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Louisiana's Phenomenal Pop Combo Turns 50

Despite opening with a cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking”, Meet the Residents" was neither the project of a Louisiana pop combo nor a release by a band in the traditional sense.  Instead, Meet the Residents is a dissonant avant-garde construction by a California-based collective of presumably rotating individuals who would protect their identities by performing in elaborate costumes, often in elaborate eyeball masks, under the tutelage of the mysterious and possibly non-existent composer N. Senada. The Dadaist mockery of the Beatles on the album cover gives some idea of what is contained inside, but if you come in expecting pure parody you’ll be disappointed. This is home-produced, featuring tape recordings cut with razor blades and spliced together, distorted horns, bizarre lyrics, and even weirder vocals. And it was ignored… mostly. The Residents were unphased and would go on to continue to produce albums and tour up to this day.  Retrospectively this album would garner critical acclaim for its challenging nature and willful deconstruction of Western music. This would be followed to an even greater extent in 1976’s Third Reich N’ Roll’s savage parodies of rock and pop music, but Meet the Residents shows pop, classical, and rock influences and then takes them to strange places.  

To give a brief sample, “Boots” is Nancy Sinatra if interpreted by a barbershop quartet of ghouls with ahooga horns added for good measure. The most pop-friendly song might be “Smelly Tongues” which features guest vocals by a high-school friend of the group and would be covered and released as B-side by Snakefinger, another friend of the group, later. “Spotted Pinto Bean” features soaring female vocals, resembling a him before devolving into percussive piano, and thunderous sounds while the lyrics focus on the coming of a bean. At nearly ten minutes, the closing track, “N-ER-GEE (Crisis Blues)” truly sounds like nothing else with snippets of the Human Beinz, the horns from before, what sounds like recorders and toy pianos, more nonsense lyrics, and vocals that sound like Mel Blanc as a neanderthal. 

Unless you’re a total freak, nothing in the above would make you want to check out this album, but you should. The influence of the Residents is hard to quantify. Sure, we have Primus playing covers and enthusiastic fans among celebrities such as Penn Jillette, but the real importance lies elsewhere. The Theory of Phonetic Organization, that you should make the music fit the sounds and not the sounds fit the music certainly was at least unwittingly followed by culture jammers and plunderphonics artists later.  The theory of obscurity, an egoist approach to art stating that it should exist for the artist’s sake attributed to N. Senada led to music that was uncompromising and DIY.   these reasons Spotify includes “N-ER-GEE” on its Road to Punk Rock playlist. This theory gives the impression Meet the Residents is not for you but for them. This is unless the album was always for you and the Cryptic Corporation (you never speak to the Residents, you talk to Cryptic representatives) assertion that the theory of obscurity has little influence on their work is true. Perhaps these mental gymnastics are the point, and the Residents want you to be critical of everything. They seemingly take overt positions against musical norms, Santa Claus, and mass consumption while providing music for you to consume. Perhaps in the infancy of the Residents on this album, they had not fully found the direction they would go into yet. 

What 1972’s Meet the Residents gives us is chaos, shambolic and harsh. You might like it. You might wonder ‘Why does this exist?’.  If you do they’ve succeeded by getting you thinking about the album.

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