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In 1972, an anonymous group of musicians from Shreveport, Louisiana released their first single, “Santa Dog” — but not in the normal fashion one normally goes about releasing a debut single. This band pressed up 300 copies of the 2 7″ set and mailed them out as a Christmas card to friends, family and the occasional noteworthy like Richard M. Nixon or Frank Zappa (the latter of whom never received his; they had an incorrect address for him).
It may have been some inauspicious beginnings for The Residents, but in 1977, they’d have their first breakout hit, an EP called Duck Stab, featuring 7 songs (Constantinople, Sinister Exaggerator, The Booker Tease, Blue Rosebuds, Laughing Song, Bach Is Dead, Elvis and his Boss). Due to the EP’s popularity and the Residents’ dissatisfaction with the reduced sound quality of the original 45, they re-issued it as the A-Side of an LP (with modified running order), backed with a new set of songs planned as the Buster and Glen EP, becoming the album known today.
As with most of the Residents’ projects, Duck Stab had a theme; all of the songs had nursery-rhyme lyrical structures (territory they would again examine with Goosebumps, the B-side of 1980’s “Diskomo”). Created with odd sounds made from early synthesizers, tape manipulation and long-time collaborator Snakefinger‘s guitar playing, Duck Stab surprised underground music fans by being eerie, otherworldly and oddly-pleasing-to-the-ear.
“Constantinople”, the lead-off track of the new LP version, is a song about the afterlife; the percussive guitar opening the song grabs the listener instantly, and the oddly processed vocals throw her off her ear, being wholly unexpected the first time the album is heard; a great way to get someone to pay attention. “Sinister Exaggerator” (covered by Primus on their Miscellaneous Debris EP) is next on the album, with its nonsensical lyrics made up of references to popular culture (Elmer Fudd, Auntie Mame, Ferlinghetti, onion rings) delivered in a slightly menacing, angry tone. “The Booker Tease” is an instrumental lasting only about a minute and a half, lulling you in with its rock instrumental riff until the squawking, squealing horn jars you just when you’re think you’ve hit something normal on the album, which leads to “Blue Rosebuds”, the Residents’ love-or-is-it-the-lack-thereof-song, where the first character explains his feelings for the other, who rebuffs him with shrill, absurd insults (“Your lichen-covered corpuscles/are filthy as a fist/Infection is your finest flower/Mildewed in the mist”) — which doesn’t deter him any. “Laughing Song” and “Bach is Dead” are more modern sing-along nursery rhymes, and “Elvis and His Boss” at first glance appears to tell a story about a musician who intends to become famous, though on further inspection, the lyrics aren’t terribly clear, and seem to provide more of a blurry snapshot of someone’s life than anything else.
The Buster and Glen side of the LP is just as good. Opening with “Lizard Lady”, a song continuing in the vein of “Blue Rosebuds” or “Sinister Exaggerator”, about a woman in the throws of madness, imploring the listener to not only not believe her, but not to believe in her. “Semolina” is short and sweet, leading into the energetic and nightmarish “Birthday Boy”, showing us a rather disturbing birthday party for a very disturbed little boy. “Weight-Lifting Lulu” is probably the catchiest and most straight-forward song musically on the album, complete with hummable riff, even though the lyrics are about being an accomplice to the murder of someone’s granddaughter. “Krafty Cheese” is another like “Bach is Dead” or “Laughing Song”, with a call and response between plants and the tenders of these plants. “Hello Skinny” is probably the most popular song on this album, as it had a music video made for it (2 years after the album, though), which got airplay on early MTV, along with other video works of the Residents like their “One Minute Movies” from The Residents’ Commercial Album. Finally, it all ends with “The Electrocutioner”, about a woman who runs the electric chair — with one of the most disturbing sound effects ever put on record bridging the two sections of the song; the first careening out of control as the Electrocutioner throws the switch on someone, and the second a slow, sad, contemplative piece where the Electrocutioner wishes that it were easier to make the world a better place, like it is in her chamber, “where switches set you free”. Of course, the theme of death in this song folds back to the afterlife meanings in “Constantinople” making the album cyclical.
Of course, Duck Stab was almost 30 years ago, and the Residents have continued to progress. One of their more recent albums was 2002’s Demons Dance Alone, their most personal work yet written after the events of September 11, 2001, dealing less with the event itself and more with the various emotions that they felt afterwards. They’re presumably hard at work on a new album right now, and have been known to leak things that may or may not be from it on their blog.
(Also, even after 35 years, no one knows who they are, though there are theories, and even though the entire point of the anonymity is so people focus on their music rather than their identities (or lack thereof), there’s also a law in place that every article about the Residents must call attention in some way to the fact that they’re anonymous and that there’s loads of theories on who they are, so consider this paragraph in accordance with that particular rock music law.)