Plunderphonics: bettered by the borrower
May 5, 2013 3:13 PM   Subscribe

Composer/ musician/ artist John Oswald coined the term Plunderphonics in the essay "Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative," (previously) which discussed the efforts to create something new by sampling and distorting audio. Even though Oswald coined the term in '85, he has been working in the style since the late 1960s, and many people have joined in.

When discussing sampling in music, all sorts of artists get lumped together. For instance, in an episode of the radio show Sound Opinions, John Oswald is grouped with Igor Stravinsky and MC Hammer as artists who dealt in musical quoting, re-contextualizing or “stealing” from other artists. In an interview, Osborn spoke on the differences between traditional musical quoting, directly lifting samples, and manipulating known music to point just before obscurity; the last category is the only which he considers to a case of "plunderphonics."

The roots of plunderphonics stretch back decades, and span countries. In some ways, it can be traced back to manipulations of audio captured on magnetic tape, going back to 1944, with Halim El-Dabh (hear also: Leiyla Visitations on UbuWeb, created in 1959).

In the realm of pop music, the 1956 novelty single "The Flying Saucer" was the first break-in record, bringing an emphasis to the "plunder" element in plunderphonics. Dickie Goodman and Bill Buchanan made a single that was inspired by Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds," presented as a radio broadcast with snippets from well-known pop songs of the day [transcript with notes]. 17 record labels tried to sue Goodman and Buchanan, a fate not to dissimilar to later audio borrorwers. To appease various parties, the song was re-recorded with different song samples, where most plunderphonic releases get pulled from general release and disappear into dusty corners.

About two decades after The Flying Saucer, John Oswald was melding the tape manipulations with pop music re-appropriation, as heard in the track Power, sampling the intense guitars of Led Zeppelin and the vocals of a Southern US evangelist decrying that same "Devil music." In 1977, The Residents released a single with a track composed of samples from various songs by The Beatles, along with interview snippets. Plunderphonia had arrived in full.

Oswald released an EP in 1988, with release notes that stated the tracks Pretender (previously) and Spring could be played at any speed to experience different nuances of the songs. The collection was expanded into an album (with NSFW cover art). The "Not For Sale" claims on the covers of the record and CD weren't enough to appease the artists and labels whose work he distorted, so Oswald found himself hiring an attorney, agreeing to a settlement, and giving up copies of his work. Oswald shares a link to the album, with thanks to "an anonymous & remote plunderphile," and you can hear a bunch of them online:
dab (with NSFW cover image at the beginning of the track) | white | dont | pretender | brown | net | birth | pocket | mist | tune | spring | rainbow
In the early 1990s, Oswald was invited to "plunderphonicize" The Grateful Dead by Phil Lesh. He chose to plunder over 100 versions of Dark Star, a song the band had played for a quarter of a century. The result was a 2CD set entitled Grayfolded (auto-playing music; excerpt on YouTube)

Other notable works of plunderphonia include Negativeland's U2, in which the band sampled Casey Casem's rant on the band (previously) in preparation for his coverage of the band on America's Top 40, and was packaged with a very predominant U2 on the cover, and Negativeland in a small font below. Though Negativland dealt extensively with sampled audio, most of their prior works were sourced from more obscure material. But with such material, The Tape-Beatles made an album of minute snippets, and it was an underground hit. It was called Music with Sound (full album on YouTube). The album even garnered a place on the top 10 import albums of the year from Tower Records (the album was originally released in Canada in 1991).

Where most plunderphonic artists started working with tape splices, Christian Marclay started physically splicing and playing vinyl records in the 1970s, creating audio-visual works. Marclay, previously.

Mash-ups were born by the plunderphonicians, Evolution Control Committee, when in 1993, they released a 7" record of Public Enemy a capella tracks over music by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, in their Whipped Cream Mixes (Rebel Without A Pause [official video] and By the Time I Get to Arizona [unofficial video]). Their plundering of Dan Rather's deadpan delivery on various atrocities was mixed with loops of AC/DC tracks was titled Rocked by Rape (official ECC video), which got the attention of lawyers at CBS. By 2003, the legal threats hadn't continued, and Rocked by Rape had been broadcast on NPR and played at a roast for Dan Rather that was aired on C-SPAN.
posted by filthy light thief (19 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
This album by The Avalanches is very relevant.
posted by ACair at 3:17 PM on May 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I hope I live to see the day when someone says "This album by the Avalanches" and I can ask "Oh which one?".
posted by shortfuse at 3:27 PM on May 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

filthy sound thief
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 3:27 PM on May 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

More modern plunderphonics can be found on Illegal Art, home to The Bran Flakes, Girl Talk, and other fun folks.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:45 PM on May 5, 2013

I was close-listening to Girl Talk's All Day recently and realized how it's not just samples he's lifting to create these sounds, but famous arrangements and transitions. There was a good bit lifted from Z-trip's Uneasy Listening Vol. 1 that really tickled me to hear again.

I was introduced to John Oswald through MeFiSwap. Thanks for filling out the rest, flt!
posted by carsonb at 3:51 PM on May 5, 2013

This guy is from Canada and who gives a shit?
posted by sourwookie at 3:52 PM on May 5, 2013 [6 favorites]

I do a huge chunk of my driving to Girl Talk. Loudly. With my windows down (The War Pigs/Move Bitch cut is especially perfect for this).

And this "interview" with Jaws (the shark, not Richard Keil) is an example of this technique done,...well...uh
posted by sourwookie at 4:02 PM on May 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Nice one, FLT! And see also People Like Us (previously).
posted by carter at 4:33 PM on May 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Beautiful post, fly.

I'd like to offer these humble additions:

I can't not listen to People Like Us on a fairly regular basis.

On the marginally more song- and pop- based tip are the excellent Tipsy and Messer Chups, aka Messer Fur Frau Muller.

And composer John Wall collages gestures from classical recordings into breathtaking sculptures of sound.

On preview: I owe carter a Coke.
posted by methinks at 4:35 PM on May 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

(my first comment was a joke for the Negativland fans, BTW. I realized it seemed weird when devoid of context.)
posted by sourwookie at 4:36 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was always a bit disappointed by the Grateful Dead - expecting stoned cosmicness, I always seemed to find a rambling country-folk band - until I heard Grayfolded, which I think might be the ideal Dead album I was looking for.

(Live Dead, too, yes. It's all about the Dark Star for me.)

Ad Plunderphonic is tremendously witty and imaginative.
posted by Grangousier at 4:49 PM on May 5, 2013

RIGHT NOW right now RIGHT NOW right now RIGHT NOW right now RIGHT NOW right now RIGHT NOW right now RIGHT NOW right now RIGHT NOW right now right now IT'S TIME TO JAM OUT THE J-J-J-J-J-J-J
posted by unknowncommand at 6:58 PM on May 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is a fantastic post, thanks.
posted by unknowncommand at 7:02 PM on May 5, 2013

I hope this is somewhat relevant, because it is one of my favourite memories of being 16.

I had borrowed an interesting looking album from the library by something called "The Orb". I thought it would be a nature-sounds, new-agey, sort of thing. I was really into Dan Gibson's "Solitudes" series and Yanni back then. I got home, popped "The Orb's Adventures into the Ultraworld" into my stereo system, hit play, and walked to the other side of room expecting to be gently lulled by birdsong and waves, maybe a gentle piano. When the opening of "Little Fluffy Clouds" blasted out of my speakers instead, I was so shocked that I took a flying leap over my bed and turned off the stereo in a panic so my parents wouldn't hear it.

God knows why. My parents are the coolest, most open minded people you could hope to meet. I doubt they'd have given two figs about The Orb. But it was such a novel piece of music to me that I just sort of assumed that it was somehow dangerous, what with all these crazy snippets and samples all over the place.
posted by The Hyacinth Girl at 8:48 PM on May 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

Thought I would mention the 1979 Flee Past's Ape Elf (title is a palindrome) LP by Orchid Spangiafora which is made of manipulated tapes with source material largely from TV and radio. It bears a lot of resemblance to the Tape Beatles. It's available via iTunes.
posted by larrybob at 11:26 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Hyacinth Girl, The Orb sampled The Tape-Beatles a few times (at least in Valley (Peel Session), and twice in Magestic).
posted by filthy light thief at 6:58 AM on May 6, 2013

filthy light thief: Mash-ups were born by the plunderphonicians, Evolution Control Committee, when in 1993, they released a 7" record of Public Enemy a capella tracks over music by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, in their Whipped Cream Mixes

Just a quick addendum to this: the mashup, such as it is, dates back a good bit further than 1993; You Got The Love – credited to The Source featuring Candi Staton – had been kicking about in one form or another since 1986, was a huge, all-over-everyone's-radio hit in 1991 in the UK, and was a mashup of a Candi Staton a cappella (originally recorded to soundtrack a dieting video(!)) and an instrumental version of Jamie Principle's Chicago House track Your Love (often erroneously credited to Frankie Knuckles, who produced it but didn't write it).

Even before that, The KLF had been active and pissing about with mashups since their inception; and The Timelords' number one Doctorin' The Tardis – Bill Drummond and Jimi Cauty's pre-KLF novelty single farrago/jape, the success of which prompted them to write The Manual (How To Have A Number One The Easy Way) – came out in 1986, and was a brew of Doctor Who theme, Glitter stomp beat, and Blockbuster by The Sweet. In spirit if not, understandably, in production values, given when it was made, it's every bit the forebear of Girl Talk, Osymyso's Intro Inspection, This Is Radio Soulwax Pt. 2, Freelance Hellraiser and all the rest who followed from the early part of the 2000s onwards.

And then there's Coldcut, who were definitely taking notes from Oswald, Negativland and, especially, Double Dee & Steinski, when making the "Seven Minutes of Madness" remix of Eric B & Rakim's Paid In Full, in 1988, which was, essentially, a mashup of the original and an Ofra Haza track.

Of course, the grandaddy of the mashup is Humphrey Lyttleton in the presenter's chair on I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, where they've been playing One Song To The Tune Of Another since the very first episode in 1972. (Initially, I was inclined to think that I was making a joke here. But now I'm not so sure ...)
posted by Len at 12:15 PM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Len, great points.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:39 PM on May 6, 2013

While not Pluderphonics in the strictest sense, I'm somewhat shocked no one has mentioned the two other radio shows (the first being Do or DIY on WFMU by aforementioned People Like Us) the a that dealt with this genre - Some Assembly Required and the Australian The Night Air.

Both have a different take - SAR is a more traditional radio show style with occasional interviews and specials but a focus on songs in sets. The Night Air was a more "the show is a mash up" feel, focused around a theme, idea, person or thing. Both highly recommended.
posted by datakid at 4:05 AM on May 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

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