The Residents – The Eyes Scream: A History Of The Residents (Cryptic Corporation film, 1991)

The Residents 'The Eyes Sceam: A History Of The Residents' VHS artwork

cryptic corporation | vhs | 1991

One of the consistent things that has always hovered around The Residents is, of course, the identities of the members. This is hardly a surprise when the members have generally spent most of the last forty-odd years underneath various masks, the most obvious being the eyeballs that have become synonymous with the band for most of this time. The obsession with knowing the names of The Residents taps into a curious aspect of the human psyche – namely the need to know. It is simply not enough for us to appreciate their art – music, films, multimedia – as art; we need to know who is behind it.

But really, what would knowing their names actually achieve? Would our appreciation or comprehension of the work of The Residents really be any more enriched by knowing the names of these people? I think not. Nevertheless, we’re all still desperate to know, and The Residents themselves know this all too well; not too long ago they unmasked themselves and announced that their real names were Randy, Chuck and Bob. No-one believes that for a second, but it’s probably as much as we’re ever going to get.

The Eyes Scream, a 1991 documentary by the band flirts with the need to know those identities in the final few minutes. The host, long-term Residents accomplice Penn Jillette, stops reading the praise for The Residents from the autocue and storms off set, the camera following him as he walks off; as he does so, The Residents are there operating the cameras and microphones. Just before the credits roll, they lift up the eyeball masks, offering a brief and tantalising glimpse of who they might really be. But then, how do we know they really were the actual Residents and, once again, does it really matter? Probably not.

Given that The Residents are not a conventional group, The Eyes Scream is not a conventional documentary. The film takes the form of video selections from the band’s body of work, some live performances on various television shows and obligatory talking head interview footage. The videos show how richly inventive the band have always been when it comes to the use of visuals, whether that be in the early use of computer animation (Earth Vs. Aliens) or the art-house narrative of Whatever Happened To Vileness Fats? which feels a lot like David Lynch directing Elias Canetti’s Auto Da Fe on the set of Rentaghost. Vileness Fats was the mythical film that the band’s first single, 1972’s Santa Dog, was supposedly taken from the soundtrack for, and only extracts like the one included here have ever been released.

Then there’s the band’s tendency to dress up. Eyeballs aside, there are plenty of examples here of the band dressing up and clearly having a lot of fun, including some spirited cowboy clobber on a performance captured live in Munich – here the band are without eyeballs, but any hope of discerning features is thwarted by their faces being obscured by scary lights. We can all see the artistic side of the band, but what’s perhaps overlooked is their theatricality and sense of showmanship. Just check the Busby Berkeley-esque choreography on their rendition of ‘Jailhouse Rock’.

The documentary is hosted by Penn and his mute sidekick Teller. Penn has worked with the band in the past on a 1982 European tour and several albums (beginning with that year’s Ralph Records 10th Anniversary Radio Special!), even acting as a sort of spokesperson for the group according to some clips included here – as surreal as this band are, there’s little more weird than watching four eyeball-headed people playing ‘snookers’ (sic.) in a Brixton pub. The involvement of the duo briefly gives rise to the notion that maybe they may themselves have been Residents, but clearly you can spend too long thinking about these things. Penn and Teller’s own brand of comedy has always tended toward the somewhat bizarre, making them perfect presenters for this supposed (albeit loose) history of the band; the best section is one where Teller keeps on taking off layer upon layer of clothing to show the camera a variety of Residents t-shirts and sweaters, while Penn reels off a list of available merchandise such as a Residents pizza holder ora Residents yo-yo (‘so you can walk the Santa Dog’).

As this is a music documentary, it wouldn’t be complete without the addition of talking heads, in this case the Cryptic Corporation‘s Homer Flynn and Hardy Fox. Both have vehemently denied being Residents, but on the video evidence presented here, during one of the sections where the band are relatively shorn of masks, the lead singer looks a lot like Flynn. Flynn himself sums up the motivation of the band, explaining that they are constantly ‘creating their own reality’. In this sense, in a world of alternative reality, identities don’t matter a jot.

The Eyes Don’t Scream is a product of the Nineties – its presentation and garish graphics are reminiscent of MTV or The Word – but in the absence of anything more concrete, this documentary is essential viewing for anyone seeking to make sense of this most enigmatic of bands.

Featured Clips:
Don’t Be Cruel
Alter Image
Third Reich & Roll
Vileness Fats
Man’s World
Hello Skinny
One Minute Movies
Jailhouse Rock (Live in Oslo)
Cry For The Fire (Live in Oslo)
Man’s World (Live in Australia)
Burning Love (Live in Munich)
Earth Vs. Flying Saucers
From The Plane To Mexico

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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Unusual Places To Find A Mute Artist Reference No. 1

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Unusual Places To Find A Mute Artist Reference No. 1

An unexpected mention of Blast First goofballs The Butthole Surfers in the excellent Made In America by Bill Bryson (Black Swan, 1994).

The band are mentioned in passing in a chapter entitled Sex And Other Distractions, describing American society’s simultaneous adoration and abhorrence of sex and references to sex since the time of the Founding Fathers.

Bryson is here referring to the tendency of The New York Times to eschew language with any sexual connotation. The full sentence reads thus:

Butthead or butthole appeared sixteen times, again almost always in reference to a particular proper noun, such as the interestingly named pop group Butthole Surfers.

I’m not sure what’s most surprising about this – the fact that Gibby Haynes and co made it into the hallowed pages of The New York Times, or that Bryson considers them a pop group.

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

The Ministry Of Wolves – Music From Republik Der Wölfe (Mute Records album, 2014)

The Ministry Of Wolves 'Music From Republik Der Wölfe' LP artwork

mute artists | lp/cd/i stumm360 | 10/03/2014

Republik der Wölfe is a theatre production commissioned by Theatre Dortmund’s artistic director Kay Voges and directed by Claudia Bauer which premiered on 15 February 2014. The music for the production comprised collaborations between Mick Harvey, Alexander Hacke, his girlfriend Danielle di Picciotto and Paul Wallfisch. Harvey is a veritable Mute stalwart given his tenure with bands like The Bad Seeds, and as a multi-instrumentalist and producer he has a reputation as being a highly skilled and versatile addition to any line-up. Hacke is a veritable Goliath – in both stature and reputation – who formed a crucial component of the noise onslaught of Einstürzende Neubauten and found himself offering a more nuanced role in Simon Bonney‘s Crime & The City Solution. Di Picciotto is an accomplished artist who formed part of the new Crime lineup that released American Twilight in 2012, and whose live visuals accompanied that album’s tour. Keyboard player and singer Wallfisch is founder of the New York group Botanica, a group whose music is variously described as ‘gypsy and punk-cabaret infused chamber rock’ and who have collaborated with Kid Congo Powers, another Bad Seeds alumnus.

The music takes its principal inspiration from the fairytales of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the stories of whom will be familiar to more or less any child albeit viewed through a distinctly Disneyfied lens. The original stories by Grimm were a mix of the ethereal and macabre, drawing inspiration as much from folklore as the frighteningly original imagination of the two brothers. (By way of a recent anecdotal footnote, I was in a shop in the Germany pavilion at Disney’s EPCOT last month where they had copies of the collected Grimm tales for sale. Two Americans next to me were dumbfounded as to why these fairytales were in the Germany pavilion, so co-opted have they been by Hollywood over the past century that they are regarded as quintessentially American in origin.) Just like the original fairytales on which they are based, the music written by this group has an authentic air of dark mystery, sorcery and otherworldliness, making for an original body of work that exists happily – if strangely – without the visuals for which they were intended.

First, let us deal with the songwriting. My only real awareness of the original Grimm fairytales come from a combination of the sanitised Ladybird books and Disney movies of my youth, and my two daughters’ enduring fascination with fantastical princesses and mythical creatures. Consequently I have no real understanding of what the band are going on about here, though it’s clear from titles and some of the subject matter as to which particular story they are dealing with. Whether in the ethereal spoken word tracks from di Picciotto, the fragile double-tracked musings of Mick Harvey or Alex Hacke’s ominous intonation on ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ the guts of the story are evident, even to an ignorant like me. Only, the tone here is fundamentally dark, linking the songs to the original stories albeit through a thoroughly contemporary lens – the mischievous dwarf Rumpelstiltskin wasn’t, as far as I can tell, ever exhibited at a Coney Island funfair, for example. The whole thing is shrouded in a sinister, almost violent mysteriousness, knocking for six most versions of these tales.

Next, consider the music. Neither Harvey nor Hacke are strangers to composing music for theatre, and both Neubauten and Harvey (with Nick Cave) have albums in the Mute back catalogue that were commissioned for plays. Between the two of them their sense of space and detail is second to none, and when combined with Wallfisch’s piano – somewhere between bar-room blues and jazz – the whole thing swings with a depth and inventiveness that is in many ways more interesting than making sense of the vocals. An obvious reference point would be The Bad Seeds between Tender Prey and Let Love In (‘The Little Peasant’ even has ‘Red Right Hand’-esque organ vamps), but there’s also a relaxed, jazz-inflected dimension here too, cutting gently through the gloom. The start of ‘Cinderella’, with di Picciotto on vocals even sounds a lot like ‘The Carny’ from Cave’s The Firstborn Is Dead. For this reviewer the highlight is ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, a edgy stew of droning guitars, grungy vibes and a storyline delivered in German and English by Wallfisch that seems to relocate Little Red to a New York gangland scene.

Above all, this is an inventive album based on an interesting concept, produced by four individuals who, in their own right, are incredibly talented but who together can create something very special indeed. My only gripe is that it feels like this music really needs its visual dimension to completely make complete sense of this theatrical offering.

Listen to ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ and watch di Picciotto’s making-of documentary below.

Track listing:

lp/cd/i:
1. The Gold Key
A1. / 2. Rumpelstiltskin
A2. / 3. The Frog Prince
A3. / 4. Cinderella
A4. / 5. Rapunzel… (As Isdora Duncan)
B1. / 6. Hansel And Gretel
B2. / 7. Snow White (Heptagon)
B4. / 8. The Little Peasant
B3. / 9. Sleeping Beauty
A5. / 10. Iron Hans
11. Little Red Riding Hood
B5. / 12. White Snake Waltz

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Alex Fergusson – Stay With Me Tonight (Red Records single, 1980)

Alex Fergusson 'Stay With Me Tonight' 7" artwork

red records | 7″ rs003 | 1980

There appears to be a television theme running through Daniel Miller‘s work between 1978 and 1980. First (of course) there was Mute‘s first move, his single ‘T.V.O.D.’ as The Normal; Silicon Teens, his fake synth group, had a track called ‘TV Playtime’ and Missing Scientists, who Miller produced for their single ‘Bright Lights Big City’ were better known as The Television Personalities. Alex Fergusson, whose ‘Stay With Me Tonight’ Miller produced under his Larry Least alias in 1980, was a founder member of Alternative TV. If nothing else, this release proves that too much TV is not necessarily a bad thing, despite what the health professionals might say.

Alternative TV were formed by Mark ‘Sniffin’ Glue’ Perry and Fergusson, a Scottish guitarist. The debut release by the nascent ATV was a flexi (‘Love Lives Limp’) given away with the last issue of Perry’s Sniffin’ Glue punk fanzine in 1977. Shortly after, following a couple of 7″ singles, Perry sacked Fergusson and cast his original collaborator aside. Fergusson went on to join Sid Vicious biographers Fred and Judy Vermorel’s brainchild, the band Cash Pussies (with Alan Gruner, model Diana Rich and Ray Weston); Cash Pussies released one single, ‘99% Is Shit’ which featured clips of Sid Vicious being interviewed, and withered away like the Vermorel-constructed act they were. In 1981, Fergusson formed Psychic TV (aka Psychick TV) with Genesis P. Orridge (who had been a sometime ATV percussionist) and Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson, after the initial demise of Throbbing Gristle. TG had contacted Fergusson when they were working on the soundtrack to the Vermorels’ Millions Like Us movie, asking him to assist with the music they were creating.

1980’s solo Fergusson 7″ on Red, ‘Stay With Me Tonight’, sounds a million miles from those punk / industrial roots. Featuring Fergusson on vocals and Gruner on synths, the track is a pretty, out-and-out synthpop track that provides no clue whatsoever to the harsh cerebral onslaught that Psychic TV would create. Quite how Daniel / Larry got on board is hard to understand, but it perhaps serves to highlight how intertwined the punk / post-punk landscape in the UK was. (Gruner would go on to work with Bonnie Tyler; we won’t talk about that.) The synths on both tracks distinctly sound Miller-esque, both from Fad Gadget and Depeche Mode records; it wouldn’t surprise me if perhaps they were Miller’s synths. No details are provided on where this was recorded or who else worked with Miller / Fergusson / Gruner on this, but it’s feasible that this is a Blackwing / Eric Radcliffe / John Fryer affair like the Missing Scientists 7″.

‘Stay With Me Tonight’ (copyrighted to 1979) has a steady, thudding beat and some brilliant arpeggiating synths plus a beat on the chorus that Depeche Mode would definitely borrow for ‘Dreaming Of Me’. The way some of the synths get filtered from subtle background noises to foreground flashes is good too; it’s an effect that acid house and techno would repeat ad infinitum, but it’s nice to hear it deployed on a synth pop track. Fergusson’s vocal has a certain naivety, an unpolished, nasal youthfulness which is about the only ‘punk’ quality this song has; punk in the sense that it sounds like he’s not a singer in the trained sense. Overall, it’s a nice, upbeat and forgotten synth pop track and I really like the transition from flat-out verses to sparse choruses, which sounds like a Miller trick to me.

The less we say about the name of the B-side, ‘Brushing Your Hair’, the better. The track is a too-short synth instrumental, co-written by Fergusson, Gruner and Miller. The drums have a Krautrock quality while electronic squiggles reminiscent of the percussion on Depeche Mode’s ‘Nodisco’ have prominence in the foreground. Meanwhile, a wavering keyboard riff that was appropriated and expanded for Fad Gadget’s ‘Ricky’s Hand’ makes a brief appearance. This track has Daniel Miller’s handiwork in major evidence, and it’s worth tracking this down for the B-side alone.

Track listing:

7″:
A. Stay With Me Tonight
B. Brushing Your Hair

First published 2011; edited 2014

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

At Oxfam, Marylebone High Street, London

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At Oxfam, Marylebone High Street, London

Clearly someone offloaded their Erasure collection… (not me).

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Beatz – Divergences & Contradictions Of Electronic Music (Analog Solutions film, 2014)

Beatz

Beatz – Divergences & Contradictions Of Electronic Music is a documentary film by DJ Eduardo De La Calle that surveys the health of the global dance music scene.

An independent – some might say underground – film, De La Calle’s methods veer toward the lo-fi, being largely just what he captured as he travelled around the world to interview many of dance music’s legends (Carl Craig, Derrick May, Marshall Jefferson, Carl Cox, Laurent Garnier, Juan Atkins) and newer talents in order to collect their views on what they think dance music has become and where it’s going.

Although the likes of Garnier ultimately deliver a spirited reading of the enduring vitality of the international club scene, elsewhere the vibe is uniformly sombre. Much decrying is made of the likes of Beatport as a means of manipulating tastes and pre-filtering selections for the listener in a way that record shops never did; similarly impassioned comments are delivered about the supposed commodification of dance music and mp3s – particularly unmastered tracks constructed of nothing more than three loops (echoes of punk’s limited musicianship aside, such tracks inevitably lack any particular human quality) – and DJs that eschew proper mixing in favour of simply queuing up poor quality mp3s and letting a machine synchronise them; one commentator likens buying records off the internet to drinking at home. Vinyl is seen as the golden medium, encouraging lots of fetishistic comments about its fragility, malleability and even artistic merit, while others counter this with a view that the medium itself doesn’t matter – it’s the ideas that make something original or not. Minus artist and Richie Hawtin protégé Matthew Jonson (they even dress the same and have the same hair) sums it up perfectly with ‘the machine will never have the idea’.

Throughout the film, the ‘human’ quality comes through in a loud way – perhaps somewhat surprisingly for a strand of music that is supposedly all about technology. That human dimension appears most negatively with diatribes against the super-DJ where showmanship has overtaken the actual music, or in discussions about ‘live’ versus programmed music where mistakes can happen, therefore allowing a real unpredictability can creep in. Carl Craig talks enthusiastically about the influence of jazz on dance music, an often overlooked input into the genre and one which perfectly illustrates the impact of individual flair over lumpen technology. Mute‘s own Apparat (Sascha Ring) offers his own slightly bemused reaction to talking to people in clubs and finding that people don’t know – or don’t care – who’s on the bill, as if the natural conclusion of the so-called facelessness of techno’s logical conclusion comes as a surprise to him.

The film is a bit rough around the edges, especially with regard to the subtitles, but this globetrotting film was shot with evident care and attention – much more so than most lo-fi productions. The soundtrack features a number of intricate pieces by De La Calle himself which had this reviewer feeling nostalgic for his old techno collection. For Mute fans, as well as Apparat, Speedy J and BMB‘s Surgeon also appear as talking heads.

The film can be streamed at Eduardo De La Calle’s website or below.

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence