The 1980s witnessed the height of the satanic ritual abuse scare, or the satanic panics. One of the greatest musical pranks that emerged from this milieu resulted in Helter Stupid, a record by the sound collage group Negativland. It was a concept album that thoughtfully reflected on the connections between rock music, violence, and media. Here, I tell this story–collage style–by quoting newscasts, interviews, and the liner notes from Helter Stupid (which appear in italics).
10/20/87 Negativland releases their fourth album, Escape From Noise and begin preparations for their first ever national tour. The album includes the cut “Christianity Is Stupid,” which features the “found” vocal of the Reverend Estrus W. Pirkle from a sermon recorded in 1968.
Mark Hosler (Negativland): The tour was going to lose money, and none of us could afford to take time off from our jobs. We were all pretty poor.
Don Joyce (Negativland): We needed a good reason to cancel. One of the band members, Richard Lyons, found this news article in the New York Times about a kid, David Brom, who had killed his family in Minnesota with an ax. The story said that his parents were very religious.
Mark Hosler: So Richard wrote a fake press release based on the newspaper article. It had mentioned that music in some way provoked the murder, so he implied that our song “Christianity Is Stupid” caused it.
Don Joyce: On “Christianity Is Stupid,” we collaged a sound bite from an LP of sermons by an old southern preacher, Reverend Pirkle. He was talking about communism, and at one point he described Korean prisoner of war camps that had loudspeakers that would keep repeating: “Christianity is Stupid, Communism is Good.” So we used that sound bite as the basis of our song.
Mark Hosler: What really made the story work and what gave it legs was that it was tied into the fears about backwards masking and hidden messages in rock music that were being sensationalized by the media.
Don Joyce: The press release said we were cancelling the tour because we were under investigation by the FBI, and eventually reporters started writing about it.
Mark Hosler: What we wrote was used pretty much verbatim in a local ’zine. Then that report got picked up by a statewide music and culture magazine, BAM, which came to the attention of the CBS news affiliate in San Francisco. We couldn’t believe what was happening.
Channel 5 CBS Newscast: Good evening. Topping Nightcast–a possible link between murder and music. … Four members of a Midwestern family were murdered. The sixteen-year-old son is the prime suspect. Members of the experimental rock group Negativland have been drawn into the case.
Don Joyce: It just kept going. Reporters started calling us and Channel 5 from San Francisco came over with a big van and interviewed us.
5/11/88 … Much of the interview time is spent discussing the American news media, their appetite for the sensational, their tendency to create their own “news” and related topics. All of this discussion is cut from the aired tape.
Channel 5 CBS Newscast: Attorneys say David and his parents frequently argued about religion and music, even on the night of the murders when a Negativland album may have sparked the last family dispute, and in particular, the song “Christianity Is Stupid” may have been involved.
5/14/88 After seeing the Channel 5 news feature, the San Francisco Chronicle’s religion writer calls Negativland requesting an interview. The group again claims they’re unable to discuss the case.
Don Joyce: It just started spreading, appearing in newspapers and music magazines and such. I realized later that this is just the kind of story that sucked the news media in, because it dealt with music, murder, and all this stuff that was going on in the 1980s.
The Chronicle prints an article on page three of their front news section restating the proposed connection, but get many of the “facts” wrong…It’s now abundantly clear that a major source for news stories is often other news.
Don Joyce: Especially with a story like that, I think that the lurid nature of the topic was so enticing for the media. No one seemed to be checking facts to see if this was real or not. The only exception, I think, was the Village Voice.
6/7/88 The Village Voice publishes an article on the Negativland-Brom link. Music critic R. J. Smith recounts the original press release’s version of the rumored connection with some skepticism. In researching this piece, Smith and Voice media critic Jeffrey Stokes go so far as to track down a Negativland member at his job for confirmation of the story.
R. J. Smith: I do remember sitting there at the Voice processing this story, which I might have heard about through a Negativland press release. I was talking about it to Geoffrey Stokes, watching his response and just thinking it didn’t smell right, that it seemed outlandish on the face.
Don Joyce: When it had all blown over we decided to make a record out of the whole thing. It was about fears about Satanism and music’s influence over people and how it can make people kill. Helter Stupid was also about the media and how cannibalistic they are.
Mark Hosler: We explained in the liner notes our lie, saying very clearly how we manipulated people and what we’d done. You know, it’s not enough to just hoax someone and laugh at how you fooled them, ha ha. There has to be a point to it all. So we recorded all the media coverage of our hoax, and we built up an archive of all this other material about how people blame rock and roll for kids killing themselves and killing their friends.
Don Joyce: We were astounded to see how easy it was to fool the media, and how you could spread a story that was a complete lie. So on the one hand, we were feeling a little guilty about doing it, and on the other we were fascinated with the results.
Mark Hosler: We were really conflicted about it because we were exploiting an actual, real, horrible human tragedy. So we increasingly felt a bit weird about it. To be honest I don’t think I’d do that type of thing now with the age I’m at now, and it’s definitely not something that I need to do over and over and over again. We did it once and we learned a lot. I feel like now I see and read TV and news and information so utterly differently than when I started out as a band in 1980. It was a real eye opener.