When The Mothers of Invention released Freak Out! in 1966, though it was groundbreaking in its vision and appropriately ignored by the record-buying public, it was very much an album that fitted its environment and reflected the gnarled and disgusting elements that the 1960s did a terrific job of airbrushing. In contrast, The Residents’ debut, 1974’s Meet the Residents, arrived at the height of Bowie, glam and Elton John coke blizzards, and seemed to have no specific target, aside from the defaced Beatles album cover. Musically, it was belligerently scattershot; the cut-up tapes and avant-garde jazz and classical approaches all but rendered the pop and rock elements as telephone line interference. They didn’t even announce who they were. If it looked like commercial suicide, they weren’t disappointed, the first year’s sales amounting to 40 copies.
The best part of 45 years on, Meet the Residents is still an album to be approached as a long-term project. Its wilful disregard for musical convention may be arresting on first listen to some, but it’s an album that requires a good deal of patience and a furtive imagination. One of the overriding impressions you’re left with is a feeling of great sadness. Despite the jokey album sleeve, silly song titles and overt weirdness, there’s some incredibly mournful, tender music (Smelly Tongues and Rest Aria in particular), sometimes merely reflective in tone, other times positively funereal.
Spotted Pinto Bean remains The Residents’ first real statement – a pedalo ride to their odd mainland, with influences from jazz, opera and the German electronic experimentalists only hinting at the direction you’re taken. It’s deeply unsettling yet surprisingly satisfying, feeling like you’re privy to conversations between ghosts – that if something bad happens as a result of you listening to it, you only have yourself to blame for entering their realm. As you might expect from Cherry Red, the reissue is glorious, with stereo and mono mixes of the album, not to mention long-craved extras such as the pre-LP tracks Santa’s Dog, a more readily accessible but no less bizarre collection of four songs.
The Third Reich ‘n Roll is an entirely different proposition: an album even diehard fans of the band struggle to explain. Essentially consisting of two long suites of music, it features The Residents’ deconstructing 60’s pop and rock singles until they resemble the distasteful mush that they perceive them as. One suggestion considers that they played along to the originals in the studio, then stripped away the backing track to leave their discordant, often rather frightening fingerprints remaining as scarecrows in the pop graveyard. The collage of gunfire, clanging pianos and nasal vocals disembowelling ‘pop classics’ is extremely Lynchian in its nightmarish ideal of reflecting popular culture in murky puddles, but even more than this, the playing of two tracks at the same time, as with Telstar and Wipe Out, and Sympathy for the Devil and Hey Jude, they pre-empt the mash-up by decades.
Extras for The Third Reich ‘n Roll come in the form of live material (in particular the legendary Oh Mummy! Oh Daddy! instore performance at Rather Ripped Records in Berkeley, the first live show by the band – in mummy guise, natch), singles, mixes, plus five suites of German Slide Music – instrumental work-outs which don’t impact on the album itself but give some more insight into the band at the time.
These two albums document a band who are important to the genesis of bands like Talking Heads, Devo, Butthole Surfers and subversive noise and sound-collagists such as Negativland, and they fully deserve these deluxe sets which allow audiences both new and already under The Residents’ spell to listen again to a band who still have the power the challenge at all levels.