Yearly Archives: 1984

Barking Loud And Resurrected (Mole Show / Whatever Happened To Vileness Fats?)

Complete footage available on 12 VHS tapes.The Mole Show home video offers a few new details about the story, most notably names for the two societies: Moles and Chubs. I don’t know whether these names were always intended or if they were added for the show. Given that the first album didn’t even mention it was part of a larger trilogy, I suspect the latter. The Residents are building this mythology as they go, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It means they’ve created a universe that is expandable. With each addition, the whole can become recontextualized.

Visually, this show is stunning. The set pieces and props are phenomenal, and the number of stage participants is astonishing. This show has been constructed like a major stage production, and it boggles the mind to think that it toured the way a rock band would. In a way, it brings elements of high art to the masses, something the Residents have been doing with their music for years, so why not do the same with a visual medium?

The home video presentation takes this a step further. The live show elements have a vintage, almost quaint, aesthetic in the heavy use of moving set pieces. Modern theater keeps the sets stationary, moving them only with scene changes. And while that does wonders for realism, it pales next to the great charm and splendor of seeing nearly everything on stage in motion. But while that kind of production is firmly rooted in theater practices from a hundred years ago or more, this video is interspersed with modern and futuristic computer imagery. Just like the differing cultures in the story, here we have a clash of the old and the new. An uneasiness from the two really hits home, and that’s intended. The computer art is not part of the stage production – it is only on the home video. It is intended to be seen in one’s home, where we feel most comfortable and also where we become the most defensive. What is this new medium and why is it invading my home? The Residents do not want me to become too accustomed to my current lifestyle, because change is coming in the form of technology. We’ve been warned.

The second half of this video is an edited version of an unfinished movie called Whatever Happened To Vileness Fats? It too has computer imagery, but only for chapter titles. For the most part The Residents have chosen to let the original footage stand on its own. And stand it does. Its look is reminiscent of a German Expressionist film such as The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari. It begins with a long voiceover describing the plot of this shortened version, and frankly it sounds too complicated to me. Watching this video, I catch moments that seem to fit with the synopsis, but they are fleeting and I’m uncertain whether or not I’m interpreting it correctly. It’s all very Impressionist, come to think of it. An Impressionist film shot in an Expressionist style.

Most of the dialogue is buried under the music, and I wonder why it is there at all. Would this not be better presented as a silent film, with intertitles? The decisions this group makes often baffle me, but I do like to project fanciful ideas onto them. For example, they’ve recorded a new soundtrack for this home video, which is lovely and spooky and everything you want in a soundtrack. But part of me wonders: what was the original soundtrack like?

Some Vileness Fats characters appeared on the back cover of Not Available, so maybe it sounded like that. Or maybe Not Available was not available because it was the original soundtrack and was waiting for the film’s completion. The album’s story isn’t mentioned in this video’s synopsis, true, but maybe it lies among the 14 hours of unused film.  And what of the original music for what has been included in this home video?  Is there another, truly not available Not Available somewhere?

Struggle To Hide Whatever Is Bare (Assorted Secrets)

No joke here - I love the text formatting on this tape.The latest Residents release is only available as a cassette tape, which can mean one of two things.  First, it can mean that Ralph Records is embracing this as the new standard, and will from now on release music exclusively in this format.  It’s a bold move for any company to make, but this would be the one to do it.  Far more likely, though, there’s a money issue and they can’t justify the expense of a proper record.

That’s also evident in the content.  While the songs and performances are very good, they are in fact older songs (so it was not expensive to generate the material) and the recordings were not engineered to standard quality.  The vocals suffer the most, sometimes being inaudible against the music.  These are rehearsal tapes, hastily compiled and put to market, probably to fulfill a contractual obligation.  The Residents would probably prefer this album not be available at all.

But they did make these recordings available; therefore on some level they want them to be heard.  And what do we hear?  We hear a band meeting another challenge.  The challenge this time is “how do you perform a Residents song live?”  With the myriad of effects and studio trickery they routinely employ, it would seem impossible.  But they found a way to do it – by tackling the problem from another angle.

The assumption with the challenge as stated is that a “normal” band has to figure out how to recreate Residents music.  For most that means throwing out the traditional instruments and focusing on electronics, and probably cheating a bit with some pre-recorded tapes.  But The Residents, being on the inside of this problem, see it from the opposite point of view: “how do we perform like a normal band?”  From that standpoint the solution is clear: embrace traditional instruments.

Though guitars have always been present, The Residents have never been considered a guitar-oriented band.  Assorted Secrets, however, relies heavily on the twin leaders of rock music: guitar and bass.  And they’ve probably cheated a little with a pre-recorded tape or two.  And while these versions are significantly different from their originals, they succeed in sounding like The Residents, as opposed to sounding like another band attempting to sound like The Residents.

And more than a document of test performances, what this really represents is a band that is becoming more confident and is ready to put itself out in front of more people.  For over a decade The Residents have existed in self-imposed obscurity, and not just in terms of their personal identities.  Everything they’ve done has had a sense of holding back, of remaining safe within the sanctuary of their studio.  The kind of music they create forces listeners to wonder just what kind of people the musicians are, and make personal judgments.  So to combat that one naturally hides.  When The Beatles made their greatest artistic leap, they framed it as coming from the Sgt Pepper band.  Framing devices are very powerful, and subtle.  We all knew Sgt Pepper’s was really The Beatles, but we all looked at it differently from the previous Beatles records.  The frame forced us to look at the album as a distinct project, not simply the latest collection of songs from a popular band.

And “The Residents” is a project.  And that project began entering into a new phase in 1981, according to the dates on these recordings.  The change started with reimagining the songs they felt might be most successful in a concert context, then later turning to their most recent work and recreating that as a live performance.  The Mark Of The Mole recording is much stronger than the “classics” test, and it’s understandable why it is presented first in this collection, but it doesn’t differ much from the original, and there’s also a home video release of the performance I’m going to watch soon, so my interest now lies with Side B and the live show that never was.

Strange By Standards That Were Less Important (The White Single)

There ain't nothing in the world like a big-eyed girl.The Residents have a new single to promote their latest album that, true to their fashion, is only tangentially related to the album.  It’s “This Is A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” by James Brown, but it is not at all in the same style as their work on George & James.

The eyeball is back, so we must be on the lookout for social commentary.  There’s one in the lyrics of the song, of course, but since it is not written (or even rewritten) by The Residents, we need to look somewhere else for their message.

This James Brown rendition is the most normal music I’ve heard from The Residents.  Since it follows the strangest music I’ve ever heard, it must have been intentional.  The musical arrangement is very similar to the original, and played very well, demonstrating that The Residents could, if they so desired, record a pop hit.  As for the vocals, they’ve done the opposite of their treatment of Live At The Apollo and pitched them up.  I experimented with playing this record at 33 RPM, and it’s too slow, but sounds close to right.  If I could play this record at 40 RPM I bet it could be a mainstream hit.

And that I think is the statement they are making.  They are saying it is easy to record a song that can become a hit and make lots of money.  They could do it at any time.  But they have always chosen not to.  Even this time, they’ve gotten it just right, and then purposefully altered the speed to keep it from ever becoming a massive crowd favorite.  But why would they not choose easy money and fame?  Because to them, doing something easy is boring.  Sounding like a standard band is boring.  Sounding like The Residents, on the other hand, is not.  It may be difficult, it may be terrible, but it’s definitely something we’re not likely to have heard before.

Regardless of the statement they are making with this recording, The Residents are definitely complimentary towards James Brown, continuing the theme from their latest album.  It’s too early to tell, but maybe they have even backed away entirely from destructions of other people’s music.  It’s quite incredible to think that George & James and The White Single come from the same group that gave us The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll and its companion single, Satisfaction.

And just like that earlier single, the flipside is an original composition.  “Safety Is A Cootie Wootie” begins with a lullaby sung to a child and then describes the singer’s dreams.  Clearly one of The Residents is now a parent, or rather became one some years ago.  This song is billed as “unreleased,” a term applied to released music only when it has been kept in storage for a long time (nobody ever markets brand new material as “unreleased”).  It’s obvious this song was a contender for Residue Of The Residents, but its length kept it from being included.  Thematically it belongs to my imagined Dreams album, putting it with “The Sleeper” and “Ups & Downs.”  So if I had to guess, I’d place fatherhood around the time of The Commercial Album. That explains the short songs (no time to work on full length compositions), and Goosebump.  Though it doesn’t explain them diving into the large Mole Trilogy project, which this record boldly proclaims it is not a part of.

If The White Single is a mirror of Satisfaction, then I’m tempted to think “Loser ≅ Weed” is also from the Dreams album, but that’s grasping at straws (despite it having some melodic similarities with “Safety”).  No, The Residents are responsible adults now, and have moved on from their amateurish disposition of – gosh, has it been ten years already?  If it’s been that long, I could be incorrect about their purposefully choosing to produce music in strange ways.  It could be they are finally on the cusp of realizing their dreams of being rich and boring.