Friday, December 5, 2014

Art Review, 2006

by Simon Reynolds

From the start, The Residents saw themselves as a sound and vision entity. Way ahead of punk’s indie label revolution, the San Francisco group set up not just their own record company, Ralph, but a do-it-all-yourself production facility, which included, alongside studios for recording music and graphic design, a huge sound-stage for making films.

Before they’d even released their debut album, 1973’s Meet the Residents, the band had embarked on a movie, Vileness Fats, intended to be the world’s first fourteen-hour musical-comedy-romance set in a world of one-armed midgets. The project was pursued fitfully for four years only to be abandoned in 1976. But the warehouse HQ on Grove Street did spew out a stream of innovative and derangingly strange music videos and short films, and these, along with footage from the aborted Vileness, are now being honored with a MOMA retrospective.

Mixed-media performance and audio-visual malarkey were the norm in San Francisco’s postpunk scene. Tuxedomoon, an electronic cabaret outfit who recorded for Ralph,
came out of Sixties underground theater, with one member having belonged to the
legendary all-gay troupe Angels of Light,, while SF industrial band Factrix staged mind-bending spectacles in collaboration with local performance artists like Monte Cazazza and Mark Pauline (the robot-builder and pyrotechnician behind Survival Research Laboratories). Punk certainly opened things up and created a new climate in which bands like the Residents and Devo could find an audience. But in truth the Residents were post-psychedelic rather than post-punk: the group had been in existence since the late Sixties and had arrived in San Francisco from their native Louisiana
just as the high tide of acid rock was ebbing. According to Residents’ spokesman Hardy Fox (the group itself shuns interviews and has preserved its anonymity for over thirty years), the band “sprang from the fact that psychedelia dead-ended. The people who were doing experiments in that direction stopped when they had barely scratched the surface.”  Those “people” included the Beatles, Frank Zappa, and Captain Beefheart. Undeterred by the fact that they could barely play instruments, The Residents wanted to pick up where their freak heroes had left off. And, whether onstage or in their videos, they wanted imagery as weird and wigged-out as their sounds.

The visual work does indeed closely mirror the arc of the Residents music, (de)evolving from a lo-fi yet genuinely uncanny neo-Dada to a high-tech but increasingly sterile kookiness. The early “promos”--scare quotes because when they were made in the late Seventies there were hardly any places on American TV that showed videos and nobody, except maybe the cable TV fringe, would dare to show the Residents films--have a macabre whimsy and gorgeous grotesqueness that at various points brings to mind the Quay Bros, Eraserhead (a late-night movie-house fave with the San Francisco postpunk set) and the Anglo-surrealist children’s animations made by Postgate Films (The Clangers, Bagpuss, Pogle’s Wood).  In  Third Reich’n’Roll (1976) the Residents cavort in Ku Klux Klan-like head-dresses made from newspaper, pounding percussion as their mutant cover of Wilson Pickett’s “Land of a Thousand Dances” plays. 

The four One-Minute Movies for the sixty-second tracks off 1980’s Commercial Album are visual haikus as exquisitely eerie as the tunes, full of images that linger in the memory: a female corpse cocooned in cob-webs, a rheumy-eyed geezer watching TV on a bare mattress who suddenly levitates to the ceiling, a dead pig with roman candles stuck between its trotters. In several of these micro-movies, The Residents appear in their famous Fred Astaire meets Un Chien Andalou image: the elegance of top-hats, tails, and canes disrupted by the gigantic, veiny eyeballs that completely replace their heads. A fractured tale about a mis-shapen misfit with  Zelig-like traits of recurrence and ubiquity, Hello Skinny (1980) pays homage to Chris Marker’s La Jetée with its black-and-white stills, the  collaging of photographic and drawn material further recalling Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python.

The Residents had a parasitical-cum-parodic relationship with mainstream pop culture, which they regarded as a new form of totalitarianism, evil because of its banality. Hence the love/hate for the Fab Four expressed in the cover of their debut album, a defacement of Meet the Beatles’s famous cover; hence Third Reich ‘n’Roll’s  transformation of the entirety of Sixties pop into the soundtrack for Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. By the mid-Eighties, the group launched a massive project, the American Composers Series, 20 albums across 20 years that would honor-through-vandalisation the work of figures like George Gershwin and Hank Williams.  (In the event, the series sputtered to a halt after just two records). It’s as this point that things start to go awry with the Residents output, sonically and visually: the irritatingly goofy cover of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World” is out-dulled only by the uninspired animations that accompany it, while The Residents’ video for their take on John Philip Sousa "Stars and Stripes” is a smug and clunky exercise in anti-militarism (World War III rendered as an amusement arcade shooting gallery designed by Lari Pitman and Disney: clown-face bombs, rabbits riding on top of intercontinental missles, and so forth).

What the later Residents work, like the flat and strangely static 2000 video for “Constantinople”, shows is that 98 times out of 100, analog trumps digital. Computers can create the most superficially “fanstastical” images, but because you literally can’t believe your eyes, there’s no sense of the unheimlich, none of that “dreamed” quality possessed by the Residents’ early work, made when the group had to get by with hand-made props, stage sets, and costumes, with lighting and camera-work, and above all with their own bodies. 

Melody Maker, 1989? 1990?

by Simon Reynolds

     From the start, The Residents had a parasitical relation
to the pop culture that surrounded them. The sleevenotes to
"Meet The Residents", their 1973 debut, describes how they
spent the Sixties scavenging together a collection of sonic
detritus: "cassettes of soldiers in Vietnam singing songs
with impromptu instrumentation... reels from second hand
shops... sound effects and bird call collections from garage
sales ... even a few bootleg tapes of well-known pop artists
going avant-garde between takes". They were samplers long
before the invention of the Sampler.

     The early Seventies were a time when pop culture had
become so pervasive, so totalitarian, that its myths and
protocols began to replace 'real life' as pop's subject
matter.  Glam was one version of this meta-pop practice
(whether self-consciously articulated, as with Ziggy Stardust
and Roxy Music, or brutally vacant as with Glitter). The
avant-garde vandalism of The Residents was another. "Meet The
Residents", with its grotequely defaced Beatles cover, was
the birth of what has since become practically a genre of
plagiarism and misappropriation (Culturcide, Pussy Calore,
Laibach etc). Musically, "Meet The Residents" makes me think
of The Band, of all people: a polyglot commingling of
American traditional musics (R&B, proto-funk, New Orleans
jazz). But in The Residents' case, it's as though this
poly-rhythmic bouillabaise is being played on invented
instruments, or has been adapted to non-Western scales with
only partial success.

     "Third Reich 'N' Roll" (1976) develops The Residents
idea of the totalitarian nature of pop's rise to the level of
this planet's Esperanto of desire. It turns Sixties pop into
the soundtrack for Hitler's Blitzkrieg. "Swastikas On Parade"
is a segue of bubblegum classics like "Psychotic Reaction",
"The Letter", "Land Of 1000 Dances", competing with
divebombing Stukas, sirens, and machine gun fire, plus free
jazz gibberish and giddy constellations of Sun Ra synth.
"Hitler Was A Vegetarian" is a more downered trek through
songs like "96 Tears", "It's My Party", "Pushing Too Hard"
and "Gloria". Imagine The Clangers aspiring to the poignancyt
of Erik Satie.  "Third Reich 'N' Roll' is probably The
Residents' masterpiece.  As an added bonus, the CD includes
their hell-spawn (per)version of "Satisfaction", and "Beyond
The Valley Of A Day In The Life", in which "samples" of the
Beatles' wiggier moments are reconstructed into a wholly new

     "Fingerprince" (also from 1976) is re-issued for the
first time in its full length. Along with the Hawaian guitar
pastiche "You yesyesyes" and the hilarious "Godsong" ("all
that God wanted to be/Just a normal deity"), there's two
pieces of particular interest. "Jealous Westinghouse" ,
described as a mini-opera, consists of electro pulsations
like Acid House at 16 rpm and doggerel dialogue in a Muppet
hillybilly twang. "Six Things To A Cycle" (a ballet) is an
atypically tropical suite of of crazy percussion and
Creatures campanology.

     "Duck Stab" (1977) is another fine collection of
25th Century nursery rhymes, conceived in the spirit of Dada
and Alfred Jarry. It's accompanied by "Goosembump", a
project undertaken with Snakefinger, whose aim was to bring
to the fore the macabre overtones latent in kindergarten
ditties. All the sounds were produced from childrens' toys,
but were drastically peculiarised by "adult studio toys". The
result is a suite of nauseatingly rubberised nursery rhymes,
that at times ("Three Blind Mice") are creepy almost
beyond endurance.

     Even more unsettling is "Eskimo", The Residents' 1979
elegy for the extinct Inoit culture of the now-thorougly
Americanised Eskimo. While their liberal tolerance for Inoit
rituals (e.g. bathing in urine, exterminating all superfluous
newborn girls) is a tad dubious, the album is a superb sonic
evocation of the irreconcilably alien Arctic lifestyle
(walrus hunts conducted in conditions of
disorientating white-out, 'arctic hysteria' induced by the
sensory deprivation of the long winter darkness).

     "Not Available" was actually recorded in '74, in
accordance with N. Senada's "theory of obscurity": the idea
that creating music in the understanding that it is never to
be heard, is the only way to avoid subconsiously pandering to
an audience. But Ralph Records slipped it out surreptitiously
in '78, when The Residents were falling behind their deadline
for "Eskimo". It's not that radical, actually: its cheapo,
pre-programmed beats making it a distant, Dadaist cousin to
shopping mall or funeral parlour muzak.

     "The Commercial Album" (1980) is probably the best
introduction to The Residents. It consists of 40 pieces each
exactly one minute long. The idea is that, since most pop
songs contain a verse and chorus repeated three times within
three minutes, if you condense that span down to one minute
(the length of most commericals) you get the kernel of the
song without the extraneous matter. Here, the result is a
collection of 'jingles' as intricate and succint as a haiku
poem (one of the prettiest is called "Japanese Watercolour")
and a sound somewhere between the Human League circa
"Reproduction" and the Suicide of "Dance".

     After "The Commercial Album", The Residents seemed to
lose their way. "The Mole Trilogy" and its sequels "Tunes of
Two Cities" and "The Big Bubble" amount to an impenetrable
allegory of something-or-other. Only the most dedicated fan
could be bothered to slog through through the dank, drab
textures of "The Mole Trilogy" to reach enlightenment. Then
there's the flaccid "God In Three Persons", a couple of live
albums, and a fine collection of material by Snakefinger
(their favourite collaborator, the now deceased guitarist
Philip Lithman).

The "American Composers Series" (The
Residents 20 year project of tributes) has brought back a
measure of rejuvenation to their sound. It seems we can
apprehend more clearly the nature of their alien-ating method
when they bring their warp factor to bear on something we
know already.  The mystery continues...