Once upon a time there was a group of musical artists who pioneered their own way in the world. But before once upon a time there were a bunch of kids who wanted to start a rock band and get a record contract. Those kids recorded a demo and sent it to Warner Brothers. It was rejected and they never became the rock band. They became The Residents, and the world is better for it.
WB:RMX is the first official release of material from The Warner Bros Album which, legend has it, led to the group’s name. The original album has attained legendary status among fans, many clamoring for it to be made available. And now it has finally been released, but with a catch: it has been heavily remixed with new music.
How will the fans, those who have been salivating for this early material ever since they learned of its existence, respond to it? On the one hand it can feel like their wishes not only have been granted, but also new work has been put into the album, indicating a real interest on the part of The Residents, a group that has traditionally played down this material so much as to practically deny its existence. On the other hand it can feel like a slap in the face: “no, you can’t have it, and here’s bizarre rendering of it designed to mock you.” Evidence of the latter would be the twisted cassette version of the 1977 Radio Special; evidence of the former would be all of the remix projects they’ve been releasing lately (expanded Freak Show and DVD releases of Eskimo, Disfigured Night, and Demons Dance Alone).
I think it’s a little bit of both. The Residents clearly keep a distance between themselves and this early recording, treating it as a completely separate entity, and providing complete freedom to manipulate it as they see fit. But they’ve also neglected to release the album in its original form, implicitly setting up RMX as the real version, not to be compared with the source, as is so often the intent of a remix project. The listener is usually rewarded for being familiar with the original work, picking up on what has and hasn’t been changed. Here, that is not permitted. Everything is new to the listener, and the distinction between original and remix gets muddied a bit. There are moments that are undoubtedly old, and others that are undoubtedly new, but there is a wealth of material between those extremes. Maybe it’s new and using more traditional instruments; maybe it’s old but run through a computer. This album represents a view of life that believes we never leave our past behind, that it remains interwoven with the present and shapes our future.
In denying the existence of this material for so long, The Residents had been running from their past, though at this point in their career it becomes a bit understandable. Like looking at childhood photographs, they probably don’t even recognize the creators of these 1971 tapes. To put it out unaltered under the name “Residents” would be blatantly false, and to use an entirely different name would just be awkward. But if we look at this, not from now to then, but from then to now, the story is different. Imagine if you knew that, in the future, you would try to forget who you are and what you are doing right now – indeed, if you were to have no presence in your future. That’s a terrible feeling, and nobody deserves that. In accepting this early material, The Residents are accepting their former selves, at the very least as valuable collaborators. And for a bunch of kids just starting out, uncertain of direction but armed with a big dream of mixing art with music, working with a group such as The Residents must feel like the greatest opportunity imaginable. We should watch that young group; I think they might wind up doing something very interesting.