I think one of the most interesting things you’ll ever hear is someone picking up a guitar for the very
first time and plucking out a few notes. There’s something pure about it; not knowing there are rules about which note should follow which note, or which ones should be played together. I like to think it taps into a primordial idea of music, which is just hearing sounds and wondering why some of them just sound right or wrong, and what is right and wrong anyway?
As the Residents would have you believe, they don’t even make music. Despite a prodigious output spanning 40 years, they would have you believe they don’t even exist. They’re not a band, they’re a brand of art. Another product to be consumed, like Coca Cola, brought to you by the fine folks of their management team at The Cryptic Corporation. Which is an actual corporation that almost certainly comprises the creative team behind the brand, no matter how much they deny it.
This is all either a subversion or a celebration of the Pop/Rock ethos. According to their carefully-crafted mythology, The Residents were founded on “the theory of obscurity,” which they learned from the San Franciscan-by-way-of-Bolivia N. Senada – who they almost certainly invented, and who nonetheless has a Wikipedia page, perhaps cementing his non-existence. The theory is that artists can only produce their best work free from the concerns of fame, which is why The Residents – assuming they’re not also an invention of the Residents — only ever appear in costume.
This is frankly all the kind of pretense I would normally roll my eyes at. Art collectives. Pop “deconstructions,” which are really just famous songs chopped up and sampled and reassembled into something unrecognizable. Concept albums, with elaborate set pieces of interpretive dance to go with them.
For example, their first foray into the usually prog-territory of concept albums is the seemingly completely sincere epic retelling of the war between subterranean “mole people” and the effete “Chubs” who exploit them for labor. They spent 3 albums on this concept, along with a stage show that nearly ruined the band. It almost seems like a parody, like an art-house Spinal Tap. The thing is, some of the music from this early attempt at long-form storytelling is just wonderfully weird and I love it.
This is from The Tunes of Two cities, part 2-of-4 of the epic mole people trilogy (there is no part 3), which imagines a distinct cultural music for the two factions. True story: there was at one point a video game for the Atari 2600 based on this album in development.
The bulk of their work has been in the vein of concept albums supported by a stage show, most of which you can find on Youtube. There’s a lot more that’s hard to categorize and I’m just listing some of it here in no particular order.
-There’s Commercial Album, a collection of 40 one-minute “jingles,” featuring a brief performance from an incognito Andy Partridge on the song “Margaret Freeman.” They bought air time on a local station to play the album in its entirety, briefly earning some notoriety from the kind of people who would miss the joke.
-There’s a ton of great animation work for some of their songs on Youtube, the animation for Infant Tango being a favorite of mine. I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say that worshiping a TV robot monster is never going to end well.
-There’s arguably their most commercially successful song, Kaw Liga, which apparently had some
legs for a minute in Europe. From the album “Stars and Hank Forever,” a compilation of John Philip Sousa/Hank Williams “reworkings.” (Kaw Liga is reworked by sampling heavily from Billy Jean, and hey, listen closely and there’s the flute-y thing from Sledgehammer!)
-Besides the planned video game, there was an actual video game in the mid-90s. Here’s a fun Wired article from the 90s that touches on their approach to some of the emerging computer technology of the period (which seems painfully quaint now, but it’s an interesting read).
-Finally, this is my favorite song as of now, from their 1998 Wormwood album/tour, a retelling of some of the Bible’s least-greatest hits:
Hopefully you’ll give them a listen if you haven’t already. They’re really hit or miss by their nature, but if you’re interested in their music, check out some of their later live shows, which tend to be less on the experimental side and more on the side of classically good pop. Or listen to Commercial Album, Avocado. Every song is a minute, so it goes by quick when there’s a dud, and there are some real gems in there.
Thanks for reading!