Everything anyone thinks they know about The Residents ought to preface it with the phrase “alleged.” In stark contrast to our celebrity-obsessed times, these mysterious avant-garde jokers cloak themselves in levels of secrecy that would do the KGB justice. We know they are currently celebrating their 30th anniversary, have a new CD out (“Demons Dance Alone”), are selling a new DVD (“Kettle Of Fish”) that is only available at the merchandise table, and played a rare show in downtown Minneapolis on Wednesday night. Everything else is quite literally up for grabs.
The Residents make a habit to appear on stage clad in tuxedos, top hats and oversized bloodshot eyeball masks but nobody really knows why. To put it in a convenient nutshell, the band maintains that nobody knowing who they really are makes their music sound better.
As evidenced by dozens of best-of collections, the burden of history weighs heavy as the so-called “giant eyeball guys” attempt to move forward with creating new material. Most bands these days last six months at the most, but these people have been playing for longer than most critics (including myself) have been alive. Formed in 1972, this fearsome foursome has reinvented the works of George Gershwin, James Brown, Hank Williams and John Phillip Sousa yet most of the country sadly still does not even know they exist. Sounding like an unholy mix of Frank Zappa, early Pink Floyd, Sun Ra and Captain Beefheart, they have sampled everyone from John Cage to Michael Jackson. They have been early innovators in the realms of music videos, MIDI recordings, interactive CD-ROMs, and independent distribution. Despite a rabid fan base, unmasking The Residents has proven to be more difficult than getting coffee with J.D. Salinger.
The majority of aficionados credit Shreveport, La., as their birthplace although Ralph America (their headquarters) is supposedly located somewhere in the Twin Cities area. According to legend, they banded together over a hatred of redneck culture and road tripped to San Francisco, only to have their truck break down in San Mateo, Calif. Undeterred by an almost total absence of technical proficiency, they quickly started making tapes in their dingy, cramped apartment and eventually sent them to people like the head of Warner Brothers and then-U.S. President Richard Nixon. One package was returned to “To the attention of the residents” and a band name was born. Originally disguising themselves with fencing masks at sparsely attended Berkley gigs, they toiled in obscurity for years making a still-unreleased film entitled “Vileness Fats” but scored their big break by releasing a caustic cover of the Rolling Stones’ standard “Satisfaction.”
In 1976, a rabid fan named John Kennedy inherited a good deal of money and invested it in the band, forming the Cryptic Corporation as a front business designed to anonymously push the Residents into the limelight by any means necessary. Although Ralph America later put out notable releases by other like-minded freaks, the primary focus remained on the flagship group. Highlights of the band’s misfortunes and minor triumphs since then cannot be summed up in a whole week of “Behind the Music” specials. Capitol Records sued them for defacing a famous Beatle cover in their liner notes, their concept album about Eskimo chants topped the 1979 dance charts in Greece, a 7″ was recorded almost entirely with toy musical instruments, and an album of audio collage works was released in exchange for product samples from a technology firm. For six days, an obscure stand-up comedian was held hostage in a hotel room “for effect” during a recording session, a merchandising deal gone bad at one point lost them the rights to their own songs, Warner Brothers eventually crawled back to beg forgiveness and offered them money to record new music videos, and a KLF remix became a standard at European discos. Lucrative scoring deals were struck with the Discovery Channel, MTV, and “Pee Wee’s Funhouse.” Plans for a full-scale opera were scrapped, collaborations with They Might Be Giants and Primus got decidedly mixed reviews and the deal with David Lynch to make a network television program fell through. The Residents made waves by putting a picture of Adolf Hitler fondling a mutant carrot on one record but one prank leaves all the others in the dust: “The Commercial Album.” Consisting of 40 one-minute jingles, the Residents paid a Bay-area radio station an undisclosed sum to play the album in its entirety; thus simultaneously blurring the lines of what listeners considered “commercials” versus “songs” and effectively turning payola on its head.
This leads us in a roundabout way as to why The Residents never seem to tour. The recent “Wormwood” release, a critically acclaimed comeback-of-sorts that highlighted some little-known Old Testament tales, had coaxed our reclusive heroes out of semi-retirement. Sadly, some right-wing zealots just cannot take a joke. Shows were mysteriously canceled, promoters received death threats, rocks were hurled and fliers proclaimed, “Your arm’s too short to box with God.”
Therefore, it was with great relief that their masterful performance at the Fine Line this week happened in the first place. Consisting mainly of a medley of their greatest hits, so to speak, the well-heeled audience was decidedly reserved even by prog-rock standards. Eschewing their traditional eyeball garb in favor of camouflage netting and modified gas masks, they came across looking like evil anteaters. Demons played trumpets and mummies break-danced in the background as the band tore through their catalog. Aside from one isolated heckler, the deferential audience appeared hypnotized by the simultaneously haunting and hilarious numbers being performed back to back. Never once acknowledging the crowd, The Residents seemed completely in control of their element.
Perhaps The Residents have had it right all along. Even if a band member dies for whatever reason, another in theory could simply pick up the torch and no one would ever be the wiser. With Trekkie-like fan worship, the Cryptic Corporation could easily become a rock’n’roll institution for the ages, if they are not already.