April 12, 2018 | by Andrew K. Lau
The voice is detached, sounding throaty and nasal; it’s unreal and more of a verbal mask than the singer’s natural timbre. It competes with lo-fi noise, bent doo-wop style backing vocals, sparse woodwinds, and off-rhythm finger snapping. He starts repeating the last three words from one of the almost indistinguishable lines, switching the emphasis:
Walk all over you
walk all over you
walk all over YOU
walk all over YOU
The same voice, now overdubbed, fades in from the back, blooming into the forefront and erasing the ragged instrumentation until it’s all you hear. He’s shouting now instead of singing, forcing those same three words into a chilling single, rounded-off sound:
The song is “Boots,” a brilliantly snide minute-and-a-half evisceration of the 1966 Nancy Sinatra hit, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” and acts as the opening track on The Residents 1974 debut record. It captures them as they begin walking all over the boundaries that separated art and music at the time and, conveniently, the track also sets the tone for this first batch of lovingly expanded reissues, which get progressively articulate with each successive title.
Taken as a whole, these four titles are a wham-bam, gut-kicking salvo against the lazy early ‘70s American cultural landscape, the art world, the music business, and even against the member’s own generation which, at that point, was stuck in a hungover, going-nowhere malaise. Individually, each one represents just how quickly a creative unit can advance their craft, even when starting with very little skills on a threadbare budget and within a self-imposed void.
Because The Residents have kept their identities and backstory a well-guarded secret for over 40 years now, the concrete details are basically limited to album titles, track names, record label, and releases dates. The rest is pure speculation, which can be just as fascinating as the music. As a long-time follower, your reporter has been beaten into a sort of harmless submission from the group’s knack for deceiving, to a point where I all but refuse to believe anything written or said about their history; shucks, I’m not even convinced these guys originally hailed from Louisiana as often stated. Despite this low-level paranoia, I do know they’ve created some of the most fascinating avant-garde music and theater of our time. As a reviewer, my job is to separate their creative output from their myth — in this case, that’s not an easy task.
When any group has been around long enough to merit a retrospective, there’s an established storyline (identity, history, influences, internal drama) that adds to the splendor of the music. By denying us these details, The Residents force us to concentrate only on their work. At least, that’s how they maybe wanted things to go. Their gift for media manipulation, their antics, and costumes, however, have become more renowned than their music. The lack of story has become the story. In a typically Residential spin, however, the past few years have seen a fantastic breach of their self-imposed anonymity as one of the original members of the group now hides in plain sight. If you know where to look, he’s right there. Once you spot him, you’ll see that glint of neverending mischief in his eyes, proving there’s no right or wrong, up or down, with The Residents.
The chore of explaining the story of these reissues falls to Ian Shirley and Jim Knipfel who trade off liner note duties, breaking down each record’s backstory, to the best of their knowledge, tackling all the convoluted mystery with humor and grace. Both have worked directly with the group at one point or another (Shirley being the author of Never Known Questions – Five Decades of The Residents) and yet both still grapple with their place in The Residents world. Why? Because The Residents make it hard for everybody; no one is safe from their hijinks and no one outside the core members are ever allowed totally inside, even those compiling their reissues. Take, for example, the way tapes containing what became some of the bonus tracks on these very reissues were procured:
From Shirley’s Meet The Residents liner notes: “As we put together this set, a number of aging and water-damaged cassettes came into our possession, hand-delivered to our offices by a curious, obviously disguised courier and accompanied by no explanation of tracklist. A knock on our door [weeks later], and that very same heavily disguised courier thrust a new tape into our hands and insisted, via another handwritten note, that we hand back the original.”
From Knipfel’s Third Reich & Roll liner notes: “Generally we receive occasional unannounced tapes via a courier dressed in very obvious, amusingly heavy disguise and inevitable months are lost as we wait for some explanation from the band.”
The group’s lack of transparency forces the biographers into the murky waters of guesswork, as Shirley humorously concedes while trying to remember just when they recorded a specific single: “I’m not actually sure I remember them doing this at the time, but I’ll play along…” Meanwhile, in his notes for the Fingerprince album, Knipfel loses his patience after being presented the tape containing “Leapmus,” a remarkable but previously unknown song/experiment recorded in 1976: “To be frank, I’m kinda pissed off they never played this tape to me before. I get to hear it for the first time like this? A paid hack, trying to make sense of it all for a public The Residents remains oblivious to? Thanks for nothing.” It’s that kind of honesty that makes these reissues so effective, as it clearly shows that in this good-natured game of hide and seek, it’s the four (?) Residents versus the rest of us. Speaking of, I had a colleague one time irritatingly dismiss this group as: “The most annoying band on the planet,” which made me laugh really hard because it’s kinda true, and I’m sure he’s not the only one with that sentiment. When you base your project on smoke and mirrors, there’s bound to be a backlash.
But to hell with the non-believers, let’s dive into the madness. These first four reissues make up the early period of their creative run where they lean heavily on tape manipulation/editing and utilized a more percussive sound using found objects, handmade instruments, hacked keyboards, broken guitars, and distorted vocals, all happily applied to their lack of technical skills. This music isn’t for everybody. In fact, when Meet The Residents was released on April Fool’s Day, 1974, this music wasn’t for anybody except for the handful of people responsible for its creation;. Some estimate their debut record sold 40 copies in the first year, which is saying something as they were based in the Bay Area where, supposedly, anything goes. At one chaotic point, the record pulls the listener through a claustrophobic sound collage (“Spotted Pinto Bean”) and straight into a fantastic sparse funk (“Infant Tango”) with no concern for adaptability.
Today, their debut remains a challenging listen for some but its stature in the world of avant-garde is undisputed. No one knew who these people were, but it was clear they were on track to one day have their named mentioned in the same breath as other musical outliers: Pauline Oliveros, Morton Feldman, Sun Ra, Annea Lockwood, Moondog, and Éliane Radigue.
Where Meet The Residents stands as a schizophrenic, angry collection of sound experiments, Third Reich & Roll, is a high-strung concept record without losing any of the brutal assault. With cover art depicting Dick Clark dressed as a Nazi soldier and holding a carrot surrounded by dancing Hitlers (some of which are in drag) there was no question the group was going for the throat. The idea for covering ‘60s pop hits has its roots hidden within the many folds of their debut (the aforementioned “Boots” as well as “N-ER-Gee (crisis Blues),” but here, they expand upon those hints and blow it all wide open. About 30 well-known songs are dragged out and gutted with broken-sounding instruments, tape echo, sound effects, and sneering vocals, until all familiarity is slashed away, leaving only a sliver of its original melody or a lyric. This almost indescribable, brilliant mess is furthered with some songs layered on top of each other, creating a dense, impenetrable gauze of sound.
But there’s a subtext here, something more than just assault. From the onset, with their Beatle-mocking album cover and general disregard for standardized rock band operating clichés, the group seemed to be dead set on tearing up the past. But Third Reich & Roll is really a love letter to a time when the members were young enough to readily absorb music. Sure, it’s a comment on culture and music; heck, anyone can do that. But no, the real fascinating aspect here is how a song such as “Yummy Yummy Yummy” or “It’s My Party” can lead to this caliber of unmatched ferocity and nerve. There’s a poignancy here, too, which goes against their whole esthetic. But then, remember, there’s no right or wrong, up or down, in their world. Maybe that’s what makes this one their most fascinating and notorious works.
The gestation period for Fingerprince goes back as early as 1974, but by the time of its release three years later, the finished piece finds the group moving into a more streamlined way of constructing their music. Instead of the junkyard percussive sounds and Dadaist persuasions that dominate their first two records, actual guitar riffs move alongside analog synthesizer experiments. (Their reliance on synthesizers would dominate their sound by the early 1980s.) Even when they widen their approach on side-long “Six Things to a Cycle,” a piece originally written for a Maurice Bejart ballet, they keep it minimal. Tape saturation is replaced with an investigation of “space” with just percussion, a windblown synth, and warbling strings. It’s as complicated as Meet The Residents but the approached had changed making the end result a beautiful and unexpected shift for a group often chided for being “non-musicians.” The Residents evolved fast.
Finally, we have Duck Stab/Buster & Glen (two EPs eventually released as one full album in late 1978), which tightens the noose of their growing compositional talents without damaging their horrifying artistic bent. This batch of economic songs (each one clocks in under three-minutes) pulsate with tension under the weight of free jazz elements, Shakespearian-like couplets, proto-children’s themes, angular time shifts, and jarring guitar/keyboard leads. Aside from the song’s new economic structure and the usual heavy dose of absurdist humor, there’s a strong sense of anger. What are they angry about? Who knows and maybe it doesn’t matter because this is still their most accessible work. As Shirley points out, Duck Stab/Buster & Glen is “the gateway drug for many now hooked on The Residents music.” It’s true. Some of their most favorite pieces come from this record, “Hello Skinny” and “Sinister Exaggerator” for example, have been crowd favorites since its release. So strong is the overall sound here that when a band such as Primus claim to be influenced by these guys, they’re just mimicking the sound of Duck Stab and not necessarily The Residents work as a whole. Primus’ brand of “weirdness,” therefore, comes off as irritating if not just downright disingenuous.
Each title is packed with an extra CD of era-specific “Outtakes and Ephemera,” all worth the price of admission and an incredible, much-anticipated look behind their veils. Different mixes, rehearsals, live tracks, single, remixes, and mysterious outtakes. The casual listener or new inductee may find these reissues overwhelming; it’s almost better to take these early records alone and one at a time without the added layers the fascinating bonus material adds. For longtime fans, it may not get any better than this. The good folks with Cherry Red, MVD Audio, and Ralph Records have handed us a difficult, thrilling but, above all, essential batch of music.
We’re not just dealing with pranksters making music here; these people, whoever they may be, are talented sound and visual artists of the highest order. To travel from the otherworldliness of their earliest work to the disciplined, crooked pop songs on Duck Stab in only a few years is an incredible feat, the culmination of a lot of incredibly hard work. These four albums are the most feral music of their career, a sound they’ve never gone back to; they continue to walk all over us in a constantly changing vision. In addition to maintaining their rightful place in avant history, these reissues reveal, perhaps for the first time, The Residents to be more human than ever before.