A little background
One of contemporary music's gurus, the American minimalist, John Cage always stated that music should primarily mirror the creator and not the tradition in which he or she performed. Similarly the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset postulated that music should be free of the sound of one's contemporaries and free of the author's biography. Music, as well as other forms of art should be a reflection of internalized pain of the creator and his thoughts and emotions and not his background.
This idea was embraced by four (allegedly) friends who have known each other (allegedly) from school in (allegedly) Shreveport, Louisiana. They embarked on a journey (allegedly) in 1967 that took them to the capital of sunny psychedelia, San Francisco. (possible) Bad luck caused their van to break down some 20 miles before reaching their goal, which caused them to settle in the small community of San Matteo. I will cease to use the tedious (allegedly), although it would be well justified as we are talking about some of the best known - unknown musicians - The Residents. Their anonymity has become their trademark and in a way a form of their artistic expression. The Residents hide behind their spokesmen, The Cryptic Corporation. The Corporation's members, Homer Flynn and Hardy Fox state:
"We are the official connection between The Residents and the outside world. The Residents themselves only relate to the real world through their products - recordings, videos and concerts."
During concerts the musicians hide behind surreal masks with massive eyeballs that serve to increase the feeling of child-like curiosity that their music seems to emanate.
Early musical experiments
Having arrived in San Matteo the future Residents bought a bunch of instruments and tape recorders and built a primitive studio where they held their first rehearsals. They quickly became fascinated with sound in all its forms. From an early age they collected all kinds of recordings; samples, effects, tapes with military marches, bootleg tapes with experimental output by famous artists etc. Together with fellow aural acolytes Philip Lithman alias 'Snakefinger' and the mysterious N.Senada A Spanish Bavarian (whose existence has never been verified) they performed sonic experiments involving the natural sounds of city dwellers.
After a year of rehearsing the musicians sent their work to Warner Brothers' Hal Haverstadt who happened to be Captain Beefheart's producer. He didn't find the record to be particularly interesting and sent it back addressing it to 'The Residents of San Matteo'. This prompted the band to change their name to The Residents. They have hitherto been going under the pseudonym 'The New Beatles'. They released their debut two track album 'Santa Dog' in December of 1972 using their own label Ralph Records.
Some 14 months later they released their first full length album 'Meet The Residents'. Both releases contained alternative music that was still very raw and unpolished, yet at the same time very intriguing in comparison with was en vogue at the time. In a way The Residents were close to Frank Zappa but they were even less true to traditional form. While Zappa executed many of his bold ideas using tried structures of jazz, rhythm and blues and doo wop, The Residents approached music with the naivete of a little child. The sounds of an out-of-tune piano playing a Waltz combined with industrial hum, mechanical toys and sonic cacophony not unlike that of German avant-garde rockers Faust. Stripping their sound of its shocking outer skin we discover beautiful melodies that range from quite joyful and banal to moving. After release a little bit of copyright controversy surrounded the coverart that was quite obviously adapted from The Beatles' US debut album 'Meet The Beatles'. Capitol records demanded a change and the back and front covers were interchanged. Supposedly the real Beatles found the whole affair rather amusing and purchased their own copies of the record.
Third Reich N'Roll
Their next idea was a record titled 'Not Available'. True to its title the record was shelved only to be released four years later in 1978. This must have pleased the infamous N.Senada who adhered to his Theory of Obscurity. All this meant that their third full length recording became their second full length album to be released (in 1976). It was their most radical work to date 'The Third Reich'n'Roll'. The record comprises of two suites recorded during sessions in 1974 and 1975. It was a culmination of a dadaist concept of constructing music from intertwined motives, not quite unlike the Beatles' collage 'Revolution 9'. On this record however everything was recorded and performed by The Residents themselves, only accompanied by a guitarist named Gary and two vocalists, Pamela Zeibak and Peggy Honeydew.
'The Third Reich'n'Roll' is radical not only because of the seeming musical disarray and its innovative form and shocking coverart. It is radical in being a vicious sneer at the terror that according to The Residents is unleashed by Top 40 hit lists and radio playlists on the music community. Such blatant disregard for the powers that be in the music business has not been displayed often prior to this album. The record is full of samples of 60s hits transformed to sound that is clumsy and out of place, almost like the monsters in 19th century freak shows. Finding all of the musical quotations on this record is a satisfying and tremendously enjoyable task. From the first drum roll borrowed from Chubby Checker's Twist to The Beatles' Hey Jude and the Stones' Sympathy For The Devil as well as Iron Butterfly, The Doors, Beach Boys and many more.
According to Homer Flynn the band owned a massive singles collection. They played them back and recorded that on one track, they filled the other tracks with their own accompaniment. After the recording was done they deleted the original track and were left with their own piecemeal, deconstructed musical shadows. Only in one spot did they choose to retain the original sound; around minute 13 on side 1 the listener is confronted with the horn section borrowed from James Brown's Pappa's Got A Brand New Bag. This record was the first attempt to openly question the heritage of popculture in such an audacious manner. Their caricature of bubblegum pop became bubblegum avant-garde. The distorting mirror held up by The Residents to the popculture 'residents' was later adopted by the likes of Laibach, Sonic Youth and many lesser known artists.
(By now) Almost traditionally their coverart stirred up controversy. Their Pore No Graphics (Pornographics or Poor-Know Graphics according to other sources) presentation was particularly touchy in Germany where the record was released without the Swastikas after a short legal battle.
'The Third Reich'n'Roll' became a conceptual starting point for a whole series of albums and concerts by The Residents who decided to berate the entire US (popular) musical tradition. They started with march composer John Sousa and ended with the Gershwin brothers, James Brown and Elvis. After Frank Zappa's death The Residents remain as one of the few remaining and certainly the most tenacious fighters of stale ideas, plastic pseudoculture and as the most vocal opponents of commercialism in art. Employing healthy doses of irony and the grotesque they create strange but at the same time strangely esthetic compositions. They remain in total anonymity and at the same time function as philanthropists supporting other artists who fail to find an understanding ear among record label executives. They are a walking example that the avant-garde does not have to be soulless nor is it condemned to be short-lived.
The Residents - Third Reich'n'Roll
- (This side is usually)Swastikas on parade
- (This side explains why) Hitler was a vegetarian