Dedicated to Hardy Fox, 1945 – 2018
By Ben Arzate
In 1966, four (possibly more) young men left Shreveport, Louisiana for San Francisco, California. Like many young people of their generation, they intended to join the growing hippie movement. However, when their truck broke down in San Mateo, they decided to stay there and began working on various artistic projects.
Among other things, they recorded a demo tape and sent it to Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers rejected the demo and returned it. Because the band had not included a name with the tape, it was addressedsimply to “the Residents.” And thus, one of the strangest, most prolific and ambitious rock groups in modern times was christened.
The first project that the Residents began work on was a film called Vileness Fats. Between working on the film and working day jobs to fund it, they recorded and released their first album, an EP called Santa Dog, in 1972.
The album was designed to resemble a Christmas card from an insurance company, “presented” by “Residents, Uninc.” with each of the four songs attributed to different bands named Ivory and the Brain Eaters, Delta Nudes, The College Walkers, and Arf and Omega featuring The Singing Lawn Chairs. Who the actual Residents were was not known as they chose to remain anonymous.
Santa Dog established their early sound. Noisy, lo-fi, and primitive with parodies of rock, Broadway musicals, jazz, Christmas music and commercial jingles, with lyrics full of weird, nonsensical and humorous wordplay. In the future, the Residents would create new versions of Santa Dog every few years as a gift for their fans.
Still continuing to work on the film, they recorded and released their first full-length album, Meet the Residents, in 1974. Both the title and the album cover were parodies of the Beatles. This created legal issues with the Beatles’ label, forcing the Residents to change the cover on the reissue.
Meet the Residents opens with an incredibly goofy cover of “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” and only gets goofier from there. Some of the highlights of the album include “Spotted Pinto Bean,” a song that sounds like it’s from a ridiculous musical, “Smelly Tongues,” a noisy song which references the four senses with its lyrics “smelly tongues look just as they felt,” and “Seasoned Greetings,” another parody of Christmas music.
Their next album was Third Reich and Roll. This took their affinity for pop culture parodies to the extreme. Each of the songs on the album is a demented cover or mix of pop songs from the 1960s, many of them mangled beyond recognition.
The album was ahead of its time with its use of mash-up and sampling. The covers here make their cover of “Boots…” on Meet the Residents look downright normal. The use of Nazi imagery, including swastikas, dancing Hitler children and Dick Clark in an SS uniform was especially shocking at the time and required the album to be censored for release in Germany. In a recent interview, one of the Residents’ managers stated they regretted the cover art of the original release.
Not long after Third Reich and Roll was released, the Residents were forced to cancel Vileness Fats due to various issues with the production. They would go on to release various parts of the existing footage in other projects, the first of which was a promotional video for Third Reich and Roll. The first ever release of it was a half hour featurette called Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats?
Not ones to be discouraged by the failure to complete Vileness Fats, they continued recording music. The single The Beatles Play the Residents and The Residents Play the Beatles continued their use of mash-up, sampling, and parodies of pop culture with the A-side being a collage of several Beatles songs and the B-side being an incredibly sarcastic cover of “Flying.” Their single cover of “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones received some notoriety for how intentionally disgusting and borderline unlistenable it was.
Around this time the Cryptic Corporation was founded to act as the Residents’ managers. The four members of Cryptic consisted of Residents collaborators Homer Flynn, Hardy Fox, Jay Clem, and John Kennedy. There has been some speculation that these four were the actual Residents, but we’ll come back to that.
Their next album was Fingerprince; it was originally planned to be a “three-sided” album where one side of the record would play a different set of songs, depending on where in the groves the needle was set. However, this proved to be too expensive to press and a regular two-sided album with the third side’s songs released as a separate EP called Babyfingers.
CD reissues simply combined the songs; the songs were still primitive and noisy-sounding here, but with lyrics that told more coherent stories. “Godsong,” for example, is about God’s disgust with mankind. “Walter Westinghouse” sounds almost like a silly folk song. The entire B-side consists of a mostly instrumental suite called “Six Things To A Cycle,” which sounds like a mixture between Harry Partch and carnival music.
Their next release was an EP called Duck Stab!, which was re-released as a single album with a second EP (never released on its own) called Buster & Glen shortly thereafter. This ended up being the most successful Residents album to date, its songs still being noisy and primitive but much more accessible than their previous work. It contained some of their most well-known songs such as “Bach is Dead” and “Semolina.”
During this time, the Residents had been working on an ambitious album that was subject to numerous delays and conflicts among the band and with management. Due to the delays and a shortage of funding, the Cryptic Corporation decided to release Not Available in 1978.
Originally recorded in 1974 to be a follow up to Meet the Residents, the band had decided to lock the album away until they forgot about its existence. Not Available had been a significant departure from Meet the Residents. While still noisy and dissonant, it was a more straightforward rock opera which told a strange tale about about a love triangle between a woman named Edweena and two men named The Procupine and The Catbird.
Finally, in 1979, the Residents released the Eskimo. The album was a fictionalized depiction of Eskimo culture involving recordings of harsh winds, chanting in a fictional language, tribal drum, and homemade instruments. The linear notes included absurd stories about the Eskimos and served as a parody of the ignorance and mistreatment of Native American peoples. It also introduced their iconic look of tuxedos, eyeball masks, and top hats with its cover art.
Their next album, Commercial Album, was a response to the following they’d amassed with Duck Stab!/Buster & Glen. Each of the 40 songs was a minute long and the album came with instructions to loop each song three times to get a commercial pop song. They also bought advertising space on a Top-40 station in San Francisco, which resulted in the album being played on the station over the course of three days.
Encouraged by their increasing critical and commercial success, they set out on their most ambitious project yet, the Mole Saga. This would be a series of six albums accompanied by elaborate stage shows. The story of the Saga was about an underground people known as the Moles. When a storm destroys their home, they’re forced to relocate to the city of the Chubs. The Chubs initially welcome the Moles as cheap labor, but when the Moles begin marrying Chub women, it results in intense racial conflict that eventually breaks into a war.
The first two albums were released within a year of each other. The Mark of the Mole, released in 1981, set up the story of the destruction of the Moles’ homes and their migration. It had a dark and tribal sound to reflect the type of music listened to in Mole society. The Tunes of Two Cities were “in-universe” songs from both the Chubs, who listened to big band music, and the Moles, whose music reflected their pessimistic religious views.
The elaborate stage shows proved to be a disaster. They were fraught with production problems, negative reactions from the audience due to their confrontational nature that resulted in at least one assault on the performers, and an inability to make back their extensive budget.
This led to two of the original founders of the Cryptic Corporation, Jay Clem and John Kennedy, leaving the company and the cancellation of the rest of the Mole Saga. Though they would record part four in the Saga, The Big Bubble, and released it in 1985 to mixed reviews. This album was another “in-universe” set of songs from a band called the The Big Bubble which was a mix of Mole and Chub people, reflecting the real life racial tensions in the United States that eventually led to the creation of rock and roll music.
After a collaboration with Renaldo and the Loaf called Title in Limbo, the Residents proved they weren’t going to be deterred in the least and jumped into yet another ambitious project. The American Composers Series was to be a ten record series where each record covered the songs of two great American artists on each side, starting in 1984 and ending in 2000.
The first, George and James, were covers of George Gershwin and James Brown. The second, Stars and Hank Forever featuring the songs of John Philip Sousa and Hank Williams, gave the Residents the closest they’ve had to a real commercial hit with their discofied version of “Kaw-Liga” becoming popular in European clubs.
Despite that, this series would also come to a premature end. The move from vinyl records to CDs and the prohibitive costs of licensing the songs meant that only two of the albums would be released. To make matters worse, their long-time friend and collaborator Snakefinger died in 1987 due to a heart attack.
However, in spite of all these setbacks, nothing would stop the Residents from going right ahead with new projects.
Stay tuned for part two…