Recently, prior to the group's upcoming performance of their latest epic, Wormwood, I had a chat with one of the group's spokespersons, Homer, a folksy longtime associate of the "band" and co-head of the Cryptic Corporation, the Residents' production conglomerate. Homer amiably conveyed the group's way-out Weltanschauung, bizarre beginnings, current crazes and fears for the future.
The Residents, it seems, germinated somewhere in Louisiana, possibly a swamp, but packed their bags and moved to San Mateo in the late '60s. They spent their early years honing their style and recording such unreleased masterpieces as "The Ballad of Stuffed Trigger" and "Baby Sex." It was here too that they met their guru, The Mysterious N. Senada, whose Theory of Obscurity later inspired them to record The Unreleased Album, a pure-art work created intentionally to be heard by no one.
Moving to San Francisco in 1972, the Residents set up a four-track recording studio in a small, windowless room. Their modest goal was to tell true stories about the real America, the one they knew from puerile pop music, terrible TV and horsepoo Hollywood movies. Significantly, it had dawned on them that any truly countercultural telling of the Great American Adventure not only had to shun stardom, it had to be interpreted in a musically original form -- for them, an honestly white no-soul music derived from disparate views of reality squished together for maximum cranial excitement.
You'll recall that in the wake of '70s punk rock there was a trend called new wave, which spit-shined the sweaty spirit of punk and took it to heady heights at the top of the charts. The Residents, having been discovered by the ravenous British music press, suddenly became the next big new wave thing, a phenomenon that spread into Europe and, in classic fashion, back to America.
Having been officially approved of by the people who wore skinny ties and rolled up the sleeves on their blazers, the group began to sell in sizable, if not exactly mass, quantities. The Residents used this relative prosperity to found their own label, Ralph Records, which released high-quality uncommercial music by the likes of Fred Frith, Yello, Snakefinger, and Renaldo and the Loaf, and established Pore No Graphics to handle album-cover, poster and T-shirt art. Along the way, they won fans in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. The Residents are huge in Greece.
ANONYMITY HAS HELPED THE RESIDENTS ACHIEVE durability, but . . . the masks must become a burden at times. Surely the band wants to rip them off and proclaim, "Yes, it is me, John Johnson, who has created this art." And surely there's been some fanaticism to deal with, the mad compulsion of fans with nothing better to do than to unveil the men (?) inside the eyeball heads.
"It's there," says Homer, "but people seem to respect that it's important that the Residents be allowed to exist in their own little world. We've had a few people who've tried to crash through the backstage doors, or get through security and things like that. But it's like people have accepted that the Residents really want to be treated as a group, they don't want to be treated as individuals, and it's not to anyone's advantage that they be forced to give that up."
The Residents have thus maintained their mystery, yet they couldn't have done it without such ambitious music. From humble beginnings messing with tape loops, detuned guitars, one-fingered cheapo organs and twangy, retarded vocals, often reinterpreting to horrific effect the "best" of the rock canon (hilariously tin-eared and unfunky covers of "Satisfaction," "Land of a Thousand Dances," "It's a Man's Man's Man's World"), they've slowly developed a pretty slick production technique, largely due to their discovery of the Emulator sampler in the early '80s, and their exploration of computers and MIDI programming. They've taken on works of gigantic scale, such as Eskimo, a history of life in the Arctic, and the ethnic-cleansing/dignity-in-work legend of the Mole trilogy (volumes 1, 2 and 4), which relates the struggle between the industrious, sincere Moles and cheerfully vacuous hypercapitalist Chubs ("We don't want your brow/We don't want your eye/All we really want is/For you to puke and die"). Consistently, they've established a distinctive homegrown tonality, owing equal debts to the Stones, Harry Partch, Mauricio Kagel and Don Kirschner. Their Third Reich & Roll album, wherein Adolf Hitler imitates Chubby Checker singing "Let's Twist Again" and concludes with a discordant medley of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," "Hey Jude" and "Sympathy for the Devil," was also a nod at '70s Krautrock, the Residents demonstrating that America could generate its own avant-garde style derived from a purely American tradition.