Pop Deconstructionism 101: The Residents’ Third Reich and Roll

In the final stages of editing our manuscript, Vickie and I, during one of our semi-daily State of the Book conference calls, agreed that we needed to include a comprehensive Geek Rock discography. The reason for this was simple: there was (and still is) a lot more ground to cover. We’re both proud of every single chapter included in Geek Rock, but my only lament was in regard to what wouldn’t be in the book. I even hinted with a not-so-subtle nudge and wink that maybe, just maybe, we could someday do Return of the Son of Geek Rock to enshrine at least another dozen more artists from this genre within the framework of legitimate academic discussion.

For me, the most glaring omission (and sorry, kiddies, but I’m calling dibs on them in the event Return of the Son of… becomes a reality) is The Residents. In short, they represent the most esoteric depths of experimental music from the classic rock era, with a discography that spans four decades and gives Zappa a run for his money in terms of their eclecticism. Just about the only thing one won’t find in The Residents’ discography is a hit record. Commercialism has always been their target, not their goal. It may also be worth mentioning here also that The Residents have existed in some form since 1972 with no one knowing for sure just who the Hell these guys (and maybe gals) are.

There is plenty to discover and discuss from mining the band’s career. In my experience of getting into The Residents, I found the easiest point of entry to be their tribute albums – songs I already know, albeit in vastly different form. Covers can be a touchy subject, especially in this day and age where we can all rest soundly knowing just what Avril Lavigne’s rendition of “Imagine” sounds like, and yet at the same time there is a litany of cover tunes that not only do justice to the original, they surpass them. I’m sure there is a sizable segment of the population who think The Beatles did “Twist and Shout” first, no doubt because of the energy and vigor they put into their performance. Or how about Ike and Tina’s rendition of CCR’s “Proud Mary?” I love Fogerty and the gang, and they have their own share of dazzling covers (turning “Susie Q” and “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” into sprawling swamp-rock jams? Brilliant!), but Ike and Tina made “Proud Mary” theirs. In that same vein, Trent Reznor, the angriest man in music, was gracious enough to concede that Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” was the best.

Beginning in the early 1970’s, cover albums became somewhat of a trend – David Bowie’s Pin-Ups, The Band’s Moondog Matinee, John Lennon’s Rock & Roll, side A of Todd Rundgren’s Faithful – meant to be a fond look back on the past, its yearning for yesteryear (for Todd and Bowie, it was back to the mid-60’s, while for Lennon and The Band, it was back to the early days of rock ‘n’ roll) a sign of dissatisfaction with the times. Released in 1976, The Residents’ second album, The Third Reich and Roll, subverted the standards of the above-mentioned tribute albums where the past was held in such a lofty view.

Beginning with an actual clip from the German version of “Let’s Do The Twist Again,” the snippet is cut short by flatulent sound effects and a tribal drumbeat. When the vocals come in, it is an atonal take on the chorus from Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances.” The barely intelligible lead singer calls off all the dance styles from the original before going back to the tribal drums. With the emergence of a plonking piano, the band segues into “My Baby Does The Hanky-Panky” by Tommy James and The Shondells. Each side of the original record makes up one long track, segueing from one song to the next, making it less of a traditional album than it is a work of aural art.

It is seemingly obvious from the outset that The Residents were throwing tomatoes at pop music: just look at the cover, which Wikipedia matter-of-factly denotes as featuring “television entertainer Dick Clark in a Nazi uniform holding a carrot while surrounded by swastikas and pictures of a dancing Adolf Hitler in both male and female dress.” The metaphor is a hard one to miss: the innate fascism of pop music. The late Clark may appear to be an innocent target, but let’s not forget that in the 50’s he dodged the same payola scandal bullet that ruined Alan Freed’s career (which may have had more to do with Freed playing Little Richard, while Clark was plugging Pat Boone’s version of Little Richard…)

The songs parodied are at times obvious choices: “A Horse With No Name,” “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy,” “A Double Shot of My Baby’s Love,” all songs with truly stupid lyrics. However, at the album’s conclusion, a synthesizer playing “Sunshine of Your Love” suddenly shifts – it can’t be! – to one of the most sacred cows of the past decade: The Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” with its closing mantra that seemed to make all the clouds go away during the storms of 1968. As the singers join in, the keyboardist begins bungling his notes – intentional or not? – adding a sinister quality to the proceedings. The guitar, which begins by doubling the “Hey Jude” mantra melody, starts to take some liberties here and there before drifting into the Luciferian counter to The Beatles’ angelic hymn: “Sympathy For The Devil” by The Rolling Stones. They even throw in a few “woo-woo” backing vocals for good measure. In just 35 minutes, The Residents have torched the very institution of pop music, reminding us that even our gilt-edged heroes were all part of the same big ugly pop machine.

Left off the album, but from around the same period, were two more visitations by The Residents onto the hallowed ground of The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. It is worth keeping in mind that by this time – 1976 – both groups were thought of as part of the past, despite everyone’s efforts to bring The Beatles back together, while the pre-punk revival Stones were busy taking two years to churn out yawn-inducing mid-tempo dinosaur rock sludge. (Black and Blue, anyone?)

The Residents’ intentions may never be known, but their cover of “Satisfaction” takes the roughshod garage band from outer space of The Third Reich and Roll and does it one better. With a vocal performance that is more screaming than actual singing, the cocky swagger of the original is replaced with an impotent, nasal lament, countered with sheer rage on the chorus. This type of cover, where deviation from the original is what defines it, was the first of its kind. Two years later, Devo’s robotic version of “Satisfaction” was praised for its innovative approach. Their version is brilliant, but The Residents’ version is, by contrast, downright scary.

On their EP The Residents Play The Beatles and The Beatles Play The Residents, the band did more than just spoof rock’s most sacred cow. The A-side, “Beyond the Valley of a Day in the Life,” is an audio collage compiled from Beatles and Beatle-related recordings. They go for deep cuts, too: “Tell Me Why” from A Hard Day’s Night, “Mr. Moonlight” (itself a cover!) from Beatles For Sale,“Tell Me What You See” from Help!, and even clips from The Beatles fan club-only Christmas records. Assembled like a more commercial “Revolution 9,” The Residents did one of the first mash-ups. The EP’s B-side is a haunting cover of Magical Mystery Tour’s “Flying,” one of The Beatles’ only instrumentals and only one of two to share a group writing credit.

By doing these twisted covers, the aura of reverence surrounding Rundgren’s note-for-note replications of “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” and “If 6 Was 9” and Bowie’s space-glam updates of songs by The Kinks, The Who, and The Yardbirds was suddenly unnecessary, while Lennon and The Band’s veneration of yesteryear can be written off as silly exercises in nostalgia (though in Lennon’s case, it was the settlement of a court battle for “borrowing” some Chuck Berry lyrics in “Come Together”). With Devo’s warped cover of “Satisfaction,” The Sex Pistols’ obscenity-laden version of “My Way,” and all those surprisingly effective hard rock covers of Britney Spears tunes, cover tunes can now – under the right circumstances – be stripped of their politics, done the way the artist wants to play it, not as an homage or a glowing tribute, but simply because they want to do it. We have The Residents to thank for that.

What Is Geek Rock?

When Alex DiBlasi and I first set out to academically explore geek rock, we began by defining a set of criteria to describe what, exactly, IS geek rock.  I had suggested that we present a panel on geek rock at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association annual conference, and our panel set the tone and provided much of the feedback for the definition(s) and criteria that you can find throughout our book Geek Rock: An Exploration of Music and Subculture (which, btw, is the first and so far only book to address geek rock in an academic context). The really fun part (well, there’s lots of really fun parts) about trail-blazing is the very nature of trail blazing itself–marking out the general path. In our book, our authors (including ourselves) have come up with a set of criteria that we think is pretty good, but which also only serves as starting point to pave the way.

1. Geek rock is “geeky” by virtue of its lyrics. They Might Be Giants allude to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” in “No One Knows My Plan.” TMBG not only reference classical philosophy, but they are referencing it in a song sung by a narrator who is prisoner plotting to escape his cell–and he narrates his unknown plans to a rather calypso tune. This is geekery at its finest, in my opinion, because of the musical geekery (see #2) juxtaposition with the literary geekery.

2. Musical geekery is also frequently seen in geek rock. By this, I mean musically referencing other songs, genres, or artists, and/or displaying a knowledge of, well, music. An example: Barenaked Ladies’ references to Rush in the song “Grade 9,” on their album Gordon. Implicit in this reference is the idea that Rush is a band you could not only discover in 9th grade, but that you could fandom in 9th grade (I’m using fandom as a verb here because I think fandom is a complex phenomenon of joining, allegiance, exuberance, and influence. It seemed the best way to indicate the discovery of an artist in your youth that impacts you significantly.)

3. Geek rockers are geeks. Re: Weezer. After all, they coined the term “geek rock.”

4. Geek rock is generally, like geeks themselves, not terribly mainstream. This one is a little tricky, because what, after all, is mainstream? The popular in popular culture, the mass in mass media, mainstream is also fickle. And panoptic. And quo. But what do we make of the listing of artists from the first volume of Never Mind the Mainstream, a collection of MTV’s 120 Minutes (the alternative music show) from 1991? Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soul Asylum, The Stone Roses, The Mission UK, Bob Mould, The Church, The Cocteau Twins, Julian Cope, Sinead O’Connor, Sonic Youth, Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians, World Party, XTC, They Might Be Giants, Camper Van Beethoven, and Modern English. Once obscure, several, if not all, of these artists are far more “mainstream” now than they once were, reading more like a “Who’s Who” list then a “Who’s That?!” list. Even with the fluctuations in the mainstream, this list demonstrates how geek rock tends to cross the streams, and also exist in the realms of alternative music, or indie rock. Perhaps it’s best to use the lingo of the 90s, and say that geek rock is an alternative to the alternative, without necessarily being isolated from the alternative or the mainstream. It may not generally be mainstream, but it’s not exactly not mainstream, either. Which leads to my last point, #5.

5. Perhaps most importantly, audience interpretation is what makes geek rock geeky. Be it mainstream, alternative, or something else entirely, what really puts the geek in geek rock is the listener. When I listen to They Might Be Giants, I hear layers of possibility in meaning, a playground of interpretation, of sophisticated referencing of literary device and musical homage wrapped in panache. The word “geek” for me, connotates “smart.” Let’s not forget that “geek” was first equated with intelligence, enthusiasm, and an awkwardly zealous focus on pursuits. They Might be Giants are a geek rock band in my book (literally) because they are, above anything else, a SMART band. They fit nearly all of this criteria (not #3. I don’t think they themselves are geeks, and they don’t claim to be, either). My reading of They Might Be Giants as geek rock musicians is what makes them geek rock, perhaps even more than anything they are inherently doing. As a listener, it’s my interpretation and perception, the connotation that I have of “geek,” and my own invested geekiness and geeking out that puts the geek in geek rock.

One of my intentions with this column is to continue to explore geek rock from every angle we can possibly think of. In our book, we have contributions from around the world that explore geek rock from the perspectives of cultural studies, lyric analysis, gender studies, the whole shebang. I want to keep adding to this list, discussing what geek rock is, why it is geek rock, and how geek rock is important to music and, more broadly, culture and subculture(s) in general.

In other words, we intend to geek out over geek rock. And I hope you’ll join us.