The Residents - Biography
By Oliver Hall
The four members of the Residents are anonymous. Since the beginning of the Residents’ career in the early 1970s, the band has not appeared in public, or been filmed or photographed, except in disguise. During the small number of televised interviews the band has given, all four members have remained silent and costumed while an associate speaks on their behalf. Their disguises took various forms— KKK robes and hoods made out of newspaper in the 1975 video for The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll, mummy cloth at a 1976 performance, radiation suits in the supermarket— until the band debuted its most famous costume on the cover of Eskimo (Ralph 1979): matching tuxedoes, white gloves, canes and top hats, and a mask on each member’s head in the shape of an eyeball.
For the first thirteen years of the Residents’ activity, it was nearly impossible to tell which Resident was which. On the Mole Show tour in the early 1980s, the band performed costumed behind a scrim. One is slightly shorter than the others, and two distinct male vocalists with Southern accents can be made out, but that’s about all a fan of the band could certainly say. Then, according to the band, one of the eyeball heads was stolen after a show at the Hollywood Palace on December 26, 1985. Ever since, one of the Residents has worn a skull mask; this Resident is sometimes called “Mr. Skull” or “Mr. Deadeye.” In the Residents’ recent performances, Mr. Skull has been identified with the deep voice that sang “Hello Skinny,” “Kaw-Liga,” and “Moisture,” and that appeared as interviewer “Sid Powell” on the Residents’ 5th anniversary radio special. However, Mr. Skull stood behind a keyboard in 1985 while the singer with the deep, rough voice stood out front in a wig and fake ears, so it is not, presumably, always the same Resident under the skull head.
The Residents’ concealed identities have allowed the group to maintain nearly total control over its own image and history. From the beginning, the band controlled every aspect of its creations and their presentation, recording in a home studio, designing album covers and artwork as “Porno Graphics” (spelled differently on each release – “Poor Know Graphics,” etc.), and releasing music through the band’s own Ralph Records label. In much the same way, the band has written its own story. It is impossible to verify the claims the Residents have made about their past, since the band’s members cannot be identified. Then again, some of the story of the Residents’ early days pieced together by writer Ian Shirley sounds plausible enough: in 1966, the story goes, two or three or four of the Residents left Shreveport, Louisiana to meet up with another who had moved to San Francisco. They ran out of gas in San Mateo, a suburb outside San Francisco, and decided to live there, renting an apartment above an auto painting shop. The roommates began making tapes in 1970. These early recordings, Rusty Coathangers for the Doctor and The Ballad of Stuffed Trigger, have never been released. The band sent a tape to Warner Brothers, which has come to be known as Warner Bros. Album, but Warner Brothers apparently did not recognize the value of such tunes as “Snot and Feces Live at the Grunt Festival.” Since the band had not provided a name, Warners’ rejection was addressed to “The Residents.” Whoever addressed this envelope named the band.
The music and ideas of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart were important to the Residents in the band’s early days. One of the earliest Residents recordings to have been officially released is a 1971 version of Zappa’s “King Kong,” featuring the late, great guitarist Philip C. “Snakefinger” Lithman, the Residents’ most important collaborator until his death in 1987. However, according to the band, their single biggest influence was their supposed mentor during the late 1960s, the Bavarian avant garde composer N. Senada, whose name sounds suspiciously like that of a town in Baja California, and who put forth, among other theories, his Theory of Phonetic Organization.
In October 1971, the Residents gave what was apparently their first performance at an open mike night at San Francisco’s Boarding House. During this cacophonous performance, which can be heard on the UWEB fan club CD Daydream B Liver (1991), the throaty bass voice of the Resident later known as Mr. Skull sings and screams less often than the higher-pitched voice of the Residents’ other male vocalist. In 1972, the Residents moved into a house on Sycamore Street in San Francisco’s Mission District. Here they built a recording studio, built and painted sets, made costumes and began filming a movie, Vileness Fats, which they would eventually be forced to abandon after four years’ work. The Residents released their first record, the otherworldly double 45 Santa Dog (Ralph 1972), in a Christmas edition of 400 mailed away free. Santa Dog was the first release on the band’s Ralph Records.
The cover of the band’s first album, Meet The Residents (Ralph 1974), reproduced the cover of Meet The Beatles with an extreme pen-and-ink makeover for the Fab Four. It was the first of many times the Residents, who according to Shirley considered calling themselves The New Beatles, would present themselves as the Beatles’ grotesque double; it was even rumored that the Residents were the Beatles, although anyone who believed this after hearing Meet The Residents must have imagined that the Beatles had recently gone under the knife of Dr. Moreau. Among the album’s revisions of rock music was “Smelly Tongues,” a spooky, oily rock song of a kind peculiar to the Eye Guys, like “Fire” from Santa Dog and the Residents’ 1986 version of Hank Williams’s “Kaw-Liga,” set to the beat of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”
The Residents apparently recorded their second album in 1973-1974. The odd, beautiful Not Available (Ralph 1978) was, the Residents said, “a conceptualization of the Theory of Obscurity, as applied to phonetic organization, as put forth by the Bavarian avant-gardist N. Senada […] According to the Theory of Obscurity, the album was not to be released.” The Third Reich ‘N Roll (Ralph 1975) disassembled and recombined ‘60s radio hits into the Residents’ version of American pop’s most atrocious song-form, the medley. A planned three-sided LP recorded at Sycamore Street in 1976, to be called Tourniquet of Roses, wound up as Fingerprince (Ralph 1977). The album’s “third side” was issued as Babyfingers (Ralph 1979). The single The Beatles Play The Residents And The Residents Play The Beatles (Ralph 1977) comprised “Beyond the Valley of A Day in the Life,” a collage of Beatles recordings imagined as the Beatles performing a Residents composition, and the Residents’ deranged version of “Flying.”
For the first four years of the Residents’ career, the Residents’ business affairs had been handled by the band itself, as The Residents, Uninc. In 1976 a group calling itself the Cryptic Corporation appeared and began to handle the Residents’ business affairs. The Cryptic Corporation, like the group, had four members: Jay Clem, John Kennedy, Hardy Fox and Homer Flynn. That same year, the Residents moved from their Sycamore Street house into a new base of operations on Grove Street. Between 1976 and 1979, the Residents recorded an album they said was based on field recordings N. Senada made of Eskimo “cultural festivities” at his new home, the North Pole. While the band worked on the narrative album Eskimo (Ralph 1979), Ralph released the Duck Stab EP (1978) and Not Available (1978). The Residents also co-wrote and co-produced Snakefinger’s “The Spot” single (Ralph 1978) and first two albums, Chewing Hides The Sound (Ralph 1979) and Greener Postures (Ralph 1980).
For The Commercial Album (Ralph 1980), the Residents recorded forty utterly bizarre original “pop” songs, each one minute long. “One-Minute Movies,” four surrealistic music videos, promoted the album. The Residents also produced Diskomo (Ralph 1980), an 8-minute concentration of Eskimo that added a disco beat and muted wah-wah guitars to the sound of chanting and freezing wind. The Coca-Cola jingle that has a tragic resonance at the end of Eskimo is used to hilarious effect in Diskomo. The B-side of Diskomo was Goosebump, created entirely with toy instruments.
The Residents’ next project was the ambitious Mole Trilogy, their first work to feature digital synthesizers. The story of Mark of the Mole (Ralph 1981), inspired by John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, pits the ugly but peaceful Mole laborers, driven out of their homes by a storm, against their new masters, the cute but ruthless Chubs. Part two of the trilogy, The Tunes of Two Cities (Ralph 1982), represented the popular music of the Mole and Chub cultures. The Mole Show premiered in 1982. The third part of the trilogy never appeared, though on part four, The Big Bubble (Ralph 1985), the Residents impersonate a nationalist Mole, or “Mohelmot,” group called The Big Bubble, whose hit “Cry for the Fire” includes a passage in the Mohelmot language forbidden by Chub law. Conceptually, all this is far more satisfying than Sgt. Pepper’s.
Penn Jillette, the carny barker of anti-magicians Penn and Teller, posed as a common-sense fan of John Travolta and Barbara Streisand for Ralph Records’ 10th anniversary radio special. The program claimed to represent the six days Jillette spent locked in a Bay Area motel by Ralph, forced to listen to the label’s entire catalog— which by now included Tuxedomoon, MX-80 Sound, Yello and Fred Frith— reporting his reactions into a tape recorder. Jillette also acted as the host and narrator of the Mole Show tour, during which it was his role, he says in the Mole Show promotional video, to “deliberately antagonize the audience.” In that video, Jillette relates a “riddle” he says one of the Residents told him: “’Why did the little moron resurrect Christ?’ Puzzled, I could only stare at him until he finally answered: ‘To get to the other side, of course.’”
On two volumes of a projected American Composers series, George & James (Ralph 1984) and Stars & Hank Forever (Ralph 1986), the Residents interpreted the music of George Gershwin, James Brown, John Philip Sousa and Hank Williams. Between 1985 and 1987 the Residents and Snakefinger took their 13th Anniversary Show to Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Europe and the United States. Two CDs compiled Residents songs around grand themes: Heaven? and Hell! (both Ryko 1986).
Snakefinger died of a heart attack in July 1987. The Residents, dressed in black, performed a new composition in his memory, a studio version of which was released as Snakey Wake (UWEB 1988). The memorial ended with the release of black balloons into the sky.
The cinematic God in Three Persons (Ryko 1988), “an epic tone-poem,” was accompanied by the God in Three Persons Soundtrack, “an instrumental, meta-Muzak version” of the album. The Residents also revisited the Swingin’ Medallions’ immortal “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love),” which had been among the songs quoted in The Third Reich ‘N Roll, and issued a Diskomo-style concentration of God in Three Persons called Holy Kiss of Flesh (Ryko 1988). The King & Eye (Enigma 1989) retold Elvis’s story and reshaped His songs. This material was the basis for part of Cube E: The History of American Music in 3 E-Z Pieces, a theatrical show documented on the live album Cube E (Enigma 1990).
The possibilities of the new CD-ROM format captured the band’s imagination in the early 1990s. Freak Show (Ralph 1990), an album about carnival freaks, was also available as an interactive CD-ROM with computer-animated depictions of the songs’ subjects. The Enhanced CD The Gingerbread Man (ESD 1994) and the CD-ROM game Bad Day on the Midway (Inscape 1995) followed. The Residents developed a CD-ROM to be titled I Murdered Mommy, but this project was shelved by the company that bought Inscape. The band scored the Discovery Channel series Hunters in 1995, as they had previously scored several episodes of Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Our Finest Flowers (ESD/Ralph 1992) marked the Residents’ 20th anniversary with an album of new performances that scrambled familiar tunes and lyrics from the catalog. The laserdisc Twenty Twisted Questions (Voyager 1992) compiled the Residents’ short films.
British writer Ian Shirley’s Meet The Residents: America’s Most Eccentric Band! (SAF 1993) is the first, and to date only, attempt by an outsider at an accurate biography of the band. The Residents’ first fan club, W.E.I.R.D. (We Endorse Immediate Residents Deification), published The Official W.E.I.R.D. Book of the Residents, which included “The True Story of the Residents,” written in 1979 by future Life in Hell and Simpsons creator Matt Groening. Groening, then a young record store clerk obsessed with the music of Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and the Residents, playfully embellishes the Residents’ myth, suggesting, for example, that J.D. Salinger himself used to jam with the group in its early days. According to the Residents’ website (www.residents.com), W.E.I.R.D. organizers Philip Culp and Mimi King chose Groening to write the band’s biography “not only because he appreciated the music of the band, but also because he had shown through his writings and drawings that he had the imagination to fill in the enormous blank spots in The Residents’ history.”
Uncle Willie, the crotchety and seemingly fictitious president of the second Residents fan club, UWEB (Uncle Willie’s Eyeball Buddies), published Uncle Willie’s Highly Opinionated Guide to the Residents (Cryptic Corporation 1993) around the time UWEB dissolved. His Residents history begins: “According to mythology, The Residents hail from Louisiana’s largest northern city, Shreveport. However, information so clearly handed out is almost certainly inaccurate, knowing how they create myths within myths. I can’t say that it matters to me where they are from, though it is certainly the South; one can’t fake an accent that accurately. But who cares anyway?”
The Residents marked their 25th anniversary with five nights at San Francisco’s Fillmore, the retrospective Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses (Ryko 1997; expanded edition, Euro Ralph 1997), and a limited release, Pollex Christi (Ralph 1997), advertised as an N. Senada composition dating from the 1930s. Wormwood: Curious Stories from the Bible (ESD 1998) followed, with a touring stage show that dramatized the Bible’s most lurid moments.
Over the next decade, the Residents issued numerous limited-edition releases through Ralph America. After the DVD compilation Icky Flix (ESD 2001), the Residents’ next major release was Demons Dance Alone (ESD 2002). A remixed version of the unreleased Warner Bros. Album, recorded in 1970, was issued as WB:RMX (Cryptic 2004). Then, a series of new albums for the Mute label followed in quick succession: Animal Lover (Mute 2005), Tweedles! (Mute 2006), The Voice of Midnight (Mute 2007) and The Bunny Boy (Mute 2008). The Residents also recorded the serial audio drama The River of Crime (Cordless 2006).