2) (3)

Neo (Beth Lucht)

Keyboard (Mark Dery)

Pulse (Paul Ashby)

Montreal Mirror (B. Kelly)

C.R. Gazette (D. Rexroat)

Artpaper (L. Roberts)

Black Book (Anuj Desai)

Probably the most common thing heard during the “Clinton Impeachment Trials,” besides, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” was the mantra, “Well, yeah, but the economy is good.”

Yes, the economy is good. And Matthew Shepard is dead. And Brandon Teena is dead. And James Byrd Jr. is dead. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are dead. People die silently when the economy is good. No one seems to care, they goosestep right on over their fellow human beings, because, god damnit, these are GOOD TIMES. So we’re killing people in other countries for no apparent reason, so people are still dying of AIDS, boredom, and emptiness. What difference does it make? It’s all about the bottom line, isn’t it? If Alan Greenspan says it’s all good, then it’s all good. Good Times.

If you're alive and awake in the West, this CD will make you sick.

It’s so real and so frightening and so very, “Great pâté, but if I’m gonna make it to that funeral, I’ve gotta motor.” These are the sounds of the Kneejerk Mafia. The Holier Than Thous. The “You’d Be So Pretty/Handsome/Successful If You’d Only”s. The Tape-beatles use found sounds and twist them about, and wring the truth from the hypocrisy. It’s an ugly truth, to be sure, but one that needs to be heard regularly, even as painful as it is.

The thing I love about the Tape-beatles is how subtle the process is, as it takes hold of the mind. The sounds start innocently enough, and pleasantly. One’s mind wanders along with the wonderful bouncing ambience and glee. Suddenly, one is in the midst of hell. True hell. The hell of being different, and alive, and without money, and conscious. The hell of walking down the street and feeling the hatestares that are saved especially for those who fit into the “Is That A Girl Or A Boy” category. The hell of counting out change for the bus, while the tv screams that Volkswagen wants drivers. The hell of wearing the same clothes over and over, full of holes, and letting in the cold, while the radio blares that Tommy Hilfiger has a brave new line of winter coats, found at better department stores everywhere. The hell of listening to the guy who’s fixed your car tell you what scum faggots are, while you’re count out your grocery money for his services, biting your lip, and hoping he doesn’t know what the Campaign For Human Rights logo on your hat means. The hell of dropping ugly food on plates for rich college kids, while they shuffle by indignantly, not even looking at you, and your stomach growls, and you wonder how many months rent that watch would pay for. These are the places the Tape-beatles will take you to, and you won’t even know how you’ve gotten there. From Lawrence Welk to apocalypse in 51 minutes.

“Kim” of

Freq E-Zine, January 2001

Stepping to an appropriately martial, mechano-deconstructed beat, The Tape-beatles’ Good Times weaves a mix of political speech snippets, training-film educational banalities delivered with the wooden certitude of a rigid economic concentration on accumulation of capital and the promotion of that greatest lie of all, free-market competition, into a sometimes thumping orchestral soundscape. Delay is the key, as fragments of a cultural canon splinter in the guts of the very technology capitalism worships above all else. Electronics turned back on the blind idiot money men who fund their developers — it has a nice ring of just deserts to it.

How much of this is going to affect anyone not already disenchanted (to say the least) with the way things work in the allegedly developed economic systems of globalisation is debatable. However, The Tape-beatles have thought of this already, and the dialectic of innovation/absorption/commercialisation of the music industry on whose peripheries they operate, for that matter, too. There is a wholly spurious essay on the group in the CD booklet which announces their cover feature in Time magazine following the chagrin to the financial world caused by the album’s release, and further muddies the waters through allusions to their future collaboration with the Coca-Cola Corporation. Needless to say, this is an artful prank which few readers will believe, but some might prefer to collude in the bizarre fantasy and imagine a world where the high and mighty can be upset by the contents of Good Times. Given developments from Seattle to Prague to the recent announcement of interest rate reductions signalling a ‘downturn’ in the US mega-economy since the work was completed in 1999, though, there’s a salutary set of observations contained within this album, and perhaps one day …

There is more to The Tape-beatles than simple anti-capitalist irony; there’s a semi-mysterious play of the same title included in the accompanying texts too, apparently discovered in the walls of the group’s studio following a fire. It’s another game, and makes for several possible readings on the related subject of resistance to low-level economic activities which ultimately benefit multinationals, such as pyramid selling, through a symbolic dialogue of distinct opacity. There is something of The Residents’ dangerous humor to the Tape-beatles, with (slightly) less tongue in cheek — one of their mottoes is ‘We take ourselves seriously so you don’t have to’, after all. Another is Plagiarism®.

Perhaps there is more to be absorbed of this recording than mere politics alone — mere being relative of course, and the parameters of what constitutes American socio-economic life permeates the recordings. There is a hallucinatory aspect to the constant shift and recapitulation of orchestral and folk-song themes, flowing from the time-stretched soundbites to the juxtaposition of word and sound, which makes for a stimulating listen in its own right. Clouds of recursive echo build on ‘The Keystone’, symbolising both disorder and decay and making for a rousing piece of discordia along the way. There’s even brash funk sampling on ‘The Urge Of The Idea’, contrasting the work ethic with pleasure, and at the end it’s like having taken a trip under the guidance of a deconstructionist prankster through the miasma of emotions attached to the driving demons of Western so-called civilization. It can be no mistake that ‘The Body Of His Desire’ reconfigures ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ into a halting dirge, mocking the pomposity of surface political and artistic benevolence which caps what has become cultural industry in the media landscape. The album then concludes with a track called ‘All’s Right With The World’.

Read into this CD whatever seems appropriate, or less, but it stands as an exemplary work of Plunderphonics in its own right too.

Antron S. Meister

Matt ffytche, The Wire no. 192, February 2000

Three years in production, apparently, Good Times is an American left concept album reminiscent of the (now defunct) magazine Processed World. Collaged out of found sounds and interview fragments, the jigsaw pieces have been corralled into an ironic operetta using plastic sounds and synthetic beats — one drum loop is lifted from the stereo test recording of a microphone manufacturer. The theme is the 90s economic boom and the fragments of spin (from Oliver North, for instance), tinny drum patterns and ersatz techno make a welcome change from the usual paranoia clips in ambient soup. Miniature tracks have titles such as ‘The human machine’ and ‘Education of the will’ and contain gobbets from production line workers. However, apart from the occasional lurch into garish Hollywood movie screams and gunfire, the approach seems pedantic and stilted, too restricted in its sham and robotic dystopia. This may be an exercise in anti-consumerism, but, unlike Zappa, it’s left with nothing to make the message swing home.

East Bay Monthly, March 2000
Excerpt from ‘Free Samples’ by Mark K. Anderson

This is not a story about rap music — although rappers’ regular appropriation and clearance of samples have set important legal precedents for musicians interested in using the cut-and-paste approach. It’s a story about those who take sampling to its logical conclusion, using it not just to create a ‘hook’ or catchy refrain but as the bulk of a composition.

In this musical world, it’s all samples.

The style is sometimes called ‘plunderphonic’ — an allusion to the Canadian sampler-composer John Oswald’ 1989 recording of the same name. Along with Oswald and the Evolution Control Committee, the genre’s most celebrated practitioners are Bay Are collective Negativland and the international trio the Tape-beatles.

Of these four groups, only one has escaped legal entanglements.

‘We’ve been fortunate enough never to have been sued,’ says the Tape-beatles’ Lloyd Dunn. ‘But the fact is, in order to make the work we want to make, we have to sort of ignore the possibility that we can be sued.

It’s our feeling that what we’re doing is ethically valid, in spite of the fact that it uses work that someone else has made. Because what we’re doing is creating a new context for small pieces of that work. We’re not stealing somebody else’s work wholesale. We’re actually just using small pieces of it without permission in new contexts that create paradoxically new, original works.’

Dunn, who lives in Iowa, collaborates with his bandmates — John Heck, who lives in Prague, and Ralph Johnson, who lives in San Leandro and works at Mills College — over the Internet, by snail-mail and, on rare occasions, in person.

To hear the Tape-beatles is to wander into an aural salvage yard of cultural detritus from the past 50 years (similar in spirit, if not in execution, to the Beatles’ ‘Revolution no. 9’). Voices may speak in complete sentences, but the content is made up largely of material spliced from a hodgepodge of sources: an educational filmstrip from the ’60s, a radio commercial from the ’80s, an obscure pop song from the ’70s.

Randomly placed, such snippets can sound like a short attention-span scan across the radio dial. But in the hands of a skilled sampler, the effect can range from surreal to silly to satirical to sardonic.

On the Tape-beatles’ latest album, ‘Good Times’, phonics of all persuasions are plundered to create a sound collage that deflates America’s euphoria over its current economic prosperity.

On the song ‘The human machine’, for instance, the trio drop in segments from a vocational guidance record that proffers advice to aspiring wage slaves. Mixing in percussion found on a microphone-makers’ demo CD, the two competing sources create a relief that supersedes the sum of its parts.

‘The combination creates a sense of regimentation,’ Dunn says. ‘It creates a sense of enforcement, of a rigid structure that these people are forced to build their lives around to have employment. So it ends up being a funny and entertaining piece because of the overbearing quality of the drumbeats and also the almost humble way that people are presenting their lives.

The follow-up track, ‘Byways of ghostland’, mixes a hilarious hyperactive tonic of chase and nab ’em scenes that could be found in any generic action movie. Each unintelligible exclamation that the over-actors scream is delivered with such inexplicable intensity and melodramatic vim that, divorced of any context, the two-minute opus provides a searing, succinct critique of the Hollywood hit factory. And, unlike treatises that one might find in ‘Film Comment’ or ‘Art Forum’, the only discernible text in ‘Byways’ is, ‘You’re gonna get us all killed!’

Dream Magazine (winter 1999)

My favorite work yet by this Iowa outfit. Wider range of subject matter, but still conceptually cohesive. The worker in the jaws of Corporate ‘America’, remanipulating the plastic terror masks, children’s voices, Brimstone croaking, trip-hop, personally I could live to be 99 and die happy, never hearing Oliver North’s voice again, but, it works in its segment, as always their choices of source material are remarkable; Edward Teller, Rappers explaining stuff, Andrew Carnegie, lots of ad-speak, sweeping musical waves, drama, space, tension. Deprogramming the programming, jamming cultural consciousness, mondo movie violence, all quite hypnotic in living STEREO! This is bleeding-radio sonic bliss. ‘Thoroughly aroused.’

DREAM Magazine, P.O.Box 2027, Nevada City CA 95959
by George Parsons

Rumore 94, Novembre 1999

Recuperato il provocatorio nome originario dopo alcuni anni dietro la sigla Public Works l’ensemble statunitense che fa oggi capo a Lloyd Dunn, John Heck e Ralph Johnson, pionieri fra i più concettualmente ferrati della ‘plunderfonia’ applicata (lavori realizzati operando solo su fonti sonori preesistente), firma un nuovo ‘concept’ il cui soggetto, non facilmente decifrabile dal contorto sarcasmo di testi e titoli, riguarda l’attuale stato dell’economia Occidentale e le condizioni esistenziali/culturali delle classi lavoratrici (castratrofiche, di direbbe, dol tenore epico-apocalittico dei pezzi conclusivi). Manipolando estratti da vacchi vinili ‘spoken word’ e colonne sonore hollywoodiane, ma anche interviste de varia provenienza (un impiegato nel settore alimentare, un capitano d’industria, l’eccentrico inventore Edward Teller, ecc.), i Tape-beatles costruiscono molti dei 23 brani attorno a elementari strutture ritmiche elettrocampionate, evidenziando però gran cura per i dettagli e consapevole visione d’insieme, cosicché gli strati di frammenti sonori vanno a comporre una coerente suite narrative, un po’ radio-play, un po’ musica concreta e un po’ industrial-techno radicale. Una della migliori opere espresse negli ultimi tempi dal sottobosco di sperimentatori dediti a taglia-e-cuci ‘no copyright’.

(The following bad translation is somewhat cleaned-up from Babelfish. If someone out there knows Italian and can clarify any thing we’ve missed between the two versions, your help would be appreciated. The original text in Italian follows.)

[Having re-adopted their provocative original name after several years working under the name Public Works, this American group consists of Lloyd Dunn, John Heck and Ralph Johnson. They are pioneers of applied plunderphonics (works created using only pre-existing sound sources), and are here with a new ‘concept album’ whose subject is not easy to decipher from the twisted sarcasm of the track titles. But this record looks at the current state of the Western economy and the existential and cultural conditions of the working classes (catastrophe, of would say, from the apocalyptic quality of the closing tracks). Manipulating sounds taken not only from spoken word recordings and Hollywood soundtracks (interviews with a food service employee, a CEO, and the eccentric inventor Edward Teller, etc.), the Tape-beatles construct many of the 23 tracks around elementary electronic rhythms, showing great vision and attention to detail. They make novel use of sound fragments, layering them to compose one coherent suite, that is part radio-play, part concrete music and part radical industrial-techno. One of the best works to come out of the cut-and-paste ‘no copyright’ underground scene.]

by Vittore Baroni

Lloyd Dunn, John Heck and Ralph Johnson pratiquent le cut-up avec un art inégalé de la mise en scène. Musicalement, ils font feu de tout bois pour nous raconter des histoires à l’aide de courtes pièces qui s’agencent comme celles d’un puzzle. Loin de l’easy-listening, en dépit des apparences, ce trio juxtapose des fragments de jazz, de musiques latines et d’autres, plus contemporaines et électroniques, sure des extraits d’émissions de radio, de génériques de TV, de publicités, de bribes de conversations, de conférences, etc. Avec une nette prédilection pour la période 1950/70, glorieuses anées où le progrès était roi. Depuis c’est la crise. Et c’est cela qu’ils entreprennent de dénoncer en se moquant de façon très imagée de cet âge d’or supposé, du ‘bon vieux temps’. Frères de sang avec Negativland, Producers for Bob et toute la clique de Plunderphonic, The Tape-beatles ont composé un sorte de BD acoustique, surréaliste et pleine d’humour. Une diatribe contre le fordisme et l’American way of life. LD

[Lloyd Dunn, John Heck and Ralph Johnson are unequaled in the practice of the cut-up. Musically, they to tell us stories with the help of short pieces which fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Far from easy listening, and in spite of appearances, this group puts together fragments of jazz, latin music, and others more contemporary and electronic, together with snippets of radio and TV broadcasts, ads, bits of conversation, etc. They have a clear predilection for the period 1950-1970, the years when progress was king. Since then has been a crisis, and from that, they undertake to denounce it by making fun of the ‘good old days’ vividly. Blood brothers of Negativland, Producers for Bob and the whole plunderphonic clique, the Tape-beatles have composed a kind of acoustic BD [?], surrealistic and full of humor. A diatribe against fordism and the American way of life.] LD

Coda, November 1999

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