The lost, controversial and even more experimental than usual Residents recordings reissued reviewed.
A two-in-one review of releases from The Residents that have made the journey from fan myth to bedraggled bootleg to majestic restoration. A Nickle if Your Dick’s This Big – a coming together of the fabled Warner Bros Album (or, as it’s still referred to on the sleeve, The W***** B*** Album) and B.S. (Baby Sex – Cherry Red sensibly stepping in to prevent riots) – this is the Big Bang of the band, a time when they didn’t have a name, didn’t have a plan and couldn’t play their instruments…or at least did a brilliant impression of not being able to. These tracks focus on their first official taped recordings from 1971 and 1972 but in essence give the clearest picture possible of the years immediately before this too – their individual rejection of the rat race and avoiding conscription; their gradual awareness of each other’s existence; the journey to the outskirts of San Francisco, close enough to the cauldron of hippy art without being intrinsically involved.
Disc one covers the tracks they put together for Hal Halverstadt, the Warner Brothers executive who signed Captain Beefheart and managed to keep his job. Halverstadt had already welcomed their submission of music via an exchange of letters, though the realisation they only had a smattering to send him led to some last minute recordings. Ditching the name they’d chosen for themselves (The Delta Nudes) and plastering it The Warner Brothers Album, it, to their admirable astonishment, was given short shrift and returned to the band, now adorned with “To The Residents”, a nod to the lack of names supplied. So far, so well documented – but it’s been out of step with the band’s usual modus operandi that the tracks they submitted have never been officially released, save for last year’s Record Store Day release on vinyl. Could it be that the tracks were so bad…or even, so good, that they were locked away from even their staunchest fans?
The former as it turns out, the tracks are extremely basic noodlings, from a fleeting out of tune attempt at Strawberry Fields Forever to Baby Skeletons and Dogs, a piece that sounds so much like The Fall that you feel that even from beyond the grave, Mark E. Smith owes them an apology. The stream of slightly childish sketches show early signs of The Residents’ skill at editing but little in terms of their musical nous, straying closer to The Shaggs than The Captain. There’s an unhealthy fog of ‘trying too hard’ throughout, clearly seeing what Beefheart had done and making something of a pig’s arse of an attempt to mirror it. Deeply unlovable, it’s still fascinating and is a world away from their first official releases, despite them being mere months away.
Alarmingly, the excellent sleeve-notes give the heads-up that Baby Sex is far more raw than The Warner Brothers Album and less song oriented. If the title is enough to warrant censoring in 2019, rest assured the original imagery has been excised entirely. Including a real image of paedophilic activity is not a jolly wheeze and the project itself is lacking any unifying musical glue to make sense of. Even then, it was not a permanent black mark for the band at the label; they encouraged more submissions, either hearing a scintilla of genius within or covering all bases, just in case. The band, however, were suitably crest-fallen at the establishment’s rejection of their art and it became the touchstone for them to look less at the world around them and more towards a galaxy of their own construction.
Not Available is an entirely different proposition, though one with an even more tricky to disentangle back story. Sometime around the end of 1974, after the release of Meet the Residents, the band retreated to their studio, seemingly obliged to record a series of musical suites based on their current relationships. The commonly held wisdom is that the band were involved in something of a love triangle (let’s not get into the number of people involved and how many sides a triangle has, eh?) and the operetta they created was their artistic means of coming to terms with their roles. As such, the voices on the album are voiced by Edweena; The Catbird, The Porcupine and the narrator, Uncle Remus, playing out a tale of morality amidst a surprisingly coherent oasis of layered piano, sympathetic synths and often touching melodies…
…or Not Available is an early demonstration of The Residents’ spiritual leader, N. Senada’s Theory of Obscurity which stated that true art could only be constructed without the influence of others – in this case, to the extent that no-one was to ever hear it. As it transpired, what would have been their second album languished unheard until 1978 when the delays caused by the Eskimo project led to their label taking matters into their own hands and putting it out regardless. Though this caused fury within the band camp, it was generally rationalised that as it wasn’t the band themselves who had released it, they had fulfilled their commitment…
…or the album is nothing more than the abandoned soundtrack to the equally abandoned Residents film, Vileness Fats, with some amendments and made to give it a life of its own. Rather like the futility of knowing the identities beneath the giant eyeballs, it doesn’t really matter which of these theories hold water. What is true is that this would have been a really strange follow-up to their debut, an often gentle, very human and sometimes spiritual odyssey which would have jarred against the steps they’d already taken in creating such an alien entity. Not Available is one of the few occasions the masks slip ever-so slightly, revealing a band who were both musically and theatrically cultured, not to mention being driven by real emotions. Equally superb is the bonus disc of material, X is for Xtra (A Conclusion), the elements added to Not Available‘s 1978 release by Ralph Records.