Generally, in Monterey I felt less constrained, both socially and literally. My family moved to California from a very wealthy and quite snobby small town on Massachusetts' South Shore, where the cliques and castes were rigidly defined and heavily defended, especially in school. In addition, the town was far enough away from the influence of larger cities like Boston, and isolated just enough (due to proximity and economic status) from the neighboring towns, that the community mindset was quite insular and constrained. When you lived there, you weren't aware of it as much. But upon my relocation to the West Coast, I began to realize how much of a cage I was in back in New England.
At my new high school, a lot of that 'clique' and 'status' crap, while still present, was toned down considerably over what I had previously experienced. Generally, everyone was cool with everyone else. Years later, when I began to spend time in San Francisco, one thing that struck me about that city was that, on the whole, people didn't give a shit who you were and what you were up to, just so long as what you were into wasn't illegal or being a nuisance or bother to them. I then realized that that attitude wasn't restricted to San Fran - Monterey had that same kind of vibe going.
For me, the new openness I felt there was reflected in the design and curriculum of the school. All of my life on the East Coast, I attended brick-and-mortar monolithic schools, everything contained within the same structure - juvenile jails without bars, places where students were all but locked in (except for recess) from 8 am to 3 pm. Monterey High was my first experience with an open structure - several buildings spread around the campus and grouped around a courtyard, allowing you to at least get some air and see the sky en route between classes. And students weren't required to be on school grounds all day; if you had a free period or other long breaks between classes, you were allowed to head out into the nearby downtown area to do whatever the heck you wanted. This was absolutely mind-blowing to me, being able to go to Round Table Pizza on Alvarado Street with Jeff and Rick and Jim and my other buddies for lunch! It was a novel concept to be treated like a responsible human being there, instead of a knuckleheaded kid.
That different attitude seemed to be everywhere - a guy I knew in school turned down a college scholarship so he could go surfing in Australia for a year; the Dream Theater on Prescott Avenue constantly pulled in crowds for late-night weekend showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show; Pac-Man came out in the States early that fall, and was so popular that even my straightlaced mother was known to sneak over to the airport game room to play it; Carmel and Cannery Row were as yet mostly untouched by commercialism or tourists, and were still full of history and interesting activities; and the town's leading florist operated out of the "Planet Claire Flower Shop".
For me, California was just so COOL, and so much in the forefront of everything that was happening, much more than anyplace else I'd ever been.
One weekend that fall, my folks and siblings had gone out for the evening, leaving me by my lonesome in an otherwise vacant home. Bored, I turned the TV on and started flipping around the dial. I landed on a program that immediately caught my interest called "Videowest", airing on a public television station out of San Francisco. "Videowest" was a music video program, predating the premiere of MTV by almost a year.
Although the origins of short filmed musical performances date back to before the 1930s [believe it or not, the term "music video" was coined by none other than DJ and singer J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, who died in the 1959 plane crash with Buddy Holly and Richie Valens], in the U.S. in the late '70s/early '80s, they were still considered novelties and rarities, and people got very excited here whenever the odd one would pup up on TV every once in a while. The British Commonwealth countries were way ahead of the U.S. in pioneering, developing and disseminating the music video format - Australia's video program "Countdown" began airing in 1974, New Zealand's "Radio With Pictures" started in 1976, and Britain's "Top Of The Pops" began showing music videos in 1977. But in these parts, the only chance you had of seeing the odd one would be a one-off airing on a music or variety show. I remember seeing a video for XTC's "Making Plans For Nigel" in late 1979 (can't remember what show it was on) and being completely stunned. And I recall when "Saturday Night Live" had the U.S. premiere of Paul McCartney & Wings' then-groundbreaking "Coming Up" video (with McCartney simultaneously playing various roles, predating Outkast's "Hey Ya!" clip's use of this concept by almost 25 years) in May 1980 - I thought it was amazingly innovative and cool. But in my experience and to my knowledge, at that time there was no weekly show anywhere in the States that aired music videos exclusively . . . until I stumbled onto "Videowest".
Every week, "Videowest" would usually concentrate on a particular theme or genre, and intersperse music videos among interviews, commentary and humorous pieces related to that theme. A couple of program samples, with the themes of "Television" and "Beauty", can be found here and here (the music videos have been removed due to licensing issues). It was all very arty and avant garde, as properly befitted a show out of San Francisco. And while all of that was interesting, my main reason for tuning in was to see the videos, almost all of which were on the cutting edge of music of that time.
The first Devo videos I ever saw (including "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction", "The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprize" and "Girl U Want") were aired on "Videowest", along with my first exposure to a 'new' band out of New Zealand called Split Enz and their first semi-big U.S. hit, "I Got You". The first time I ever saw or heard of Laurie Anderson was through the show, the start of my lifelong fascination with her work. "Videowest" sometimes served as a showcase for obscure San Francisco bands as well. One night, I was treated to a video for the song "(Sooner Or Later) Some Of My Lies Are True" by a bar band with a local following, Huey Lewis & The News - my first glimpse of a band that became international superstars a few years later.
In the minds of many viewers and critics at the time (myself included), Devo was considered to be the most innovative and groundbreaking of the early music video pioneers. Their clips were so off-the-wall and visually mesmerizing, no other band could even come close to what they were doing . . . or so I thought. One evening in early 1981, "Videowest" devoted an entire show to the videos of a band they claimed out-Devo-ed Devo, an obscure, secretive San Francisco collective called The Residents. What I was treated to that night were some of the most off-kilter and disturbing videos that any band had dared to make at that time (or any time thereafter, in my opinion). Almost all of the clips were for songs off of the most recent Residents release, The Commercial Album - a disc containing forty songs, all exactly sixty seconds long.
The origin and background of The Residents is murky and steeped in mystery - to the point that the identities of the group members are officially unknown. As Wikipedia states:
"Throughout the group's existence, the individual members have ostensibly attempted to operate under anonymity, preferring instead to have attention focused on their art output. Much outside speculation and rumor has focused on this aspect of the group. In public, the group appears silent and costumed, often wearing eyeball helmets, top hats and tuxedos - a long-lasting costume now recognized as their signature iconography."
According to information released by the band (which may or may not be entirely factual), The Residents are all natives of Shreveport, Louisiana, and met when they were all in high school there in the 1960s. After graduation, they all headed to California as a group, at first settling in San Mateo in 1966 when the van they were traveling in broke down there, and later moving to San Francisco in the early 1970s. While in San Mateo, they began working on various art projects involving photography, sculpture and experimental recordings on crude reel-to-reel tape recorders. Over the next several years, the band made dozens, possibly hundreds, of recordings of their decidedly weird music and sounds. In 1971, they forwarded one of these reel-to-reel tapes to Warner Brothers, hoping to receive the same type of consideration and support that Warners had provided to their musical heroes, label artist Captain Beefheart. But Warner Brothers rejected the recording out of hand. Since the group had not included a name on their mailing address, the rejection letter included with the returned tapes was addressed to "The Residents" . . . and thus a band name was born.
Soon after their major label rejection, the band moved to San Francisco and started their own label, Ralph Records, to release their music. Their first studio album on the label, Meet The Residents, was put out in 1974. Throughout the '70s, the band was prolific, releasing five more albums, several singles and EPs, and for several years working on an ambitious (but ultimately unfinished) film project called Vileness Fats, which if completed would have been the first long-form music video. The Commercial Album, their seventh studio album, was released in 1980.
On "Videowest", the concept behind The Commercial Album was explained as such: the standard three-minute pop song played on the radio generally consists of a verse, chorus and break, repeated three times. It was the idea of The Residents to distill this standard structure down to its essence - a song comprised of a single verse, chorus and break lasting just one minute. That way, if a listener wanted a "pop song", all her or she had to do was play each tune on the album three times in a row.
It was both a wickedly subversive idea, and a hilarious way to take the piss out of popular radio fare, which the band considered to be too rigidly formulaic, by converting this commercial music into ACTUAL 'commercial' (as in 60-second radio/television commercial) music. To that end, and also to promote their album, The Residents purchased 40 one-minute advertising slots on San Francisco's most popular Top-40 station at the time (KFRC). Over three days, the station was obligated to play each track of their album during those station breaks - a brilliant way to promote their album, while simultaneously blurring the line between art and commerce.
The band members wrote and played on every song on the album, and got some help from their friends during the recording, using Phil "Snakefinger" Lithman and Fred Frith for some session work, along with anonymous guest vocalists Lene Lovich and XTC's Andy Partridge on a couple of songs. And in keeping with their arty multimedia background, The Residents completed music videos to accompany many of the songs, several of which were featured that night on "Videowest". Here are but a couple of examples of the clips that charmed, frightened, and jolted me that evening (the link below includes videos for "Moisture", "The Act Of Being Polite" "Perfect Love" and "The Simple Song", all of which were featured on the show):
The thirty-minute presentation I watched that evening was my only exposure to The Residents for a very long time. But the memory of their music and those mind-bending videos lingered with me for years, past the end of high school and well into college . . .
My four years at Navy was the time when I really began to expand my music collection, searching far and wide for the latest sounds of that era (mostly punk, post-punk and New Wave - hey, it WAS the mid-80s!). I quickly exhausted my search for non-mainstream music in the shops that were the most easily accessible to me, namely the Midshipman's Store and the record retailer at Annapolis Mall (neither locale known for being smoldering hotbeds for unconventional albums). So I began to expand my horizons and look further afield. An acquaintance of mine, a fellow "weird music" fanatic, tipped me off regarding an obscure used record store located in a small industrial park area of Annapolis, down West Street between the McDonalds and the old Parole Shopping Center. So one warm weekend afternoon during my Second Class (junior) year, I put on my summer white uniform, laced up my shoes, and began the four-mile walk towards this reputed place (I had no car, it was too remote to be served by bus, and I was too cheap to hire a cab).
I found the small shop tucked away down a side street, amidst machine shops and auto repair facilities. The hippie-fied owner looked as alien and unfamiliar to me as I'm sure I looked to him - a midshipman clad in gleaming white strolling into his dank, out-of-the-way store. As nonchalantly as I could, I made my way over to his stacks, which were mostly vinyl. A glance at his wares confirmed what I suspected from my first glimpse of the proprietor - most of what he had to offer were '60s Woodstock rock/'concept' albums and '70s prog rock freakouts. I had the sinking feeling that I had come all that way for nothing. But out of both politeness and boredom, I lingered a bit and looked carefully through the LPs.
It was there and then that a copy of The Commercial Album leapt out at me - The album name boldly emblazoned in red over the green-tinted faces of John Travolta and Barbra Streisand, with images of The Residents superimposed over them, giving the cover stars an eerie bug-eyed look. I'd never actually seen a Residents disc for sale anywhere up to that point (although, truth be told, I hadn't exactly been looking for one up to then). But one look at that album brought back to me every aspect of that long-ago night in Monterey, watching "Videowest" and getting blown away. I quickly took my selection to the register and paid the shopkeeper, who wore a look on his face of mingled incredulity and admiration, no doubt surprised that a supposed straight-arrow Naval Academy attendee was with-it enough to know and appreciate who The Residents were.
I still have that vinyl version, and a few years ago I acquired a copy on CD, containing ten bonus songs. That is the version I'm providing you here. So, for your listening pleasure, I give you The Commercial Album, released in 1980 on Ralph Records. This is a disk to be enjoyed and appreciated not all at once, but in snippets. Not everything on this album works, but there are definitely things here that will have you coming back to them, time and time again. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.
Please use the email link below to contact me, and I will reply with the download link(s) ASAP: