What’s a Resident? Epithets abound, but anent actual identities, anyone who knows ain’t talking. Cinéastes transplanted — so the story goes — from Shreveport, Louisiana, to the San Francisco area who also dabble in musical experiments, the foursome (trio? duo?) has woven a remarkable cloak of secrecy. Aside from the avowed purpose of avoiding misleading and potentially divisive individual credits, this attention-getting mystique leaves absolutely nothing to contemplate but the music itself.
In the course of a lengthy and convoluted career that shows no signs of flagging, the Residents have produced an enormous and bewildering array of increasingly accessible high-concept records and visual media. Despite limited technical and compositional ability, the group’s ample wit and unbridled imagination, in the service of works seeking to trample sacrosanct icons and rock’s boundaries, have proven versatile and adaptable, as useful for ambient soundscapes as parodic musicology, electronic rock and film scores.
Close to the Residents’ snickering hearts is the idea of rotating the nostalgically familiar to an angle that exposes a darker aspect that normally goes unseen or ignored. For what putatively is a musical group, that’s pretty subversive if you think about it. And that is what the Residents would have you do. The group has made a career out of pushing its audience to think, rather than merely absorb; as sharp as visceral reactions can be, the what-are-they-really-up-to? factor has been a component of the Residents’ work from the get-go.
Although they’ve had the benefit of considerable prowess, courtesy friends like the late guitarist Philip (Snakefinger) Lithman, the Residents have never pretended to instrumental virtuosity and have often sounded goofy, even downright silly. Yet one of their fortes is assembling seemingly simple-minded elements into mosaics of subtlety and complexity; even without benefit of the synthesizers now available, the “phonetic (re)organization” principle, an evident ability to manipulate tapes and an ornery creative vision resulted in the impressive sonic assemblages of their earliest releases — even on the debut LP, 1974’s Meet the Residents (the CD of which includes the even earlier “Santa Dog” double 45; four attempted albums — only two completed — that preceded “Santa Dog” were never released).
The Residents led Ralph Records from cottage industry to self-sufficient label, able to sell artistically ambitious oeuvres without selling themselves out. They’re also paradigmatic of limited technical and compositional ability, marshalled, along with wit and imagination, in the service of works seeking to trample sacrosanct icons and rock’s boundaries.
It’s evidently not in them to write distinctive melodies that don’t sound utterly bizarre. When they try, the results invariably sound like someone else’s — albeit distinctly distorted or perverted — which is probably one reason why the dissection and reassembly of various bits of rock tradition has been one of their fortes since early on. Also, the Residents’ approach owes great debts to the early groundbreaking of both Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. (It was at one time rumored that the storied N. Senada, a poet/saxist who allegedly collaborated with the Residents during his brief sojourn in the Bay Area, was actually Beefheart.) All that said, the Residents are superior synthesists, and the derivations of their work can’t deny the entertainingly provocative nature of their best achievements.
The first four efforts by the then-unnamed group were album-length tapes, including one which was sent (with no name on it) to a record company in the hopes of a deal and sent back to the quartet’s return address, care of “Residents.” Hence the moniker.
N. Senada’s contribution, the concept of phonetic (re) organization, was adapted by the Residents on their first vinyl releases, the 1972 double-45 set Santa Dog and the 1974 debut album, Meet the Residents. Santa Dog‘s four intriguing but inchoate expressions of Residency include weird manipulations of verbal as well as musical logic, de(con)struction of familiar (in this case, Yuletide) songs and the formulation of their own “instant standard” (“Fire,” aka “Santa Dog,” remade in 1978 and again in 1990). The album does likewise but more so, in quality as well as quantity, alternately a sophomoric giggle and a striking, off-the-wall twist of musical mind. The Residents had arrived, but weren’t yet sure quite where they were. (The LP’s cover, which snidely uses the graphics of Meet the Beatles in order to trash the Fab Four, was allegedly the subject of legal threats; the album was re-released in ’77 with a tamer jacket and improved sound. Issued on CD in the late ’80s — as were most of the group’s early records — by East Side Digital, it adds the Santa Dog tracks and reverts to the original cover design.)
On The Residents Present the Third Reich ‘n Roll the band transforms hooky bits from ’60s Top 40 hits into two ridiculous, funny, scary and just plain jaw-dropping- weird side-long suites, “Swastikas on Parade” and “Hitler Was a Vegetarian,” intended as “revenge” for the brainwashing of American youth into acceptance of rock’s trivialization (or something like that). The LP was reissued with partially censored graphics in ’79 (the original cover showed a carrot-toting Nazi officer bearing a distinct resemblance to Dick Clark) and on CD in ’87, with the addition of two brilliant early 45s (and their B- sides): “Satisfaction,” which makes Devo’s subsequent try sound like the 1910 Fruitgum Co., and the Beatles perversion, “Beyond the Valley of a Day in the Life.” (Again, the CD graphics return the lurid originals.)
In 1976, the band recorded Tourniquet of Roses, but since it supposedly would have taken up three sides, Ralph subtracted one side and released the rest as Fingerprince. The four excised songs were later released as the extremely limited edition Babyfingers EP, but reinstated (in the approximate middle of the program!) on the CD. (Technically speaking, the whole thing could have fit on one vinyl disc, albeit with reduced audio fidelity; alternately, they could have removed less than sixteen minutes’ worth.) The need isn’t clearly programmatic either; a little instant myth-making? At any rate, while Fingerprince (like the first album) contrasts a batch of brief tracks with one lengthy piece (the “ballet” “Six Things to a Cycle”), the band had shifted into a higher gear: imagine Frank Zappa meeting Steely Dan in a very avant mood, with the results then processed through a computer programmed by a paranoid schizophrenic with a sense of humor. This also applies fairly well to the Babyfinger tracks, which include the eight-minute “mini-opera” “Walter Westinghouse.” (The late Snakefinger, whose outrageous guitar graced their early tapes and “Satisfaction,” guests.)
Duck Stab was originally released as a 7-inch EP — the group at its most consistently accessible — but was enlarged to album size by the Buster & Glen half (also succinctly catchy and humorous). Noteworthy here is the dominance of songs with vocals, and the emergence of the distinctive voice of a Resident who eventually became the group’s only voice. A 1987 reissue of the album dropped Buster and Glen from the title; the CD of the same name appends Goosebump (the B-side suite of the Diskomo 12-inch) and a swell lyric book.
Duck Stab was evidently cut as a lightweight diversion from the sessions for the more crucial conceptual masterwork, Eskimo. That project may have gotten out of control, since its release was postponed a year. Instead, out popped Not Available, supposedly recorded just after Meet the Residents — and, according to “the theory of obscurity,” never intended for release. Hooey? If new, it’s the culmination of various ideas the band had cultivated; if genuinely old, a lasting influence on Residentalia to come. I’d say the latter, since most everything said to have been recorded after it seems more refined in execution, if not so grand in sweep. Can you imagine a vast epic in five sections told with the recitative cadence of nursery rhymes (a Residents vocal trademark) but sounding as though played by E.T. and family? (The Not Available CD adds five tracks from Title in Limbo, the Residents’ collaboration with Renaldo and the Loaf.)
With help from ex-Mothers keyboardist Don Preston and drummer Chris Cutler (of Henry Cow/Art Bears fame), Eskimo‘s broad, electronically spacey sonic contours form a backdrop for what the Residents would have you believe is a re-creation of Eskimo life and culture (instrumental, but with printed narration on the jacket to explain the “stories.”) It’s brilliant and — yep — chilling, a most (but not totally) serious undertaking, evocative if not quite authentic. Some of its sections were reprogrammed as “Diskomo” and coupled on a 12- inch EP with a toyful look in on Mother Goose. The Eskimo CD appends the Residents’ four contributions to Ralph’s 1979 Subterranean Modern compilation.
They then cut an LP of 40 one-minute songs, with some celebrity helpers (Fred Frith is credited; Lene Lovich and XTC’s Andy Partridge, among others, aren’t). The rationale: a Top 40 song is just a minute of essence repeated three times and a commercial jingle is a minute long; ergo, “jingles are the music of America,” and The Residents Commercial Album is an alternative Top 40. Cute idea for a minute but not enough justification for this gimmicky exercise. Many of the tracks boil down to a few seconds of “essence” repeated for a minute. Yet with the CD, programmability — even random shuffle sort — can bring out the gems and make it all sound better. Plus, the CD has bonus tracks: four from Residue, two great cover-version 45s (“Hit the Road Jack” and “This Is a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” [sic]) and four more one- minute cuts: two excellent, one so-what and one an okay take on the Ramones’ “We’re a Happy Family” done for Morgan Fisher’s more imaginative brevity challenge, Miniatures.
The band embarked on three major projects in the ’80s: the uncompleted Mole Trilogy, the open-ended American Composer Series and, in a related vein, the Cube E trilogy. The Mole trilogy began auspiciously with Mark of the Mole, a murkily limned, yet engrossing story of the Moles, forced out of their home into sharing one with the Chubs, and the ensuing conflict between the “underground” and slick complacency. A thin story, but musically harrowing. Unfortunately, The Tunes of Two Cities suggested that the Residents had painted themselves into a corner. The narrative isn’t advanced and, although its context is fleshed out, it’s simply not enough. The Residents seek to convey the cultural contrast in musical terms, alternating the Moles’ abrasive, industrial grind with the Chubs’ offbeat yet unctuous cocktail jazz. Neither the device nor its execution, notwithstanding some swell sax by Norman Salant and guitar by Snakefinger, can justify the whole album — not by Residential standards, anyway. (The Tunes CD adds three outtakes, again inserted in the middle of the program.)
The Residents’ camp was in disarray. Despite the temporary acquisition of hotshot LA management, the Residents began to reel, first from internal dissension and later from desertions by members of the Ralph brain trust.
The 1983 Mole Show LP is the Residents’ own authorized bootleg of the show’s groundbreaking presentation at LA’s Roxy Theatre in late ’82. The band then proceeded to tour Europe, and released a second album, from an ’83 performance in Holland. Both present Mark of the Mole surprisingly well, with the benefit of Penn Jillette (a longtime fan and friend) providing periodic narration to clarify the story. Although the performances are basically the same, the later one is a little tighter and has clearer sound. (The early one does have an amusing Jillette ad lib, during a staged argument with the band: “I don’t care who you are, you sing like Gomer Pyle.”) All the same, the Residents’ charming way of squirming out of having presented an unfinished work is still an evasion. Intermission is exactly as billed — “extraneous” music from the show — and the first Residents record unable to stand on its own. (Intermission later became a bonus add-on to the CD of Mark of the Mole.)
Residue collects Resident leftovers, rarities and unreleased versions. It, too, sidesteps the Mole issue, but is at least exciting and entertaining (if a bit uneven and unintegrated), relying notably on the group’s patented warpage of rock clichés. That’s more than can be said of their collaboration with likeminded English weirdos Renaldo and the Loaf. Just who’s at fault isn’t clear (it can’t all be Renaldo), but the record is far less than the sum of its parts. Only one track (“Monkey & Bunny”) is truly worthy of the Residents; the rest deserves to be forgotten.
Not content with one incomplete ambitious venture, the Residents then launched another: the American Composer Series, an attempt to lionize their favorite songwriters by interpreting their work in characteristically bizarre style. The first volume of the projected 16-year (!) undertaking, George & James, matches up a side each of George Gershwin and James Brown (live at the Apollo, no less — with crowd sounds) and is an excellent, typically bizarre success. Stars & Hank Forever!, the series’ second volume, has some worthwhile material, but isn’t up to the creative level of George & James. Its examination of Hank Williams on Side One is hit (amusing) and miss (silly); the flip’s fun-house-mirror treatment of John Philip Sousa’s marches could’ve been done as effectively in a third of the time. That’s a case of the format dictating the execution, something they’d wisely never allowed to happen before.
Soundtrack albums — one of a Residents short film (’84) and the other of a Hollywood feature (’85) — are hardly the records you’d expect to offer hope for a bright Residential future, but that’s just what they do. The long- rumored Vileness Fats was intended to be a full- length music video back in 1972 (!), but was later abandoned. It’s hard to believe the music was recorded that long ago; the songs may date from then, but the recordings on Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats? sound of more recent vintage. And it’s a good, if not major, addition to the group’s canon. Even better is the certifiably recent The Census Taker, which subverts more soundtrack music genres than you can shake a stick at in brilliant Residential fashion. Could this be the band’s mode of entry into the real world?
It can’t be over-stressed how much effort the Residents’ virtues sometimes take to discern. A prime example is The Big Bubble, which is one of the hardest Residents albums to recommend — especially out of context. At first, its simplistic and repetitive nature is flat-out irritating. Yet repeated listenings engender respect for the band’s struggle to create and sustain the unusual emotional stance of an uprooted but partially miscegenated people attempting to assert its identity, and for the effort put into establishing a credible foreignness for the Moles, including the fictional Mohelmot language in which some of the album is sung. The contradictory “Part Four of the Mole Trilogy” self-description suggests that the Residents don’t know how to kill off the monster they’ve created. That much of the album within an album is entertaining is besides the point. We’ve mainly heard this before, and positing it as the politically charged record by the miscegenated offspring of Moles and Chubs doesn’t justify its billing. The Unfab Four (or Three, or — by now most likely — Two) are doing too much tail-chasing.
The neat Live in Japan (October 1985, in Tokyo, with Snakefinger along for the ride) draws on diverse corners of the group’s output, from the ’84 single of James Brown’s “Man’s World” (not on George and James) all the way back to “Smelly Tongues” from their very first LP. They do two songs from their collaborations with Snakefinger, and even the one decent number from their ill-begotten hook-up with Renaldo and the Loaf. Several tracks from The Commercial Album are exhumed and reworked with great success.
“Hit the Road Jack,” the Percy Mayfield classic popularized by Ray Charles, gets an uncharacteristically accessible Residential once-over in a “special almost dance mix” on a 12-inch that also contains one track each from three recent albums.
The ambitious God in Three Persons is an hour- long scenario of Anyresident’s personal journey to awareness of the balance and relativity of maleness and femaleness, pain and pleasure, reality and illusion. (Did anyone mention that pesky old Mole trilogy?) It begins with “song stylist” Laurie Amat singing the album’s credits, including an abridged music publishing ID, and proceeds to tell its story via singing and (rhymed) narration over surprisingly simple, straightforward keyboard accompaniment. (Just how simple can be judged by a listen to the Soundtrack‘s remixed and re-edited versions of most of God‘s backing tracks: this music can’t stand alone any more than Intermission.) The remarkable candor with which the piece addresses lust — we’re talking blunt and uninhibited here — is yet another of the record’s atypical attributes. The narrative is sometimes didactic, sometimes awkward and sometimes confusing, but impressive in spite of it. After being issued initially on CD, God in Three Persons was made available as a two-LP set.
Perhaps chastened by the Mole mess, the band plotted another tripartite project, but instead of trumpeting something they might not deliver, they just went ahead and did it. First they debuted “Buckaroo Blues” and “Black Barry” as sister pieces in the summer of ’89 at New York’s Lincoln Center, and then they added “The King and Eye” to form “Cube-E” that fall, honing the show in subsequent European and US tours. (The Buckaroo Blues & Black Barry cassette is a live recording from San Francisco, September 1989.) These full-fledged multi-media presentations included dancers, costumes, backdrops and props. Although occasionally flat and/or bewildering, the overall impression was stunning. Here at last was the Residents’ history of American pop music in three “E-Z” steps: cowboy music, black slave and reconstruction music, and Elvis (the King…but of what?). This was a refinement of Residential modus and a new level of artistic achievement.
It comes across on the records, too, even without benefit of the visual aspect. Reconsidering familiar western idioms, the Residents fashion them into weirdly alien — yet more universal — epics of love and desperation. Stereotypical images are turned inside out to provide disturbing angles on the African-American slave and post-slave experience. Using just some narration and a batch of Presley hits reinterpreted Residents-style, The King and Eye (a studio recording with more material than was used onstage or, consequently, included on the live Cube-E album) incisively portrays Elvis’ life and work as a misguided abandonment of innocence in favor of a sad yet comedic Oedipal journey. This is the near- perfection of (some of) what they started two decades ago with Santa Dog. Bringing an utterly unique perspective to an utterly unique icon, the Residents delivered a masterpiece, possibly their most successful work yet.
The UK-only PAL TV offers excerpts from Vileness Fats and selections from a Dutch performance of the Mole show. Heaven? and Hell! , two lengthy CD-only compilations, offer plenty of good music, but no rhyme or reason in the selection other than a general division into “beautiful” (Heaven?) and “ugly” (Hell!). A random-selection CD player equipped with a complete Residents catalogue could have done just as good a job choosing material as these discs do.
Two compilations eminently worthy of attention are Assorted Secrets and Stranger Than Supper. One side of the former is an early (spring ’82) live Mole show; the other contains two live-in-the-studio sessions of songs they rarely (if ever) played onstage, including material from Duck Stab/Buster & Glen, Not Available (!) and Tunes from Two Cities.
A rare public/commercial release by the band’s UWEB (Uncle Willie’s Eyeball Buddies) fan club — which has, since 1988, issued a bunch of otherwise unavailable Residentalia, including a studio recording of Buckaroo Blues and a four-version Santa Dog CD — Stranger Than Supper offers a tasty sampling of what lies beyond. There’s an early-’90 performance of “Teddy Bear” (a song also done for The King and Eye) from David Sanborn’s Night Music (where the group shared the stage with Conway Twitty), a fine squint at “Oh Susannah” that didn’t make it into “Buckaroo Blues,” a great New Year’s Eve serenade and an eleven-and-a-half- minute medley of “Land of 1000 Dances”/”Double Shot of My Baby’s Love,” which includes the riff that later became a major motif in God in Three Persons (plus a chunk of the narration, too). Real good stuff; it will make you want to join UWEB.
Even prior to their Night Music appearance, the Residents reached network television, through a likely door — the one that led into Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Following artist Gary Panter (who used to do Ralph record covers) into his nutty corner of the CBS Saturday morning lineup, the Residents supplied the music for the infamous Zizzybalubah episode. On another media front, the group has frequently appeared as guest protagonists in Those Annoying Post Bros. and Savage Henry, two comic book series by Matt Howarth, creator of the Mole trilogy mini-comics.
After 20 years, it became time for a look backward — in fact, three looks: Voyager issued an hour-long videodisc called Twenty Twisted Questions, featuring both released and unreleased videos and live performances and more. With Our Finest Flowers, the Residents themselves provided a unique alternative to a greatest hits album (which would have been somewhat redundant, considering the Heaven? and Hell! compilations from 1986; for serious fans, there’s also Stranger Than Supper, an assortment of live tracks, studio rarities and a self-professed “jam” on Black Barry’s “New Orleans”) by recombining pieces of their fave tunes (including collaborations with Snakefinger and Renaldo and the Loaf) into tracks different enough that you’d swear they were newly recorded (but they were not). In ’93, the leader of Uncle Willie’s Eyeball Buddies (UWEB) — the Residents’ appreciation society, which has issued numerous non-commercial records — wrote and compiled the not-entirely reliable but extremely informative and entertaining Uncle Willie’s Highly Opinionated Guide to the Residents, published by Ralph. His conclusion? “What It All Means” is …nothing. Ooookay. There’s also Louisiana’s Lick, a best-of sampler with misleading track attributions, done as a promotional item but available through mail-order.
More recently, the Residents have sought to enhance their visual side. As far back as the mid-’70s, they shot what they hoped would be a landmark underground film-on- videotape, Vileness Fats (mysteriously abandoned but later distilled into the wild half-hour Whatever Became of Vileness Fats? video, with a new soundtrack). Long before MTV, the Residents made some remarkable music videos, two of which are in New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. They later scored several episodes of Pee-wee’s Playhouse and a number of MTV shows, and they corkscrewed musical archetypes for the soundtrack of Saturday Night Live alumnus Garrett Morris’ 1985 film, The Census Taker. (That score wound up on the Vileness Fats CD reissue.) As the ’90s unfold, the Residents move into a unique position among their ostensible peers as the pre-eminent creators of musical works explicitly created for CD-ROMs.
Freak Show is a group of relatively accessible — if often unnerving — portraits of, well, freaks: a living head, a piano-playing human mole, a woman with a “living wig of worms,” etc. It’s not all despairing; “Jello Jack the Boneless Boy” hangs on by dreaming of being a bird and believing that “God is singing in his dreams at night.” Not all the freaks are on display — some are the paying public. The imagery is uncomfortable, and when the lead vocals are performed by guest performers, they tend to be uncharacteristically (for the Residents) melodramatic. Still, there are more than enough lyrical twists and turns to avoid mere gross-out overkill, and the music shifts textures and tempos (the frequently used circus oompah is just a touchstone) to follow suit. “Everyone comes to the Freak Show/But nobody laughs when they leave.” Indeed!
Freak Show was adapted for a deluxe graphic album comic featuring top names in the cartooning world (Kyle Baker, Brian Bolland, Richard Sala et al.) in a work that is interpretive rather than merely representative of the songs. (Early copies featured “Blowoff,” Freak Show‘s title tune leading into a thirteen-minute medley of music that didn’t make the final CD; it’s quite good, at times what the music those “alien” musical groups in the Star Wars movies should have sounded like. The EP has since been sold by itself via mail order.) The graphic album helped inspire the transformation of Freak Show into the first Residents interactive CD-ROM in ’94, realized with the help of computer animator Jim Ludtke.
Gingerbread Man was created expressly for the interactive CD-ROM format, yet it uses a similar formula: the songs are portraits of aging, despairing and/or angry people. If anything, it’s simpler and more straightforward than Freak Show, sounding very nearly like a “regular” band at times — well, as close as they’ve ever come, especially when guest Todd Rundgren voices “The Aging Musician” (who curses gun control and MTV for derailing his career). Much of the music is built around a single melodic phrase, which is somewhat limiting, but the effect is haunting rather than tiresome. An entertaining (if not major) musical work, and a transitional interactive undertaking. Bad Day on the Midway was created to be a CD-ROM game; an album of music based on it was released on standard CD as Have a Bad Day.
Meanwhile, the Residents released the Hunters soundtrack, from the Discovery Channel’s cable series on animals in the wild. Who would ever have thought the Eyeballs would be doing educational TV? Without compromising their stylistic approach at all, the group pulls it off fairly well. Normally, the Residents are excellent at using slower tempos, muted or echoed percussion, and synths that wash or drone to put across a dreamy feeling; that’s what they do here for 59 minutes, yet its varied tunelets and expressive textures are anything but dull.
If the Residents continually risk trivializing themselves by seeming willfully obscure rather than abstractly profound, it’s obvious they don’t care. It’s part of the reason they can function as they do. The fact that they have no more public identities than four bodies in tuxes with eyeball heads and top hats is more than just a cute gag. We’ve had only “their” word that they’ve been a foursome all along, and no one’s ever said it’s been a stable foursome; that familiar Residential vocalist (we even saw his face, albeit under heavy makeup, as Grandad in The King and Eye live shows) is the only certifiable thread of personnel continuity since the early albums. The passage of time has given this deliberate anonymity the stature of a genuine Statement, and despite occasional diversions and missteps — or what seem like missteps in the short run — the Residents forge on at a high and amazingly uncöopted level of achievement, eschewing the easy path. As the fictional group the Big Bubble on the album of the same name, they might as well be describing their own brand of musical brine. “Sugar melts and goes away / But vinegar lasts forever.”
Eyesore: A Stab at the Residents is a 30-track collection featuring an eclectic set of tribute-payers, from Cracker, Primus and Stan Ridgway to Heavy Vegetable, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 and Supercollider; Snakefinger’s old version of “Smelly Tongues” is wisely included as well.
Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses is a rarities-packed two-CD retrospective. Diskomo 2000 is a CD reissue of the combined Goosebump and Diskomo EPs augmented by new remakes of the former’s “Twinkle” and the latter’s “Diskomo.” Icky Flix is a DVD.