The Residents – Santa Dog (Superior Viaduct single, 2014)

The Residents 'Santa Dog' 2x7" artwork

reissue: superior viaduct | 2×7″ | 29/04/2014
original release: ralph records | 2×7″ rr1272 | 20/12/1972

It would be misplaced to state that Santa Dog, a double 7″ released in 1972 by the new Ralph imprint, firmly impressed the strange world of The Residents on the contemporary conscience. Misplaced, because hardly anyone heard it: 500 copies were pressed and mailed out by the label, a lot of them were returned and a further batch can be presumed to have been discarded, like unwanted Christmas gifts, by the baffled recipients of what looked like a strange corporate gift. The sleeve indicated that Santa Dog was an advert of sorts for the film Vileness Fats, a 14-hour epic that has never fully seen the light of day.

Given the few copies in existence, it’s no surprise that Santa Dog has become an expensive, sought-after artifact, much bootlegged and any copies that do come up for sale are pounced upon by moneyed fans of art-music-weirdness with intense zeal – one copy went on Discogs for GBP650. Mercifully, the Californian reissue label Superior Viaduct – a name which has all sorts of Residential nonsensicality about it – can now rescue us all from either financial ruin in the pursuit of this eleven-minute curiosity or horrible YouTube rips of the tracks, thanks to a new replica pressing of the original gatefold double 7″ which will set you back a mere fifteen dollars.

The original release was weird to its very centre; side D followed side A, side C more naturally followed B. Why Ralph did this, we’ll probably never know. Why The Residents decided to attribute the four songs here to four fantastically-monikered pseudonyms we’ll also never know. Check them out: Ivory & The Braineaters, Arf & Omega (featuring The Singing Lawnchairs), Delta Nudes, The College Walkers. All four ‘bands’ are linked by a uniform oddness or archly experimental aesthetic, but each does indeed sound like an individual band, of sorts. We assume, of course, that these really are pseudonymous groups of this supposedly San Francisco-based unit, but can we really be sure? With The Residents you can never be totally sure, and that’s part of the fun of the chase.

Each of the four pieces here are, effectively, collages; nothing stays in place for long, almost as if the technical limitations of specific tape-loop lengths meant that the layered recordings only had a short lifespan before being abruptly moved out of focus in favour if something else – a tropicalia-flecked rhythm, a chorus of vocals singing about (I think) kicking a cat, clattering distorted noise bursts. Heard as a whole, Santa Dog is both lighthearted, one might say almost twee, and yet malevolently dark at the same time; a subversive hand gesture whilst grinning innocently simultaneously. The Beatles, whose album sleeve The Residents would shamelessly co-opt later, did this more or less contemporaneously with ‘You Know My Name’, itself an assemblage of sundry disembodied short studio vignettes, and achieved the same effect with swathes of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; but whereas the Mop Tops flirted with the possibilities of musique concrète from within the confines of the richly-equipped Abbey Road, The Residents commenced their journey in that gear and never really changed it (a lidless eyeball cannot blink, after all).

‘Fire’, credited to Ivory & The Braineaters finds our vocalist delivering a performance that sounds like Bryan Ferry at his most tremulous, blended with assorted plunderphonics and an effortless wonky garage rock groove, almost as if The Residents might have been a straight R&B group at some point in their shrouded past. ‘Fire’ is the most accessible track here, if you squint; ‘Aircraft Damage’ has the feel of a radio play where the script had been crafted entirely from advertising slogans for mythical products, a (Santa) dog yaps in the background, a military drum rattles and ghostly voices fill the void left by the players; familiar Christmas melodies open ‘Explosion’ before things descend into a skronking over-amped free jazz stew – with manically-treated horns – and finally a queasy klezmer-style fiddle and chimes; ‘Lightning’ finds wandering Moog of almost cartoon-ish proportions getting jump-cut into a cycle of ominous drums and Latin rhythms spiked with clipped voices and the sort of future-facing sloganeering that might have graced a promotional video for Walt Disney’s original vision for his Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow before an apocryphal newsroom tale involving a turkey and some cranberries concludes this (sort of) festive brain-melting record.

Superior Viaduct’s re-release of Santa Dog is faithful to the original, maintaining the double 7″ gatefold format, the quirky sequencing and the same faceless anonymity that surrounded the original mailing of this record. The Residents would return to Santa Dog many, many times over the years, becoming a seasonal staple like a Dickens novel realised by Zappa. Nevertheless, it is fitting – on a very wry level – that Superior Viaduct have opted to release a Christmas record at Easter.

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Track listing:

A. Ivory & The Braineaters ‘Fire’
D. Arf & Omega (feat. The Singing Lawnchairs) ‘Aircraft Damage’
B. The College Walkers ‘Explosion’
C. Delta Nudes ‘Lightning’

Thanks to Sam / Superior Viaduct.

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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