American Composers Series
Feeling burned out on underground epics after the disastrous Mole Show tour, The Residents decided to postpone work on Part Three of the Mole Trilogy. But they needed a project, and Ralph Records said they had to make some money, an all but foreign concept for a band both lauded and dismissed for its doggedly uncommercial approach to the music business. Typically, after a brief period of reflection, the group decided to go in two directions, both familiar, but in different ways. In retrospect, it was no surprise that The Residents moved back toward the comfort and success they had achieved reinterpreting the music of other composers but, unexpectedly, the new project was in some ways even more extravagant than the overly ambitious Mole Trilogy. Taking the Residential concept of "music about music" to its logical extreme, the band threw itself into a serious, long-term project grandiosely titled The American Composers Series.
Essentially, the concept was a musical exploration of various American composers, two at a time, juxtaposing one against the other, with each featured on opposite sides of an LP. The band would first deconstruct the music then rebuild it around the Residential values of naivete, atonal innocence and playful pretense. By breaking break down the mythology surrounding the celebrated composers and reducing the music to its essence, The Residents purposefully created the lofty goal of imposing their own Theory of Obscurity on other famous musicians. Satisfied with their new direction, the group then announced a goal of interpreting twenty different composers on ten albums over a period of sixteen years, from 1984 to 2001.
The first album, George & James, interpreted the music of George Gershwin and James Brown. The band followed this with John Philip Sousa and Hank Williams on Stars & Hank Forever. Audaciously appropriating the intro of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean, the band released a single based on Williams's 'Kaw-Liga," which shockingly sold in the six figures, making The American Composers Series a huge financial success for The Residents.
The third album in the series was tentatively titled The Trouble with Harrys, featuring the music of Harry Partch and Harry Nilsson, but The Residents unexpectedly abandoned the project in 1986. As LPs lost sales to CDs, the music business was changing; in addition, despite the success of Kaw-Liga, music publishing rights - the fees paid to composers - were getting more expensive. Meanwhile it took longer to record CDs, which held 50-75% more music than LPs, and finally, part of the charm of series was its juxtaposition of one composer against another, a non-existent feature on one sided CDs. In addition the sales of Ralph's other groups were poor. Consequently, the answer to this losing equation was touring so The Residents reluctantly ended the American Composers series and turned their efforts to Cube-E, arguably, their most successful tour.
Quite a few ideas were bounced around during the planning of the abandoned series. The band wanted to include Captain Beefheart, Sun Ra, Smokey Robinson, Bob Dylan, Charles Ives, Stevie Wonder, Moondog, Barry White, Scott Joplin and Brian Wilson in the series, and actually started work on several compositions by Bob Dylan and Barry White for a volume tentatively titled Bob & the Blob. Some of these preliminary attempts were later compiled and released on UWEB's Daydream B-Liver collection.
While critics complained that the series was nothing new for the band, referring to it as "modest," "lacking ambition" and "predictable," the Cryptic Corporation has insisted the series, by design, was never intended to break new ground. Furthermore, they claimed the concept should primarily be viewed as an educational experience for the band; in addition, by binding the work with the Theory of Obscurity, the only needs to be gratified in the project were those of the artist. Regardless, with only two of the ten projected albums completed, the question of the artists' satisfaction relative to The American Composers Series remains unanswered.