Proverbial Shit Disturbers Dayglo Abortions Talk About 35 Years of Offensive Album Covers
Murray “The Cretin” Acton explains the inspiration for 'Feed Us A Fetus,' 'Two Dogs Fucking' and how they accidentally made the Supreme Court of Canada to change a constitutional law.
If you name your band something like Dayglo Abortions, you should expect a lifetime of constant headaches, protests, censorship, and possibly even a court trial that will challenge your art as an act of obscenity. Murray “The Cretin” Acton knows all about this because 37 years ago, he formed a band called Dayglo Abortions, and he’s endured much more than all of that. The Victoria, BC native has spent the better part of his life as a rabble-rouser, deliberately trying to stir up controversy through his music: the song titles, lyrics, album artwork or even interviews. But every controversy seems to begin with the name. “[Abortion] is a hard word,” Acton admits. “But I think even the way the name came up was funny. I had a band before [The Sickfucks] and we’d broken up, but we had some gigs coming up. We had this gig in Vancouver at the Smiling Buddha and we were paid what was supposed to be free publicity for a year for being the best band of the night, but the guy handed me a case of spray paint and said, ‘Here’s your free publicity kid!’ And it was that DayGlo brand fluorescent orange spray paint. So I decided we would be DayGlo and then whatever the most frequently used word on the front page of the day’s paper was. So it was the same day [Henry] Morgantaler was arrested for his clinic in Montreal. And it was just ‘Abortion! Abortion! Abortion!’ all over the front page. People try to put meaning into the name, but it’s really just a noun.”The same can be said about albums like
Noisey: Are controversial ideas something you discuss?
Cretin: To be perfectly honest, I’m a bit of a band Nazi [laughs]. I come up with most of the stuff myself. Those guys thought I was crazy at first and now they think I’m completely crazy. For the most part, I come up with the ideas and they just go along with it. I had a friend, sort of a mentor, who came into a bit of money and wanted to write it off for taxes. So he said, “Why don’t you guys make a record that couldn’t be put on the shelves in a record store?” And I said, “You’ve got the right guy for that.” So there was a focus on that initially. I got into John Lennon as a kid and noticed he swore strategically in his music to enforce a point to get people’s attention. So we thought we’d just go to town with that kind of stuff. We did our first record in 1980, when there weren’t too many attitudes like that. In Victoria, BC we’re a few years behind the times, so I had this vision of what punk rock was but I hadn’t really been exposed to much of it. I’d heard a few things like Dead Boys, but I formulated my own idea of what it was and decided to make a parody of it, a satirical spoof. The first album was more of the band spitting on the audience instead of the other way around.
I was in a community college taking an electronics course at the time and this feminist group FLAG (Feminist Legal Action Group) actually smashed the windows of a record store because the record was on display. And then they tracked me down at school and accosted me. I had to wrestle my way through a crowd of mean looking, big women and their effeminate, browbeating husbands. It was kind of embarrassing, actually. They had a couple of big protests in town too. So we decided to go down there and we took some signs with these drawings of a big coat hanger going through a baby’s ears [laughs]. And the pro-lifers and pro-choicers actually joined forces and chased us away [laughs]. Abortion is a sensitive issue for people, and understandably so. I don’t think it’s an acceptable form of birth control. You need to be more responsible than that. But at the same time, it’s a woman’s body and a woman’s choice.
I saw a photo with Ronald and Nancy Regan sitting in front of the Presidential seal and I just saw it as “Feed us a fetus!” I don’t know where my imagination went but that was really what started it. We were still in this satirizing punk rock state. I’m not that serious, eh, and I’m not a big fan of politics—it’s an unfortunate thing we have to live with – but it’s an anti-authority thing. So it was just the biggest authority figure, so we just got in there. We did do a bit of America-bashing, although it was mostly just government and foreign policies we went after because I do have a lot of American friends. Looking back on it, it’s hard to say just how serious I was. One of my philosophies is, if you get people laughing you can slip a few ideas by them. Whereas, if they feel threatened, all of the walls go up and you won’t get a word by them. You see stand-up comedians do this very effectively, spreading the seeds of thought.
Were there any problems that arose in the U.S. from the Feed Us A Fetus album cover?
There were a few. I think it was Medford, Oregon where they had a pretty good protest going on that moved the venue a couple of times. They tracked us down half way through the show and started pounding on the doors, and the cops came and shut us down halfway through the set. Stuff like that. It is a little dicey crossing the border, because they have this Homeland Security that has the final say. They can look at your paperwork and go, “Yeah… Abortions, eh? Coming to corrupt the youth of America? I don’t think so. Not on my shift!” So that gets me a little nervous sometimes. We’ve had to miss shows in the States because of that.
So did the dead mouse on the cover of Here Today, Guano Tomorrow actually die?
Oh no. That mouse lived a long and fruitful life with the secretaries at Fringe Records. It was fine, Christ. I got some really nasty mail for that one from the animal rights groups. They were appalled. And sure, it’s pretty offensive but I don’t even step on bloody bugs. I have a Mother Teresa complex with living creatures.
So what did they use for the mouse guts on the back sleeve?
We didn’t actually do that. They made that in Toronto. We sent them an idea of what we wanted, and they just took what we gave them and made it up. I’m not too sure what they used though. I think it was a bunch of kitchen products, like ketchup. And there was all of the debris with that big gun, a 9mm Remington.
The album has a song called "Fuck Satan To Death." The Devil was a very controversial character in music at the time. Were you using him to get a reaction?
Oh, Satan was really starting to get in there. Everyone was singing about him. But that was one of the few I didn’t write. It was written by one of the other guitar players, Nev. He wanted to write a pro-Satan song and I was like, “We can’t have a pro-Satan song! We’ve got Jesus Bonehead on drums for chrissake!” So we just took that one and arranged the lyrics in the right way. The metal heads get a real kick out of that one.
Obviously you guys ran into some legal problems with this album. Tell me a little about that.
It was about the content of the record, and not the cover. This guy’s daughter got a copy of Fetus off her friend and was making an unauthorized duplication of that copyrighted material, which I do believe is a felony offence [laughs]. Anyway, he was a cop in Nepean, Ontario and he walks by and hears “I Killed Mommy” blasting out of his daughter’s bedroom, comes in and confiscates her entire record collection and he’s absolutely appalled by our record. So he takes it down to the mayor’s office and the mayor is like, “Oh, this is some bad stuff! What are we gonna do about this?” And I guess they said, “Let’s make them famous!” Actually, I don’t think that was the real intention, but these guys couldn’t have been very bright. I tried to write the guy a thank you note that said, “This is actually the best thing that anyone has ever done for my band!”
So what happened was they actually charged the record company [Fringe] with possession and manufacturing for the purpose of distributing obscene material. It was like a drug trafficking charge but with obscene material. That’s was the old Canadian law. But the lawyers very astutely said, “This is a Supreme Court decision to be made because it’s freedom of expression, covered under the Charter of Rights.” So they went to the Supreme Court and it was close. Actually, it got down to a 6 to 4 decision by the jury. It was not a unanimous decision, but they essentially decided that one small group could not dictate the moral standings for an entire country. And at the same time, it threw a big cloud over their obscenity laws, so they decided to rewrite it all and made their new pornography laws. So we were actually responsible for rewriting the constitution of Canada. Unfortunately, though, not for the better.
Did all of this attention drive up album sales?
Oh god, yeah. And the media in Canada saw it as a censorship issue. Like, Lloyd Robertson, who was basically the head of the national news there, he was like a rock star to Canadians like my dad, he told me before an interview, “Look, we’re on your side. We’re going to make you look good. We’re gonna do everything we can to help. This is a freedom of speech deal. Let’s kick the shit out of these guys.” So it was pretty good. They did make me look much better than I did in real life. I was quite shocked actually. But yeah, they got us on the national news half a dozen times and I was on the front page of the newspapers. Everyone got to know who I was there for a while. And all of that sold some records. Unfortunately, Fringe Product wasn’t sharing the booty, and then promptly went tits up once the smoke cleared. They had been pocketing all of our loot as well as the Dead Kennedys, for which they had distribution rights in Canada. They hadn’t paid anybody a dime and then just declared bankruptcy.
Fringe and Record Peddler were charged. Was the band off the hook?
We were never charged with anything. But they didn’t want us anywhere near the court case, so we were on the other side of the country when it was happening. I did get the blow by blow from one of the reporters in there. It sounded quite funny. The case would have been very entertaining to watch.
I had lots of time to think about writing for the next record during the trial. I actually put a few names of the guys in there. I tried to put the cop’s address and phone number. I looked at all of the things they claimed were illegal and obscene. Bestiality was definitely out, so I made sure there was a lot of that in there. I went through all of them and made a checklist of everything. I was actually going to do it again with child pornography because the thing with Canadian law is that it doesn’t specify if it’s video or poetry or a work of fiction that can be considered illegal child pornography, even if it’s fiction and involves nobody. It’s kind of ridiculous in many ways. People have their fantasies, and if you don’t like it don’t fucking read it. So I was going to do a spoken word thing on the record, like, “We’ve got these kids and we rented them off to a bunch of local drug addicts. And we’ve got these goats. These Afghan trained rape goats trained by Satanists to rape babies.” And then put a big warning sticker on this. But the record company was like, “There is no bloody chance you’re doing this!”
When I was a kid, I picked up a copy of Meat Magazine, and there was an ad for Two Dogs Fucking in there that I put up on the wall. When my mom discovered it she grounded me. You must have heard many stories like that over the years.
Yeah, I’ve heard a few stories like that. Kids either getting grounded or having their whole record collections taken from them. People sometimes tell me, “Man, you really affected my teens.” And I’m like, “Jeez, not for the better I can see. I’m real sorry about that.” I know I’m probably not the best role model, but people need to have a sense of humour about stuff too. But I don’t think we got much flak for that cover. I think by then people were starting to get jaded. Our drummer had a shop and he started printing shirts with just the postage stamp and he sold quite a few of them to tourists.
We got the idea from a painter. These guys in Victoria have this thing called The Erotic Art Show, and they do this erotic, fringe kind of art show. This well-known artist Robert Bateman had done these paintings of all of these Nanook of the North, Eskimo dogs, and this other guy had taken them and painted these dogs fucking each other on postage stamps. And I thought, “That’s perfect!” So we gave it to this T-shirt artist who did the final version of it. And I think he copied the dog off of this Bad Company record [Run With The Pack], but I’m not 100 percent sure.
It’s a little bit more controversial to some people. They think it’s blasphemy. I wanted it to have this Dr. Strangelove-type theme. We sort of got it going on, but I wasn’t super happy with that cover. That was right at the height of everyone getting their heads lopped off in Fallujah. I’ve always been very suspicious of what I’m being told by politicians and the media. I don’t really believe any of it. So I was looking at this and thinking, “Aren’t these the same guys that the Americans trained to fight the Russians? How could they possibly have had anything to do with 9/11?” I mean, that’s ridiculous! I don’t know, I might be right, I might be wrong. We’re not being anti-American, really. We’re being more anti-colonialist. There is one song about America on there, “America Eats Her Young.” But America is hard on its young. There is a lot of disenfranchised youth that seem to be without opportunity and having questionable access to education. I don’t know what they’re teaching kids here in North America but it seems to be obey, regurgitate, don’t do any thinking or be creative. It was definitely not pro-Bush.
I try and get a theme going on for each album, and I’m not really strict at keeping with the theme. That one was sort of the religious and political climate of the day. And it seems like it’s a good lead up to this new album, The Armageddon Survival Guide.
Cam Lindsay is a writer from Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.