Casey Kasem, the letter U and the numeral two
With all due respect to Kemal Amin Kasem—both to the loved ones who lost him on Father’s Day at age 82, and to anyone with fond memories of American Top 40, the show he hosted seemingly forever, and which introduced all of us to many a memorable hit (as well as a lot of crap)—the legendary broadcaster was as symbolic of everything that was wrong with big, corporate, bought-and-paid-for commercial radio as he was of the power of those amazing littler transistors to make us feel less alone and connected to something bigger and better.
You can read plenty about his career and accomplishments elsewhere, in the obits. But me, I haven’t been able to hear his name for the last 23 years without thinking of media satirists and pioneering sample artists Negativland, who released a 12-inch single called “U2” via SST Records in 1991 that quickly became one of the all-time great “lost” discs, as well as a fitting tribute—or something—to “Casey” Kasem.
Heedless that the microphone might still be live and that engineers might be recording even when he wasn’t “on air,” Kasem was notorious for profane tirades about anything that ticked him off. He launched into a particularly good one on a day in 1987 when one of his trademark “long distance dedications” about somebody’s late pet led into U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The host hated that his dead-dog spiel was connected to such an “up-tempo” number—never mind that the tune is more bombastic than peppy—and that prompted him to start complaining about the band (he pronounced its name as “the letter U and the numeral two”) and how “nobody gives a [bleep]” about “these guys… from England.” (Actually, they’re from Ireland, but he was on a roll.)
All of that made its way onto tape and into Negativland’s archive of twisted wonders, finally unfurling on record over a version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” rendered on kazoos. For that as much as for the fact that Island Records somehow thought that this ultra-underground release would conflict with the marketing hype for the then-upcoming Achtung Baby, confusing record buyers and maybe costing a sale or two, SST and Negativland got well and thoroughly sued, and the vinyl disappeared from the bins almost as soon as it arrived. (I treasure my copy; I just wish I could find it!)
A few months after the legal filing, members of U2 were ambush-interviewed by members of Negativland, and the stars apologized for their litigiousness, blaming their label. (That would never happen now that they’re partners with Live Nation; ha!) But in addition to the light that Negativland’s “U2” sheds on the real Shaggy, er, Kasem, I’ve always appreciated the perspective it adds to the worldwide global corporation of Bono & Co.
In any event, here’s the infamous track on YouTube (and ain’t that a wonder?). Warning: As you may have gleaned, it definitely is not safe for work.