Saturday 17 September 2011

Desecration Acts (or, Retromania, Take 2: Y'know...the Version That Sort of Plays Out Like Peter Fonda's Film Career)

Part One: Tanz mit mir, Eva!

It's all a bit dodgey, isn't it, this matter of breaking things down by decade. As if historical or cultural developments so tidily fit into calendrical boxes and whatnot. Yet here we are.

But yeah, it's a common enough way of thinking about things. For instance, the whole matter of Americans during the 1970s looking back and getting nostalgic for the 1950s. And how the 1970s were — for a time, at least — considered a decade not worth talking about, too dismal and inconsequential to bother with. And then there's the matter of the eruptive 1960s, which has its own mixed legacy. That decade that the 1970s backed away from in many respects, the same decade that became the touchstone for the backlashing "cultural wars" that have raged on these shores ever since.

The Sixties had been — by some reckonings — a cultural apex. Which is why, if you take the mythology at face value, the dudes who would eventually become known as The Residents uprooted themselves from Shreveport, Louisiana to move to Haight-Ashbury — to where things were really "happening" — in the latter half of the decade in question. They reputedly moved there looking to be their own network of filmmakers and artists, but eventually wound up being a band, or some "multi-media collective" for whom music was the central component. But initially they arrived in the Bay Area just in time to witness the very thing they were seeking fade into a dismal travesty of its former potential.

This being the Residents, you never know what to take at face value. Maybe the whole backstory part is a load of horseshite, who knows for sure? At any rate, the cover of their 1974 debut album seemed to send a fairly clear signal about how they felt about the matter...

Further driving the message home, they followed in a couple years later with Third Reich 'n Roll. The cover, with its depiction of Dick Clark as a Gestapo commandant, was a first-rate stoke of audacity and provocation; especially seeing how the punk-rock cliché of playing ironic and light with Nazi imagery was still a year or two away. Likewise for the album's opening overture, in which Chubby Checker's exhortations from "The Twist" are barked out in German, sounding for all the world more like a set of drill instructions than an invitation to party. But beyond that, the Third Reich theme puts in few appearances, save for a couple of spates of battlefield sound effects that crop up between songs. The album itself contained a medley of tunes that had been, as the liner notes testified, "shamelessly lifted from their memory of top forty radio of the Sixties" — often rendered in the most creepy or horrendous way possible, if not turned completely inside-out. "96 Tears," "Light My Fire," "Hey, Jude" and about twenty others are all duly massacred, to say nothing of the band's sinister rendition of The Syndicate of Sound's "Little Girl," and the passing nod given to "The Ballad of the Green Berets."

True, this sort of thing wasn't wholly without precedent, since Third Reich 'n Roll chiefly it owed its "pop satire" premise to the "freak-out" excursions of Zappa's Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart had pioneered some years previously. But with Zappa and Beefheart, you always had the impression that no matter how loosely they played with established pop genres or formulae — be it Zappa's doo-wop parodies or the Captain's fractured blues — the artists harbored some love for their inspirational sources. With Third Reich 'n Roll, it's a far murkier matter, and the listener has a difficult time gauging how the Residents felt about the songs they chose, let alone the era those songs represented. One detects, at the very least, a deep and darkly-tinged sense of ambivalence. The "atrocities on parade" violence the band does to its source material, the acts of musical dismemberment committed, all seem a little too wanton. Sentiment and nostalgia, the listener might conclude, had absolutely nothing to do with it.

The Residents would have a long, perplexing, cultish career in the decades that followed. But in retrospect, the timing of Third Reich 'n Roll couldn't have been more appropriate. Sure, rock'n'roll had been the soundtrack of the youth culture of the 1960s, the product and the embodiment of a massive cultural and demographic shift. Still, many had figured (or hoped, perhaps) it was passing fad. By the time the '70s had rolled around, the major labels were mobilizing huge amounts of resources into the trend that had proven itself Commercially Viable for the long haul. The music gained a central presence on the FM airwaves — especially as college stations sprouted up in less metropolitan locales, devoting much of their programming to a proto-AOR format. And in 1972, Elektra Records released the original Nuggets compilation, a collection of '60s garage-rock classics sported a number of tunes that would later helped inspire punk's "back-to-basics" musical ethos.

[   Part Two >>>   ]


Phil Knight said...

I was really disappointed when I first heard "Third Reich & Roll" - just not enough marching sounds or stuka sirens.

I've always had a suspicion with The Residents that the joke is that you're not supposed to like the music, and each new concept was really to test the perversity of their fans e.g. "let's see if they'll listen to an hour of wind noises".....

Greyhoos said...

Right. Either that, or soundtracks to films that the audience never gets to see.

I can't claim to ever have been a big of the Residents or to have followed them closely. But I always liked TRnR. It always struck me as a sort-of bookending companion to We're Only In It For The Money, but without all the latter's brazenly elitist sneering.

Phil Knight said...

Funnily enough, I've almost got the full set of the early Residents albums (up to "Mark Of The Mole"), but they rarely get played nowadays. I think in many ways it's the some of the ugliest music ever recorded - they seem to deliberately avoid any repetitive element, such as a melody or rhythm, that might give the listener any pleasure. If they remind me of anyone it's the painter Philip Guston, whose later work seems to be an exercise in a kind of jarring banality - cliched metaphors painted in queasy colours.

And that's another thing that I find odd about The Residents - their output seems to be the work of a single intelligence, and yet they present themselves as a group. I really find it difficult to believe that more than one person could have their particularly bizarre vision, let alone that they should manage to find each other etc.

Greyhoos said...

That last point really gets at something, hits it on its head. Maybe that's why I was so distrustful about the claim that they were all transplants from the same town in northern Louisiana(?).

rowrbazzle said...

The Residents aside, that whole "60s" thing has always bothered me. We were all listening to the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary sing Pete Seegar songs in 1962 and 1963. Dylan didn't go electric until 1965; the Beatles' Rubber Soul was released in '65; the Doors' first LP didn't appear until '67; the so-called Summer of Love was in '67. To my mind, the '60s should have been called "the last half of the '60s."

Greyhoos said...

@ rowrbazzle: Right. "The Sixties" in quotations, or with some qualifier like "as people think of them...". See first paragraph.

But yeah, you're right -- culturally the emphasis tends to fall on the latter half. But if you look at 'em from another angle (like that of visual art, say) it was more of a front-loaded decade.

David K Wayne said...

Off topic - but why have only 3/4 guys (with occasional 'guests') been posting on these blogs for the past few months?

It may be time for a ruthless cull of the contributors' list above. If any of 'em are reading - consider that your last warning! ; )

Greyhoos said...

The only reason I supplied you guys w/ the non-Youtube-heavy content above was because you guys assured me the check was in the mail. "Par avion"...right?

> Sent from my iPhone (TM)