The Residents – Freak Show

The Residents – Freak Show: pREServed Edition

The Residents – more a concept than a band, at least in the early days, when their carefully constructed mythology based around an obscurantist cult of anonymity was enough to arouse the curiosity of many a passing left-field inclined listener. This one sat here typing this being one of a few hundred this side of The Pond who sought out some of those hard to get hold of LPs of the time. Courtesy of the music papers, and maybe John Peel, though I don’t recall him playing them much, if at all, this strange and deliberately faceless bunch of American Situationist musical rebels, donned in their now famous eyeball heads, made some quite odd music back in the day. I remember listening to the no doubt deliberately provocatively entitled and listener-unfriendly The Third Reich’N’Roll, and the very wonky Commercial Album, and thinking I’d never heard anything quite like that before, which wasn’t difficult, as back then my knowledge of left-field and avant-inclined rock music was, shall we say, a trifle sketchy!

I quite enjoyed 2017’s Ghost of Hope, the most recent album of theirs I’ve heard, but listening to this remaster of Freak Show from 1990 it seems their sound has not really evolved at all from that point, which apparently marked the beginning of the band’s obsession with computer generated sounds and MIDI devices, and of their love for multi-media events.

Like a comfortably fitting pair of battered old moccasins, The Residents seemed to have produced music that is instantly recognisable, as I can easily hear musically thematic links that sew a thread through Ghost of Hope, Freak Show, and right back to the Commercial Album, and even the spoken word narration schtick, much in evidence on Freak Show, runs like a furred-up artery through the piles of concept albums, right up to Ghost of Hope. Their fans are never going to be upset by sudden changes of direction (he guesses, being less than familiar with 75% of their catalogue – so shoot me down!), which is nice, because as we all know, fans do not like change one bit.

By now you’re probably thinking that I do not get this at all, and you’d be right. Someone on a Facebook thread I was reading compared The Residents to Cardiacs, the exact nature of the comparison I can’t recall, but it’s certainly a strange conflation! About the only similarity is that back in the day both bands had tiny but fiercely loyal followings, and everyone else hated them. They were clique bands. Musically, Cardiacs and The Residents inhabit entirely different universes. I think what puts me off is the knowing archness of Residentsworld, a meta universe in which they gaze incessantly at their own navels, entranced by their own cleverness.

Shall I tell you something about Freak Show by The Residents? I suppose I should, it’s not 1983, and it’s not the NME I’m writing for – I’m not nearly erudite enough, or in my 20s, and I don’t have a Modern Criticism degree to wave at you, dear reader. For that we can both be thankful. No semiotics or name-dropping Roland Barthes here, oh no. Where was I? Oh yes, Freak Show by The Residents. As the title implies it is a trawl through the seedy underbelly of the American carny, and its disparate cast list of societal outcasts in all their Gothic grotesquery, and would make a decent soundtrack to a certain Stephen King novel.

Maybe I was a bit harsh earlier. The music is interesting enough, and maybe not as simplistic or as predictable as I thought, albeit the album is a tad overlong, or seems that way, and it does get somewhat wearing. The lyrics, on the other hand, are a dark art made flesh in your noggin. Here’s some of the gentler verse, from Jack the Boneless Boy

“I’m Jello Jack the jolly boneless boy.
I live inside a jar beside the rooster boy named Roy.
They pour me out upon a platform and the people stare
At eyeballs in a pool of flesh surrounded by some hair.”

It gets much, much, weirder than that, I can tell you!

This Cherry Red 3-CD reissue contains the original album, “plus related singles, live recordings, unreleased material, and contemporary oddities”. The main album is on CD1, and CD2 is a work-in-progress disc highlighting the evolution of their sound throughout 1990. That sounds like hard work unless you’re a fan, just look at that track listing! In the interests of research, I did try to listen to it, but have yet to get past track 4. A “once-only” listen, even for a fan, I would surmise. We’ve all got box sets by our favourite artists with a “demos” disc we’ve only listened to once, have we not? This is one of those, I’m sure.

CD3 is entitled Live Freaks, and is just that, live versions of various Freak Show tracks taken from performances going as far back as 1991, right up to 2018. This includes a treat for the fan, the legendary Ty’s Freak Show, a restoration from 1991, presumably from a bootleg*, that condenses the entire concept down to 18-minutes. The sound is on the better end of the bootleg scale, and the narration from the ringmaster alone is quite absorbing.

The Residents’ music is fuller – I even spotted a guitar or two, might be that Snakefinger chap! – and less clinical in a live setting, and this is true for all the tracks on the live CD, which makes it the most listenable of the set. Some of it is genuinely unsettling, and at the same time, strangely compelling. You get the impression that the music is only a constituent part of what would have been a mesmerising audio-visual experience, as can be glimpsed from this short extract of Ty’s Freak Show I found on YouTube:

While my original scepticism regarding this band is still there, I must admit writing this has piqued my curiosity, and maybe if I had seen them live around the time of Freak Show, I may have become drawn in to their mysterious and murky world. If you are already a convert, I’m sure this 3-CD set will keep your inner bearded lady more than happy.

“Life’s a lot like a freak show. Because nobody laughs when they leave.”

[*The pdf booklet was not included with my review download, so this is my assumption.]

Disc One: Freak Show

01. Everyone Comes to the Freak Show
02. Harry The Head
03. Herman The Human Mole
04. Wanda The Worm Woman
05. Jack The Boneless Boy
06. Benny The Bouncing Bump
07. Mickey The Mumbling Midget
08. Lillie
09. Nobody Laughs When They Leave
~ bonus tracks:
10. The Mutes
11. Blowoff
12. All Tha’ Freaks
13. The Eyes Scream
14. Jelly Jack (Icky Flix)
15. Harry The Head (Icky Flix)
16. Jelly Jack Rmx

Time – 81:00

Disc Two: The Freak Show Evolutions
01. Spring 1990 Jam 1
02. Spring 1990 Jam 2
03. Spring 1990 Jam 3
04. Rough Mix 1
05. Rough Mix 2
06. Rough Mix 4
07. Rough Mix 7
08. Rough Mix 10
09. Rough Mix 12
10. Rough Mix 13
11. Rough Mix 14
12. Rough Mix 16
13. Rough Mix 19
14. Rough Mix 21
15. Pony Rink 1
16. Pony Rink 3
17. Pony Rink 4
18. Pony Rink 5
19. Pony Rink 6
20. Pony Rink 9
21. Pony Rink 10
22. Pony Rink 11
23. Pony Rink 13
24. Pony Rink 17
25. Pony Rink 20
26. Pony Rink 23
27. Pony Rink 26
*All tracks previously unreleased

Time – 74:41

Disc Three: Live Freaks
01. Ty’s Freak Show Restoration (1991)*
02. Everyone Comes To The Freakshow (1997)
03. Harry (2014)
04. Herman (2014)
05. Wanda (1995)
06. Jack (1997)
07. Benny (2001)
08. Mickey (2018)
09. Lillie (2011)
10. Nobody Laughs When They Leave (2001)
* Previously unreleased

Time – 59:01

Total Time – 214:42

It’s a secret! Sort of…

Record Label: Cherry Red Records
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 26th February 2021

The Residents – Website | Facebook | Info at Cherry Red Records