Live shows from long ago… The Residents

The Residents, Electric Ballroom, Wellington, New Zealand.

Evening Post, 26/8/86

In 1986, GARY STEEL sat on a cold floor with a few hundred lucky punters and was blown away by The Residents.

The Residents, they call themselves. These alien invaders, who, determined to demonstrate their comprehensive briefing on human culture – the rituals, the song, the artifice – hold up a looking glass at our strange selves, our ways, our mores.

From Louisiana’s arid primeval swamps came The Residents; then, via San Franciscan transmutation and transplantation, the acid, acrid muse of an oddity in ensemble was borne. Scott McKenzie and an entire generation wondered aloud and with considerable despair: if your head was an eyeball, where would you wear that flower, that flower in your hair?

 

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San Francisco’s dirtied hippies had much to learn from The Residents, and so do we.

The Residents are performing a world tour to celebrate their 13th anniversary. Last night, the town was a place called Wellington. The venue was the Electric Ballroom. And the thronging, bemused, appreciative instantly ardent audience appeared almost as if by apparition.

One cad savaged my civilised shoes. A captive crowd – comprising numerous Antipodean twerps, trendies, loons and intellectuals – obeyed the omnipresent instruction “Please Remain Seated” to considerable discomfort on cold wooden floors.

In two one-hour segments, The Residents invoke much that is frightening and disturbing, never fail to entertain their patrons, and give a new meaning to the description ‘performance art’.

Simplistic props are stunning when the quizzical collective Eyes of The Residents are upon – and working – with them. For much of the first half, the “dancing” Residents grappled with their collection of white blow-up giraffes, repositioning them endlessly, and finally, climaxing in a stunning swirling display; an amazing and artful exploitation of ideas.

The light show consisted of a person twirling big yellow bulbs, and behind the front action were the “musicians”. Snakefinger lurked in the shadows, dutifully adding immeasurable and versatile contributions on guitar. The only other sounds came from two Emulators (music computers complete with floppy discs) and the strange vocals of one of the two disguised Residents controlling these machines.

Like performance artist Laurie Anderson, The Residents fool with the ambiguity and stupidity, along with the potent qualities of Western junk culture.

Unlike that overrated New Yorker, they don’t pander to young yuppies and slightly older would-be feminists. They don’t operate within the claustrophobic confines of an already defined hip art clique; hence, they don’t get invited to international arts festivals.

The Residents are scary. So is our “culture” They have distilled their own cartoon outline of Western Culture and filled it with the grotesque and obsessed images that haunt society. Unlike Anderson, they are not comfortable, assimilable. But they ARE funny, and their searing humour actually reinforces the effectiveness of the evil undertones.

Whether behind those masks lurks a savage morality we cannot presume. At times I wondered if their rite-like presentation would invoke the evils of the Ku Klux Klan, and it’s scary to think there may be no moral perspective at work; ambiguity can be a dangerous weapon with unpredictable results.

The Residents, however, acquitted themselves in what amounted to a wonderfully entertaining show. Modern technology and the stage has brought The Residents out of the dubious domain of “music cult” of interesting but two-dimensional proportion, and made them an unforgettable experience.

The Residents perform again tonight.

[2021 note: I was clearly “on something” when I wrote that. Apologies].

 

Also check out these ancient live reviews:

The Plague @ The Last Resort, 1979.

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