Yearly Archives: 1978

The Purpose Of Those Other People Was Explained (Santa Dog ’78)

Guys who dress like Santa Claus do it because when they was young they must have did something bad.“Santa Dog ’78” turns out to be a new recording of “Fire,” the Ivory & The Braineaters song from the Santa Dog compilation.  It was my favorite from that collection, and I had high hopes that Ivory and company would return with more.  They never returned.  But, as it turns out, that’s only because they never left.

The song is now attributed to The Residents, which implies the two bands are the same.  At first I was having a fair amount of trouble wrapping my head around that.  Sound-wise, I don’t recognize anything from the original in what I am hearing.  But then again I don’t recognize anything from Duck Stab! as having much in common with Meet The Residents, either.  Bands change, especially if they have room to experiment.  But this is a much more dramatic change than The Beatles underwent in their six years.  Despite them starting as a small skiffle combo and ending as a polished group with lush string arrangements, I had no problem understanding that “Let It Be” and “Love Me Do” came from the same people.  (“Revolution 9” is an outlier of course.)

For me it’s the voices.  “I Am The Walrus” is really out there, but I recognize John’s voice, and can tell it’s the same one that sang “Twist And Shout.”  I’ve listened to the two versions of “Santa Dog” back to back, and I can’t tell it’s the same singer.  But maybe it’s not – there are no individual credits, so it could simply be another member. And that is not unheard of.  The singer of “Penny Lane” does not sound like the singer of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” after all.

It stands to reason that the other three bands from Santa Dog are also The Residents.  I had a suspicion they shared members, but not that they were all a single entity.  Now I’m forced to reevaluate what I know about this group.  I’ve come to know them as a band with no identities, but now I know they started out as a band with several identities.  An alter ego is, in the end, a form of anonymity, so it’s not much of a stretch to go from many false personae to none at all.  I wonder if David Bowie’s experience as Ziggy Stardust was an influence.  At first the group saw the idea of a stage character very exciting, and created many to play with.  But by 1974 they saw how the Ziggy persona overtook the man behind it, so they went to the other extreme in order to guarantee their public and private lives never intersected.  The notes say The Residents recorded this song as a tribute to their former innocence.  Did their innocence die along with Ziggy?

One Resident says “innocence must always give way to maturity eventually” which is very surprising coming from such a youth-oriented musical group.  Most promote rebellion against the status quo and, well, people my age.  Or they get caught up in their own success and, unable to cope, self-destruct.  Another Resident also sees this tragic state of affairs and offers this advice: “happiness comes from manipulating your weaknesses into your strengths, not from chasing desires.”

As rebellious youth goes, this is a rebellion against the rebellion.  I’m reminded of a piece from Mad Magazine many years ago (as a teacher I’m often obligated to confiscate the comic from students, and as a person who likes a chuckle I always read some before returning it at the end of the day, often saying with a wink “now don’t let me catch you with the next issue!”).  It was called “How To Be A Mad Non-Conformist,” and while the examples are lost to time, I do remember the premise being that there are conformists and there are non-conformists, but the non-conformists all seem to behave in the same way, which has become its own kind of conformity.  The Mad non-conformist takes it a step further, and that’s exactly what The Residents have been doing.

There’s A Duck With Lifeless Wings (Duck Stab! / Buster & Glen)

I have it on good authority that the dog in this photo is named Buster.  I have no leads on the man's identity.They offer silly words dressed in a discordant wolf’s clothing.  The seven songs of Duck Stab! are short and jaunty, almost as if The Residents are embracing something closer to a pop song format.  But we shouldn’t believe they are settling.

Their Beatles record, in retrospect, hinted at this break from their past and positioned as models the group arguably considered to be the pinnacle of mainstream success.  It may not happen overnight, but I won’t be surprised if The Residents churn out Top 40 hits before too long.  However, that kind of change may be fleeting.

While these songs may mimic one aspect of pop music, they are purposefully avoiding others.  Besides the obvious strangeness of the sound, most of these songs lack the traditional verse/chorus structure so crucial to commercial music.  Yet I believe this is a transitional release, and that The Residents are headed for commercial inevitability.

“The Laughing Song” leads directly from this.  The song has a frantic, almost demented sound, but the lyrics echo the whimsy of Edward Lear.  The laughter turns out to be less psychotic than one might initially expect – The Residents are honestly having fun here, something else I was not expecting.

The artwork for Duck Stab! returns to the sophistication of Fingerprince, though it is much more sinister.  Where before we had an out of focus photograph rendered with inviting sepia tones, here we have a high-contrast image rendered only in red and white on a black background.  Though upon closer inspection we see that the content of the image may not be sinister at all – it looks as if Harpo Marx is simply preparing to make his famous duck soup.

The Residents seem to have an overarching theme of constantly pursuing new sounds and ideas, so it’s not a stretch to imagine they will get their fifteen minutes of fame, but will not complain once it passes.  Or perhaps one day they will target themselves in a medley of deconstructed pop songs.

For over a decade I’ve been recording my thoughts about the music I listen to. It’s usually pretty easy to write because it follows the same general template. By that I mean the writing, not the music. The standard music review consists of discussing the single, deconstructing one or two other songs, and speculating on what it means for the artist. The Residents always make me work harder. They don’t have singles for their albums, I can’t begin to deconstruct something that is ultimately minimalism (though often complex layers of minimalism), and – even if I had names to go with this band – these songs behave like traditional nursery rhymes for all the revelations they provide about the performers.

Duck Stab! / Buster & Glen is an album that refuses to be considered an album. The first side is previously released, but I can’t call those seven songs the single. The second side maintains a separate identity with its own name and artwork so that from outward appearances this is a kind of compilation record.

Inside, however, it’s a different story. These two sides clearly belong together, which is a departure from previous Residents releases. In the past they’ve presented clear dichotomies, and here – with an outside that promises two differing works – they create a rare unity. Thinking back I believe only Not Available has done this. Perhaps in unearthing that album they decided to permanently forego duality, at least as far as the music is concerned.

And yet the sides feel different to me, though I can’t pinpoint any aspect that divides them. The songs all sound similar, but maybe familiarity makes the duck side feel stronger than the dog side. Buster & Glen feels like someone trying to emulate Duck Stab! and doing a phenomenal job at it. Heard in isolation it’s very enjoyable (as much as a Residents record can be), but the way the album is presented begs me to choose a side.  I don’t know if there’s a correct answer.

 

[Editor’s note: You’ve probably figured it out, but I took my grandfather’s review of the original Duck Stab EP,  reordered it according to the way the album version reordered the songs, and pasted it at the beginning of this review.  Apologies if it upset you.]

Singing Simple Melodies That No One Ever Heard (Not Available)

Señorita Wences

Not Available is the album The Residents have been teasing for years. They said they’d release it only after they forgot it existed, but as far as I can tell they never stopped talking about it. Perhaps their definition of “forget” differs from mine. It’s actually their second album, recorded between Meet The Residents and The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll, and that’s why I’ve hoped it never gets released. Those albums are immature, and do more to shock than to impress. Fingerprince is where they first glimpsed what they should be doing, and their last two releases have shown promise of things to come. So why take the time now to revisit the past?

Because it’s incredible, that’s why.

I am absolutely floored by this album. It is melancholy and beautiful, and there is no reason to have hidden it away. The music is alien but inviting. It feels like returning to the womb, in that there is something very natural in its strangeness. Sounds and voices blend in wholly unexpected yet perfectly obvious ways. This is truly a masterwork. I can’t believe that The Residents had this album on one shelf and The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll on the other, and they chose to suppress the former and release the latter.

But I must believe it, because that is what happened. So all I can do is speculate why. The most realistic reason is that this album is too revealing. Although there are no specific details that could identify anyone, this album feels deeply personal. It is reenacting somebody’s personal anguish, though in a coded fashion.

The story – at least what I can make of it – tells of a young couple who feels their love is pure and special, but as time goes on difficulties arise in the form of questioning just how unique their situation is. The boy is making these realizations, the girl believes he is rejecting her and in defense she rejects him first. Her belief is understandable to us, the mature objective listener, but the boy is thrown into sadness and despair. Though presented as an ensemble piece, the story is clearly from his point of view (we don’t hear from the girl beyond Part One), and we follow his confusion and anguish, his failed attempts to fix the situation, and his eventual realization that this “one true love” was really just an early, intense infatuation. While his feelings were true, their intensity was an unfortunate side effect of being young and discovering physical passion before the mind matures to comprehend it.

Basically the exact same “unique” story that everyone experiences. The artwork is aware of this: the figure, beautifully rendered in three-dimensional shading, is, indeed, a simple line drawing.  Content-wise nothing is new, and told in a straightforward manner it would be incredibly dull. But the almost impenetrable wall of inside jokes and personal references (the Porcupine, Catbird, and Enigmatic Foe clearly have meaning for the author) keeps the audience from dismissing the album entirely as the pathetic whining of some rock and roll star. But at the same time the lyrics are not so dense that they devolve into bad surrealism – the audience can extract meaning, and identify with portions of it.

It may be that I am entirely wrong with my understanding of the story, and am only projecting my own first experience of “one true love” coming out of high school and into college – but that is precisely what any great story is supposed to do. I tell my students this whenever I can: to make your stories universally appealing, do not make your details vague, but rather use very specific details that just hint at ambiguity. It’s an easy concept to understand, more difficult to master, and The Residents have done it. Not Available tells my story. It tells your story. We’re both thrilled to hear it. Interestingly, only the person who wrote it – who actually lived this particular series of events – will find it boring.