Friday A/V Club: A Sermon, a Song, a Murder, and a Media Hoax
In Memoriam: Richard Lyons of Negativland
One day in the middle of the 1980s, a musician named Richard Lyons came across an album called If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? It had been recorded in 1968 by Estus W. Pirkle, a Baptist minister from Mississippi, and it seemed almost ordinary at first, with Pirkle discussing the Book of Jeremiah. But a little more than eight minutes in, things took a turn for the strange.
"When the American boys were captured in the Korean conflict, one out of every three American boys turned into a Communist!" Pirkle exclaimed. "But not one person captured from the country of Turkey turned into a Communist. What's happened that caused one out of every three boys to become a Communist, and not one out of the Turkish soldier to become a Communist? Something's happened to our children in America! Something's happened! You know what it is, ladies and gentlemen? There have been turned loose, in the past 15 and 20 and 30 years in America, some footmen that are dead set on destroying your children! Footmen that were not alive—or not active—in my daddy's day!"
At that point, Lyons was treated to a litany of the sinful forces that were leading kids astray. Children's schoolbooks used to be filled with Bible stories and moral instruction, Pirkle recalled. Now those had been replaced by "some 'Jack and the Beanstalk' stuff, something of the men of Mars going to invade this country, some Frankenstein monsters to terrorize your children in the night." Meanwhile, TV was teaching kids to idolize characters like Tarzan—and "Tarzan is five-sixths undressed! He doesn't have much clothes on! And every boy and girl feels, to be a hero, they gotta pull their clothes off!" Then there was "the liquor crowd," and "the miniskirt crowd," and by the way, "Do you realize that in many schools today…a girl cannot be a cheerleader or a majorette unless she's willing to have sexual relations with the boys?"
The devil's footmen weren't just subverting America's childhoods. They were taking on marriage and the church, too. (Ed Sullivan, that minion of Satan, was on TV every Sunday night, competing with the Lord's holy day.) And working with the footmen were the horsemen—the Communist conspirators—who were on track to control the world by 1972. Pirkle spun an apocalyptic fever dream of a Marxist-Leninist takeover in America. He described Communist torture techniques in gruesome detail. ("They tell us in China, a man was shot, his brains fell out, and they required the other victims to eat his brains!") And in the final minutes of the record, he relayed a former inmate's account of life in a Communist prison camp:
Many times—17 hours at a time!—we went through brainwashing such as this! We were brought into a room, and required to sit on hard benches, from 5 o'clock in the morning til 10 o'clock at night, while the narrator said: "Communism is good! Communism is good! Communism is good! Christianity is stupid! Christianity is stupid! Christianity is stupid! Give up! Give up! Give up!"
Lyons was a member of Negativland, an avant-rock band with a talent for repurposing found sound and a satiric sensibility that owed a debt to folks like the Firesign Theatre and the Church of the SubGenius. So the group sampled Pirkle's account of that brainwashing session, fused it with some harsh but hooky industrial music, and spliced in a sample from another source. The result, which they dubbed "Christianity is Stupid," was one of the most memorably strange recordings of 1987.
To here Pirkle's album, go here. Negativland's song is here:
That's not the end of the story.
In 1987, as in 1968, many people feared that footmen were subverting the youth of America. This time, the villains were not Tarzan and Ed Sullivan. The country was in the midst of a moral panic over rock music, with Congressional hearings on its allegedly baleful effects and a lawsuit alleging that Ozzy Osbourne's song "Suicide Solution" had been a "proximate cause" of a young man's decision to shoot himself. In that context, Pirkle pulled off one of the most infamous hoaxes in recent history.
Here's how Kembrew McLeod tells the story in his 2014 book Pranksters:
Not long before Negativland's tour was to begin, the group realized that none of them could afford to take time off their day jobs. They needed a reason to cancel but not just any reason. "One of the band members, Richard Lyons," [Negativland's Don] Joyce recalls, "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 mentioned his parents were very religious." Negativland drafted a press release that suggested the FBI asked them to stay home while it investigated what role "Christianity Is Stupid" might have had in the killings. "What really made the story work," says Negativland member Mark Hosler, "and what gave it legs was that it was tied into the fears about backmasking and hidden messages in rock music." Every media virus needs a host body to feed on, and the Satanic Panics carried Negativland's prank far and wide. The California music and culture magazine BAM reprinted the press release almost verbatim, and Channel 5, the local CBS affiliate, ran with the story. "Good evening," the news report began. "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."
"We couldn't believe what was happening," Hosler tells me. Even though the band spent much of the interview talking about the news media's appetite for the sensational, predictably, none of that made it on air. Viewers were instead treated to the following conjecture: "A Negativland album may have sparked the last family dispute, and in particular, the song 'Christianity Is Stupid' may have been involved."
Here is that Channel 5 report, with a wry little bonus tacked on at the end.
In the ensuing feeding frenzy, only The Village Voice reported skeptically on the story; everyone else just kept repeating the alleged connection between the music and the murder. Members of the band later expressed some regrets about the prank, telling McLeod that "they felt somewhat guilty because they were exploiting a real, horrible human tragedy." But at the time, they kept rolling with it, making the saga the basis for their next project—a witty sound collage called "Helter Stupid."
Lyons died this week on his 57th birthday, a victim of nodular melanoma. When Negativland's current members announced his death on Facebook yesterday, they did it under the headline "Cancer Is Stupid."
Bonus links: In 1971, Pirkle's work inspired a movie, also called If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?; you can watch that here. In 2004, Negativland finally made a video for "Christianity is Stupid"; you can check that out here. Negativland has been doing a sound-collage radio show since the early '80s; hundreds of episodes are archived here. A slew of Pirkle sermons are posted here. Negativland's other famous prank, and the ensuing battles over intellectual property rights, are discussed here. Past editions of the Friday A/V Club are collected here.