Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Meet The Residents!

Ah, the many ways to ruin an evening's writing! One that afflicts me is the old “Hm, I wonder if there's anything on youtube from...” some half remembered show, comedian or musical act. Monty Python is a constant source of distraction (despite owning it all on DVD) as is the Alexei Sayle collection and the Muppets. Music is ever tempting, and recent work killers have included Talking Heads, the Sex Pistols, the Beatles ... well, lots of music, obviously, because YoutTube was invented, more or less, for music video. Which brings us to my latest lost evening(s) of work courtesy of The Residents.

I discovered The Residents in a about 1981 or so on Radio Pictures, a late night music show that used to run on Sunday nights on New Zealand TV. In the the gilded days of my halcyon youth RWP ran right before the Sunday Horrors, a regular horror movie slot that played anything from Universal classics, through Corman, Hammer and into early period sleaze and slasher films like Massacre at Central High and The Incredible Melting Man. RWP was where I first encountered people like The Birthday Party, Stray Cats, Duran Duran, The Tubes, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Talking Heads, ABC, Grandmaster Flash, Blondie, THe beastie Boys, Depeche Mode, Culture Club, REM, The Cure, The Fall and so on and so forth – the usual suspects of 80s alternative pop and rock, I guess. Man, Sunday night was the greatest - rock and roll followed by sleazy cheesy greasy horror. Life doesn't get better than that, at least not until you're old enough for sex and drugs.

One of those nights my mind was entirely blown by The Resident's One Minute Movies. I couldn't believe what I'd just seen and heard! This was years before I saw any underground movies or heard much in the way of avant garde music. I'd maybe heard some Stockhausen or Varese at High School music, but this wasn't anything like that noise, it was beguiling and tuneful and funny! It was immediately clear to me that it was the most important thing I'd ever heard since I first listened to Dad's cassete of Sgt Pepper'sonely Hearts Club Band when I was ten.

A couple of weeks later (I can't remember what the timeline was, frankly) I was browsing in the record shop, dreaming about having enough money to be clever and cultured, when I saw it: The Commercial Album by The Residents – that was it! That was the group I'd heard, those were the songs! I had to own it and I think my birthday must have been near (I hardly ever had enough money to buy records) and Mum and Dad bought it for me.

The Commercial Album consists of forty songs, exactly one minute long. It's perfect: each has room to develop a single musical idea, with none outstaying their welcome. While one might wish some of the more interesting ones hung around a bit longer, even the more difficult numbers never become boring. The liner notes on the CD state:

Point one: Pop music is mostly a repitition of two typs of musical and lyrical phrases: the verse and the chorus.

Point two: These elements repeat an average of three times in a “top 40” radio hit.

Point three: Cut out the fat and a pop song is only a minute long.

Point four: One minute is also the length of most commercials, and therefore, their corresponding jingles.

Point five: Jingles are the music of America.

To convert the jingles to pop music music, program each song to repeat three times.

I read on wikipedia (so it must be true!) that they bought forty minutes of commercial time on a San Francisco top 40 station and played every track once over the course of a day. I wish I'd been a round to hear that!

I played and played and played this up in the spare room of the house while me and my friends played D&D or pool on a the tinny little record player Dad made me from old speakers and some junked turntable he'd picked up. My mates were mostly into AC/DC and Pink Floyd (I liked them, too) but back in those days we all seemed to have far more elastic tastes in music. There didn't seem anything odd about listening to Aqualung, say, then London's Burning then Devo. Mum and Dad – whose taste runs more to My Fair Lady and Camelot, and in their more risque moments, trad jazz – were rather nonplussed. Mum much preferred Tom Waits, and called the Residents “That plinky plonky music.”

Anyway, the second Resident's LP I got was even more spectacular, a compilation of tracks from various albums and EPs called Nibbles. THis record features some of my favourite songs ever – Blue Rosebuds, Constantinople, Santa Dog and The Spot (the latter recorded with sometime collaborator Snakefinger, who was responsible of another Radio With Pictures favourite of mine, The Man in the Dark Sedan). Over the next few years, I bought a lot of Residents LPS – the Mark of the Mole, Meet The Residents, Not Available, Tunes of Two Cities, Have a Bad Day, Wormwood, Icky Flix – and got to see them a few times when we came over to the UK (the night they played in Wellington in the 80s, part of the 13th anniversay tour, I was in a play and couldn't go).

The Residents are really important to me. They have a unique artistic vision that mixes art and satire and horror and sci fi in a bewilderingly genial mix of noise and weirdness that I find irresistible. When I was a a kid, I was fascinated by the way they deliberately obscured who they were - they were always masked in photos and performance, and they never listed personnel on their records. It's taken me a while to properly understand that this wasn't just a gimmick, but a crucial part of The Residents enterprise. It not only doesn't matter who they are, it'd be a distraction from the songs. If we knew who they were, we'd only wonder about them more, and try and project our knowledge of them inot the songs, in the way people try and interpret Beatles songs (regarding I Am The Walrus, John Lennon said "Let the fuckers work that one out"). More than a tease (though it's also an anti-op a tease) it leaves the middle of the music blank for the listeners benefit. We can put whatever we like in there unmoderated by the artist's biography or ego.

Last month I blogged about a speech given by John Taylor (of The Resident's contemporaries Duran Duran) on the value of remoteness and obscurity of an artist. I realise now how close what he describes is to my own experience with The Residents, from the life changing first encounter to the obsession fuelled by the mystery of them. The Resident played this game very deliberately, and still play it today (although it's not hard to find out who they are, they still avoid publicity, and of course the joke is that they aren't Paul McCartney or Abba or anyone else larking about, which were among the rumours that washed around when I was at Uni, they're just a bunch of obscure Californian hippies).

They're still going strong of course, and in the way of things that endure against the odds, have garnered a degree of respectability. There's no such thing as rarity these days, and You Tube is packed with videos and tracks from all stages of their career so go have a poke around and discover them for yourselves. Check out this fantastic version of For the Benefit of Mr Kite performed with the London Sinfonietta in 2007. The Residents plus Sgt Pepper's – magic!

PS - Uh oh! I just searched for Tom Waits. Curse you, You Tube!

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