Tuesday, January 1, 2013

An Appreciation: THE RESIDENTS

An Appreciation: 


If you’ve never heard The Residents, then I can guarantee that you have NEVER heard any band (or any THING) quite like them.  To say The Residents are unique is like saying that fire is hot or that cooked broccoli and cheese smells like soiled baby diapers: it’s the goddamned truth!  Words cannot describe them, but a quick spin of their music doesn’t do them justice: they are a band that needs to be LISTENED to instead of just merely ‘heard’.  In fact, they are a band that needs to be absorbed into one’s system.  They are a band that constantly challenges the listener, sometimes even confuses them, but they are also a band that rewards the listener with music that is both dark and brooding as well as warm and inviting.  They are as childish as they are pretentious.  They are avant-garde and uncommercial yet strangely melodic and addicting.  They are like no other.  They are The Residents…

My first introduction to the band was in print.  Being turned onto the Punk/New Wave scene in ’77, I immediately decided that I would listen to every new/current artist with a THE in front of their name.  Being a kid of limited funds (a weekly allowance was all I could muster in ’77), I would at least be able to buy new music magazines that I could pore over and make purchase decisions based on reviews and recommendations.  The Residents fit the bill: they seemed like they were interesting and they had a THE at the beginning of their name.  Perfect.

Their biography is filled with truths, fibs, lies, half-truths and sworn affidavits, but I won’t go into all of that.  You can Google their story on numerous websites. But what I will say is that the band’s four members were never named and their identities were kept secret.  The anonymity of the band members helped to ensure that their art was based on the music and presentation and not by what they looked like.  While I didn’t quite understand it at the time, now I think it was a brilliant move.  They were years ahead of their time without even knowing it.  Try remaining anonymous and selling loads of albums in 2012!  Aint gonna happen…

It wasn’t until 1979 that I bought my first Residents LP.  It was an import collection on Virgin Records called Nibbles.  I was very keen on owning SOMETHING by them so I could have a listen but I couldn’t decide whether to fork over extra money for an import or just buy one of their five albums.  I walked into my local Licorice Pizza one day and saw Nibbles mismarked at a domestic price and that sealed the deal for me. I quickly walked home with my import copy of Nibbles safely tucked in a white paper bag that was emblazoned with the then-familiar Licorice Pizza logo. I was excited to finally get to hear them (reminder to young readers: the internet was not available so I was unable to illegally download their albums at the time.)

Alas, I must admit that as a 15 or 16 year old in 1979, I was not quite prepared for what I heard.  My excitement was immediately replaced by ‘what the fuck?’  I remember my heart dropping and realizing that I had just wasted my whole allowance on a collection of worthless songs by a talentless band.  I was actually angry because I could have easily bought something else.  I went to school the next day and bitched about it to my friend Phil Caballero.  He was one of the only guys I knew at this young age (15 or 16) that actively pursued experimental music, so he was eager to hear them.  I brought the album to him the next day and 24 hours later, he told me he loved it and would gladly buy it off of me.  I happily took his money and moved on.  I must admit that I did feel a little regret in selling it because some of the tracks were intriguing (I especially loved the “Chew gum! Chew gum!” chant from the “Six Things To A Cycle (Excerpt)”.  I mean, there was no doubt in my mind that they were unique but they certainly wouldn’t make any of the mix tapes I made for friends.

I took my money and probably bought some new Punk or Power Pop album and continued down my path of New Wave bliss. Though there was that regret, I think I was glad that I had cleansed myself of The Residents and their often tuneless racket.  But little did I know, that wasn’t the last I’d be hearing from the unfab four…

A year later (1980), out comes The Commercial Album. I began reading lots of great press on the album, but I tried to avoid the temptation to waste my money on these untalented knuckleheads.  Fuck The Residents.  Not going to spend my hard earned money on them!  I was working at Jack In The Box and had more money at my disposal, but I was still going to avoid them.  But then I read that XTC’s Andy Partridge made a guest appearance on the album!  Andy Partridge likes The Residents?  Hmmmm…. Being a huge XTC fan at the time, that was enough to make me curious again….

So, at the tail end of 1980, while at Rene’s All Ears on Melrose in Hollywood, I bought The Commercial Album.  What a concept, I thought: 40 one minute songs!  I quite liked the idea that all pop songs are made up of a musical idea that is roughly one minute long yet repeated three times in the course of a formulaic pop song.  And then the fact that all ‘commercials’ were roughly one minute long, it did make sense to me (or so I thought… I had turned 17, you know). With the songs on The Commercial Album, The Residents ran with both of those ideas and created an album of one minute songs that could serve as either the basics of a pop song (with all the fat trimmed off) or as commercials.  I mean, I may not have described it properly here, but I’m trying to think with my 17 year old brain and it makes sense to me.

When I heard the album, The Residents suddenly made perfect sense to me.  They were still completely weird and, regardless of the album’s title, uncommercial, but taken in bits and pieces, their music finally clicked with me.  Unlike anything before or since, The Residents won me over big time.  The odd sounds, the strange vocals…. But the thing that struck me was the melodies: there were plenty of them floating around…. I didn’t care whether it was a haunting keyboard sound, an out of control guitar or a garbled vocal… I was struck by these out of the world melodies that would play in my head long after the needle left the record.  My friends couldn’t hear the melodies because they couldn’t get passed the utter weirdness all around (much like me a year before) but I was in love.

I then made it a point to go back and buy their previous albums.  Since I now understood where they were coming from, musically, I was certain I’d be able to comprehend what had come before… and I was right!  From Meet The Residents to The Commercial Album, there were more musical ideas than 10 bands could fit into that time span (roughly six years of releases).  Although they weren’t accomplished musicians in the early days, their ambition and passion was what made The Residents who they were.  In a sense, they were yeas ahead of the Punk movement because they showed the listener that making interesting, thought-provoking music could be made by anyone who possessed that same ambition and passion.  The Residents created music for the love of art.  In the early ‘70s, it seemed as if they couldn’t play their instruments but by 1980, they had overcome their limitations and in total control of every note that they recorded.  To be honest, they were probably proficient musicians from the very beginning but chose to forget everything they knew and start from scratch. Over the course of their first half-dozen albums, The Residents became just as influential as the art that inspired them.

One of the things that I didn't notice until much later was the fact that rhythm is such an important part of The Residents music. There always seems to be some type of percussion (real and/or electronic) keeping the songs alive. And with The Residents, is it ever in 4/4 time? When the music feels like it's going to lose control, the rhythm, which can often-times be subtle, holds everything together.. Even when a song has little to no percussive instruments, there is a distinct rhythmic tone to the vocals... not unlike reciting a nursery rhyme. While listening to some of the band's music (particularly the Not Available album), I was drawn to the simple rhythmic patterns and began to concentrate more on those than the actual melodies.  I found myself tapping out those rhythms on my steering wheel and on my desk at home and in the office.  The Residents' rhythms are hypnotizing.....

My love affair with The Residents has remained as strong as ever.  Their first decade of recordings still amaze and amuse me.  I must admit that I haven’t cared much for their music since they ‘fractured’ sometime after the Mole trilogy in the mid ‘80s, I will always listen to what they have to offer.  Their identities still remain secret (unless you really troll the internet and piece things together), but it does seem that the band ‘split’ (i.e.: one or two members left) in ’83 or so, losing some of their charm.  But that is just me.  Perhaps I just need to delve back into their more recent material and it will finally click again? I've heard a few tracks lately that really made me want to sell my siblings so I can afford to buy the band's more recent titles!

The band has reissued their music numerous times over the years on CD.  In recent times, they’ve been issuing the albums with their original album cover artwork and no bonus tracks (or so it seems). What the are doing is releasing the albums as originally intended before they had to make cuts due to the audio limitations of vinyl (the more you tried to fit on an LP side, the worse it sounded). While this would normally frustrate me (What?  A reissue with no bonus tracks?), it does make perfect sense when you look at the albums as pieces of musical art.  Will any of Van Gogh or Picasso’s paintings ever be re-released with extra brush strokes?  I think not.  So, listening to The Residents oeuvre as it was originally intended to be heard might be the best way to enjoy them again… or for the first time! With that being said, there are some differences in the reissues, so pay attention!

I won’t pretend that I fully understand the artistic statements that The Residents have made over the years, because I’m far too dense for that.  What I look for is songs, melodies and something that piques my interest, challenges my senses and leaves me completely satisfied while also wanting more.  Often times, I’ve had to listen to certain tracks numerous times in the same sitting and immerse myself in a world that was completely different to anything else I had experienced.  Some people might wonder where on earth I could find the melodies in a song by The Residents, but they are there by the bucket load.  The band does not deconstruct music to the point of being unlistenable like other experimental artists do: they merely create a truly unique musical universe that is entirely different to the one Simon Cowell has created in the modern age.  But where Cowell creates music that is disposable and completely lacking in flavor and originality (McMusic, anyone?), The Residents’ music and art still stands the test of time.

To keep with the ‘art’ theme, I will be your curator and offer you some insight into their current reissues, all of which fall under their so-called 'classic period'. Collectors should take note that two of the titles offer a little bit more than even I first realized: 

When I first saw this cover in the album racks back in '75 or so. I thought it was a comedy album... something along the lines of Firesign Theater or National Lampoon.  I couldn't possibly imagine that anyone serious would desecrate the Beatles' image and album cover in such a manner.  Well, it took a few more years for me to hear the album and it all sounded oddly appealing... BUT I can't imagine what my 11 year old self would have thought about it when the album was first released.  Meet The Residents has always been a haunting album for me.  Stranger than Beefheart and Zappa, it sounds like the work of a group of friends realizing that making music doesn't always mean playing by the rules.  Imagine throwing a bunch of hippies into a studio armed with an old piano, a guitar and a pile of children's toy instruments: something interesting is bound to happen, right?  Well, The Residents created an album that sounds exactly like that scenario, only better.  The album is mostly instrumental, though voices do make very memorable appearances throughout the album. This reissue of the album uses the mono mix, which is far more haunting than any other version.  Yes, I'm a stereo guy and will always choose stereo over mono but I have to admit that mono makes Meet The Residents sound like an album that might scare young children.  And that is not a bad thing.

While the band claim that Not Available was actually the second album they recorded, they withheld its release and chose to issue their third album in its place.... which makes it the second album in their discography.  Are you following me?  On The Third Reich 'n' Roll, The Residents take the classic Rock music that inspired them and turn it on it's head.  Two long medleys ("Swastikas On Parade" and "Hitler Was A Vegetarian") make up an album that offended many with its depiction of Dick Clark (holding a carrot) as the leader of...er... the music nazis?  With swastikas gracing the album cover, it was banned in Germany and elsewhere.  The music contained on the album consists of the band's Residential takes on '60s Top 40 music, turning many of them into slightly frightening dirges that will amuse some and offend others.  Rumor has it the band took the original recordings and played on top of them, but removed the originals for copyright reasons, only leaving their unique interpretations for the public to hear. While only snippets of each of the songs weave in and out of the medleys (mixed with sound effects), the listener is left with an unsettling feeling.  Is pop music all it's cracked up to be?  Some call these recordings 'parodies', but there's something more going on here than meets the ear. Instead of this being a tribute to all that was good about Rock, it may be an album that deconstructs the myths of Pop culture while building a new piece of art to take it's place.  While this may not be the best place to start your Residents collection, it stands as one of their most well-known albums. You may not be able to listen to these songs the same once you've heard The Third Reich 'n' Roll.

Returning to their own original material for their third full length release, Fingerprince was the album that cemented the band's 'sound' and paved the way for future releases.  Originally intended as a three sided LP, that plan was eventually dropped and the proposed 'third' side of the album was released later as the Babyfingers EP. For this reissue, the album's original tracklisting has been reinstated and all tracks from the original three sided concept are here and accounted for. The first third of the album is made up of short songs, all of which show a band full of ideas who are now capable of presenting them in 2 or 3 minute bursts of creative energy. This is not to say that they've gone 'commercial': not in the slightest.  The Residents don't do things by halves and each song is unique and full of strange little hooks that worm their way into your brain.  The second third of this release features the four songs from the Babyfingers EP.  Of the four, three of them continue the trend of the first seven tracks (short songs) while the fourth, the eight minute "Walter Westinghouse", is one of the band's most popular tracks.  It actually sounds more like it was conceived at the same time as their Not Available album, but it just follows the same storytelling pattern.  The final third of the album is the 17+ minute "Six Things To A Cycle", which musically resembles the Meet The Residents album but is far more advanced and, dare I say it, far more interesting.  Its like circus music from a pediatric insane asylum.  I was going to say 'circus music from hell' but there's nothing evil about it.  But the song is oddly fun and, though one may not always find the time to sit through 17+ minutes of it, I recommend a complete listen to let the whole thing sink in.  Fingerprince is one of my personal fave Rez albums and this restored version ties up loose ends nicely. 

While Fingerprince may have seen The Residents begin their move beyond the long musical suites that dominated their first few albums, Duck Stab was their first foray into the world of ‘pop’ music albums: a collection of 2-3 minute songs.  The original Duck Stab was a seven track EP, but those songs were eventually joined by a further seven from the cancelled Buster & Glen EP, creating this 14 track album. And for the uninitiated, this may be the place to start your Residents collection.  It’s just as unpredictable as their earlier albums but the melodies are more immediate.  The lyrics are more understandable, yet even the nursery-rhyme delivery cannot hide the fact that they are hard to understand (if that makes any sense).  You can hear every word more discernibly, yet the subject matter will leave you scratching your head.  “Constantinople”, “Hello Skinny”, "Bach Is Dead", “Sinister Exaggerator” and “Laughing Song” are a few highpoints.  Duck Stab is one of the most popular of albums from The Residents and deserves to be listened to by anyone who enjoys something a little left of center.  Actually, a lot left of center!

According to The Residents, Not Available was the second album they recorded (in 1974) but they held back it's release because it was too personal and they filed it away, using their Theory Of Obscurity as the reason.  This meant that the band would not release the album until all members had forgotten its existence. But alas, their next project, Eskimo, was taking longer than expected so they chose to release it to appease their growing fanbase.  Yeah, whatever. The arrangements, production and instrumentation of the album was far more advanced than the three albums that had been released since this was supposedly recorded. All I can say is that Not Available is an incredible piece of work and remains my absolute favorite album of their classic period. The album is their equivalent of a Prog Rock concept album: four long songs that tell a story followed by an epilogue. But what that story is about, I do not know.  All I DO know is that each of the four tracks are filled with little musical vignettes that contain some of their best melodies.  Yes, it's strange and completely different than you'd expect, but get past the weirdness and its an amazing listen. And imagine my delight when this restored version ended up with 8 minutes of additional music!  We're not talking bonus tracks here, though.  A few of the tracks had been edited down from their original length in order to fit on the vinyl LP format, but the recordings have been restored much to my delight.  I never knew that the album had been edited so it was a great thrill to be able to hear this music for the first time. It was fascinating to hear the album in a whole new light.

A concept album was not a new thing for The Residents.  The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll and Not Available were two examples of the band’s ability to successfully record full albums based on a theme (although I still don’t understand Not Available at all. But then again, I don’t understand The Wall or Tommy either). On Eskimo, the band decided to recreate the life of an Eskimo using only minimal music and vocal chants and grunts (to simulate the Eskimo’s native language).  From the arctic chill that opens the album, Eskimo literally and figuratively transports the listener into a different world.  Does the album actually simulate the real life of an Eskimo?  Well, that’s debatable.  I think it is successful in making the listener BELIEVE that they are experiencing the life of an Eskimo, but even by 1979, were walrus hunts still a part of the average Eskimo life?  Hell, I don’t know but it makes for an amazing album.  The album’s songs cannot easily be removed from the context of the album: the listener (assuming they are not an Eskimo) needs to leave their real world behind and experience the album from start to finish. The album can be a challenging listen at times, but the same can be said of The Beatles' White Album! If you find yourself with a serious lack of time, then track down the song “Diskomo”, which took musical passages from the album, added a Residential disco beat and condensed the whole thing down into a quick and easy listen.  (“Diskomo”, which was a single, is NOT included on this reissue of Eskimo since it was not part of the original album). As a side note, the album's cover was the first time the band was depicted with the four eyeball heads, which has become their trademark ever since.

Strangely enough, their next release, The Commercial Album, took a completely different musical turn and was the polar (pun intended) opposite of Eskimo.  But that’s another story….

And there you have it.....

Here are a few random YouTube videos if you want instant Residents gratification. If you want to listen a little more intently, click on the Spotify link where I've compiled some of my fave tracks from these albums.

Peace, love and eyeballs,
Stephen SPAZ Schnee

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