Thursday, 7 July 2016

The Residents - Meet the Residents (1974)

For me, the Residents were yet another discovery made by means of raids on Graham's older brother's bedroom because he had all these weird, fascinating records by Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, Alternative TV and others, and notably the Duck Stab 7" EP. Graham's older brother wasn't at home much, and was reclusive on the occasions when he was - although at the time I mistook his crippling social anxiety for simply being too cool to hang out with schoolie wankers such as Graham and myself. For someone with whom I probably exchanged less than ten words in total, the enduring influence he has had on my listening habits seems incredible.

I probably encountered Duck Stab at just the right time. A year earlier I would have assumed it to be the work of some comedy act like the Barron Knights or the I Love Onions woman, and so it caught me just as I was beginning to appreciate that there could be more to music than four blokes with skinny ties and sunglasses playing muted chords. The Residents were fucking weird, and yet the music itself had purpose beyond providing a simple accompaniment to jokes cracked in a west-country accent. They were weird, but it seemed like there was more to them than just weird.

Amazingly, one of their records turned up in our local crappy record shop just as I was in the mood to make purchase of such a thing, namely the Nibbles compilation released by Virgin and more recently reissued as some overpriced Record Store Day artefact. Nibbles was a sampler covering the period prior to the release of Eskimo, with a few other goodies thrown in; and it was intriguing because none of us really knew anything about this band aside from that one album was called Not Available because Graham's older brother had a copy and we'd all taped it.

Then one day - specifically Tuesday the 30th of December, 1980 - I discovered Renton's Records in Leamington Spa, a town which was near but otherwise a little off the beaten track for me, and a shop which didn't actually look like a record shop. The murky windows were full of dusty trombones, violins, and other, more esoteric instruments; but inside was a single wooden rack of discs by Schoenberg, Terry Riley, Miles Davies, and all of the Residents albums, even Eskimo which had only been out since September. The covers were of thick card with smoothly rounded corners, and the vinyl felt more substantial than regular English records. Now I understood how those kids felt when they found that land in the back of their wardrobe.

I bought the whole lot over the next couple of months, then the Commercial Album when that came out, this time as an official UK release allowing me to feel as though I had been at least a little way ahead of the curve; then me and Graham went to see The Mole Show in Birmingham, and it was great but they were becoming something other than whatever I'd signed on for. Now using E-mu Emulators in apparent preference to cranky home-made devices held together with lengths of hairy string, they seemed increasingly prone to crowd-pleasing wacky cover versions and so I drifted away.

Meet the Residents remains their quintessential album for me. More than any of the others, it's the one which sounds like they're not even trying, and it sounds like that because that's just how the songs came out when they played them. There's something weirdly discordant about this music without any actual bum notes or obvious detuning going on; and an unsteady plinky-plonky quality despite no evidence of inept playing or timing; and everything's just fucking weird and in the wrong order and backwards without any obvious structural peculiarities of the kind one might expect from a Jethro Tull album. It's sometimes difficult to pinpoint just what it is that definitively makes the Residents sound so sharply at odds with more or less the entire history of popular music, possibly excepting a few underpublicised free jazz oddballs, so I suppose we might as well just settle for something along the lines of the Residents being how the Beatles would have sounded had they been drawn by Basil Wolverton. It's pop or folk music - not even anything special - from a world which probably isn't this one, and this is the key to its success: not specifically that it's weird, but that it doesn't even seem to realise that it's weird and feels as well-rounded and rooted and as confident of its own two-headed identity as anything by Otis Redding.

Later records seem to diverge from this wholesome core, at least to my ears, but here it was at its most powerful, its strongest vintage, back when it was doing much more than just weird. There's the terrible, hungover pathos of Skratz, the raucous alien lounge of Spotted Pinto Bean, and an entire host of other shades and colours which it just so happens we'd never seen before. The Residents have a whole string of great albums to their name, but they would have been just as great had they chucked it all in after this one.

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