Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Heil, heil, rock and rock- The Residents

The Fall's resident humanist Mark E. Smith once claimed that the Residents justified the whole American music scene. While that's bit of uh... hyperbole, you could easily make the case that a lot of their 70's antics were at least a few decades ahead of their time. Musically, and certainly graphically, one of their most audacious concepts was their now-reissued 1976 opus The Third Reich 'N Roll (Mute).

Definitely not Nazi sympathizers themselves (wonder if they got calls from the JDL?), the unknown foursome was clearly looking to push some buttons as much as Negativland years later. Dick Clark as SS officer, clutching a carrot with images of Adolf and Eva dancing among the clouds- and that's just the cover. The record itself is made up of side-long medleys of dozens of 60's classic rock staples (without credits or any noticeable copyright clearance), provocatively titled "Swastikas on Parade" and "Hitler Was A Vegetarian" (take that, PETA). Think Nuggets as done by a satanic cult.

The fun starts with a German officer instructing the kiddies to do the twist, followed by "Land of 1000 Dances" (Swamp Thing howling with army of tiny horns backing and yes, Patti Smith beat 'em to this by a year), "Hanky Panky" (nasal groaner with banging piano and garbage can percussion), "Double Shot of My Baby's Love" (sung by an off-key chorus that sounds like they really have a hang-over) and "The Letter" (transfigured more than Joe Cocker, with a monster voice yelling in mountains of echo through horns and waves of tape noise) and the occasion punctuation of air raid sirens, gun fire and explosions. My favorite bits are "Yummy Yummy Yummy" done by a pimply-faced nerdy teen, an opera diva and an army of zombies (a great piece of instant social commentary) and "Good Lovin'" done as space-age minstrel show (George Clinton would have approved). And years before anyone knew what a mash-up was, they were also putting together "Sympathy For the Devil" with "Hey Jude," "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" with "Sunshine of Your Love" and "Telestar" with "Wipeout."

The idea of rock being a mind-controlled mass movement wasn't exactly new, even then: many liberal and conservative critics had already made the point, including Stan Freeberg on "Old Payola Roll Blues." And extending it to the level of the Reich is kind of ridiculous if only because Clark and the record companies essentially wanted the kids to part with their cash- if anything The Who Sell Out was much more prophetic about where rock was heading in terms of mass culture.

But if the overall concept has holes in it, the songs themselves are musically transformed so much that you'd have to press your ear against the speaker to ID the tunes. Anyone who's a fan of classic rock probably would have trouble too and most likely hate the record as heresy. But that's just the point. If the Residents are about anything, it's about over-the-top concepts and this is one of the best conceits. The nightmarish landscapes that the band came up with at least forced you to re-think these beloved hits that make up the rock cannon. Once the songs were yanked out of their well-known melodies, the band dug around for all sorts of psych-social context that you would have been hard-pressed to find- they'd also brilliantly do the same years later with Elvis' catalog on The King & Eye.

Sad as it is that the original 60's rock classics covered here are found on the radio less and less, it's also worth mourning the fact that such risky, bold concepts like this album are also in short supply nowadays.


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