A Token of My Extreme: The Residents- Third Reich 'N Roll (1976) & Eskimo (1979)
Ralph Records; February 1976, September 1979
It could be argued that in a sense, The Residents aren't even a band so much as a bunch of like-minded weirdos. Their primary mission has always been Art with a capital A rather than just music per se. They don't have the chops of Zappa or the free jazz inclinations of Beefheart and others, or the po-mo genre salad approach of John Zorn or Mr. Bungle--hell to some listeners they barely qualify as musicians. Through their occasionally somewhat primitive methods and masked obnoxiousness, The Residents have always been about grand statements of oddity, proudly trumpeting the Theory of Obscurity--the less commercial, the better. They are self indulgent, and damn proud of it.
How self indulgent? Well, let's see--they made a recording in '74 appropriately titled Not Available that they locked away for almost five years, on purpose, with the concept that it would only be released after the members had forgotten about it. The group records under the moniker The Cryptic Corporation, and all of their live outings have been in costume (usually their classic eyeball masks)--to this day no one knows who the hell does what. The live shows themselves are chock full of insane props, multimedia showcases and elaborate stage production that would've made Peter Gabriel-era Genesis blush. Every single album they've realized since their official debut Meet The Residents (which almost got them sued by Capitol and EMI for the cover art) has been a conceptual work in some way or another. A three-sided album, forty tracks of one-minute mock ad jingles, a surrealist Elvis biography, live storytelling, suites about Bible characters? Yes to all of the above.
In light of all that the two albums featured here are probably the least strange entries in their oeuvre. All relative, of course.
The group's second release Third Reich N' Roll has one of the most iconic covers of all time--a young-ish Dick Clark in Nazi regalia holding a carrot, while crossdressing mini-Hitlers traipse all over the fluffy pink clouds behind him. The whole concept is a bit of silly musical Godwin, comparing the staid oldies of corporate radio to fascism but fuck, with a cover like that you have to wonder what's in store for the buyer of said vinyl. And this doesn't disappoint. Made up of two side-long suites ("Swastikas On Parade" and "Hitler Was A Vegetarian"), The Residents assembled covers of '60s and early '70s pop standards and then took a giant shit on them in the best possible way.
After a brief sample of the German-translated "Let's Twist Again" the album flies off into some kind of maniacal proto-industrial/punk/Krautrock/WTF concoction, the source material violated by a kitchen sink of toy instruments, garbled and bizarre vocals, evil minor-key synths and random sound effects to the point where they are only somewhat recognizable. Ever wanted to hear "A Horse With No Name" as a funeral march? It's here. A German version of "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" with dying-animal trumpet bleats? Yup. "Yummy Yummy Yummy" warped into some Middle Eastern raga? Check. Also one of the weirdest versions of FM sacred cow "Light My Fire" you will ever hear, and a truly sublime mash-up of "Hey Jude/Sympathy For The Devil" that is a great payoff after almost forty minutes of total headfuck. On some versions of the album there's even a gloriously abrasive take on "(Can't Get No) Satisfaction" that predates the '77 punk boom by a year or so.
Eskimo might be even weirder, and sounds like nothing else they ever did. Here they abandon Western music signposts (or anything else really) and record forty minutes of tribal chants, synthesizers and the occasional homemade wind instrument in a tongue-in-cheek attempt to capture what Inuit life must've been like.
And despite the group's inherent goofiness--they couldn't resist inserting buried references to Coca-Cola and other things--they mostly succeed. Eskimo has a truly unsettling, cold and alien ambiance that no other artist or band could come close to, a couple decades of black metal and electronica recorded since then notwithstanding. Tracks like "The Walrus Hunt" and "The Angry Angakok" with their hypnotic gibberish chants along with the creepy sound effects could really wig a listener out under certain, uh, "conditions." At times Eskimo achieves an eerie splendor reminiscent of the better Brian Eno or Steven Roach albums, and the outro of "The Festival of Death" even manages to be sort of pretty, kind of an anomaly when it comes to The Residents but a nice retort to anyone who thinks they're just being weird and anti-musical for its own sake. And it all ends the same way it began--with the sound of freezing Arctic winds. You'd probably have to look to anthropological field recordings to get something more authentic, and even then it probably wouldn't be as subtly engrossing as this album.
Through their fifty year long career few groups have defined arty iconoclasm better than The Residents have, and while their embrace of kitsch may strike some listeners as a novelty their broad creative horizons place them in the same growing realms as other champions of the American avant-garde. Whether it's from the inspired amateurism of early period or their later adventures in the live medium, they truly embody forward-thinking artistry in an era where many pose as the real deal and fall way short.
If you want to hear oldies spoofed in some truly twisted and sick ways Third Reich N' Roll comes pretty highly recommended, obviously. Fans of Krautrock (some parts I swear sound exactly like Can) and early industrial would probably really enjoy this as well.
Eskimo is a bit of a harder sell. Despite being highly regarded among Residents fans it's one of those "your mileage may vary" albums, especially if you haven't heard any of the more notable ambient artists (the aforementioned Eno and Roach, and others). Try some of that first and see if it grows on you before coming here.