(East Side Digital)
By J.R. Jones
More than any other art form in America, popular music has been transformed by advances in consumer electronics. The introduction of the long-playing album and the 45 rpm single in the late 40s drove a wedge between jazz and pop, opening up the airwaves to rock ‘n’ roll. The rise of FM radio in the late 60s widened the gap between Top 40 bubblegum and the “serious” music of album-oriented rock. When the CD supplanted the vinyl disc, it touched off a tidal wave of box sets and other repackages that brought forgotten artists back onto the shelves and fertilized countless new subgenres.
Visual media can have just as profound an effect as aural media: as Marc Weingarten notes in his recent book, Station to Station, the most galvanic moments in rock history occurred not on radio but on television, from Elvis Presley’s and the Beatles’ performances on The Ed Sullivan Show to Elvis Costello’s and Sinead O’Connor’s outbursts on Saturday Night Live. The spread of cable TV in the late 70s hastened the music-video explosion, which melded pop music with cinema–or, more often, advertising–and in the process revolutionized all three forms. The fastest-selling consumer electronics product in history–the digital video-disc player–was introduced in the U.S. four years ago, and while DVD is destined to wipe out videotape as anything but a home-recording format, its effect on pop is an open question. Most pop-music DVDs are still just digital transfers of existing VHS releases, some remastered with lots of bells and whistles (the Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back), but some without so much as a liner note (the Who compilation Thirty Years of Maximum R&B Live).
Two new releases–by legendary prog-rock weirdos the Residents and Gen-X flag bearers the Beastie Boys–take a stab at confronting the new format on its own highly interactive terms, and the results are both fascinating and a bit daunting. Icky Flix collects 16 of the Residents’ beautiful and disturbing animations, dating back to “The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll” (1976), which is enshrined in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection as one of the first music videos. Such compilations already have a long history on VHS, but the DVD includes production notes for each video, and the band has rerecorded all the music so that the viewer can choose between the original version and its 2000 counterpart–even switching back and forth in the middle of the song. (They’ll perform all the new versions in their show tonight at the Congress Theater.) The Beastie Boys’ Video Anthology, which spreads 18 videos over two discs, is even more fanatical in its menu of options: in addition to notes, photos, storyboards, and separate audio commentary from both the band and the directors, it offers alternate camera angles culled from the vaults and various remixes of the songs. On “Alive” (1999), for instance, the viewer can choose the original video and sound track or mix and match any of eight video angles and six remixes–for a total of 63 different combinations.
Personally, I don’t want to watch 63 versions of a Beastie Boys video (not even “Sabotage”). But surely there are people who do, and by giving them such an exhaustive list of choices, the DVD format threatens to eradicate the notion of a finished and definitive work of art. In cinema, the friction between auteur theory and the marketing forces that govern a film’s theatrical release have made the “director’s cut” a popular commodity for home-video release (the three-disc DVD of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, a film fabled for the power struggle that erupted between the director and the studio, includes both versions along with a truckload of supplementary material). The CD revolution has had a comparable effect on pop music. In the age of vinyl records, artists seldom released alternate versions of songs; even as late as 1995, when the Beatles decided to empty their closets for the Anthology CDs, there was some hand-wringing over the idea that demos or alternate versions might eventually supplant the originals, that a generation from now people might not realize which were the “real” ones. The DVD format multiplies the number of choices and grants the consumer a vicarious taste of an artist’s greatest pleasure: making decisions.
The Residents, four film enthusiasts from Shreveport, Louisiana, who formed a band 30 years ago in San Francisco, have always embraced new technology. One of their earliest projects, Vileness Fats, was a surreal feature-length musical comedy, shot on half-inch black-and-white videotape, in which a mythical town of one-armed midgets hires Siamese-twin wrestlers (Arf and Omega) to protect it from assorted evils, including other midgets and some armored anthropomorphic shopping carts. After four years of work it was abandoned, but a video release, Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats, was culled from the 14 hours of footage in 1984, and the 17th and final track on Icky Flix is a creepy new 18-minute version. The same year, on “This Is a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” a video for their cover of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” they took advantage of early computer graphics by pointing a camera at a monitor. In the early 90s they experimented with interactive laser discs and “interactive books” (CDs packaged with supplementary software on floppy discs), and by the end of the decade they’d created separate computer-animated CD-ROMs as companion pieces to the albums Freak Show and Have a Bad Day.
Few pop bands have defended their personal vision more stubbornly or more consistently–including the mystery of the members’ individual identities, still concealed behind those giant-eyeball masks after all these years. Their uniquely warped view of the world undoubtedly accounts for their devoted cult following, which in turn may explain why they’re so fascinated by interactive art–so willing to cede to their audience choices that most artists reserve for themselves. There’s no such thing as a casual Residents fan, and apparently once you’ve bought into their reality, you’re entitled to become an active citizen.
The Residents are definitely not the Beatles–as rumor had it when they issued Meet the Residents, whose cover was a grotesque parody of the Meet the Beatles sleeve, in 1974–and they’d probably snort at the idea of any one track being the “real” version. This is the band that celebrated its 20th anniversary by chopping apart old songs and reassembling them into new ones for the CD Our Finest Flowers, one of whose tracks, “Kick a Picnic,” has since been rerecorded for Icky Flix.
The new tracks on Icky Flix are often dramatically different from the originals, reflecting the Residents’ recent interest in drums and electric guitar after more than a decade immersing themselves in sampling technology. As a result they tend to be sharper, more abrasive, and less murky than the old ones–which, given the character of the visuals, isn’t necessarily an improvement. “The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll,” for instance, is a crude black-and-white film featuring four figures dancing around in Klansman robes made from newspapers. A cellophane-wrapped alien bursts through the newspaper backdrop and zaps them with a ray gun whose beam is created by scratching the celluloid. The original track features equally primitive tribal drums beneath a chanted hook from “Land of 1,000 Dances”; later a sequence evoking Hitler at Nuremberg gets quotes from “Wipe Out.” The new track drops the spooky drums for a synthesized rock beat and discards the Surfaris tune, blunting the satiric thrust of the original. “This Is a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” is dominated by a close-up of a man’s blue-tinted face mugging while computer-generated worms bore out of his head; the original track features a bleating vocal by one of the Residents, which is replaced on the new track by an ethereal and much more musical rendition by singer Molly Harvey.
With a few notable exceptions, the Beastie Boys’ Video Anthology can’t hold a candle to the Residents’ collection of fever dreams. Most of its 18 videos stick to the standard MTV strategy of shooting the band head-on as they lip-synch to the record, cutting in one or more story lines or visual motifs. And many of its archival finds–like “Holy Snappers” (1981), a low-budget affair from the Beasties’ hardcore days–will be of interest only to die-hard fans. But the multiple remixes offered on 11 of the songs and the various video angles available on six of them, combined with the superior navigability of DVDs, leave the Residents’ before-and-after sound tracks in the dust.
Adam Yauch (aka MCA, aka video director Nathanial Hörnblowér) told the Web publication Express.com that he came up with the idea while shooting the video for “Shake Your Rump” in 1989: “That video was done with three different cameras…and there were different performances captured by each of the cameras. I always thought it would be interesting to present that in some way–to have all three camera positions available and a viewer could switch between them. And when I discovered that DVDs were capable of that with the multi-angle function, it seemed perfect for a video collection. Building on that, the idea then came up of using remixes on the alternate audio tracks….So what we did was to take different remixes of songs and sort of edit them or speed them up or slow them down so that you could swap the audio tracks.”
Audio remixes are as old as multitrack recording, but they didn’t become a commercial property until the disco era, when the 12-inch single permitted extended remixes of songs for the dance floor. The CD single made them even more commonplace (even major labels are ashamed to release only three minutes of music on a disc that can hold 74), and the arrival of the DJ as an artist in his own right elevated the jiggering of someone else’s work to an act of individual expression. The Beastie Boys DVD features remixes by Moby, Fatboy Slim, Soul Assassins, Bentley Rhythm Ace, and numerous others; over two dozen remixes were done exclusively for the project. With the push of a button, the viewer can rotate them as the video is playing; changing the camera angle in midsong is a bit more cumbersome (on my machine, anyway), but once people grow comfortable with the idea of manipulating someone else’s visuals, can the reedit as a popular art form be far behind?
Over and over again the disc’s supplementary materials–storyboards, audio commentary, production photos, even Spike Jonze’s original treatment for “Sabotage”–invite the viewer into the creative process and heighten awareness of how mercurial an idea can be. “Intergalactic” (1998), a wonderful goof on Japanese monster movies that was shot partly on location in Tokyo, is appended with “The Robot vs. the Octopus Monster Saga,” a nine-minute version of the narrative that completely replaces the Beasties’ track with sound effects and Schoenberg. But the most impressive video in the collection, and the only one that rivals the Residents’ work, is “Shadrach” (1989), a stunning animation that employs hundreds of colorful paintings–about five per second. The piece was created by Hörnblowér; by directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, who shot and edited a black-and-white video of the band in concert; by animation director Chris Casady, who broke the live-action sequence down into individual images; and by the 11 artists who created the paintings. Auteur theory–the notion of a director imposing his personal vision on the end product–has no place in that sort of epic collaboration, and once the DVD invites the viewer into the fray, the paintbrush may have to take its place beside the remote control.