Fresh Cuts: At Home with the Residents
In the frozen and lonely wastelands to the north of Greenland, a primitive, noble race of Eskimo huddle together in the igloo of their tradition, protecting their chapped bodies from the howling tundral winds of the encroaching Western Civilization which sweeps over them.
In the sun-drenched wasteland that is Southern California, a mysterious group of “musicians” research and record a testament to this dying culture threatened by modern housing complexes and soporific day-time docu-dramas.
The perpetrators of this Eskimo epic, who are known only as the Residents, transmigrated to California in the mid-1960s from their homeland/swampland of north Louisiana, where they were weaned on TV and early rock’n’roll records. In their sunny new home they hoped to involve themselves in the budding “bush-head” psychedelic rock scene then beginning to spread from its fulcrum at Haight-Ashbury.
On the way to the Haight, the Residents’ truck broke down in the small California town of San Mateo. It was here that the unidentified members of the group settled and began to develop their revolutionary “San Mateo sound.” This “sound” was based on the willful deconstruction of pop melodies and distortion of conventional tonality to produce the effect of revulsion in the listener.
And the most salient aspect of a Residents record is the immediate repulsiveness effected by the carefully constructed and precisely executed compositions. The finely crafted quality of the band’s “music” is based on theories of harmonic and phonetic reorganization developed by these mysterious Residents over the years since their formation.
In explanation, we quote the official Residents fan-club magazine: “A few enlightened people are becoming aware of the absurdity and corruption of creative expression in our culture.” The Residents feel that with the advent of rock as big business and the rapid advances in the technical quality of record production, the music itself (toward which they are quite ambivalent) has been subverted and its spirit extricated. The tendency to emphasize saleability over artistic value has inspired the Residents to conceive of and execute a completely extreme extension of this tendency into the absurd.
What lies at the core of the Residents’ pop sensibility is farce and a vitriolic sense of humor. Rather than self-indulgently nihilistic, the Residents’ savagings are in a sense constructive: the method is the method of satire through subversion, in which the hype, overproduction, and essential distancing of artist from audience inherent to an industry dominated by superstars is carried to ludicrous extremes. The Residents use every seduction and marketing trap in the business to sell a product which is inherently unsaleable.
The vehicle for pressing, distributing, and hyping Residents material is Ralph Records, a branch of the Cryptic Corporation, based in San Francisco. Ralph has released six albums’ and four singles’ worth of Residents material since 1974, the latest of which is their LP devoted to the Eskimo. The quintessential Residents release is the 1976 single, “Satisfaction,” a distorted, frighteningly twisted five-minute version of the Rolling Stones’ composition. The listener is presented with the ultimate parody of rock and its supposedly intrinsic anger and violence; lyrics are perverted into sick sadism, melodies into wrenching atonal non-progressions.
The absurdity of the situation could hardly be more striking. The Residents have actually gained status as a cult band, and a rather “popular” cult band they are. Duck Stab, a 1978 extended play single of original compositions, has sold in the vicinity of 15,000 copies worldwide. Under the Cryptic Corporation umbrella, Ralph markets not only discs but also blatantly tasteless t-shirts as well as posters and an upcoming film. The justification for the Residents’ existence is provided by the fact that, somehow, the products are sold.
It is hard to imagine a culture more boring than that of the Eskimo. Do we really need an entire album devoted to the ancient “adventurous tales and ceremonial music” of this primitive people? That such a project would, first, be attempted, and, second, be presented in the guise of pop music, could be proposed only by the Residents. Released in late September and featuring such tunes as “Arctic Hysteria” and “The Angry Angakok,” Eskimo drones along to the sounds of synthesized wailing and guttural chants. Printed synopses of the tales within are presented with the record, which is slickly packaged in a black, blue, and snowy white fold-out sleeve. What, we ask, could be more worthless, more obscure?
But there is a method to the Residents’ seeming madness. In a poem accompanying the latest edition of the Ralph mail-order catalog, “Buy or Die,” the Residents ask: “Is Obscurity Itself—The Test Tube of Tomorrow—Or Is Just The Testing Done—To Pave The Way for Sorrow?—Is The Chalice Set Upon The Table—For The Pride Of Primadonnas—Or Can Indeed The World Be Freed—By Finger-Popping Mommas?’ Clearly, the Residents are these “Finger-Popping Mommas,” and they want to free the world, our culture, from the grip of crass commercialism and aesthetic dilapidation.
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First published in the alternative weekly Fresh Fruit (December 5, 1979)