Crazed + Enthused

Ron Hanson, the editor of Taiwan-based culture magazine White Fungus, talks us through the artwork for The Residents' The Commercial Album – a cover as wild and uncompromising as the band themselves.

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Around the time we started White Fungus in 2004, my brother Mark and I were students in Wellington, New Zealand; poor and at the bottom of the world. But we were fortunate in that the city public library had, perhaps surprisingly, a great music collection. Every week we would return to flip through stacks of CDs, borrowing the limit of ten each, at one dollar a disc. Of all our encounters with that multitude of album covers and slices of plastic that lay within, perhaps none was as surprising and immediately stimulating to us as The Commercial Album (1980), by the Residents, a music group of anonymous identities based in San Francisco that recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary.

The Commercial Album is a collection of forty one-minute songs that the album notes instruct us to repeat three times each to form pop songs. The album pursues faithfully its mantra that contemporary life is entirely advertising, and that pop should merge with the advertising jingle, or at least fully consummate the secretive pact that lies within it. To air The Commercial Album, the Residents purchased forty one-minute advertising slots at San Francisco's top commercial station KFRC, which played the entire record over the course of a weekend, leading to accusations of payola [the illegal payment for airtime] in Billboard Magazine. The group had already demonstrated it was ahead of the curve in its exploration of commercialism as a theme in the 1979 pseudo-ethnographic album Eskimo, in which the Coca Cola slogan “Coca Cola adds life” takes the form of an Inuit chant.

The Residents had courted danger with their album art in Meet the Residents (1974). After selling fifty copies they were threatened with legal action by Capitol Records for appropriating and defacing the cover work for Meet the Beatles. Unchastened, the cover work for The Commercial Album contains montaged images of John Travolta and Barbara Streisand, but with four eye ball-donning pop stand-ins jutting down and masking the eyes of the celebrity cut-outs, heightening the glazed and hollowed look of their stares. As in the music itself, the visual work of the cover brings out the crazed element in pop culture. It is pop as crack cocaine. The Residents bring to the surface a kind of lustful hopelessness in popular culture; the desperation is palpable, as is its ecstatic delirium. The Commercial Album invites us into a catchy but rambling world of verses without choruses and choruses left standing. Its deadpan irreverence and rambunctious musical revelry brings my senses food for thought to this day.