Music Stories

The Residents 40th Anniversary or “How I Discovered The Avant Garde”

During the summer of 2003, I was working retail at The Salvation Army full-time, in The Valley, Los Angeles area–more specifically Sun Valley–at 8232 Sunland Blvd where today there appears to be a busted out smoke shop. I had just recently graduated Sound Master Audio/Video Institute in North Hollywood, where today a high-rise apartment building stands. I was too young, brash and socially awkward to find professional audio work, especially in Los Angeles where the most suave professionals in the world gather for the purpose of excluding folks exactly like me.

I had been assistant manager of a new and failing café near CSUN, called The Liquid Cube. Believe it or not, I was turning the joint around, but the square owner didn’t share my confidence. She also seemed oblivious to the fact that her cafe sounded like a hit of acid. So when it closed, I looked for work that felt acceptable to me on a moral level, rather than aggressively working in my new field.

Being the kind of person I was, The Salvation Army seemed like an okay gig. And they were happy to have me; I was a step up from the common applicant. Jobs were plentiful in these times and “overqualified” was not so common a rejection. I accepted my minimum wage however, pleased to work full-time, knowing that I wasn’t going to stick around long, but it would help me stay focused on saving money. The itch was growing. I wasn’t sure what was brewing within me, but it was like a revolution buzzing just below the mainstream.

By this time, twenty-years old and newly “experimenting” with pot, voraciously reading for the first time, I was largely fascinated by the books I could find at work and would get my bric-a-brac work done so I could organize the bookshelf. Music has always been important, but I was hardly scratching the surface yet, however the pot gave a new perspective. I grew up loving Pearl Jam, by junior year in high school I craved the sounds of Radiohead, but it wasn’t until after the new millennium as we called it, and the break up of Pavement that I actually listened to the Indie genre that stood underneath the above mentioned giants.

By this time, working at Salvation Army, Pavement was my favorite group, but I didn’t understand what had been influencing them or even members of Radiohead, like Johnny Greenwood who was beginning to work in “New Music.”

So the sonic salvation of my life happened mysteriously at the dock one day. In the mornings, we would intake clothes, furniture, bric-a-brac, etc. and send back stuff that hadn’t sold. By the mid-afternoon, things would be at a lull, and the dock would lay dormant unless someone dropped by a donation. Making the rounds, I visited the dock and spotted a stack of Compact Discs. I was energetically tugged to the CD’s. By 2003, Napster had been shut down, many were still using dial-up, and CD’s had real value. Through this medium, we discovered new music.

Nobody was around, inside or outside the dock; these discs are mine. That gifted feeling accompanied them, “these are meant for me.” Because the donation appeared out of nowhere, neither receipts nor donor, I grabbed and stashed them in my car. I was so appreciative that I brought a stack of CD’s of my own for donation. Among them: Creed, Limp Bizkit, and maybe some Alice in Chains.

But why were these discs at the dock so important? What could it be? Sinatra Christmas 1991, Frampton Comes Alive re-mastered; what could possibly be in this stack? That’s what was remarkable about it. It was real quality and rare, as rare as CD’s get anyway. More importantly, my taste was changing; I needed an excuse to recycle. So here is the top 3 of what was in this stack.

#1. The Residents, Fingerprinze[1]

Holy Crap, really? This is why I’m telling this story. And I will end the whole thing with a short review of their show last month. It would take me another year before I would really begin to appreciate what was happening on this album. Sounds like a bad acid trip. Oh yeah, this record began to make sense after my first mushrooms.

#2. Talking Heads, Remain in Light[2]

The opening track on this record is unstoppable with the most angular and damn near white-tight-assed chops you will ever hear, yet, it’s really groovy and brilliantly arranged. I was stoned and enthralled with headphones on when I first head this record. It was like trying heroin: that mix of new sounds and new stony sensations will never happen again, but I have tried to recreate it.

#3. OHM: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music[3]

Perhaps the most important collection in that stack was this compilation. The last two albums are historically important to the success of the above-mentioned artists (Radiohead and Pavement) but if that’s true, then this compilation is historically important to the success of their influences (Talking Heads and The Residents). OHM includes Brian Eno, David Tudor, Clara Rockmore, Steve Reich, and the list goes on.

The irony of this is that I got rid of all these within a few years, after moving to Portland, where the music got much weirder. Only so far recovering the Talking Heads. But the music made it’s impact already and when I get money, I’ll have them on vinyl. Through it all, I have realized that there is a complete ecosystem of music and recordings I’ll never get to. It’s a real adventure.

Okay so after all these years, I still feel a reverence for The Residents. They made numerous, excellent records, and the Ralph label was definitely influential. So when I saw them on with a free bid-to-win two tickets contest, I had to enter, and if I lost, then maybe I’d pay the $25. Well, I won the tickets, diligently entering my bid almost every day for about a month. And when I learned it was their 40th Anniversary Tour, I felt even more grateful.[4] So how was it?

It was okay. I mean… every fan realizes that something changed in the eighties and by the early nineties that change really sunk their creative potential. And at this show, it was rather clear that the band was down to a single founding member. The other players in the band are just franchisees, taking the opportunity to enjoy a paid gig and play for what has become a legendary name. They performed in a triangular formation, Randy at center with two wingmen. Everyone is carefully masked. Isn’t it amazing we still don’t know who they are?

The performance was entertaining and the music actually sounded good. It was well programmed and sonically crystal clear, but retained enough weird to sound compelling. Their guitarist brought the spirit of Snakefinger, and the lead singer, the final standing member, Randy told the narrative of The Residents’ rise and fall. And they played new versions of the hits. I didn’t recognize a single tune, other than Constantinople, but only the words. Visually, it was really simple. The backdrop offered something to gawk at with colors changing subtly. Toward the end, an eyeball was inflated on a Christmas tree and the band did an encore.

This audience was more geek than hipster; you could tell from their appearance, yes, but also from their enthusiasm. No hipster would be visibly excited by almost anything, including this show. It was fan fare at best. Nope, this group is hardly cool anymore, although their following is dedicated.

So for me and for what I love about The Residents, it just wasn’t delivered and probably never will be. But I’m happy I did it. And it reminded me of this story and how my perspective of music took a radical change.

What about this really experimental idea? To protect their identity forever, let a completely new band takeover the franchise, a young group of cats so creative with audio and video that only they can do today what The Residents were doing in the 1970’s? I know I would check it out.




[4] A complete box set (packaged in a refrigerator) is for sale, including original pressings of every release ever. Pretty amazing. Even more amazing: the price tag of $100,000. As far as I can tell, zero sold.

Sean Ongley

By Sean Ongley

Co-Founder of THRU Media. A background in non-profit, music, and radio preceded my ambitions here. Now, I aspire to produce new media and publish independent journalism at this site and beyond.

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