For forty years The Residents have cultivated a wilful oddity. Their scaborous humour subverting the expectations of the music industry and indeed their audience. A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma – their cultivated anonymity seems itself an affront to the rock & roll hall of famers, whose bread and butter is the cultivation of the myth of unique individual genius and personality cult, unblemished by influence.
The Residents’ theatricality and conceptual proceduralism is an affront to rockist apologists’ for authenticity, a two fingered salute that began with them scratching out the eyes of the Beatles and has seen them both fascinated and repelled by music and technology, their iconic image of three giant eyeballs and a skull in top hats and tails like a Posada print fed bad acid.
After the hall fills slowly and we take our allotted seats to a muted soundtrack of sub-classical bombast, the audience’s attention focuses on three white light reflectors, the kind of pop-up discs seen on fashion shoots. This theatrical device frames a set comprising a leather sofa (with dollies) a cozy fake-fireplace and a T.V tuned to static.
The bilious sounds of a coke ad filled the room,“We’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” Two musicians appeared in glitzy red tail coats, faces hidden behind black stockings – cyber granny mirror shades and black dreads. Then came a pantomime old man, dressed in a Scrooge dressing gown with a priapic remote control. With his red-polka dot tie, cheap latex prosthetic and clown shoes, Scrooge McDuck welcoming us to an evening of weird tales from the remaining three Residents. He waved his hands and warned us that things are likely to get “kinda spooky.”
In their latest incarnation, “Bob”, “Randy” and “Chuck” (“Carlos”, the absent member of the expected quartet, having retired to Mexico to look after his ailing mother) have embarked on the European leg of an extensive tour, “Talking Light”.
A weird mashup of Musique concrète and storytelling fiasco, in which the Talking Light is the television screen and the ghosts that appear in its static, a handful of strangely incomplete stories are related. The reflector screens doubling as atmosphere with billows of dry ice and ugly midi presets. Gallumping carny, circus rhythms are broken or accompanied by spurts of overdriven riff fragments. We have fallen into the black hole of Rock Opera. At one part the audience even clapped along.
The Residents elaborate trail of disinformation, robot sellers, and multi media fixations has been confusing and confounding audiences for ten years short of half a century. Yippie anarchists, in thrall to Beefheart and Zappa whose schtick finally got them a retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive, their abrasive pranksterism and acid Californian situationsim comes across as a perverse form of musical indigestion, heavy on the lighting cues, freak bait.
The Mirror People haunt Randy’s dreams, strange apparitions of lesbian cannibalism, infanticide, serial killers and a co-dependant’s unseen sister. These stories are accompanied by a music that sounds deliberately broken. A cheaply synthesised hurdy-gurdy that could almost be a barely digital parody of era ’86 Nick Cave reimagined as box-bedroom dubstep and accompanied by frequent, not so snakefingered, FX laden “scorching guitar solos”.
Randy, relishing the squawk of it all, stomped from side to side, giving it the full Brechtian as he relished every hammy cliffhanger. As a teenager, he found a note. The skeleton of a baby clutches a ring. A hastily dug grave. The artfully incomplete inscription, “A mothers love erases rage. A mother’s rage erases……”
Other ghosts are summoned in this American séance. Spectres who haunt the airwaves. Sad, fame hungry vampires willing to confess all to daytime T.V hosts. The girlfriend who feeds her lover to death, her body becoming liquefied. An Unseen sister who haunts her neurotic sibling and the mirror people, just waiting to catch your eye….and catch Randy’s eye they inevitable do.
These stories are narrated in character by Randy and a series of projections controlled by him on the three circular screens. The device and setting recall some of the performance strategies of Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelly, Tony Oursler. It makes sense to consider this in the kind of anti-traditions of Ludlum’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company – 70’s acid politics, the freakshow and the circus being recuuring themes.
We are being spun a tale, a series of tales, soundtraked with sub-Floydian mush, burnt cliché and faulty patch cables. Dress up Grand-Guignol fragments collaged and appropriated, smashed back together as mock-opera, as musical spectacle. All these stories seem to concern death or absence and are delivered with grim humour and Lovecraftian camp.
Becoming in turn a little old lady and lonely obsessive, “Randy” worked the crowd, his voice pitched up or down, exorcising his own ghost. When the mirror people made their appearance strobes announced his transformation into a rock and roll MC. As he recognised the face in the mirror he was possessed, “Fuck Carlos!” he shouted, as if the lights dazzling the audience had re-inflated him. Modest bows were taken as they boogied off the stage.
The Encore saw “Randy” returning in a fun fur coat lit with Christmas tree lights, treating us to the Cowboy’s Lament deconstructed into squabbling synth textures and overblown guitar wibble.
“It makes no difference, so I’ve been told
Where the body lies when life grows cold
But grant, I pray, one wish to me
O bury me not on the lone prairie”
Flirting with his real identity, Randy flashed the lining of his coat revealing a glimpse of a pirate ossuary. On this ….flimsiest of evidence Dorfdisco will go out on a limb and reveal “Randy’s” true identity as none other than the very Mr Skull himself.