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Residential Avant-Garde Rock & Roll

By Benson Knickerbocker

If you enjoyed the music of Devo (see interview in this issue), then the music of San Francisco’s the Residents may be equally appealing. Like Devo, the Residents enjoyed donning elaborate costumes. Like Devo, the Residents were an enigma to the mainstream music scene. Like Devo, the Residents used technical wizardry to create music that was far from radio friendly. Unlike Devo, the Residents did not achieve a hit like "Whip It." Because of this, the Residents are known as the "World's Most Famous Unknown Band".

In a way, the Residents are very much like Jazz’s Sun Ra. Although the two music entities may have had different motives, they were similar in the fact they portrayed fictional personal histories and they played music that was unorthodox. Just as Sun Ra claimed that he was Saturn, the Residents also hid their origins – their press kit uses the word "allegedly" when describing the band’s history. With this in mind, the Residents "allegedly" moved from Louisiana to San Francisco in 1966 to fulfill the American Music dream. Unlike so many other San Francisco bands of the 1960s, the Residents did not find themselves playing free concerts on the Haight or sharing triple bills with the Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. While San Francisco may be associated with being the birthplace of the psychedelic, the Residents assumed the role of avant-garde rock and roll. The band found refuge in bands like Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart.

The band released their first album in 1970n and has released 22 since. During the band’s 30 + year career, the Residents have become synonymous with inventive live performances, the use of the latest synthesizer technology and their use of multi-media technology such as CD Rom. During the mid-1980s, the Residents worked on their American Composer Series. This two-year project saw the release of two albums, George and James and Stars and Hank Forever, which have now been re-released by East Side Digital (www.noside.com). These two projects had the Residents revisiting the works of George Gerswhin, James Brown, Hank Williams and John Phillips Souza. The original release featured an entire album side by each artist. Through song’s like Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue", Brown’s "Please, Please, Please" (the James Brown component was Live at the Apollo in its entirety), Williams’ "Hey Good Lookin’" and Sousa’s "Stars and Stripers Forever", the Resident’s take once familiar melodies and compositions, break them down to their bare minimum and resurrect them in the Resident’s tradition. These are not catchy covers but rather inventive interpretations of what many American music lovers take for granted. The music provides a whole new look at traditional music forms.

The Residents’ original intention was to make the American Composers Series a 10 Volume set with The Trouble with Harry's, featuring the music of Harry Partch and Harry Nillson, to be the next installment. Their goals unfortunately never came to fruition, but at least we have these two installments from a truly original American band. The liner notes to the George and James state: (the Residents are) "a group of pseudo-artists who freely indulge themselves in the Great American Culture." Everything seems to be correct with that statement except with the bit about "pseudo". It takes a real artist to take a new view on a form that has been accepted in its original form for such a long time. The Resident’s had a vision and went with it. That is real artistry.