The meta-bands parade (6-4)


6. The Residents

And so we have come to the most enigmatic pop group of them all, the band that enigma is its very essence. The obscurity, mystery and mythologizing surrounding the Residents are so great that there is no point in going into their history and trying to discern fact from fiction. But we can try to understand the meaning of it all, to ask what is behind the eyes?

What do we know for sure? The Residents released their first recording in 1973, which was called Santa Dog and contained two singles that included four songs, each of them in a different style and allegedly performed by a different band, but all similar in that they begin in a conventional way but then turn bizarre. For that purpose they formed the label Ralph Records, creating the impression that this is a label that already hosts several artists and generating an initial buzz in the music press which was interested to hear what more it has to offer. But anything that Ralph Records put out after that were Residents albums, and today it is obvious to all that all these “bands” were actually the Residents themselves. The first album they released under their own name was Meet the Residents, in 1974, and it already constituted a declaration of intent. The name of the album paraphrases Meet the Beatles, the Beatles debut album in America, and the cover is also a vandalistic paraphrase on the cover of that album, defacing the fab four. The vandalism continues in the album itself, in which every track contains music that disregards any basics of good taste and distorts sixties pop beyond recognition. The opening track is a cover of Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots are Made for Walking’, but it is so grotesque that it takes some time until you notice it.

The band’s second album provided some context to this music. The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll contains two side-long pieces that take many rock’n’roll classics (mainly rowdy garage classics), knead them all together to make them into one long pastry, season it with typical Resident sounds and serve it all to the listener. The names of both pieces ties the music to Nazism, and it seems that what they say is: you Hippies think rock’n’roll freed the world and made it better, but its combination of barbarism and messianic delusions actually leads us to fascism. The band members maintained anonymity, presenting an antithesis to the rock bands that externalized the personalities of the band members and made them no less important than the music. In contrast, the Residents were an amorphous entity whose members were merely residents who presumably changed over time. To add a visual element to the music, they began filming surrealist clips.

In 1977, as the punk revolution transformed the pop world, the Residents’ music started to sound more comprehensible. They also figured out the way to make their bizarre sound more communicative, closer to standard pop. And all along they kept on putting out their surrealist clips, for which they are considered today, along with Devo, as pioneers of video-clip art.

In 1979 they released the album Eskimo, which presented a new concept. The album contains musical pieces that sound more like plays, with background noise and people speaking a peculiar tongue. The cover explains that the album is dramatizing stories from the Eskimo culture, and explains every track and how it pertains to the traditions and everyday life of the Eskimos. The explanation wraps up in a declaration that all these things belong to the past, since Western culture “saved” the Eskimos from this hard life and put them in houses, where they now sit and watch reruns of TV shows. The irony is clear: Western culture’s pretension to be a liberator and savior is a baseless presumption, and what has actually happened is that a race of people that lived authentic lives according to the traditions of its forefathers was corrupted and degenerated by it. The album, then, is a social criticism of Western society.

But not in the way we think at first, because the irony here is actually pointed elsewhere. When you listen more attentively, you realize that the language we hear isn’t actually Inuit, and the stories don’t really represent Inuit culture. What is really happening here is that music that presumes to represent the authentic culture of other people shows the same Western pretension and patronizing attitude it presumes to criticize, and seeks only the exotic in Eskimo culture. The album is a parody of these humanists who presume to speak for other cultures and blame the West for what it does to them, when they too are completely ignorant about these cultures and treat them as a monolith.

On the album cover, the Residents introduce the look that will henceforth be their most identifiable: wearing a tuxedo (perhaps in order to look like penguins and “stand up with the Eskimos”, except penguins belong to the South Pole whereas the Inuit live in the North Pole), and hooded with what looks like giant eyeballs. The reversal is complete: whereas with other pop groups the crowd is an anonymous spectator, in the Residents’ case it is the band that is anonymous and spectates us, mocking our human flaws.

The next album came out in 1980 and was titled The Commercial Album, and it constitutes the moment in which the band presumably “sold out” and started making records that beckon the mainstream. Except the style remained the same grotesque noise, and to get it played on the radio anyway the Residents pulled a clever prank: the album contains 40 tracks, each exactly one minute long. The band then purchased advertising time on the radio, and since every ad slot is a minute long they could use it to play one of the records in full and thus shove it into the programs in spite of the producers. Some of these records were actually cool, and earned their own video-clips. Here are four of them.

In 1981, when MTV was launched, the Residents suddenly received much greater exposure than in the past. The stock of videos that were available to the producers wasn’t great initially, so the weird Residents clips became quite popular with them. The Residents became a well-known brand in pop culture, and upheld it by hiring people to appear at events in tuxes and eyeballs. A mythology was created around the history of the band, satiating the media’s hunger with a plethora of fictional tales. In that way they managed to preserve anonymity and mystery and maintain their cult band status, despite all the publicity. They kept on making music in the same trademark style, and created dozens of albums and other multimedia projects. Of all the bands in our parade, the Residents is the most prolific and the most durable. What hides behind the eyes? Who cares?

  1. Spinal Tap

We’ve reached the top five, and here we find the most legendary rock band of all, the band that is somewhere between Mozart and Bach, the band whose sound is so heavenly you must listen to it in Dobley, the band whose biggest hit is played on two bass guitars and an additional double-bass, the band that will not compromise its artistic license to put an oiled naked woman on its album cover unless the record company says otherwise, the band whose drummer died from choking on someone else’s vomit, another drummer died from spontaneous combustion and a third drummer died because he visited the grave of a former drummer and the grave combusted. The band is so notorious that I don’t know if it even needs introduction, and so divine that anything I can write will pale in comparison to its greatness. Nevertheless, we shall say a few words about it.

In the beginning of the seventies, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer were two up and coming comedians, members of the American comedy ensemble Credibility Gap that also included David Lander. McKean and Lander were college buddies, and there they already created the characters of Lenny and Squiggy, a pair of dummies speaking in nasally voices and silly accents. Playing this duo they found success on TV, mainly through the sitcom Lavern and Shirley, and even released an album of comical songs in which they were accompanied by the young guitarist and comedian Christopher Guest. In 1979, McKean and Guest teamed up, and together with Shearer they formed the fictional metal band Spinal Tap for a TV sketch they wrote together with actor Rob Reiner. This is where it all began.

Shortly after they decided to expand on the idea, and in 1984 Reiner presented his directorial debut, This is Spinal Tap. Reiner plays an American commercials director named Marty DiBergi who decides to make a rockumentary about his favorite band, the British band Spinal Tap, and document their tour in the States. He begins by enthusiastically describing the band’s greatness, and how he managed to capture the magic of a rock concert tour. There were plenty such movies in those days – these were the years when Hollywood’s ranks started to get filled with young directors anxious to make rockumentaries about their favorite bands and explain why they’re so great. But when we start watching DiBergi’s movie, it rapidly becomes apparent that there is a huge disparity between what he described to us at first and what he actually caught on his camera. David St. Hubbins (McKean) the guitarist-vocalist, Nigel Tufnel (Guest) the lead guitarist and Derek Smalls (Shearer) the bassist are revealed as a bunch of completely uninspired rockers who always just conformed to the trending styles and are now making metal, and as men who at the age of forty are still mired by infantile sexuality, asinine pretensions and detachment from reality. The gap between what they pretend to be and what we see onscreen produces one of the greatest comedies in movie history.

But unlike many other musical parodies, this movie isn’t just funny but also musically gratifying. When we see them in concert, they play some kickass rock. The songs (all original compositions) are satires of metal clichés, but they work, even though something always goes wrong…

Even more well-known are the interviews DiBergi conducts with the band members, which contain some priceless gems that became part of rock’s and pop culture’s heritage.

How did the metal people react to this mirror that was put in front of them and made a mockery of their beloved style? With unmitigated love. Spinal Tap was adopted into the bosom of heavy metal, and is listened to as if it was a bona-fide metal band. How come? Can it be that the metal people don’t get the joke? On the contrary, they get it better than anyone else. Spinal Tap integrates into the style because the genre it was making fun of, the glam-metal of the early eighties, is itself an ironic style. Most glam-metal people know how silly their hobby is, but they embrace this silliness as a poke in the eye of a world that they perceive as taking itself too seriously. And so, Spinal Tap was regarded as not just a band that makes fun of glam-metal, but also as the band that best expresses its spirit. Rob Reiner went on from there to become a successful and prolific director; McKean, Guest and Shearer all scored with other comedy projects; but the band refuses to go away. It is now impossible to tell reality from fiction with Spinal Tap: they continue to unite, continue to create music, continue to go out on tours, continue to kill drummers in bizarre ways, continue to provide hilarious interviews, and continue to draw crowds that come not just for the laughs but also for the music. Here they go again.

4. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

At the end of 1966, the Beatles were fed up. After four years of Beatlemania, of being in the eye of the storm formed around them, the fun was gone. Daily life in the mid-sixties was exciting and fascinating, but they felt they want to find out what’s behind contemporary reality, deeper truths about existence. In their last album Revolver they were already beginning to make music that relied heavily on studio technology and elaborate orchestrations and was impossible to recreate onstage, and now they wanted to see this direction through. At the end of the year they barricaded themselves in the Abbey Road studios and began working on their next album, determined to make an album that will be an art piece in itself, not just a platform for live performances.

The initial idea was to make an album about their childhood. This was typical to the psychedelic era: the feeling was that the psychedelic experience takes you to a primordial state in which you look at the world with a child’s eyes and see it for the first time, and one of the ways to express it was with records that sounded like children’s songs with a psychedelic sound. The first song they recorded was ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, in which John Lennon’s imagination wanders back to a Liverpool garden that he used to play in as a boy. The studio production distorts the singing and music in various ways and affects as unrealistic atmosphere, as if we’re in a dream. The lyrics, too, create a dreamlike misty kaleidoscope, as if the garden is in a place beyond logic, beyond the everyday life.

The second song was ‘Penny Lane’, where they recall a street in Liverpool. There is no surrealism here – the record just portrays the daily reality in the bustling street. And yet, this record too puts us beyond daily life, since the singer is not taking part in all this commotion. He just sits back and lets life wash through him, a passive observer of the world.

The desire to transcend daily existence accompanies Western civilization since its early days. The Christian belief is that “this world” is only a passageway we must go through to get to the “true world”, and daily life was therefore perceived as meaningless. Western philosophy largely also treated the everyday world as “not real”, mainly because it is ever-changing and undergoes birth and death whereas “absolute truth” is perceived as eternal and constant. Moreover, Western consciousness always related truth to happiness, and Western Man therefore always aspired to reach the absolute and eternal truth out of the belief that it will lead him to eternal and absolute happiness. Thus, when Western Man felt a transcendental and joyful ecstatic feeling, he concluded that he must have touched absolute truth for a moment and aspired to find what’s behind this experience. When people like Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary first presented the psychedelic experience that is achieved through the use of hallucinogenic drugs, they couched it in those terms: as an experience of absolute joy, emanating from the fact that it opens the door for us to see the ultimate truth about our existence. The Beatles’ turn towards psychedelia and transcendence, then, was supposed to lead them as well to seeking the eternal truth, but the Beatles were not like Huxley and Leary. The latter were still enslaved to the Modern consciousness, so they were still looking for the constant and eternal truth behind the impermanent everyday reality. But the Beatles were already operating with a pop consciousness, and so it led them, as we shall see, to another place.

The next song they recorded, ‘A Day in the Life’, describes everyday existence. The record exists on three different planes. The “lowest” place is that of regular daily action: waking up, combing your hair, catching the bus to work etc. But the human being also reflects on his reality, and this is described through the singer telling us about newspaper articles he is reading (taken, by the way, from real articles that appeared at the time), which leads his stream of consciousness to reflections about existence, reflections that take him higher and higher until he reaches the ultimate ecstasy. But he does not remain forever in that highest plane. The ecstatic experience lasts only for a moment, and then he descends back to the plane of everydayness to begin the cycle again. The record, then, takes the hierarchy that Western thought created about the relation of everyday life and what’s beyond it and flips it on its head. The perception was always that one has to escape everyday life to reach the world of truth. The Beatles remain in everyday life, in the “day in the life”, and find their truth in it. The experiences of absolute joy do not come from touching anything eternal, but they are simply products of our daily actions. Our everyday world is the world of truth, and reflections upon it and momentary escapes to powerful ecstatic experience serve only to enrich life in it.

At the same time, a new concept for the album was born: they will make this album not as the Beatles but as a different group, which will have a different style. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (typical name for a band of the psychedelic era) will tackle other subjects than what the Beatles traditionally sang about. The idea to make a return-to-childhood album was ditched, and the two first songs were eventually released as two sides of a single and were not included on the album. Instead, the album became a reflection of that world beyond everyday life, a world we can dwell in and be happy for a while. The cover shows the members of the club, all men and women of spirit who influenced pop consciousness, all people who can take us to that place.

The album was released in June 1967 and created a sensation. The Beatles showed that you could use pop music to articulate profound statements, and for many this was a revelation. The record companies, that until then allotted limited recording time to rock’n’roll artists, now opened the doors of the studios wide for them to create an album that would rival Sgt. Pepper, and the artists began exploring all the possibilities that were opened before them. It had negative effects: it led to the affliction that plagued progressive rock, albums that were closed within themselves with no connection to the outside world. But it also allowed many pop artists to expand their means of articulation and create albums that were profound and coherent statements about the world and at the same time contained tracks that became hits that changed the world. The album itself is not the Beatles’ best, but influence-wise it is almost unrivaled in the history of music.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a meta band in that it represents a meta-world, a place beyond our daily world where we can experience happiness. But while traditionally that meta-world was perceived as a place in heaven that we reach in the afterlife, or a place in the future which we will reach after a revolution that will create a utopian world, in pop consciousness it is located elsewhere, and the Beatles are primarily responsible for that. The Beatles (and not only in this album) specialized in records that make the listener feel like they are in a magical garden, a place where life is dedicated not to work but to play, where there is no hate and war but only love and peace, where people aren’t trying to step on each other to get ahead but are busy creating and inspiring one another. But these gardens are never the Garden of Eden – that is, they are not eternal. They are inside our world, part of our life and what gives it its meaning. There are many ways to achieve ultimate happiness, and the band members displayed that in their personalities. John Lennon was looking for happiness in escaping reality to ideal worlds (in this album represented mainly in the track ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ in which he chases an ideal woman inside a surrealistic wonderland), George Harrison went the Buddhist way of self-annihilation and absorption in the stream of existence (represented on the album in ‘Within You, Without You’), Paul McCartney was more in tune with past ideals and sought continuity and how you can harness the new experiences into the existing spiritual heritage and combine the new musical ideas with traditional musical conventions (represented mainly in ‘She’s Living Home’, that merges pop with chamber music played on harp and a string-quartet and tells the story of a girl who runs away from her parents’ home but also focuses on what it does to them and expresses the wish they’ll find the way to renew the connection), and Ringo Starr just wanted to enjoy the fun of everyday experiences (represented on the album in the McCartney-written ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, whose emphasis on the importance of friendship serves to counter-balance Lennon’s and Harrison’s escape into themselves). The Sgt. Pepper band conveys the realization that there is no one Garden of Eden but many different gardens of Eden, and so we want a world that has diversity and the capability to hold all these gardens. In one day in the life we can visit several of these gardens, and that’s much better than existence in an eternal paradise where nothing ever changes.

This duality is evident also in the movie Yellow Submarine, an animated film inspired by Beatles music that was released in 1968. Sgt. Pepper’s dream become a country called Pepperland, where people live in love and harmony and dance together to the tunes of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But then this land is conquered by the Blue Meanies, who hate beauty, fun and ecstasy and want only to dominate others. Only one inhabitant manages to escape in a yellow submarine and then he discovers that beyond Pepperland there is also our everyday world, which hosts a band mystifyingly similar to Sgt. Pepper called the Beatles. The Beatles agree to help him, and take the yellow submarine through enchanted worlds based on their songs, before reaching occupied Pepperland. There they impersonate Sgt. Pepper, and with the magical powers of their ecstatic and loving music bring back color and joy to the place and cause the terror regime of the Blue Meanies to crumble.

The Beatles themselves were hardly involved in the making of the movie, but when they saw the almost-finished product they became enthusiastic and wanted to add a little of their own. They provided the creators with some unreleased recordings, and the last of them, ‘Hey Bulldog’, became a scene in the movie in which the Beatles release their Sgt. Pepper dopplegangers from captivity and the Fab Eight give the runaround to the Blue Meanies’ four-headed dog. The only time when we see “both” bands together.

The movie’s plot, in which a tyrannical regime is brought down by music, may seem like a ridiculous fantasy, but it is far from it. All totalitarian regimes in our world draw their legitimacy from pretending to represent the eternal truth and demand total submission from their citizens as the way to Paradise. Pop represents the antithesis of that, and therefore these regimes always try to prevent it from reaching the ears of their subjects. But pop always found a way to get through, change the folks’ consciousness and thus cause the regime to lose its legitimacy and eventually fall. Modern consciousness believed the world will be better if we find the absolute truth and live by it. Pop consciousness outlines a different way to a better world: if we give every community the freedom to develop its truth, and work on creating harmony between the communities, we will gradually get nearer to a world that is free, diverse, rich, and peaceful. The various and numerous worlds created by pop are constantly expanding and slowly smoking out the Blue Meanies that are still left in our world, those who attempt to enforce their own truth on others and do not recognize their right to live their own lives. We’ll get to Pepperland eventually.

3rd place


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