Eleven years later, we caught up with the former American radio DJ and Australian university manager behind Dean Gray's 'American Edit.'
'American Edit' cover artwork This post ran originally on THUMP Canada.
It was a Friday afternoon in October 2004 and Party Ben was scrambling to get ready for his weekly "Sixx Mixx" mashup radio show on San Francisco station Live 105. Green Day's George W. Bush-skewing punk rock opera American Idiot had just come out and, after noticing the similarities between the American band's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and Oasis' "Wonderwall," the DJ born Ben Gill decided to combine the two. He wanted to finish the mix with Aerosmith's "Dream On," but he couldn't find the band's 1973 power ballad in the station's library or iTunes, so he grabbed Eminem's Steven Tyler-sampling 2003 single "Sing for the Moment" instead. Little could he have anticipated the lightning-in-a-bottle response that his Frankensteinian creation would receive.
"I remember I came out of the studio, and everyone had kind of stopped working, and came out of their offices like 'What was just on the air?'" Gill tells THUMP over Skype from his home in Oakland. "The front desk person came back and was like 'We're getting a bunch of calls, what did you just do? It was this kind of immediate, crazy reaction and it just built from there."
While "Boulevard of Broken Songs" as it came to be dubbed was hardly the first mashup he uploaded to the internet, it quickly reached a level of global ubiquity unlike few others during the era, with stations around the world playing the track. "People were emailing me from Singapore and South Africa, there wasn't a place in the world that I didn't start getting messages from about it," says Gill.
It also proved to be popular with the crowds at San Francisco's Bootie, the first club night in the United States dedicated to bootlegs and mashups, started in 2003 by Adrian Roberts and Deidre Roberts (aka A Plus D), and where Party Ben held a residency. In a time before GarageBand, MySpace, and Facebook, "Boulevard of Broken Songs" was "viral" when the word still mainly a medical term, and showed other amateur producers what was possible with the form.
The beauty of "Boulevard of Broken Songs" lies in its universality. Even fairweather Green Day fans would recognize the chord progression of American Idiot's second single, which later won them a Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 2006. As for the Gallagher brothers' biggest hit, since it came out in 1995, it's become a staple of karaoke joints, sporting events, and that one annoying guy who always brings his acoustic guitar to house parties. (Of the similarities between the two, Noel Gallagher told British magazine Stuff in 1996: "They should have the decency to wait until I am dead [before stealing my songs]. I, at least, pay the people I steal from that courtesy.")
Throw in the rousing "Sing for the Moment," and a snippet of post-Britpop also-rans Travis' saccharine "Writing to Reach You," and you've got a recipe for musical alchemy. It's not chaotic like any of Girl Talk's hyperactive mashups, or trying to be hipper than the sum of its parts like Danger Mouse's 2004 Beatles-meets-Jay-Z copyright law-challenging opus The Grey Album. In the eloquent words of YouTube user "Screwg oogle," "There's something about this mash-up that none of the songs can do individually, emotion wise. "
Inspired by the song's success, Gill next considered doing something with American Idiot in the vein of The Grey Album. He even had a name for the prospective project—Dean Gray (a spoonerism of "Green Day")—but little else. Enter Neil Mason, who by day was a manager at the University of Western Australia's classically-minded School of Music in Perth, and made mashups under the alias Team9 in his spare time. Gill messaged him after hearing "Greenday Massacre," which combined "Wake Me Up When September Ends" with the Eagles' "Lyin' Eyes," on Get Your Bootleg On. The site—which started as a message board in 2002 by a Scotsman known only as "McSleazy"—was home to a burgeoning community of bedroom DJs and mashup enthusiasts. "What was great about that forum is that you could get an instant response," Mason tells THUMP. "You could refresh your screen and two minutes later, you'd have ten, 15 comments from people and what they thought of it."
In November 2005, they released American Edit (six months before Girl Talk's breakout Night Rippers), which Gill describes tongue-in-cheek as a "eclectic circus of nonsense." While some of the ten tracks have aged better than others—looking your way "Ashanti's Letterbomb"—as a whole, it does an effective job of highlighting Billie Joe Armstrong and co.'s various influences (Johnny Cash, The Who, U2, etc.), while intertwining bits of political commentary throughout. The best example of this is Kanye West's infamous post-Hurricane Katrina "George Bush doesn't care about black people" proclamation, which ends up nestled in the whopping, almost nine-minute opener "American Jesus." If that sounds too heavy thematically, there's also "Dr. Who on Holiday," a geeky love letter to the long-running British sci-fi series complete with The Timelords (The KLF's Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty) and Gary Glitter samples.
Even though Dean Gray gave it away for free, a week-and-a-half later they received a cease-and-desist notice from Green Day's label, Warner Records. "It felt really big, like 'hang on now we've got the attention of some of the big guys,'" recalls Mason. "I panicked and I think I took the site down pretty quickly." While Gill was no stranger to receiving takedown notices for his mashups, it was a fellow GYBO member in Portland by the name of Noisehead, who reached out to set up AmericanEdit.org (video clips of "Dr. Who on Holiday," "American Jesus," and "Boulevard of Broken Songs" were also made available) and help organize a Grey Tuesday-style protest. Modelled after what happened with The Grey Album in 2004, which saw more than 170 sites post the album for download after EMI served Danger Mouse with a cease-and-desist, it was incredibly successful thanks to the support of the Bootie (now in multiple cities worldwide) and bootlegger communities.
Despite only sending out 200 CD promo copies, the stunt brought them plenty of press attention, with American Edit receiving favorable "legitimate" reviews from MTV, SPIN, the San Francisco Chronicle, and others. "Maybe subconsciously, I was hoping that something might come out of it, but there was certainly no real thought process behind it," admits Mason. Adds Gill, "It sort of took on a life of its own." According to a later conversation he had with a few record label executives, "Broken Songs" was even responsible for "Broken Dreams" peaking a second time on radio charts (the agreement they made with Warner being that all plays of the mashup would count to the original's total plays).
At Bootie San Francisco's three-year anniversary party in 2006, the band Smash-Up Derby and performance artist Foxy Cotton presented Dean Gray - American Edit: The Theatrical Experience, a "mashup rock opera" which combined live music, theatre, and visuals. Two years later, an unofficial extended version of the album was released via The Pirate Bay with four new songs by DJ Pegasus, while Gill and Mason went their separate ways. Acknowledging the role of grassroots internet forums like GYBO (which no longer exists) in the dissemination of American Edit, both concede that had they created their novelty project in today's post-Napster, streaming wars era, the avenues to spread it would be significantly limited.
"This may sound cocky, but I sort of feel like mashups accomplished what they set out to do," says Gill. "Back 12, 14 years ago, it felt like music was still very much split off into its various genres. If you liked rock, you didn't like hip-hop, and if you liked hip-hop, you didn't like pop. That's part of what attracted me to the concept was breaking down those sort of barriers. If you put Drake over a rock song today it just doesn't sound as revolutionary, you know what I mean?"
While Bootie is "still going strong" today according to Gill, he's mostly occupied by his job as head of electronic and dance music programming at Pandora Radio, though he performed a "comeback" set in August for the San Francisco party's 13th anniversary celebrations (and yes, he made a Drake mashup specifically for the occasion). As our conversation neared to a close, I brought up Green Day's recently released twelfth studio album, Revolution Radio. If the band could still rage against the machine over a decade later, would Party Ben and Team9 ever consider reuniting?
"After listening to American Edit yesterday for the first time in probably ten years, I would love to revisit it," says Mason with a laugh.
"Since Neil and I both worked on separate songs, I was able to really appreciate what he did, and hopefully he appreciated my parts. I think there's some very transcendent moments," adds Gill. "Like many creative people I tend to make something, and a week later I'll be humiliated by it, but I don't feel that way about 'Dr. Who on Holiday.' I still get a real kick out of that one."
Max Mertens is on Twitter.