Since the release of their first album in 1972, the year of the Watergate break-in, the Residents have perpetuated a cover-up that would have astonished Richard Nixon. To this day, no one outside their business management knows their names; they like it that way and maybe it keeps them sane. They’ve lost neither their weird edge, nor their rabid cult of sometimes wildly costumed fans, nor their ability to baffle those on the outside.
Yet for a band with such gleefully anti-commercial tendencies, their marketing machine has gone into overdrive. East Side Digital is issuing new Residents albums and re-releasing old ones at a feverish pace — at least five came out in 2000 alone — and they have just put out an amazing DVD retrospective of their videos, “Icky Flix,” that takes unprecedented advantage of the format with two musical scores for every video, the original and an often radically different remake.
Moreover, their live show at Royce Hall on Friday night was really a very effective 100-minute infomercial for the DVD. An android with the group’s trademark eyeball head came out with a remote clicker and switched on the screen, the DVD menu appeared, and the fans promptly shouted out requests, applauding wildly when their desired video was clicked on. But the audience-interactive effect was just an illusion; the Residents were in complete control, following a set playlist right down the line.
As their surreal, often genuinely innovative, sometimes disturbing, always bizarre videos shone overhead, the Residents manned their synthesizers, an electric guitar and an electronic mallet instrument, hiding behind a matching pair of translucent monoliths while a skull-masked male singer and electric-haired female singer shouted out the vocals.
Their means and timbres have changed with the pace of technology, but their basic sound world — dark, ominous, grandiose electronic frescos — remains stable.
The early “The Third Reich ‘N’ Roll” retains its morbid sense of fun with its new electronic horror-show score, the longform “Bad Day on the Midway” (originally on CD-ROM) is their most absorbing recent piece, and they offered one of their clever deconstructions of James Brown, “This Is a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”
But if you already own the DVD and have a good home-theater system, given these tightly controlled performances with no personal interaction or surprises, you might as well have stayed home. Clearly the Residents put much more creative energy into their recordings than their live shows these days.