Who are The Residents?
Most informed students of rock history will at least have some vague awareness of San Francisco-based art collective The Residents. Since the early 1970’s, images of these mysterious, anonymous artists in their iconic eyeball-head-with-top-hat-and-tails disguise have occasionally leaked into the mainstream music press, leaving an indelible mark on the collective imagination. Many of those who’ve been sufficiently intrigued to explore The Residents’ musical works over the years have surely found themselves alarmed and alienated – at least initially – by the squawking theatricality and psychotic surrealism emanating from records such as Meet The Residents (1973) and The Third Reich & Roll (1976). And yet, as abrasive as it can be, with repeated listening and – crucially – an appreciation of The Residents’ unique absurdist vision, a significant proportion of the curious have gone on to develop an overpowering addiction to the strange, idiosyncratic music created by these shadowy individuals.
In addition to the numerous studio recordings, since 1972, The Residents have produced a wealth of visual art in the form of short films / videos; photographic and illustrated imagery; and even CD-ROMs. The surreal aesthetics – including the beautifully bizarre album covers – form an essential part of The Residents’ identity and, as such, are an intrinsic part of fully appreciating their music.
More than 40 years on from the release of Santa Dog, their debut single, The Residents are currently celebrating this anniversary by undertaking an extensive tour, proving that uncompromising cult artists can sustain a lengthy career in music as long as there remains a devoted fanbase and curious newcomers continue to be enticed. However, with such a bewilderingly vast discography, entering the strange universe of The Residents for the first time can be a daunting prospect. So here are five tried-and-tested Residential classics to whet the jaded appetite of those ready to investigate the works produced by a truly unique underground phenomenon.
MEET THE RESIDENTS (1974)
There simply was no precedent for The Residents debut album when it landed on Earth in 1974. Unlike their notional contemporaries in underground experimental music, The Residents had a predilection for aggressive weirdosity and childish melody over the much more measured, aloof approach of the krautrock scene or post-Trout Beefheart. At this early stage, The Residents wanted to rub your face in their low-fi avant-garde stew rather than touch you on some deep intellectual level or seduce you with conventional rock stylings. In fact, apart from the odd cursory garage punk riff, the closest that Meet The Residents comes to conventional rock music is the searing guitar on eternal fan-favourite Smelly Tongues, and even then it’s subverted by the sickly weediness of the surrounding instrumentation. The rest of the record is dominated by piano and brass – familiar sounds rendered alien by a creepy, hollow non-production and cheapjack studio effects. Often, the whole enterprise teeters on the brink of collapse, but there is some beauty here on the pseudo-classical Rest Aria, even if several musical missteps ensure that the ramshackle charm remains intact. Overall, harsh ugliness and grating satire – for example, the brutally slaughtered Boots and Nobody But Me, originally by Nancy Sinatra and Human Beinz respectively – are the order of the day, making this revolutionary record a challenging option as an entry point but an essential part of Residential history nevertheless.
Originally conceived as a three-sided record set, Fingerprince surfaced in the more traditional two-side format in 1977 with the shunted tracks eventually appearing on the Babyfingers (1979) EP. An advance on the grubby recording techniques that made the previous releases so abrasive, the production on Fingerprince gives much more space to the music, resulting in a relatively polished, slightly more sombre atmosphere. The writing and performance also show considerably more discipline, particularly on the frantically percussive, exotica of Six Things To A Cycle and You Yesyesyes Again, with its delicate Spaghetti Western lilt. Elsewhere, there’s the southern-fried surrealism of Tourniquet Of Roses; an insanely catchy duet featuring two redneck caricatures salivating over the prospect of a fried breakfast and “feeling up” a lover’s leg. While Godsong ruminates over the somewhat loftier subject of mankind’s love/hate relationship with his supposed creator, accompanied by sinister rumbling piano and shrieking brass. A dramatic, thought-provoking highlight. Coming to the fore on Fingerprince is British-born guitarist Snakefinger (Philip Lithman) who accentuates the sense of delirium by adding crazed FX-laden lead guitar to the proceedings. Until his untimely death in 1987, his blistering contributions would prove a vital element of The Residents’ sound. If there’s any flaw to be found on Fingerprince, it’s the occasional lapse into the repetitiveness and deadening starkness, but it remains a compellingly dark, seminal work, as well as representing a progressive step in The Residents’ career.
DUCK STAB / BUSTER & GLEN (1978)
Never ones to take the conventional path, in 1978 The Residents combined their Duck Stab EP with seven additional songs (which were originally intended to be released as another EP entitled Buster & Glen) and unleashed what subsequently became their most lauded album. Indeed, Duck Stab / Buster & Glen is often cited as the zenith of The Residents’ artistic achievements, and with some justification. There’s a certain concentrated intensity to this music; an amped-up take on the acerbic but slightly more leisurely delirium of their previous works, with an even greater emphasis on elaborate sound textures. So here then are fourteen cartoonish, wildly colourful tales of twisted Americana; where the gleeful, demented nursery rhyme tendencies of yore are complemented with a maturing ability to create dramatic subtlety. If Constantinople is the sound of acid being thrown into the face of a Muppets’ show-tune, Sinister Exaggerator is a jet-black character assassination set to a dense soundtrack of subterranean bass and Snakefinger’s jangling spy-theme guitar. If Krafty Cheese is shrill, whacked-out electronica complete with singing plant life, Hello Skinny is a nervy, minimal mood-piece; a near-whispered Lynchian sketch describing a scrawny misfit who peddles musical soundtracks to truck drivers at dusk. Across all of its 14 stories, Duck Stab / Buster & Glen is richly imaginative and diverse, retaining the snarky surreal humour but embellishing the musical accompaniment with new, highly inventive sound manipulations and evermore exotic instrumentation. If you only hear one album by The Residents……..
COMMERCIAL ALBUM (1980)
Following what is still the most radical project of their recording career, Eskimo (1979) on which the ethnic music of the Arctic was given a Residential slant, The Residents returned to the ‘pop’ song format with the Commercial Album; an imaginary Top 40 chart rundown condensed to LP length by carving-off the blubber that serves to bulk-out the average 3 minute pop tune. According to legend, the mandate on this project was that each song must only feature one verse and a chorus, and last for one minute. In practice though, there’s little in the way of anthemic pop choruses and the 60 second rule proves ripe for the bending. However, the concept remains fascinating, and the overall effect is mind-scrambling. The rapid-fire onslaught of different moods and musical styles here should be painful to endure but, somehow, the entire record works as a cohesive whole. And some of The Residents’ finest work can be found here; from the funky, playful Picnic Boy (guest vocals: Lene Lovich) and the fizzing, parping new wave of Moisture, to the skin-crawling horror of Die In Terror and funereal doom of The Coming Of The Crow. Lyrically, the Commercial Album holds some of The Residents strongest imagery (the bleak humour of My Second Wife and the death of romance on The Act Of Being Polite). There’s also a moving poignancy here that speaks of the inherent sadness at the heart of the human condition. On Perfect Love, the futility of searching for the ideal soul-mate is ingeniously counterpointed – and consequently emphasised – by its deliriously wonky synth motif and emotionally blank vocal, whereas Tragic Bells (an ingenious twist on the Bee Gees’ Tragedy) creates an agonising sense of despair bereft of any humour whatsoever. Although there was still strong music to come, The Residents would never again attain the consistency of this remarkable cornucopia of imagination, incisive wit, and emotive potency.
GOD IN THREE PERSONS (1988)
In the early 80’s, advances in music technology meant that The Residents became increasingly reliant on synthesizers to produce their art. Given their longstanding penchant for bizarre noise and experimentation, this was perhaps bound to be the case. Sadly, over the next two decades, sterile, soulless electronics often came to overshadow the otherworldly organic sounds born of limited resources, found on the 1970’s albums. However, 1988’s God In Three Persons is a striking exception. Although mostly created by artificial means, there is an imposing, grandiose depth to the instrumentation here, and a sense of restraint that serves the overall concept perfectly. As a cautionary tale of religious fervour and the exploitation, God In Three Persons pulses with a rancid sexual tension as it explores the relationship between co-joined twins with miraculous healing powers and their manager Mr X. As the story gradually unfolds, the latter, who narrates in southern drawl via a ‘talking blues’ style, starts to allude to his lust for the female twin as the tense music subtly signposts the way to an inevitable explosion of violence. The inherent sleaziness of the narrative – told in captivating, literate poetry – is a prominent but ultimately superficial element. The true underlying themes of hypocrisy, temptation versus conscience, and the balance of power in human relationships are the profound foundations upon which the story is built. The recurring musical motifs , mostly based around keyboard melodies, tend to be simple but meticulously layered, lending a thrilling cinematic air to the more turbulent moments. The more quirky tendencies are largely suppressed, although the riff from the 1966 U.S hit Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love) appears as one of the main themes – adorned with blaring, triumphant brass – reminding us of artists’ long-standing fondness for molesting beloved pop classics. But how that particular cultural reference fits in with the overall concept is a mystery among many on this enigmatic, cerebral masterpiece.
The Third Reich & Roll (1976) – Hideously mangled 1960s pop tunes presented as two 20 minute suites. An avant-garde masterpiece but not for the faint-hearted.
Mark Of The Mole (1981) – The opening chapter of a concept album trilogy. A compelling drama, permeated by a palpably dank atmosphere, telling of a subterranean life where violent conflict is never far away.
The 13th Anniversary Show Live In Japan (1986) – In-concert reworkings of old favourites, pared down to minimalist electronica and shot through with some scorching lead guitar from Snakefinger.
Wormwood (1998) – Where The Residents mercilessly plunder The Old Testament for its most salacious and brutal stories. A lysergically-enhanced Godspell.
Demons Dance Alone (2002) – Supposedly a Residential response to 9/11, this a late classic in their canon. Underscored with a deep sense of melancholy, this is a moving collection of relatively accessible songs (though not without its moments of gleeful surrealism).
Icky Flix (DVD) (2001) – A remarkable, eye-popping compilation of music videos and short films from the archives. A must for any connoisseur of subversive, experimental film. A number of the earlier films are held in the permanent collection at New York’s Museum Of Modern Art.