Like those cunning games of deduction that we played in our youth, the story of the Residents lies in a world of half truths, in a place where electronic trickery and smoked mirrors are often only shadows of what is real. What is real lies in the eyes of the beholder, who is left to find his own truth in the music of this remarkable band. But it is the Residents themselves, with their blind, giant eyeball heads, who are watching the rest of us, and using what they witness to create what remains some of the most innovative, influential and existentially disturbing music ever recorded.
It’s hard to believe, in the early years of a new millennium, that the Residents are celebrating their 30th Anniversary, with a slew of new and remastered albums; hard to believe, and even harder to remember back to the late 1960s, when a small aggregation of art school grads stomped out of the love and peace decade with their first, embryonic stab at making a movie, oddly titled, thanks in part to a mistake, Vileness Fats.
But Vileness Fats it was that set them on their path, as their initial interest in film and sound techniques birthed a rabid fascination with recording, that led them in turn to their first experiments with the manipulation of sound. The fact that they couldn’t actually play any instruments only furthered their investigation of alternate mediums within the art. Because, as far as the Residents were concerned, why should a little thing like a complete lack of proficiency stop them? It didn’t sway the Sex Pistols, after all. And by 1972, when they began recording in earnest, they auspiciously pre-empted the entire DIY ethic of Punk Rock by turning their musical ineptitude into a virtue.
Purchasing some of the first multitrack recorders that were available on the common market, the coterie recorded (and released as very limited edition cassettes) some of their first musical adventures, “Rusty Coathangers For The Doctor” and “Ballad Of The Stuffed Tiger,” in the spring and summer of 1970, combining both quirk-laden original and even quirkier interpretations of other bands’ material. Gratified by the results, the logical next step was to prepare a (mere)40 track demo tape, for submission to Warner Brothers Records that September, firmly believing that any label forward thinking enough to sign Captain Beefheart might have room in its heart for more of the same.
Warners A&R man Hal Halverstadt returned it almost immediately and, in so doing, he helped create a legend. The tape was delivered with a return address, but no senders’ name. The band was unnamed, the musicians uncredited. So when Halverstadt sent it back, he addressed it, simply, to “the Residents.” The name stuck. So did the principle of absolute anonymity that would remain permanently in place, but would be as vital to the image of the band as the dissonant cacophony of their music.
Appearing in even the most casual of public settings, the Residents went out of the way to remain unidentifiable, at the same time as very cleverly making sure that everyone knew who they were. The giant eyeball masks which disguise every member of the band were born out of that desire and have proven so successful that today, one cannot even be certain whether the Residents of 2001 are even the same people as the band of 30 years ago. The vision of the dapper dudes as some monstrous, churning Menudo-type machine cannot be discounted for a moment.
Unfazed by Warners’ rejection, though, the Residents began to record in earnest. Relocating to San Francisco from their native Louisiana during 1972, the Residents launched into a period of remarkable creativity. They had recently been introduced to British born guitarist Phillip “Snakefinger” Latham, a wandering soul who materialized in the Bay Area to absorb the local vibe. (At the same time as maintaining his own career, solo and in the acclaimed London pub rock band Chilli Willie and the Red Hot Peppers, Litham would remain one of the Residents’ principle conspirators until his death in 1987.)
Snakefinger, in turn, introduced a retirement-age London-based poet and saxophonist, Nigel Senada. And although some legends places the homeland of the remarkably mysterious Senada, who speaks English poorly, outside the UK, the question remains; how many non English-speaking men named Nigel could there be? In any case Mr. Senada would completely revolutionize the Residents’ approach to music
Though Senada’s very existence has frequently been questioned by sundry musical historians, there is no doubt that his musical technique was very real. Titled “Phonetic Organization,” it was a process that involved “feeling” the music, rather than reading it – in other words, abandoning any notion of actual musical ability, in the belief that it was the intention that mattered, not the actual execution. And, regardless of whether (as those same doubting historians imply) or not the “theory” was simply a smokescreen for the band’s own musical shortcomings, the simple truth is, it worked.
Following another cassette release, the Baby Sex collection of live recordings, taped in San Francisco with both Litham and Senada in evidence, the Residents’ first vinyl emission was a single, “Santa Dog,” released as a musical Christmas card that December. The record was not credited to the Residents themselves – rather, the four tracks appeared under the names of such non-existent acts as Arf & Omega and the College Walkers. Nevertheless, it was a disconcerting effort, played once, sometimes not even all the way through, and then filed away by most of its 500 recipients.
It was, however, little more than a prelude to their first album, Meet The Residents. Recorded in the band’s fast-growing home studio during breaks in the continued (but increasingly wearying) filming of Vileness Fats, Meet The Residents was issued on their own Ralph Records imprint on April 1st 1974. 12 tracks short and draped within a sleeve replicating (and then defacing) the Beatles’ Meet The Beatles album, it offered a series of often painfully dissonant soundscapes, a couple of which claimed to be covers of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking” and the Human Beinz’ “Nobody But Me”, but were all so distorted and damaged that they were as unrecognizable as the band members themselves.
Despite full-page ads in local rag sheets, the album was dismally received – not a surprising fate at a time when the American music buying public was more in tune with the sweet ear candy of contemporary Motown and MOR. Even among the West Coast’s most open minded groovers, the Residents sonic guerilla war fell on baffled ears – Parliament’s funk and Frank Zappa’s sonic experiments were about as far-out as most people preferred to go and, once there, it was still easier to smoke a bone to Kansas. Nobody even wanted to decipher the demonic, sub-aural cacophony by a band no one ever heard of, let alone seen.
Undeterred, the Residents carried on. Having now abandoned Vileness Fats altogether, they began work on a second album, guided this time by a Theory of Obscurity principle that insisted it could not be released to the public until the musicians themselves had completely forgotten about it. It was ultimately released in 1978 as Not Available. In the meantime, the band set to work on Third Reich And Roll, a record – although the Residents themselves could never have guessed it – that would help change the way the world looked at music.
Third Reich And Roll comprised just two songs – “Hitler Was A Vegetarian” and “Swastikas Forever” – each built, in turn, from the broken bones of classic rock and pop. In other words, it was nothing less than the absolute deconstruction, then warped recreation of all the music that the band held dear. It was the 1960s as they’d never been heard before. From The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” to the Doors’ “Light My Fire”; from “Land Of 1,000 Dances” to “Satisfaction,” nothing was sacred, no one was safe.
Third Reich And Roll would be just the first of a lengthy sequence of similar deconstructions, enacted over the next three decades as The Residents continued to hack precious sounds to collops, then tearing those collops sometimes to unrecognizable strata, before putting it all back together again.
Although the sonic of Third Reich And Roll were much better than on their debut – the band were becoming more familiar with the technical side of their craft – the sound still left much to be desired. But it was the craftsmanship, not the quality that mattered. The Residents not only utilized almost any instrument they could lay their hands on, they also used infant synthesizer technology, found sounds, absolutely anything they could employ to make the required noise.
In many ways, of course, the band’s own ancestry is obvious – there can be little doubt that their activities were at least somewhat influenced by the late Joe Meek, the man famous for his apartment recordings. And it is known that the Residents kept firm tabs on the progressive leanings of Krautrockers Kraftwerk, Faust and Can – admitted favorites. The difference between them, though, was in their basic approach. Those other artists created the instruments – or, at least, the devices – they needed to make the sounds they wanted. The Residents created the sounds they wanted from the instruments they had. The end result, for the uninformed listener, was equally confrontational. It was the process that made the difference, and ensured not only that Third Reich And Roll would emerge a positively devastating effort, but that the Residents would, eventually, reap the rewards of their audacity. It would take time, of course, but within a couple of years, sonic maestros on both sides of the Atlantic would be gazing back at Third Reich And Roll and crediting it with opening any number of post-punk doors, while the Residents themselves came within a whisper of scoring a British hit single.
In the meantime, marketing remained a problem for the band. In terms of cutting itself off from the entire music industry at large, and simply forging its own way through the forest, Ralph Records was one of the very first independent record labels to actually take a stab at success – at the same time as its number one act, the Residents, maintained a cloak of anonymity seemingly designed to sublimate that ambition at every turn.
Enter, then, the Cryptic Corporation. Set up by a gathering of the band’s friends (the super-wealthy John Kennedy) – who also needed a tax shelter, plus Jay Clem, Homer Flynn and Hardy Fox) for the sole purpose of supporting and promoting the band, The Cryptic Corporation bought a building that would become the Residents and Ralph Records permanent home base. The Cryptic Corp., too, would mastermind mail order incentives to spark interest in the band, and began actively courting media attention on the strength of the Residents’ utter strangeness.
Already rebuffed by a major label and by their hometown, their attention was initially directed primarily overseas. The band’s influence could certainly be discerned among the handful of American bands that had heard them – early work by Pere Ubu and Devo certainly bears their imprint, while Patti Smith’s absorption of “Land Of 1,000 Dances” into her embryonic “Land” surely bears some stamp of Residential impact. But it would be England, whose now fermenting Punk scene was certainly a little more open-minded about the bastardization of past musical icons, that first embraced the Residents.
In late 1976, the first import copies of Meet The Residents and Third Reich And Roll arrived on UK shores, initially attracting attention on the strength of their admittedly eye-catching covers, then assaulting listeners with the overwhelming abstracts within. Reviews in the music press, though they all but admitted that this was music that simply could not be described – it had to be experienced – drew in the curious; word of mouth did the rest. A new album, the three-sided Fingerprince, and the Duck Stab EP in early 1978 allowed this new-found audience further acquaintance, but it was the band’s latest single, their savage revision of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” that truly pushed the Residents into focus.
Released in April 1978 on sickly yellow vinyl, “Satisfaction” drew astonished reviews from the music press and sent an entire generation into their record stores, seeking out this weird reinvention. But was it bizarre synchronicity, or sheer bad timing that ensured that, just two weeks before the Residents’ single was released, Akron quirk-monsters Devo released their own, significantly more tuneful, but unquestionably Resident-wrought interpretation of the same song? And, while the Residents release was primarily stocked only by independent and specialist record stores, Devo’s could be found in every megastore in the land. Walk in and ask, simply, for that bizarre new version of “Satisfaction,” and one guess as to which one you’d get. Devo wound up with a Top 50 hit, the Residents simply gained a bucketload of glory and another sliver of mythology. Slowly, one could sense that their convolutions were truly impacting upon the local landscape.
Alongside Iggy Pop’s electro-swampy The Idiot album, released in early 1977 and, in its own deconstruction of its maker’s reputation, forcing a complete re-evaluation of all that Iggy stood for, the Residents were evidence that music did not have to be, in the classical sense, musical; and bands like Ultravox, the Human League, Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire all stood proud to thank them for that liberation. Others would soon be arising – the Flying Lizards’ electro rendering of the Motown hit “Money” has the Residents’ name written all over it. Even viewed dispassionately, it’s safe to say that the entire field of Anglo clatter music of the late 1970s had either heard, experienced, or at least read about the Residents, and actually absorbed their subversive footprints into their own equally odd, if more commercial brew.
The major difference was, whereas the post-punk electro-crowd cared only for the sounds of the future, eschewing most conventional instruments in favor of the latest technology, the Residents’ greatest fascination lay in their, and our perceptions of the past – and how those perceptions could be warped to create an alternate present.
Band legend frequently defeats any attempt to actually chronicle the group’s true activities, but there is no doubt that the group was busy elsewhere, leaving their now sizeable audience to gather up such retrospective delights as the now unchained Not Available (the group hadn’t forgotten it, but had lost interest, which amounted to the same thing), a full length album reiterating the Duck Stab EP, and a revised “Santa Dog,” sensibly titled “Santa Dog 78.”
In fact, the band was busy transforming into music a lengthy series of notes gifted to them by the mysterious Mr. Senada, based – it was said – on his experiences living at the North Pole, extrapolating all things Inuit. These ruminations ultimately appeared as the Residents’ next album, the Eskimo extravaganza, released in late 1979, and readily gathering a warm reception. Already, however, the band had moved on, turning their apparently failsafe powers of precognition towards the next revolution that would sweep the pop world, the advent of video.
October 1980 saw the release of the band’s Commercial Album – a collection of 40 one-minute songs featuring such special guests as Fred Frith, Lene Lovich and XTC mainstay Andy Partridge. It was an exciting project, and one which the Cryptic Corporation quite brilliantly promoted by purchasing 40 one minute advertising slots on California radio – ensuring that the Residents would achieve something that no unknown (and precious few well-known) act had ever done before – receive airplay for a full LP. More importantly, however, the band also created a collection of One Minute Movies – snapshots of the songs… videos.
Of course this was a field that the Residents had long been toying with – as far back as Third Reich And Roll they had visualized accompanying their music with visual footage, salvaging elements of the abandoned Vileness Fats for the purpose. Available now on the Icky Flix DVD, it is undoubtedly a primitive effort – clad in what could easily be described as Ku Klux Klan outfits, albeit ones they fashioned from newspaper, the grainy footage has more in common with Weimar-era avant garde German cinema than anything so slick and produced as a modern rock video.
Nor would their approach radically alter over the remainder of the decade – animation, fps (frames per second) trickery and more dominate the Residents’ 70s’ film work, while the One Minute Movie series could well be described as savage distillations of every idea the Residents – or their listeners – had ever hatched and filed away. Watch through the canon, however, and slowly, but surely, the strangeness begins to ebb away, NOT because the Residents were moving closer to the mainstream, but because the mainstream was finally moving closer to them. There are moments on Icky Flix that could have stepped straight out of mid-80s MTV, predicted up to ten years earlier by a bunch of men with giant eyeballs on their heads. Later videos, especially those from the late 1990’s and 2000 found the Residents in keeping and in stride with the computer generation. What once would have shocked, now would be little more than an aside.
By the early 1980s, the Residents had taken a firm grasp of their surroundings, their sound and their mission statement; it was time, they judged, to unleash their most ambitious project yet, the so-called Mole Trilogy, a four (of course) album sequence that not only encompassed the studio albums The Mark Of The Mole (1981) Tunes In Two Cities (1982), Intermission (1983) and The Big Bubble (1985), but also a fully choreographed stage show – a handful of barely publicized shows aside, their public’s first ever opportunity to see the eyeballs in the flesh.
With comedian Penn Jillete (one half of Penn & Teller of course) acting as MC for this twisted ring cycle, the first American dates, which officially commenced in October 1982 at San Francisco’s Kabuki Theatre came nearly six months after the Residents pre tour show at Santa Monica’s The House on April 10. The shows were a marvelous success; so much so that the Residents decided to take the show further afield, to Europe. In artistic terms it was a smart move. From a financial point of view, however, it was crippling. Nobody, it seems, had ever stopped to consider the sheer logistics of such a tour – which would include the transportation of sets, crew, dancers, roadies and the eyeballs themselves. , the vast amounts of money that would hemorrhage as it traveled around the continent. Nor had they ever stopped to wonder what would happen if John Kennedy, still the band’s sole means of major financial support, should ever tire of his plaything.
The band was still on tour in the US when Kennedy quit the Corporation – they returned to discover that not only had he cut off the money supply, he also took back all the assets he had hitherto granted the Residents – their studio and their office included. They unwisely bucked up, auctioned off all their rare memorabilia to raise some money and flew to Europe, returning to find that almost everything had collapsed – including Ralph Records. Now in absolute disarray, it looked as though the Residents themselves might fall apart.
Instead, they vowed to fight back. Having pledged that they would never tour again, they immediately went back on their word, staging Uncle Sam Mole Show simply to try and get some cash flowing again. It was the first compromise they had ever been forced to make, and the taste was, understandably, bitter. But it also did the trick. Gradually, the band picked themselves up, put on their top hats and picked up their canes, and attacked what remained of the 1980s with hyper-prolific gusto. Over the next seven years, new (or, at least, recycled/retrospective) Residents albums were appearing at a rate of two a year, first on a revitalized Ralph, later on Rykodisc and, ultimately, on Torso.
High points of this frenetic activity are many, but include a “collaboration” with the equally mysterious Renaldo & The Loaf, Time In Limbo, in 1983; a 13th anniversary celebration in 1985, which included not only a tour but also a stunning live album, recorded in Holland and Japan; the simultaneous 1986 Heaven? and Hell! Retrospectives, that offered newcomers an instant primer to the very best (and, deliberately, worst!) of the Residents.
The group also delivered a pair of albums honoring, under the banner title of Stars And Hank Forever!, a quartet of songwriters withi whose influence on the Residents, while not exactly pronounced (or even discernable), was nevertheless significant: James Brown, George Gershwin, Hank Williams and John Philip Sousa. Indeed, the Residents’ version of Brown’s “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” issued as a single in July 1984, ranks among the finest covers that the Grandmaster of Funk has ever received – a reinvention, to be sure, but a sweet, melodic and exquisitely arranged reinvention.
Another covers collection, the punningly titled Elvis Presley (and not Yul Brenner!) tribute, The King And Eye, in 1989, showered further accolades on the band. Few observers would ever have dared to predict such a thing, but as the Residents entered their third decade of work, they were at least as, if not more, powerfully positioned than they had ever been in the past, and just as creative. And the rapid emergence of the Industrial music scene as the 1990s got underway ensured that both qualities would continue to burgeon, as the Residents’ continued explorations of Senada’s Phonetic Organization sank deeper into the collective fringe psyche.
Though few of this new mutant genre’s most radical practitioners would ever succeed on more than a tightly margined cult level, less “difficult” performers would indeed break through on the strength of the basic principles of Industrial and today, when one spots the likes of Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson meandering through MTV, one cannot help but imagine a little eyeball beaming in the background. Once again, the Residents paved the way.
The Residents themselves, of course, remained stubbornly distanced from all such commercial criteria. Despite a vast underground following which included, musicians, critics and laymen alike, they would never break through to the mainstream in their own right and, one cannot help but suspect, that was the idea all along. Rather, by pointing the directions that music could take, watching while the masses stormed through the door, and then swanning off to take it another way entirely, they formulated a perfect version of subtle world domination. It’s one that ensures their name and reputation haunts uncounted numbers of modern musical forms – while leaving the musicians themselves utterly unaccountable for any of it.
From Simple Minds to Slipknot (whose own public image of virtual anonymity, secreted behind their garish face masks, has its genesis firmly in Residential territory), from Devo to Depeche Mode, the Residents haven’t merely changed the way people make music, they altered our very perceptions of it. Whether you love this band or hate their music, believe in their process or discount their contributions, it is impossible to deny that little of the past two decades’ worth of rock would have come to pass without the Residents.
Would punk ever have freed itself from the constraints of rock? Would crash bang noise bands ever have clattered a lid? Would the Industrial revolution have ever even revolved? Maybe… or maybe not. The Residents themselves have never uttered so much as a word on the subject. But they are present in all those places. Who knows where they aren’t?
But, there is one final point that should be borne in mind whenever one considers the Residents and their meaning. Penning his own, myth-laden biography of the Residents, English writer Ian Shirley was once cautioned, “you must know that everyone you spoke with intentionally lied to you at some point”. (AH Goldmine, 2003)