If you only buy one seven-disc live dissection of 20th Century popular music by an avant-everything collective, make it this one. Already tremendously unwieldy and self-regarding in its original incarnation, the reissue of The Residents’ attempt to disseminate American popular music is now bigger in every way, an effort which only suits one possible person – The Residents superfan. Except, of course, if you like the band at all, you are almost certainly as near as damn it, already a superfan. This is not a band which has ingratiated itself over the years, picking up listeners who quite like this and that, skip a few albums and just own something approaching a greatest hits. Liking The Residents is a commitment, one which will prove itself to be expensive; often incredibly frustrating; upsetting; embarrassing; silly and amazing. Did I mention the frustration? Seven discs, stacked to the brim with outtakes and demos, of course, so that in one marathon listening session you may hear one song five times (good news if this doesn’t trouble you – it happens several times!). Imagine I’m taking a very deep breath indeed.
The Residents’ view of the history of American music is not taken from a particularly high ladder – there are essentially three strands: country music (of the rocking chair on the front porch variety); black spiritual music and The King. Is this scalpel-sharp slicing to the only three things America has given the world in song or a shoddy, half-baked affair that wasn’t even what devoted attendees of their live shows had really come to watch? It’s really thin stuff in parts, I have to say and although the Elvis covers, in particular, have a gloopy truth to them that was always staring you in the face (can you stare your own ears in the face? Probably not but have a go anyway) but feels like a magician explaining to you how to saw a woman in half over the phone.
Performed on stage between 1987 and 1990, The Residents were applauded wildly as they delivered what is said to be one of their finest live shows. I didn’t see any of them so I’m taking this as being in some way factually true. Elaborate and grandiose stage decoration, absurd costumes and a paying audience who knew what they were letting themselves in for doth not a satisfying CD box set make and if that isn’t what Aesop taught us, I don’t know what is. This was a perfect time to look back and squint at Elvis on the toilet, ten-years dead, and take aim. Of course, the tracks here, including both original and demo versions of the band’s The King and I interpretations of Elvis standards are not necessarily considered to be piss takes or potshots, they are in their own way heartfelt tributes. The thing is, who hadn’t already made their minds up about Elvis? Magnificent though many of his songs were, they do not readily lend themselves to microscopic dissection any more than a nursery rhyme.
Historically, there is great sense behind this project. By the late 1980s, the band had become recognised beyond the niche corners of Beefheart and Partch obsessives looking for a new fix and were now hailed in artistic in critical quarters as worthy of serious consideration. Likewise, there was a huge need for the band to express themselves on stage – with the ignominious collapse of both the Mole tours and their American Composers cycle, there was a desire to prove to themselves that at least the broad concept was good, even if the planning and execution were wayward. Elvis, to The Residents, was the culmination of black and white music and a full stop as to where popular music was officially recognised.
I hasten to add that the live show (such as is available officially and via YouTube and the likes – arseholes will claim cultural appropriation and perhaps even claim something approaching blackface in terms of some of the costumes but they’re welcome to seeth themselves into an early grave) looks sensational and is certainly a high point for the band but left with only the audio, it suffers significantly artistically.
That’s not to say an extraordinary and praise-worthy amount of work has gone into this set. Live performances leave you to find your own previously archives favourites such as their appearance with Conway Twitty on David Sanborn’s TV show, Night Music, online or on DVD, preferring instead to treat the manic devourer of eyeballs to audience-taped rarities never-before-heard. Instrumental studio takes are unearthed; rejected pieces; jam sessions; B-sides and pieces even the band aren’t sure about are here to blow the dust off. There is some great stuff here – Devil in Disguise is a step away from a John Carpenter film; Shortnin’ Bread feels like it would fit in Cecil B DeMille’s Ten Commandments and there’s an overarching feel of triumph and glory throughout but it’s truly only half of what is needed to really live and breathe The Residents’ real vision.
Originally published in Reprobate