Sunday, January 16, 2011

Confusing Grace With Outer Space

It goes without saying that certain rock stars have the same mysterious allure as movie stars. One lesson these rock stars learned from movie stars is to seldom grant interviews, that is, they learned early on that the secret to success is to make it impossible to determine the fictive from the real. In the same way that "star power" often overcomes the dullness of a bad movie, there's more to great rock 'n' roll than actual music. The allure of The Residents, it seems to me, has always been in the way they went about establishing themselves as different. Like all those who have gone about forming counter-discourses, they exaggerated the power of their antagonist. Taking a cue from The Mothers of Invention's We're Only In It For the Money (1968), they challenged the legitimacy of rock 'n' roll by casting themselves as the dark double of the Beatles, as the anti-Beatles, as the cover of their first album reveals. At the beginning of their career, economics dictated they commit themselves to the medium of music (the manufacture and distribution of records), but as their later career has demonstrated, they were really interested in pursuing the Wagnerian idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk or "total work of art," an assemblage of music, painting, theater, poetry, and primitive architecture (Vileness Fats). In fact, "primitive" is the sound they sought: they went about making music that rendered the idea of influence extremely difficult to determine. They made records as if in a cultural vacuum and in total isolation, which is why their records sounded like nothing else. The very few live shows they did in the 1970s (they didn't begin to tour until the early 80s after the introduction of the Emulator) were short, cacophonous, and outrageous bursts of Guerilla Theatre, evoking nothing so much as Babel.

I'd never heard of The Residents until the fall of 1979, in October or November of that year when Eskimo (1979) was getting a good deal of play on the stereo system at the record store I often visited. (Gone are the days spent in record stores listening to new music, at least for me.) An employee there who bought and and sold used records highly recommended the album to me. Not having a whole lot of money in my pocket at the time, I begged off, so he sold me instead a used copy of Not Available (released the previous year) for, if I remember correctly, the bargain price of $2.50. Although narratives of personal experience have become commonplace in cultural studies, I'm not convinced they are a particularly good idea, as they have always seemed to me to be too confessional, sounding too much like a religious conversion. So I'll stop there except to say that I began to listen, and to collect, The Residents, and have done so for over three decades now. I cannot speak for others, but for me it seems that the record that first prompted my interest in a band is the record I shall always hold in the highest regard. So it is with Not Available. Had The Residents, say, stopped recording after The Commercial Album (1980), the lukewarm critical response to which, as legend has it anyway, disappointed the band, Not Available would have assured their lasting fame, for in the history of popular music nothing like it has been recorded before or since. It is, as we once used to say, totally off the wall. Personally, I think Not Available and "Walter Westinghouse" are among their very finest moments.

Hence I was very keen to put on the headphones and give a close listen to the latest re-issue of Not Available, released earlier this week on CD through MVDaudio, a version of the album which promised the restoration of 7 minutes edited out of the original (1978) version. In order to find out whether this claim were true, I selected at random three previous releases of the album on CD (those CD issues without any bonus tracks, of course) in order to assemble a representative sample from which to determine the album's running time. The results are as follows:

Label Cat. No. Year No. Tracks Time
East Side Digital ESD 81232 1997 5 35:35
Bomba BOM 22011 1997 5 35:35
Euro Ralph CD O34 2005 5 35:27
MVDaudio MVD5122A 2011 5 42:28

The MVDaudio CD reissue is indeed 7m longer, give or take a few seconds. Conveniently, each of the various CD releases has five tracks corresponding to the five parts or movements on the album, which makes it rather easy to determine in which parts material has been restored. The differences in track length are as follows, taken from the iTunes player on my MacBook Pro:

Track ESD 81232 MVD5122A
2 10:02 10:04
3 6:36 10:11
4 7:01 8:54
5 2:22 2:22

The restored version indicates that in its original form, Not Available was composed of four parts all of roughly equally length, between ten and eleven minutes long, with the fourth part eventually cut down with the additional fifth part forming the Epilogue. As can be seen, for the original LP release--reiterated on all CD reissues up to this time--most of the material was cut from tracks 3 ("Ship's A'Going Down") and 4 ("Never Known Questions"). The bulk of the material edited out is at the ending of Part Three and the beginning of Part Four, lyrical instrumental passages performed on a synthesizer (is that a Moog or Buchla synth?). Having listened to the MVDaudio release several times now, I think I prefer the longer version to the original (edited) release. After all, it's hard to listen to the previous versions knowing that material has been edited out, and I like the additional music.

Happily, the Residents' website promises an April re-release by MVDaudio of the digitally enhanced stereo mix (43:44) of Meet the Residents from about twenty years ago. If time permits (things for me are pretty busy at that time) I'll post a blog on that reissue, but in the meantime I will continue to enjoy the gloriously restored version of Not Available.

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