The Residents

the residents

The Residents are an American art collective best known for avant-garde music and multimedia works. The first official release under the name of The Residents was in 1972, and the group has since released over sixty albums, numerous music videos and short films, three CD-ROM projects and ten DVDs. They have undertaken seven major world tours and scored multiple films. Throughout the group’s existence, the individual members have ostensibly attempted to operate under anonymity, preferring instead to have attention focused on their art output.

Much outside speculation and rumor has focused on this aspect of the group. In public, the group appears silent and costumed, often wearing eyeball helmets, top hats and tuxedos – a long-lasting costume now recognized as their signature iconography. Their albums generally fall into two categories: deconstructions of Western popular music, or complex conceptual pieces, composed around a theme, theory or plot. They are noted for surrealistic lyrics and sound, disregard for conventional music composition, and the over the top, theatrical spectacle of their live performances.

The Residents hail from Shreveport, Louisiana, where they met in high school in the 1960s, in 1966 the members headed west to San Francisco – after their truck broke down in San Mateo, California, they decided to remain there. While attempting to make a living, they began to experiment with tape machines, photography, and anything remotely to do with art that they could get their hands on. Word of their experimentation spread and in 1969, a British guitarist and multi-instrumentalist named Phil Lithman and the mysterious N. Senada (whom Lithman had picked up in Bavaria where the aged avant-gardist was recording birds singing) paid them a visit, and decided to remain.

The two Europeans would become great influences on the band. Lithman’s guitar playing technique earned him the nickname Snakefinger, after his frantic playing on the violin during the performance with the Residents at The Boarding House in San Francisco 1971, where his fingers’ speed made them look like snakes in the eyes of the less-musically proficient, but imaginative Residents. The group purchased crude recording equipment, instruments and began to make tapes, refusing to let an almost complete lack of musical proficiency stand in the way. Like all information pertaining to the early days of the band, this is provided by The Cryptic Corporation and may or may not be invented.

In 1969 the group began to make the first of their unreleased tapes. Rumors have surfaced of two (of perhaps hundreds) unreleased reel-to-reel items titled ‘Rusty Coathangers for the Doctor’ and ‘The Ballad of Stuffed Trigger.’ The actual titles are in question (as is the notion that these were album-length recordings), but the first title has been confirmed by a former head of the now defunct Smelly Tongues fan club. Further evidence of pre-1970 recordings surfaced with the release of the song ‘I Heard You Got Religion,’ supposedly recorded in 1969, and released originally as a downloadable track from ‘Ralph America’ in 1999. Cryptic says there are lots of tapes dating back decades, but they were all recorded before the group had officially become The Residents so the band does not consider them to be part of their discography.

In 1971 the group sent a reel-to-reel tape to Hal Halverstadt at Warner Brothers, since he had worked with Captain Beefheart (one of the group’s musical heroes). Halverstadt was not overly impressed, but awarded the tape an ‘A for Ariginality.’ Because the band had not included any name in the return address, the rejection slip was simply addressed to ‘The Residents.’ The members of the group then decided that this would be the name they would use, first becoming ‘Residents Unincorporated,’ then shortening it to the current name.

The first performance of the band using the name ‘The Residents’ was at The Boarding House in San Francisco in 1971. That same year another tape was completed called ‘Baby Sex.’ The original cover art for the tape box was a silk-screened copy of an old photo depicting a woman fellating a small child. (Considered artistically rude at that time, it would be viewed as child pornography today). In 1972 they moved to San Francisco and formed Ralph Records. By this time, The Cryptic Corporation was operating as a partnership and incorporated to take over the running of Ralph Records.

Before the ‘Santa Dog’ single and while recording ‘Meet the Residents,’ The Residents undertook one of their first major projects: the ambitious ‘Vileness Fats’ film project. Intended to be the first-ever long form music video, The Residents saw this project as the opportunity to create the ultimate cult film. After four years of filming (from 1972 to 1976) the project was reluctantly canceled because of time, space and monetary constraints. Fifteen hours of footage were shot for the project yet only about three-quarters of an hour of that footage has ever been released.

‘Santa Dog’ is considered by The Residents themselves and their fans to be the ‘fficial’ start of the band’s recorded output. This is so because it was the first to be released to the public. They sent copies to west coast radio stations with no response until Bill Reinhardt, program director of KBOO-FM in Portland, Oregon received a copy. Santa Dog had the strange kind of sonic weirdness he was looking for and it was played heavily on his popular (‘Radio Lab’) show. Bill met The Residents at their Sycamore St. studio in the summer of 1973. Inviting him in and treating him like family, The Residents gave Reinhardt exclusive access to all their eclectic recordings, including copies of the original masters of ‘Stuffed Trigger,’ ‘Baby Sex’ and the ‘Warner Bros. Album.’ He promoted these along with ‘Meet the Residents’ regularly on his radio program. There was considerable resistance to the commercial viability of Residents material, but eventually KBOO airplay attracted many loyal fans and Portland became the epicenter of a worldwide cult phenomenon.

The Residents, at this time, were at a rough point in their career. According to official Residents lore, there was internal turmoil which resulted in a large, ’embarrassing’ food fight; they decided to resolve this tension in 1974 by recording what would later become ‘Not Available’ —representative of N. Senada’s Theory of Obscurity (which states that an artist can only produce pure art when the expectations and influences of the outside world are not taken into consideration). The album was recorded and then placed in storage in order to be issued only when everyone had forgotten about it. However, contractual obligations related to the much-delayed release of ‘Eskimo’ forced its release in 1978 after the band had almost forgotten about it.

‘The Third Reich ‘n Roll’ came next, a pastiche on 1960s rock and roll with an overarching Nazi theme, represented visually on the album cover, which featured Dick Clark in an SS uniform holding a carrot, with a number of Hitlers dancing on clouds behind him. On each side of the record was a single composition, approximately 17½ minutes long, using recordings of classic rock and roll songs that were spliced, overdubbed and edited with new vocals, instrumentation and tape noises. The original songs were finally removed leaving entirely new and bizarre performances. The music video for this album was shot on the sets that were built for ‘Vileness Fats.’

Following ‘The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll’ came ‘Fingerprince,’ a particularly ambitious project not unlike the earlier ‘Not Available’ recordings. The band’s original intention was to release it as the very first ‘three-sided’ album – they had found a way to simulate a third side by arranging the grooves on one side of the vinyl album to play a completely different program of tracks depending on which series of grooves the needle was dropped on. However, this idea was dropped when the band discovered that the Monty Python comedy troupe had executed the very same idea three years earlier with their ‘Matching Tie and Handkerchief’ album. The ‘third side’was later released as an EP titled ‘Babyfingers,’ and the tracks have since been re-integrated into ‘Fingerprince’ album on the CD reissues.

The Residents followed ‘Fingerprince’ with their ‘Duck Stab/Buster & Glen’ album – their most easily comprehensible album up to that point. This album got the band some attention from the press, and dropped most of their reliance upon the Theory of Obscurity. ‘Eskimo’ (1979) contained music consisting of non-musical sounds, percussion, and wordless voices. Rather than being songs in the orthodox sense, the compositions sounded like ‘live-action stories’ without dialogue. The Residents remixed the ‘songs’ in disco style, the results of which appeared on the EP ‘Diskomo.’ Eskimo’s cover presents the first instance of the group wearing their signature eyeball masks and tuxedos, which would be featured in many subsequent releases, films, live appearances, and promotional materials.

‘Commercial Album’ (1980) consisted of 40 songs, each consisting of a verse and a chorus and lasting one minute. The songs pastiched the advertising jingle although the songs were not endorsements of known products or services. The liner notes state that songs should be repeated three times in a row to form a ‘pop song.’ The Residents purchased 40 one-minute advertising slots on San Francisco’s most popular Top-40 radio station at the time, KFRC, such that the station played each track of their album over three days. This prompted an editorial in ‘Billboard’ magazine questioning whether the act was art or advertising.

When ‘MTV’ was in its infancy, The Residents’ videos were in heavy rotation since they were among the few music videos available to broadcasters. The Residents’ earliest videos are in the New York Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection and were eventually released together in 2001 on the ‘Icky Flix’ DVD, which includes an optional audio track of remixes.

In 1981, a trilogy of albums, starting with ‘Mark of the Mole,’ was to be released. A tour ensued, and was narrated nightly by Penn Jillette. ‘The Mole Trilogy’ is made up of parts I, II and IV. They featured The Residents performing behind a burlap screen, occasionally wearing disguises (such as their iconic eyeball masks), while dancers and actors appeared in front of painted backdrops used to help illustrate the story. Penn Jillette would come out between songs telling long intentionally pointless stories. The show was designed to appear to fall apart as it progressed: Penn pretended to grow angrier with the crowd, and lighting effects and music would become increasingly chaotic, all building up to the point where Penn was dragged off stage and returned, handcuffed to a wheelchair, to deliver his last monologue. During one performance, an audience member assaulted Penn while he was handcuffed to the wheelchair.

After their Japanese distributor approached them for a two-week run in Japan, The Residents created the ’13th Anniversary’ tour. While the musical performance was more mainstream, the stage show was another over-the-top spectacle, featuring inflatable giraffes, dancers in eye ball masks illuminating the darkened stage with work lights, and a lead vocalist who seemed to change costumes throughout the show from wearing his eyeball mask to wearing a Richard Nixon mask, and at one point wearing only a wig and fake ears. After the two-week run in Japan, the Residents took the show through the US.

Backstage at a Hollywood Palace show in 1985, one member’s eyeball mask (Mr. Red Eye) was stolen. Tt was replaced with a giant skull mask. The eye was returned by a devoted fan who discovered where the thief lived and stole it back, although Homer Flynn said the person who returned the mask was most probably the thief. It was put into retirement because they said it was ‘unclean’ and in a bad condition—a superfluous shell. After this, the lead Resident was known as Mr. Skull.

‘Cube E’ was a three-act performance covering the history of American music. It was a step up from previous shows, featuring more elaborate dance numbers and sets. It was also the first show composed exclusively of music written for the show. The show was almost entirely backlit, with blacklights highlighting fluorescent pieces of costumes and set. They introduced the first part, which covered cowboy music, on German television as ‘Buckaroo Blues.’ It featured the singer and two dancers wearing giant cowboy hats around a glowing campfire. Part two was called ‘Black Barry’ and focused on slave music and the blues. The act ended when a giant cube head rose from the back of the stage. Part three, ‘The Baby King,’ featured Elvis songs performed by an elderly Elvis impersonator for his grandchildren. The show ended with an inflated Elvis dying as a result of the British Invasion.

In the late 1980s, they created the epic recording ‘God in Three Persons,’ a story about the exploitation of two Siamese twins with healing powers by a male dominant force, and ‘The King & Eye,’ a surreal biography of Elvis Presley and the birth of rock and roll.

In the 1990s, they created ‘Freak Show.’ This marked the beginning of The Residents’ obsession with emerging computer technology in the 1990s. Much of the music was made with MIDI devices. ‘Freak Show’ also served as the name for a CD-ROM released by the Voyager Company in 1995, shortly after Laurie Anderson’s first multimedia CD-ROM experiment, ‘Puppet Motel.’ ‘Freak Show’ was also a stage performance by a theater company at the Archa Theater in Prague, and a comic book.

Based on Bible stories, ‘Wormwood’ featured the Residents departing from pre-programmed music and again using a live band. The band wore ecclesiastical robes and performed in a brightly lit fluorescent cave. The male and female lead singers switched leads, depending on what characters they needed. Act one consisted of one-off stories about individual Bible characters. Act 2 focused on suites of songs about Bible figures such as Abraham, Moses, and King David. During a performance in Athens, Greece, Nolan Cook, their guitarist, had to leave the stage after taking a rock to the head from an audience member.

The Residents recorded the dramatic album ‘Demons Dance Alone’ (also a tour and DVD in 2002) and ‘Animal Lover’ in 2005. Singer Molly Harvey began as a Ralph employee but by the mid-90s contributed to virtually all of The Residents’ many projects. The Residents’ increased reliance on Harvey, essentially handing her half of the vocal duties since at least ‘Demons Dance Alone,’ parallels their artistic revitalization. Nolan Cook, Carla Fabrizio, Toby Dammit, Eric Drew Feldman, and many other artists continuously worked with the band over the last five years, recording and performing live. The new artists helped to counter what some critics derided as a ‘sonic palette [confined to] factory presets from their new Macintosh audio’ of the CD-ROM era.

In 2010 the Residents began a series of tours titled ‘Talking Light,’ touring North America and Europe. During the tours, which lasted until April 2011, The Residents appeared as a trio, (with the explanation that the fourth member ‘Carlos’ had grown tired of the music business and ‘gone home’ to Mexico to care for his mother.) and adapted new identities and costumes. The singer, Randy, wore an old man mask, and the other two, keyboardist Chuck and guitarist Bob, wore dread lock wigs and some kind of illuminated optical gear over their faces. The songs were stories about various characters’ obsessions with ghosts, imaginary people, and supernatural phenomena. One of these performances was featured as part of the edition of the ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ festival curated by Matt Groening in 2010 in Minehead, England.

Much of the speculation about the members’ true identities swirls around their management team, known as ‘The Cryptic Corporation.’ Cryptic was formed as a corporation in California by Jay Clem (b. 1947), Homer Flynn (b. April 1945), Hardy W. Fox (b. 1945), and John Kennedy in 1976, all of whom denied having been band members. (Clem and Kennedy left the Corporation in 1982, much to the chagrin of some fans.) The Residents themselves do not grant interviews, though Flynn and Fox have conducted interviews with the media.

Nolan Cook, a prominent collaborator with the group in both their live and studio work (as well as being a live member of I Am Spoonbender), denied in an interview that Fox and Flynn are the Residents, saying that he has come across such rumors, and they are completely false. However, Cook himself is considered a member of the band by some, as he is known to wear the same head coverings as the rest of the group during live shows, even wearing the trademark eyeball mask during the ‘Wormwood’ tour.

William Poundstone, author of the ‘Big Secrets’ books, compared voiceprints of a Flynn lecture with those of spoken word segments from the Residents discography in his book ‘Biggest Secrets.’ After noting similar patterns in both, he concluded ‘the similarities in the spectograms second the convincing subjective impression that the voices are identical.’ He posited that ‘It is possible that the creative core of the Residents is the duo of Flynn and Fox.’ A subset of that belief is that Flynn is the lyricist and that Fox writes the music.

Cryptic openly admits the group’s artwork is done by Flynn (among others), under various names that, put together, become Pornographics, but the pseudonym is rarely spelled the same way twice (examples: Porno Graphics, Pore No Graphix, Pore-Know Graphics); and that Fox is the ‘sound engineer’ — meaning that he is the main producer, engineer, master, and editor of all their recordings. (Since 1976, the Residents’ recordings have all listed their producer as ‘The Cryptic Corporation’ presumably meaning Fox in particular.) Many other rumors have come and gone over the years, one being that 60s experimental band Cromagnon shared members with the band.

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