PopMatters readers are a bright bunch, so I’m sure you’ll be able to wrap your brains around this analogy. Imagine all the genres of pop music are made out of Lego – there’s a 500-piece kit for rock, 500 pieces for soul, 300 for disco et cetera and a helpful set of instructions included in the box. Well, in the Residents household, all the bricks have been tipped in the middle of the room, and no one can find the paperwork. To make matters worse, someone has tossed the 1,000-piece Millennium Falcon set into the pile as well. Also, everyone is drunk, so the constructions that emerge from these conditions have some of the elements of straight-ahead pop/rock/soul, but with weird, twisty bits stuck on for no real reason. Some of them are recognizable, some are mutated almost beyond recognition, but they’re all sort of beautiful.
Originally released in 1976, Third Reich ‘n Roll was the second Residents album. Cherry Red Records have got hold of the master tapes and assembled a package which will have every Residents aficionado frothing at the mouth. Over two CDs, you get the original album plus a stack of unreleased and live performances and a well-written set of sleeve notes. It’s a classy package. The liner notes hint at the incredible mythology of the Residents – a band about which much has been written, but how much is true is anyone’s guess. Who are they? Is this some kind of joke? It doesn’t matter. All you need to know is that the Residents have grabbed pop music and stretched it to the point just before it breaks apart.
Third Reich ‘n Roll is a mixtape for an episode of The Partridge Family written by Timothy Leary. “96 Tears”, “In-A-Gadda-Da Vida”, “Hey Jude” and others are bolted together and beaten with sticks until bits start to fall off. Much fun can be had by playing the “What the hell did that used to be?” game. Some songs are shown a little reverence, whilst others are handled with sneering contempt. The two lengthy pieces that make up the core of this reissue, “Swastikas on Parade” and “Hitler Was a Vegetarian” are crammed with these fragments, with no attempt to blend them seamlessly, so songs crash into each other in a jarring, atonal, aural soup. But isn’t that how we think about music? We don’t play music in our heads like a jukebox – we’ll remember shards of songs before our attention turns to something else, although, if Third Reich ‘n Roll is an accurate depiction of the inside of your head, then I’d suggest you contact a health professional, PDQ.
The most interesting tunes here are the cover of “Satisfaction” and the Beatles medley “Beyond the Valley of a Day in the Life”. If you thought the Devo version of “Satisfaction” was too “out there”, then this rendition is probably not for you. An approximate version of the iconic riff is played over ominous drones, and a distorted Captain Beefheart soundalike has some kind of seizure whilst singing what may or may not be a variation of Jagger’s lyric. Throw in a bizarre guitar solo, and you’re left with something that you’d need dental records to identify. What’s the point of making a note for note cover when you can do this to it? “Beyond the Valley of a Day in the Life” is another thing altogether – it’s a sound collage of fragments of actual Beatles tunes looped, twisted and bullied into a seemingly random form. The first example of sampling? Maybe. Depending on your viewpoint it’s either hideously ugly or a beautiful re-imagining.
Pop music is an academic subject now. In the hallowed halls of learning, earnest young men stroke their beards whilst they wax lyrical about something that took 30 minutes to write, ten minutes to record and three minutes to listen to. Fortunately, we have Third Reich ‘n Roll to blow a giant raspberry at all that nonsense. It’s a cultural statement, sorbet to clear the palate and a damn good piece of Art. It was relevant in 1976. It’s even more relevant in 2018.