The Sound Projector Christmas Radio Show Friday 16th December 2011
‘Hard Times of Old England’
‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’
Richard & Linda Thompson:
‘We Sing Hallelujah’
‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’
From I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, UK ISLAND REMASTERS IMCD 304 CD (2004)
Shelagh McDonald, ‘Jesus is just all right’ (1970)
From Album, JAPAN STRANGE DAYS WAS-1043 CD (2006)
The Etchingham Steam Band:
‘Hard Times of Old England’
‘The Sussex Carol’
‘Adderbury Wassail Song’
From The Etchingham Steam Band, UK FLEDG’LING RECORDS FLED 3002 CD (1995)
Nic Jones, ‘The Outlandish Knight’
From Nic Jones, UK TRAILER LER 2027 (1971)
Teresa Maguire, ‘The Joys of Mary’
Peter Jones, ‘The Holly and the Ivy’
Bob and Ron Copper, ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’
Watersons, ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’
From Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy, UK TOPIC 12TS346 (1977)
Bob and Ron Copper, ‘Shepherds Arise’
John Partridge, ‘The Cherry Tree Carol’
Shirley & Dolly Collins:
‘Down in Yon Forest’
‘The Gower Wassail’
‘Is it far to Bethlehem’
From Within Sound, UK FLEDG’LING RECORDS NEST 5001 4 x CD (2002)
Watersons, ‘Christmas is now drawing near at hand’
From Frost & Fire, UK TOPIC 12T136 LP (1965)
The Young Tradition, ‘Lyke Wake Dirge’ (1966)
From The Young Tradition, UK CASTLE COMMUNICATIONS ESM CD 409 CD (1996)
Ray & Archie Fisher, ‘Night Visiting Song’
From Bonny Lass Come O’er The Burn, UK TOPIC 12T128 LP (1962)
Anne Briggs, ‘Martinmas Time’
From Classic Anne Briggs, UK FELLSIDE RECORDINGS FECD78 CD (1990)
Richard Thompson, ‘Mary and Joseph’ (1972)
From Henry The Human Fly, UK HANNIBAL HNBL4405 LP (1986)
Sandy Denny, ‘At the end of the day’ (1973)
From Like An Old Fashioned Waltz, UK ISLAND REMASTERS IMCD315 CD (2005)
Alasdair Roberts, ‘Lyke Wake Dirge’
From No Earthly Man, USA DRAG CITY DC283 LP (2005)
1 from All Around My Hat, UK CHRYSALIS CHR1091 LP (1975)
and Below the Salt, UK CHRYSALIS CHR 1008 LP (1972)
6-8, 10, 11 from The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 9: Songs of Ceremony, UK TOPIC 12T197 LP (1971)
Don’t we all have favourite records we play every Christmas? I know I do. It’s the first album (from 1973) by The Residents, specifically the track on side two ‘Seasoned Greetings’. It’s one of many Residents Christmas pieces – an instrumental which starts and ends with a canon of melancholy horns and piano which state the main ‘theme’. In the brooding mid-section, wah-wah guitar noodlings meander over a distorted bass and piano backing. Horns whoop like triumphant elephants. At the end a ghastly sentimental voice breaks in, bleating ‘Merry Christmas, Mom! Merry Christmas, Dad! And Merry Christmas, Sis! I love you!’ in the most corny, saccharine tones imaginable. It’s a sarcastic garish day-glo parody of a greetings card in sound, leaving the listener in no doubt as to how The Residents view this particular holiday season.
I admit to everything – I’m a total ‘Grinch’ when it comes to Christmas. This Residents track has developed into a personal anti-Christmas charm for me, a private magic spell that protects me from the usual Christmas horrors – the family, grim seasonal fare, dark nights, bad TV – which induce chronic depression. However, I first heard Meet The Residents not during a bleak winter, but in summer 1981, at art college in Coventry, where its shocking unfamiliarity became an obsession. Playing it late at night, drunk, through headphones, I suppose I was attempting to efface its strangeness through repetition – and failing. Another obsession began there too; the band’s mythic history, as described in the sleeve notes. The gathering of tapes, their mentor The Mysterious N Senada, and the origins of the later Eskimo LP. We were told that this ‘staggering new musical style’ was composed using ‘phonetic organisation’. What the devil? One track yielded what I imagined was a clue to these ‘phonetic’ methods – ‘Smelly Tongues Look Just How They Felt’ ran one chant, a phrase that referred to all the five human senses – except that of hearing. Hmm…
The private obsession grew as my Residents collection expanded. I spotted more Christmas references, such as 1979′s ‘Dumbo The Clown (Who Loved Christmas)’, another sarcastic dig at the hollowness of seasonal consumerism. I assumed that The Residents had suffered stifling middle-class upbringings in America, which they fled in their escape from Louisiana to California in 1966. Perhaps they had heard 1950s Christmas records in their parents’ record collections; when they started their recording career, they deliberately imitated the lush sounds of these over-produced easy listening LPs. This musical influence is detectable on Meet The Residents, where there are traces of Perez Prado, Yma Sumac and Esquivel – all done exquisitely badly, via The Residents’ untutored instinctive approach to making music. And why? Just to purge the ghosts of Mom and Dad, and their ‘normal’ bourgeois values. What better way to target them than by sending up the cloying sentimentality of an American family Christmas?
Later, I heard ‘Santa Dog’, an even darker exploration of the theme – and The Residents very first record (from 1972). It opens with an impenetrable line of twisted dementia, ‘Santa Dog’s a Jesus Fetus’, which (if unpicked by obsessive clue-hunters) yields an anagram of ‘Satan God’ and a savage parody of the birth of Jesus Christ. Instead of a crib surrounded by a halo, here’s a shocking image of the biological realities of birth. ‘Santa Dog’ became a sort of anthem for The Residents, as they re-recorded and re-issued it several times over their career. The ‘Santa Dog 78′ version sweetens the deal slightly by rendering the ‘bing bing bing bong bong bong’ chant as a Munchkin choir singing carols door to door. But it’s still laced with viciousness. The picture sleeve to ‘Santa Dog 78′ comes close to exorcising their Christmas demons in a single scorching image. They’re wearing Santa Claus masks with curly white beards and wigs, bloodshot bug-out eyes, and red-lipped comedy mouths registering a fixed grin with all teeth bared. I have yet to see an image that better articulates the sheer inanity of a commercialised Christmas, and its loathsome hypocrisy.
As for the mythology, it dawned on me eventually that ‘phonetic organisation’ was simply a polite way of saying The Residents couldn’t play their instruments. Even The Mysterious N Senada turned out to be bogus; Ensenada is a coastal resort in Mexico, 45 miles from San Diego. The Residents themselves grew to look down on this early ‘naive’ period in their development. Nevertheless, with their songs, stories, films and sleeve art, The Residents succeeded in creating their own miniature universe, like that of comic artists Jack Kirby or George Herriman – or the Outsider artist Henry Darger, who created the Vivian Girls. A commentary on the unfinished Vileness Fats movie alone could fill a book; its characters have also overspilled onto record (Arf and Omega, the Siamese twin-tag wrestling team, find voice on the Santa Dog EP).
The Residents universe is one you can get lost inside. It has, at times, been a second home for me, and the weird characters who people it have become close friends. Further, their creations have been a massive influence on me personally, as an artist and writer. The Residents were driven to express themselves with their own unique voice, no matter how eccentric it might appear. They let this self-determination overcome all obstacles, including an inability to play instruments, or produce records, ‘properly’. They brought the sound of their own alienation into the studio, and inscribed it directly into the grooves of the vinyl. Over time, they have built their art into a Cryptic Complex, a secret meeting point, where other lost souls could find balm and comfort.
Now, although Christmas is still a cause for despair and anxiety, I turn to ‘Seasoned Greetings’ to find balm and comfort for my troubled soul. ‘Well, it’s Christmas, but there ain’t nobody raising much of a fuss! Nobody but me! Ho ho ho!’
Originally written by EP in 2001 as a submission to The Wire (it was rejected).
The Russian Waystyx label has sent another four releases all graced with their stand-out packaging, which takes hand-made CD wallets to a level of quality and imagination which few have surpassed. RLW has put out Herzbluntanteil I.K.K. IV (WAYSTYX 47), which is another instalment in his ongoing project to remix and reshape a popular German Christmas song as rendered by his daughter. We noted IKK – Purpur in this series when it was released by SIRR in 2006. I find to my chagrin I have missed the two intervening releases, but this one (released in November 2009) gives us contributions from Brume, Formanex, Anla Courtis, Dustbreeders, Intertronik, Howard Stelzer, and other prominent international tape’n’noise merchants, all engaged with the process of revisiting the innocence of a child’s view of Christmas and extracting from this source much alien darkness and nightmarishly unnatural sounds. A chillingly beautiful collection which boasts RLW’s usual strict quality control; not an ounce of fat on this Christmas goose. The Christmas-card wallet unfolds to reveal typesetting in the outline of an angel, and a window-grid containing all the notes in the form of cut-up slices of card. ‘Don’t wish me a merry Christmas,’ snarls the misanthropic Howard Stelzer in his sleeve note, ‘I won’t have one’.
French electro-acoustic rebel genius Lieutenant Caramel informs us rather gloomily that Street Noise Penetrates My House (WAYSTYX 46), on a fine collection of tape-debris mumbling and rattling excess which arrives packaged in the form of a lace-up shoe, complete with a shoelace and a suede finish. I’m going to send this to my bootmaker in St James’s so he can unlace it properly, since doing so is the only way I’ll be able to access the intriguing sleeve notes and psychedelic black-and-white pattern inside. The music, which includes ‘Variation on a Lost Horizon’ and ‘Dialogo Con Luigi Russolo’, is quite some way from resembling street noise; it’s full of queasy and unsettling sounds, strange voices, and non-musical twists, all painstakingly assembled and clashed in exciting ways, creating that miasma of unreal and disorienting experience which Lieutenant Caramel has made all his own. This guy was a revelation to me when I heard that double-CD compilation on Monochrome Vision, so it’s a delight to find more of his excellent work.
Slightly easier to open is the fine double-disc compilation The Wheel (WAYSTYX 39) by Maeror Tri, which gives us a generous sampling of this project’s electronic and semi-industrial music from 1988 to 1996. Many of these twenty tracks originally appeared on cassettes and CD compilations, now mostly out of print; there’s also some unreleased material here. This German trio apparently used only electric guitars (with plenty of effects) to create these droney ambientscapes, although voice work does surface from time to time in these murked-out mixes. Their penchant for Teutonic gloom may make for oppressive listening at times, but at their best it’s clear that Maeror Tri crafted their work with patience and skill, and achieved many distinctive sounds of their own. The package for this one comprises two pieces of very sturdy thick card die-cut into wheel shapes, one of them embossed with the band’s famous tri-partite ‘glyph’. The set is bound up by a strip of coloured paper held in place by a circular paperclip.
French emperor of fogged-in ambient electronics Brume has released Emergence (WAYSTYX 65), a set of two discs which the creator hopes you will play simultaneously to achieve more of the intended effect, including some ‘dephasings’. This is a reissue of a 1990 work originally put out on two cassettes by Old Europa Cafe. Not quite as sonically rich as other Brume releases which I have heard, Emergence comprises a series of abstracted watery bubbling noises overlapping in weird ways, filtered through light touches of post-processing and treatments. It may have existed as an installation piece, in which context it would probably make a bit more sense. A foldout pack with artworks printed in white on clear vinyl, where the discs are clearly marked ‘Source 1′ and ‘Source 2′ in a clever bilingual pun which might refer to pre-recorded source material, or to the French word for a spring. I see Brume has a entire slew of his earlier releases available in remastered form from Waystyx, so maybe it’s time to get busy with the PayPal button if you’re a fan who needs to scoop up these very limited editions.
‘Invocation And Ritual Dance Of The Young Pumpkin’
‘Soft-Sell Conclusion & Ending Of Side #1′
‘Lumpy Gravy Part I’
‘Sleeping In A Jar’
‘Our Bizarre Relationship’
‘The Uncle Meat Variations’
‘Electric Aunt Jemima’
‘Prelude To King Kong’
‘God Bless America (Live at the Whisky A Go Go)’
‘A Pound For A Brown On The Bus’
‘Ian Underwood Whips It Out (Live on stage in Copenhagen)’
‘Nasal Retentive Caliope’
‘Let’s Make The Water Turn Black’
‘The Idiot Bastard Son’
‘Lonely Little Girl’
‘Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance’
‘What’s The Ugliest Part Of Your Body (Reprise)’
‘The Chrome Plated Megaphone Of Destiny’
‘Pound for a Brown’
1-7 from Absolutely Free (1967), UK RYKODISC RCD 10502 CD (1995)
8 from Lumpy Gravy (1968), UK RYKODISC RCD 10504 CD (1995)
9-16 from Uncle Meat, USA BIZARRE / REPRISE 2024 2 x LP (1968)
17-24 from We’re Only in it for the Money (1968), UK RYKODISC RCD 10503 CD (1995)
25 from Money Demos bootleg, ZAPPERMAN RECORDS ZAP 014 CD (2002)