We pause now for the Residents’ Commercial Album: One-Minute Movies

By on May 31, 2016

The Residents’ Commercial DVD — now streaming on our Night Flight Plus channel — is the band’s collection of 56 one-minute mini-movies, including the four original videos and ten new videos from the Residents (along with the original four one-minute movies released to promote the album, released in 1980.


In 1979, there was a British import album that was originally released on the UK’s Cherry Red imprint, called Miniatures, which was subtitled “A Sequence of Fifty-One Tiny Masterpieces.”

That album was conceived by Morgan Fisher, a former keyboard player for Mott the Hoople who had also led his own progressive rock band, called Morgan. He also owned his own record label, Pipe Records, and his own home studio.


Fisher was always coming up with ideas and concepts for albums, including various artists compilations, and he’d struck upon the idea of having musicians he’d worked with (and some he’d wanted to work with) record tiny musical vignettes of less than a minute in length and then compile them together.

Fisher invited people like Robert Fripp, Fred Frith, Lol Coxhill, Ollie Halsall and John Halsey, and Ivor Cutler to contribute, and was thrilled when their tapes began arriving in the mail from all over the world.


Andy Partridge of the band XTC contributed our personal favorite, “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” during which Partridge cleverly summed up the music of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s — and offered a prediction as to where music was going in the new decade, the 1980s — in a 22-second sound collage that is too wonderful to describe with mere words: it simply has to be heard.

Another Night Flight fave was the track submitted by the Residents, singing a short melodious medley of two songs, one by the Ramones (from their Rocket To Russia album), and one from the musical South Pacific: “We’re A Happy Family/Bali Ha’i.”

The Residents — an theatrical art-rock collective best known for their avant-garde recordings and multimedia works — had taken their name from a rejection letter they had received from Warner Bros. Records in Burbank, CA, who didn’t know who to send the letter to because the band’s demo tape had arrived anonymously, and so they addressed it to “The Residents.”

In 1972, the band — based now in San Francisco — had formed their own label, Ralph Records, running it as a partnership along with their management team, The Cryptic Corporation.

They released a series of thematic concept albums during the 70s, and achieved a certain amount of fame, especially among fans who were seeking out alternatives to everything popular at the time, including punk rock and disco, bloated 70s classic rock.

The Residents were unlike any other group at the time.


In the fall of 1979, the Residents were finally ready to release their long-awaited forty-minute album Eskimo, which they’d been working on between April ’76 up to to May of that same year. The album — considered the band’s best up to that point — was supposed to represent their conception of the Inuit language spoken by Eskimos, and was spuriously claimed at the time to be a historical document of life in the frozen Arctic tundra, although we’re sure no one but the most foolish listener believed any of that nonsense.

It contained a lot of sound effects and occasional instrumental bits, recorded by the band on homemade instruments.


By 1980, the Residents had contributed their track to Fisher’s Miniatures compilation and decided to stick with the idea of doing a complete album of tiny tunes, just a minute or so in length, or less, and so they began recording these short pieces for an album that was to be called The Residents’ Commercial Album.

They also directed four videos — sometimes considered among the first promotional videos ever provided by a record company to accompany audio recordings — which are on permanent display today in the Museum of Moden Art in NYC. These were originally called “One Minute Movies.”

Calling the album their “commercial” album was a stroke of genius, since the term could be used a couple of different ways.

First, record companies always hope that their releases become popular in a “commercial” sense, but there’s the use of the word as it applies to television commercials (or adverts, if you’re a Brit), which is essentially compact a paid-for message into snack-size bites for consumer consumption.


Applying the word “commercial” to an album by the Residents, from both examples, is obviously an attempt at ironic humor, which is pretty much the Residents’ forte.

The tracks on their Commercial Album weren’t really jingles, however, and are probably more accurately described as experimental and often quirky audio pieces which taken together are meant to inspire a wide range of emotional responses, and so were the visual films which accompanied four of these original pieces.


For the DVD — originally released by the UK-based Mute Records in 2004, and reissued by our partner MVD in 2015 — the Residents took their original album concept and expanded on it in order to have other artists interpret the recordings for themselves, creating mostly computer-generated graphic-art intensive visual films which are much too experimental to be considered simply as “music videos,” although that’s what the are, technically.


The videos — 56 in all — are sometimes animated, but often not. They’re colorful or humorous, or dark and strange, or occasionally a bit too annoyingly abstract or obtuse, and sometimes even difficult to watch (but hang on, they’re just sixty seconds long).

Whatever form they take, they reflect a whimsical and experimental world that is unique to the Residents themselves.


Each track is accompanied by at least one video clip, sometimes two different interpretations, by the Residents and a wide array of independent filmmakers.

Sometimes there are multiple entries by a singular director, including several videos by John Sanborn, who directed the 1990 psuedo-documentary film The Eyes Scream: A History of the Residents.


About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.