Music dullards will often, frothing at the mouth, offer well meant but always hopeless tips as to how to tackle a band’s catalogue you are unfamiliar with.
“DON’T listen to the one with all the hits, start with this bootleg of rare b-side performances first!”
“It’s best you listen to them in this order – 3,1,4,2,8,7,5,6.. Don’t listen to the latest one, the mixing is all over the place”
As with Blu-ray commentaries which tell you you’ve been watching the film wrongly all these years and that if you’ve ignored the obvious metaphors about racial equality and fanny-waving calls to arms, you’re a dreadful, dreadful, knob-sponge, it sucks any element of joy and entertainment from art. Like me, you’re probably able to use your eyes and ears without a self-appointed ‘historian’ telling you you’re not enjoying yourself properly or even that you shouldn’t be enjoying it at all. So here’s where we’re at – if you’ve not heard The Residents before, probably don’t start with The Commercial Album.
By 1980, The Residents were appearing in the media with increasing regularity. By hook or by crook, they were infiltrating the mainstream, though in an extremely diluted way to say, Devo. It was one thing to make music resolutely on their own terms, it was quite another to have even the slightest chance that they may be able to make their satire stick. The Residents understood music. They knew what made a hit, they just fundamentally disagreed that the listening audience were the right people to make this judgement.
Verse-chorus-verse…maybe a fade-out ending for extra drama. The three-minute pop song ruled the radio airwaves, as well as suiting television appearances very nicely, thank you. The Residents fed this into their master computer and assembled its sonic guerillas – Snakefinger, Chris Cutler and Don Preston were back on guitar, drums and keyboards from Eskimo; Lene Lovich and XTC’s Andy Partridge (under the pseudonym Sandy Sandwich) offered their vocals; Brian Eno and David Byrne made cameo appearances, uncredited. Moving the potatoes to one side and thrusting forth the meat, they recorded forty one-minute tracks, a verse and a chorus. To fulfil your pop requirements, all the listeners must do is listen to them three times in a row. Voila!
If this in any way suggests digestible 60-second pop ditties, you’ll once again be found wanting. The Coming of the Crow is ominously lurching, a fiend which somehow sounds more concerning in its restricted time-frame; Moisture offers a gurgling, black eulogy; Phantom goes full-on crooked sideshow. Other tracks are stunningly beautiful and tender, such as When We Were Young and LaLa are both sumptuous, even in jingle form. There’s an advert included of someone introducing a snippet of each of the tracks which is curiously magnetic.
The bonus disc offers the usual array of admirably curated oddities, from live tracks to demos to rehearsals from versions originally found on the band’s Commercial Album DVD. It flows surprisingly well as a package, with more than a few earworms amongst the angular quacking. It’s not, I would foolishly suggest, for beginners – the copious, excellent sleeve-notes confirm that this is a band mid-way through its campaign for revolution and a point at which both the band and its fans were looking both forwards and backwards. You know the right way to buy albums? Buy them in the order they came out. You’re welcome.
Released to promote the album was One Minute Movies: enjoy!