Maybe it’s less that the Residents were ahead of their time, and more that we’re behind theirs.
“Ahead of its time” can be a convenient phrase to describe the avant-garde and otherwise marginal. It’s certainly applicable to the Residents: the mysterious Bay Area-via-Shreveport collective whose hyper-obscurantist, self-released early music prefigured the post-punk DIY scene by almost a decade, and whose closely-guarded anonymity and masked public appearances preceded the likes of Daft Punk by even longer. Like most such convenient phrases, however, it’s also limited in its usefulness.
More than they were ahead of their time, the early Residents were beneath, above and parallel to it. On their first two albums, Meet the Residents (1974) and The Third Reich ‘n Roll (1976), they presented a warped, subterranean reflection of 1960s and ‘70s culture: placing garage rock, AM pop, free jazz and all manner of mass media detritus into a punk-Fluxus blender, then scattering the pieces to the winds. Now, almost 50 years later, their work makes both more and less sense: more because “experimental” pop music, once a truly fringe interest, has been codified into countless well-served niches; less because their deconstructions now require an extra layer of arcane knowledge to decode.
To be clear, the Residents—whoever they are—probably wouldn’t have it any other way. Willful incomprehensibility is, literally, their central ideology: the group was founded on a “Theory of Obscurity,” demanding total disregard for audience expectations and commercial appeal. It’s thus oddly fitting for Meet the Residents in particular to feel so detached from anything resembling relevance in 2018. Opening track “Boots,” a mocking desecration of Nancy Sinatra’s 1966 hit “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” might as well be gibberish to most contemporary listeners. The cover art, a détournement of the Beatles’ 1964 Capitol Records debut, is still recognizable as a skewering of teen-pop wholesomeness, but its subversive charge has disappeared along with the Fab Four’s sacred-cow status.
Where Meet the Residents remains vital—“ahead of its time,” even—is the cheeky, dissonant, gloriously self-indulgent music itself. With the exceptions of Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, to whom the Residents famously mailed an unsolicited copy of their “Santa Dog” EP, no one in the 1970s was making music this weird within an ostensibly pop framework. As with Beefheart and Zappa, though, there are a surprising number of hooks to be found amidst the noise. The undulating bass and nails-on-chalkboard guitar of “Smelly Tongues” is a legitimate bop—no less listenable than the average Grateful Dead jam, and orders of magnitude shorter. Instrumental “Rest Aria,” with its elegiac piano, xylophone and oboe figures, is oddly beautiful, like a rougher-around-the-edges version of avant-garde street composer Moondog. Even at their most manic—the orgiastic 10-minute closer “N-ER-GEE (Crisis Blues),” for example—the Residents are arresting in their ability to cram wildly divergent musical ideas into a relatively compact space.
If Meet the Residents is liberated by its obscurity, then The Third Reich ‘n Roll may be a little too relevant for modern ears. As the title suggests, the album is, in theory, a kind of musical Reductio ad Hitlerum, critiquing the “fascist” conformity of mainstream culture by imagining actual fascist pop. In practice, it’s two vinyl sides of the Residents crudely sampling, interpolating and otherwise dismantling songs by the likes of Chubby Checker, the Box Tops, the Doors and even John Fred & His Playboy Band (look them up). As with Meet the Residents, the cover art—a mock-propaganda image of a grinning Dick Clark in SS regalia—packed more of a satirical punch in 1976; its comedic value today is inversely proportional to one’s level of emotional fatigue at the sight of swastikas.
At its best, The Third Reich’s Nazi motif provides a subversive counterpoint to its musical pastiches; the pairing of artillery sounds with the Syndicate of Sound’s 1966 garage nugget “Little Girl,” for example, underscores the original song’s misogynistic menace. More often, it’s just spectacularly tasteless window dressing. Where the album succeeds is, ironically, in appealing to fans of its satirical targets. The Residents’ contempt for late-‘60s pop hasn’t survived the intervening decades; what does resonate is their playful bricolage, an aesthetic that feels decidedly contemporary. A few of the juxtapositions they hit upon—Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” the “woo-woos” from “Sympathy for the Devil” and the “na-na-na-na” outro of “Hey Jude”—can even be pointed to as early examples of the mashup.
But there I go again: trying to situate the Residents in our time when they clearly belong in an alternate dimension all their own. This, however, is where the new reissues of Meet the Residents and The Third Reich ‘n Roll excel: as time capsules from an alien era. The bonus material in these sets is almost excessively generous: Meet the Residents includes the Santa Dog EP, the album’s 1977 stereo mix and a smattering of rehearsals and alternate versions that, while meandering, belie any visions of the Residents as spontaneous, unrehearsed “outsider music.”
The extra tracks on The Third Reich, meanwhile, threaten to upstage the album itself. 1977 sound collage The Beatles Play the Residents and the Residents Play the Beatles is a culmination of both Third Reich’s early sampling experiments and Meet the Residents’ Beatles obsession, pointing the way toward the work of fellow Bay Area eccentrics Negativland in the process. Then, of course, there’s the Residents’ 1976 defiling of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” released a year before Devo’s comparatively conservative reconstruction. Possibly best of all is the inclusion of the group’s first official live appearance, the 1976 “Oh Mummy, Oh Daddy” show at Berkeley’s Rather Ripped Records. The 30-minute audience recording is a vital glimpse of the early Residents meeting their public; at the end of the performance, at least one audience member can be heard shouting, “Please, no more!”
This, then, is what we mean when we call the Residents “ahead of their time”: from a tiny audience literally begging them to stop in 1976, they’ve graduated to a marginal but rabid fanbase clamoring for expanded reissues. If the new editions of these two weird, wonderful records have any wider implication, it’s that they serve as a reminder of a time when a group of anonymous weirdos could start a mail-order company releasing music nobody asked for and end up building a cult that’s still going strong well into the next century. That this kind of story is getting rarer with time introduces a sobering undercurrent: maybe it’s less that the Residents were ahead of their time, and more that we’re behind theirs.