❉ ‘The King & Eye’ manages the strange feat of both almost destroying the Elvis myth whilst also being a hugely distinctive tribute at the same time.
“One of the consistent working practices of The Residents has been to deconstruct popular musical culture and this is, without question, one of their most effective efforts.”
Throughout the early period of the existence of The Residents they maintained a fascination with the music of others. Whilst carving out a career in which they’ve always inhabited strange worlds their early work includes a considerable number of records examining the works of other composers. It’s fair to consider this from the perspective that they were, at this point, first and foremost a musical band. Technology and their own creative ambitions saw them grow into something much more with multi-media concepts becoming central and stage performances which became increasingly ambitious. Yet their first attempt at this, The Mole Show proved so fraught that the band vowed never to tour again.
Yet The Residents had made an impact and they were asked to produce something for a German TV programme which gave slow birth to this latest reissue project: Cube-E Box – The History Of American Music In 3 E-Z Pieces. This huge seven-disc set includes live recordings of the show, a studio album, remixes, demos, and other incidental pieces which came together during the late ‘80s which gradually grew into a full two hour show.
The project came at a curious point in the life of the band. They’d spent their studio time in the previous 4 years embarking on their American Composers Series. Their aim was to produce a 20-album compendium of important American music. Each album would feature one composer juxtaposed with another on the second side of an LP. The series began with George & James featuring the music of James Brown and George Gershwin done The Residents way. After a second album the band realised that the whole thing only worked on records and, with the advent of CD technology the contrast was lost as the music could not only be played continuously but also programmed to mix up the track order. These technological advances defeated the object of the project and so, after one other album, they abandoned it. It’s here where the fragments that evolved into the Cube-E show took shape.
Its genesis occurred when the group were approached to produce a 30 minute piece for a German TV show. The group had recently become enamoured with a collection of old songs from the American west. Once this was completed they were asked to extend the piece and decided upon a piece to complement this which revolved around an exploration of negro spirituals. After this they were offered the opportunity to perform a full stage show and decided upon a third act which involved telling a story about Elvis Presley. Presley was the ideal summation of the two works as his music, and much of the popularity of rock n roll itself, had its roots in both black American blues and gospel as it did in country music – whose roots took them back to the songs of the cowboys and the spiritual music of black American south of slavery and latterly Jim Crow.
The seven discs are broken into three distinct parts. The first three discs are made up of a concert from Holland which was recorded and released in 1990. This includes all three acts of the Cube-E show plus additional live renditions of some of its pieces from later tours and some additional studio tracks and related live performances. The sound on this set is very clear and the show’s enthusiastic response is apparent from the opening.
Of the three parts, final section The Baby King suffers most from the lack of a visual element because, despite its storytelling elements it doesn’t have the power the visuals would clearly give it. What you’re left with is Skullface conducting a ventriloquist act and growling through a succession of Elvis covers which, after a while does become a bit of a chore. There’s no visuals included and few exist which is one of the drawbacks of this set.
The next two discs are recordings of a performance of the whole piece recorded on cassette mostly from a show in San Fransisco with the final parts being taken from a show in Cologne due to, as the sleeve notes indicate, the operator falling asleep at the San Fransisco show and the tape running out as a consequence. The whole story quite in keeping with The Residents and is available for the first time. Although the sound quality isn’t as high standard this document feels more like a live experience and the lack of the detailed sound really helps the Baby King section stand out and easier to follow. The two discs here are just the performance of the time with no extras and so help focus on the show itself whereas you’re often finding yourself listening to the extras in the early discs as they follow on after each act. As a listening experience of the show itself, this works better.
The final two discs centre on the Elvis section. Before embarking on the tour, the band went into a studio in Montreal to record, for The Residents at least, a fairly big budget version of this section which came out at the time as The King & Eye. It includes most of the show and the dialogue sections were expanded. It’s here that final section really comes into its own. The sound clarity gives the story the chance to come to life most effectively, but its main success is to work highly effectively as a standalone album. Considering Elvis had been considered for the aborted American Composers Series, it makes sense as part of that too.
Here we are treated to the story of Elvis as some kind of gothic fairytale. The show’s puppets are replaced by the voices of real children and The Residents own take on a selection of classic Elvis songs. It sounds very slickly produced and is the most immediate disc in the collection. Additional material is a selection of tracks remixed from this album by a German producer Paralyzer originally released in 2004 as The King & Eye RMX. Space permits that only six of the original album’s tracks are included but, after a listen, this feels like a rather small mercy. Covering a variety of dance styles none of the tracks feel anything but mediocre. There’s a distinct lack of imagination and the tracks feel more like someone has added dance beats to the originals.
The final disc consists of rehearsals of the album tracks. The notes indicate they’re included as the sound is more consistent with the typical sound of the band which, they feel, wasn’t the case with the original album. This rawer sound, as the sleeve notes by usual communicator in chief Homer Flynn, indicate both the band and he feels these are better. Comparing the two you can understand why. It really depends on preference as this isn’t as smooth sounding but certainly more in keeping with the usual sound of the band.
One of the consistent working practices of The Residents has been to deconstruct popular musical culture and this is, without question, one of their most effective efforts. The King & Eye mixes their love of storytelling into the album and it works without any knowledge of the show. It manages the strange feat of both almost destroying the Elvis myth whilst also being a hugely distinctive tribute at the same time. One could juxtapose this record with their most recent studio release, Metal, Meat, & Bone, as the approach to exploring the music and history of the blues by creating a history for themselves is curiously reminiscent of the approach used in The King & Eye. It is, however, seven discs which require quite a bigger investment than the other reissues released in this series. It’s one for the more serious fan than the casual listener. Interesting more than essential.
❉ ‘The Residents: Cube-E Box – The History Of American Music In 3 E-Z Pieces pREServed’ (NRTBOX015) was released 23 October 2020 on New!Ralph/Cherry Red Records. Available as a 7CD Boxset, RRP £29.99: Order directly from Cherry Red Records HERE.
❉ The Residents will be touring their new ‘Dog Stab’ show, including the songs of Dyin’ Dog, across the world in early 2021. See residents.com for details!
❉ Peter Robinson is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.