The Residents

Santa Dog / Residue Of The Residents (Reissues)

A band as wilfully obscure and yet as artfully self-mythologizing as The Residents have, over their career, generated plenty of weird and wonderful stories. The Residents are ideologues suspicious of the art of personality and yet have bundles of the stuff. Rumour has it, most likely one spread from their own office of misinformation in San Mateo via Shrieveport, Louisiana, that in 1971 the band sent a bunch of home recorded tapes to Hal Haverstadt of Warner Brother Records. They hoped that since Hal signed Captain Beefheart that he would dig the spiritual similarity of their cut and paste musical misdirection. The rejected package was returned to sender, and since it was originally sent anonymously, the return was marked “for the attention of the residents”.

My own Residents story is that when I helped produce the MTV Europe show Alternative Nation in the mid-90s, we always played ‘One Minute Movies’ to salve our souls after being forced to programme the latest Blur video from the super-triple programming A list. This spliced collection of Residents videos included the band’s signature eyeball head disguises, creepy alien autopsies, a twisted take on Dorian Gray and the oddball brilliance of Phil ‘Snakefinger’ Lithman’s Spanish guitar solo. These were taken from the band’s 1980 does-what-it-says-on-the cover Commercial Album, which contained forty songs that each lasted a minute. The Residents had pared down songs to their bare minimum of one intro, one verse, one refrain and/or one chorus. The liner notes helpfully stated that the songs “should be repeated three times in a row to form a ‘pop song’”.

Similar suggestions also feature on the reissue of Santa Dog, two 7” discs that constituted the first release by the band on their own Ralph records in 1972. Santa Dog epitomised a founding philosophy of the band that they called The Theory of Obscurity. In practise it meant cultivating mystery to ensure artistic integrity. This record was therefore originally billed as four songs by four different bands: ‘Fire’ by Ivory & The Braineaters; ‘Explosion’ by The College Walkers; ‘Lightning’ by Delta Nudes and ‘Aircraft Damage’ by Arf & Omega Featuring The Singing Lawnchairs. Originally the optimum listening order took conscious effort as the discs paired sides one and four and two and three together. This posing as a label sampler spelled the beginning of countless musical manifestos by the band, some deliberately muddling, but mostly infinitely rewarding. The legend in this instance has it that Richard Nixon was sent a copy of Santa Dog, but sent it back. Presumably it hadn’t been listened to or else the band may have been investigated by the FBI, for such is the mind warping potential of The Residents’ debut.

Starting inimitably with the chant “Santa is a Jesus foetus”: ‘Fire’ is the catchiest nugget and has xylophonic echoes of ‘Jingle Bells’. Christmas is a familiar trope of the band, with ‘Jingle Bells’ also appearing in ‘Explosion’ and in songs on the other new reissue, Residue Of The Residents. There’s ‘Dumbo The Clown’, about the clown who stole Christmas, and ‘Saint Nix’ which ends with the intonation “It’s black like tar. Black! Black!” This reminds me of Johnny Nice, the Charlie Higson painter character from The Fast Show who would deface his watercolours with black paint in a deranged fit of pique. It has me smiling every time. This is a fitting reaction, since the archness of The Residents’ avant-garde brushstrokes imply that you are meant to smile even at the most inappropriate moments, including at such lyrical nonsense as “kick a cat today, fish are dumb pluck an eye from one".

The outtakes and rarities collected on Residue, expanded for its first reissue since 1983, offers insight into their use of cultural totems as a lightning conductor for their pop experiments. Opener ‘The Sleeper’ is their nod to Morricone. ‘Daydream Believer’ is a nightmarish take on The Monkees, and ‘Jailhouse Rock’ explores their interest in Elvis and classic rock & roll. Meanwhile ‘Walter Westinghouse’ combines lyrics from ‘Love Me Tender’ with a familiar “dosey doe” square dance rhythm, and then falls into a weird eddy of electronica occasionally peppered by a Mel Blanc-esque spoken word.

Residue also includes a kaleidoscopic collage piece ‘Kamikaze Lady’ which pre-dates the Residents, and is a terrifying trip into the cerebral cortex. My personal favourite is ‘Diskomo’ an esoteric electronic epic which took elements from their 1979 album Eskimo and put them to a disco pulse. It’s way ahead of its time.

Despite occasional dalliances with more sombre tones in the pun-tastic ‘Melon Collie Lassie’, the music of The Residents often includes a nursery rhyme-like chime. This makes them a far more accessible rock band than you’d credit from their many myths and sneaky intellectualism and, as with all good fairy tales, is what makes them so uniquely, wonderfully, creepy.

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