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The members of the Residents have managed to keep their identities secret for over 20 years. It is rumored that the band name was chosen after Warner Bros. Records rejected the band’s unlabeled demo tape and sent it back to “Residents” at the band’s return address. Further biographical information about the Residents is limited to the members’ claim of having come from Louisiana and of having formed the band in the San Francisco area.
In 1972 the Residents turned out a two-record set of 45 rpm disks called Santa Dog. This issue is sometimes confused with their 1978 45 rpm remake called Santa Dog 78, which was sent out to the mailing list of the experimentally-oriented label Ralph Records as a Christmas greeting and appreciation of support.
The band apparently did not have musical training, but since 1970 the members had been fooling around with tape recorders and had begun building a private studio, asubsequently buying the first consumer four-and eight-track machines as they became available. Prior to Santa Dog, the band had limited themselves to demo tapes, one hatched in 1971 entitled “Baby Sex,” for which cover art was designed—a woman performing fellatio on a male baby.
Members’ identities unknown.
Recording and performing artists, early 1970s—. Band formed c. 1971; released first album, Meet the Residents, 1974; released first video, The Moie Show, 1985; released CD-ROM The Residents: Freak Show, 1994.
Addresses: Record company ;—Cryptic Corporation, 566 Folsom Street, San Francisco, CA 94105. Fan club—U.W.E.B. The Official Residents Fan Club, P.O. Box 1599, Hoboken, NJ 07030.
The Residents’ first album, Meet the Residents, appeared in 1974 and marked the birth of the mail-order only label Ralph Records. The Residents, who would become the most anonymous of musical groups, began by attacking the most well known, the Beatles. For the cover art on Meet the Residents, the group used a copy of the Meet the Beatles album cover, albeit embroidered with some sarcastic doodling. Drawing legal fire, the Residents backed down and changed the design to show people dressed like the Beatles labeled with names like Paul McCrawfish and Ringo Starrfish.
Similarity with the Beatles ended inside the cover. As Cole Gagne wrote of the album in Sonic Transports, “most often, one crazy patch of music abuts another, or else the songs dovetail in slippery segues, where a phrase abruptly collapses into a seizure of repetitions which draws in weird new life forms that crowd out the old piece all together.” The songs were not discrete—where one composition ended and another began was often unclear. Similarly unclear was into what genre this music fell; certainly it was not easy listening.
The Residents again mocked early pop rock culture in the 1975 album The Third Reich ’n’Roll. The song “It’s My Party” was performed not with the traditional whining of ateenage girl but by the raging thunder of “the 50-foot woman” as Gagne put it. Similarly, a deservedly ghastly rendition was in store for “Yummy Yummy Yummy I’ve Got Love in My Tummy.” The album was punctuated by shrieks, sound effects, and electronic noise, trying to break down a sugary, sentimental culture, a mission the Residents have never really abandoned.
The Residents could not get enough Beatles music and again returned to the Fab Four in their 1977 45 rpm on Ralph entitled The Beatles Play the Residents and the Residents Play the Beatles. Side “A” was a remix of various original Beatles recordings; this dip into sampling was only one of numerous times the Residents used a technique years before mainstream pop.
The Residents’ LPs of the 1970s included Not Available (1974), Fingerprince (1977), Duckstab/Buster & Glen (1978), and Eskimo (a 1979 effort based on Eskimo stories that included an appearance by longtime collaborator Philip “Snakefinger” Lithman and others). The band’s prolific pace of an LP or two a year, along with 45s and other projects, continued through the 1980s. A partial list of these albums includes:The Commercial Album (1980);Mark of the Mole (the 1981 introduction to the saga of the oppressed Mole people of which two more volumes would appear);George and James (a 1984 exploration of George Gershwin and James Brown music, part of the band’s American Composer series);Hell (1986); and God in Three Persons (1988).
The Residents have observed strict anonymity, always playing their infrequent concerts in disguise—they often appear dressed in black with giant bloodshot eyeballs covering each musician’s head like a deep sea diver’s helmet. Yet the Residents have not gone without a voice. Two people, Homer Flynn and Hardy Fox, are authorized to speak for the Residents—or at least, the band has not publicly objected to their doing so.
The Residents themselves do not make public statements. In 1993 a Mondo 2000 interviewer queried Homer and Hardy (both of whom have Louisiana accents) on the band’s musical influences and was told that these certainly existed, but due to the Residents’ lack of traditional musical skills, the band was incapable of making them recognizable.
“Musically, Captain Beefheart was an early influence,” Flynn added. “It was obvious to them [the Residents] that he was taking John Coltrane and Howling Wolf and twisting them around in a wonderfully unique and interesting way.” The process of freely twisting influences is what interested the Residents, not so much imitation of Beefheart’s style—except, perhaps, his strong and often cryptic lyrics.
In a 1989 album, The King & Eye— the “eye” perhaps a reference to the band members’ favorite stage disguise—the Residents introduced some interpretations of Elvis Presley’s music. While Elvis had performed “Teddy Bear” as a light pop number, the Residents spokesmen saw the ditty’s dark “undercurrent of [sadomasochism].” Regarding the King’s “Jailhouse Rock,” the Residents emphasized what they saw as its concern with homosexuality.
In a June 1992 Post magazine article, Debra Kaufman painted an interesting picture of the Residents’ complex meshing of performance art, music, and storytelling. Working from the theme developed in their album trilogy on the fantasy Mole people, the Residents had made a financially draining world tour, The Mole Show, in 1982-83. Penn, of the comic duo Penn and Teller, narrated the show. Kaufman wrote that the Mole people’s emotional struggles after they were forced to live above ground was mirrored in Penn’s performance and his expression of anger and confusion about his role in the show. The narration also allegedly reflected the Residents’ ambivalent feelings “about their self-imposed underground status.”
The band’s interest in freakishness and new technology married nicely in their 1994 CD-ROM release, The Residents: Freak Show, which features such circus wonders as Herman the Human Mole and Wanda the Worm Woman. The characters’ lamentable histories are revealed via photos, animation, and audio. In May of 1994 one Billboard ’reviewer admitted in viewing the CD that he had really felt as though he had entered “forbidden territory, enjoying an illicit thrill.” Of course, that has always been the Residents’ territory.
Santa Dog, Ralph, 1972.
Meet the Residents, Ralph, c. 1973.
The Third Reich ’n’ Roll, Ralph, 1976.
Fingerprince, Ralph, 1977.
The Beatles Play the Residents and the Residents Play the Beatles, Ralph, 1977.
Duck Stab/Buster & Glen, Ralph, 1978.
(With Snakefinger) Eskimo, Ralph, 1979.
The Commercial Album, Ralph, 1980.
Mark of the Mole, Ralph, 1981.
The Tunes of Two Cities, Ralph, 1982.
George and James, Ralph, 1984.
Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats?, Ralph, 1984.
The Census Taker, Episode, 1985.
The Big Bubble, Ralph, 1985.
Hell, Rykodisc, 1986.
Pee Wee’s Playhouse (television score), CBS, 1987.
God in Three Persons, Rykodisc/Torso, 1988.
The King and Eye, Enigma/Torso, 1989.
Not Available (recorded 1974), Ralph.
The Mole Show/Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats? (video), Doublevision, 1985.
Video Voodoo—The Residents, Volume 1 (retrospective of album videos), Palacevideo, 1987.
The Residents: Freak Show (CD-ROM), Voyager, 1994.
“Midway” segment on Inscape (CD-ROM), Voyager, 1995.
Bigazzi, Giampiero, and Annette Jarvie, The Residents—An Almost Complete Collection of Lyrics, 1972-1988, Stampa Alternativa/Nuovi Equilibri, 1989.
Culp, Philip, and others, The Official W.E.I.R.D. Book of the Residents, The Residents Official Fan Club, 1979.
Gagne, Cole, Sonic Transports, New Frontiers in Our Music, de Falco Books, 1990.
Billboard, May 14, 1994; July 23, 1994; August 20, 1994. Mondo 2000, 1993.
New York Times, June 20, 1988; January 8, 1990. Post, June 22, 1992.
—Joseph M. Reiner
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