There is no authentic story of The Residents to be found, and their mysteries won’t ever come to light unless by The Residents themselves, and they aren’t saying much.
The Residents are virtually inseparable from their disguise, so any understanding of them must take into account both the organized sounds of The Residents, as well as their organized silence.
The Residents were one of the quintessential groups of independent musicians in the 1970s and 80s. Formed by composer Hardy Fox and vocalist Homer Flynn, they would perform in android costumes and never reveal their faces or identities.
Relocating from Louisiana to San Francisco in 1966, they debuted in 1972, during the dark age that followed the hippie movement’s demise and the collapse of acid-rock. They composed their most innovative works between 1974 and 1976 when the new wave wasn’t born yet. Still, their isolation from the music scene remained absolute until the new wave allowed them to emerge as modern prophets of a way to make, perform, and conceive music.
Obscure and cryptic, their pieces were part of a multimedia show whose antics transposed the music-hall into the new wave and whose sound emphasized a collage-style approach to composition.
Meet The Residents (1974) gave “devolution” a sound. Inspired by Dada, surrealism, and Frank Zappa, the Residents, assembled junk culture (commercials, orchestra, cartoons, elevator music, exotica, commercials). The Residents would sculpt a sonic montage that was deliberately amateurish and provided a chilling documentary of the western civilization while disguised as a grotesque parody of its consumerism.
Where Zappa was a virtuoso of composition and direction, a heroic implementer of sloppy ideas, the Residents were sloppy implementers of heroic ideas.
Glacial, distorted, monotonous voices soared over instruments that merged chamber and atonal pretenses with puerile rhythms and clumsy melodies.
Not Available (1978), conceived too in 1974 but released several years later, one of the era’s milestone recordings, was their most sophisticated work of art. These suites coined a new form of avant-garde music out of symphonic primitivism and cacophonous world-music. Despite the gargantuan display of sounds, they offered a bleak and terrifying vision of humankind.
That vision was expressed in a more programmatic format with the futuristic ballet Six Things To A Cycle (1976) and reached its poetic apex with Eskimo (1979), an experiment set in the Arctic but also a touching tribute to ancestral humanity and their epic struggles in hostile environments. This time, the Residents looked to expressionism and theater for crafting a less chaotic work than their early collages and more “ambient” in Brian Eno’s vein.
Mark Of The Mole (1981) was the first installment of the three-part sci-fi fantasy “The Mole Trilogy,” and the fairy tales of Census Taker (1985) and God In Three Persons (1988) continued their ventures into a musical realm that no other band dared approach. Big Bubble (1985), the third part of the trilogy, was a thrilling post-modernist experiment on the human voice.
The first record release is the double single Santa Dog (1972). When British guitarist Philip Lithnam (“Snakefinger”) joined their entourage, their independent label Ralph Records was born. The group moved the San Francisco underground during the dark years following the sunset of the hippie movement and acid-rock before the advent of the new wave.
Isolated from both media indifference and their coherence, the Residents lived in anonymity until 1978. By the time Ralph’s records begin circulating in America awakened by the “new wave,” the Residents’ thriving inspiration will be partly already exhausted.
The authentic masterpieces of the most occult rock ensemble date from 1974 to 1976, but at that time, their records were released in a limited number of copies.
In 1981, The Residents were not content to continue creating single, isolated music albums and wished to pursue more ambitious projects. Consequently, The Mole Trilogy was the first venture in this new direction. Initially, the project was created as a collection of six albums: three of the LPs were intended to tell an epic story, connecting several generations of two fictitious races. The three additional albums were designed to serve as musical “illustrations” for this story. It was a trilogy of pairs, each contributing both to the narrative and cultural context of the ongoing saga. Also, a live tour was planned.
The plotline used lyrical storytelling to follow the races through their inevitable ideological clash between the two cultures. In contrast to this narrative form, the pseudo-documentary “music” albums demonstrated the cultures’ musicology, then followed its evolution as the societies began to merge. However, only parts 1, 2, and 4 have surfaced. Perhaps this was intended.
In addition to the three albums, the highly anticipated Mole Show world tour was unleashed upon unsuspecting audiences, along with an album of pre-show, intermission, and post-show music.
The Big Bubble, released in 1985 as the third part of The Mole Trilogy, is one of their most experimental and far-sighted works and is one of the most innovative vocal avant-gardes of all time. If the suite’s conception is bizarre, the execution is dizzying, pressing, thrilling, and full of surprises.
The overture, Sorry, demented and operatic, plunges the listener into a heavy and violent atmosphere, wickedly sarcastic, reminiscent of the expressionist works of the 1920s. The arrangement is violently industrial, with a synthesized orchestra and choir.
Having established the opera’s mood, Hop A Little also establishes its expressive mode with a sequence of acrobatic warbling using only vocal lines and noises of the palate, counterpointed by electronic slashes, in the proudest tradition of avant-gardists such as Meredith Monk.
The shock is exacerbated by Gotta Gotta Get, in which the pre-verbal babbling becomes even more frenetic and, surprisingly, expressive: it is a “speech,” in all respects, declaimed in a primordial and universal language of accents, of pauses, excitement, and emphasis.
The background remains that tide of dark and very violent electronic sounds, giving a tone of apocalyptic tragedy to the song’s chitchat & dialogue.
In Cry For The Fire, there are very high laments of great dramatic intensity, marked by the piano and the orchestra’s martial notes, giving rise to strongly rhythmic ceremonial music.
It is also the solemn and impetuous tone with which Die-Stay-Go opens, a prelude to Vinegar’s changes in register and the explosion of rhythm.
Fear For The Future is a purely instrumental mini-symphony, with the piano leading a violently beaten melody on the keys, as if it were a percussion instrument.
Kula Bocca Says So is the latest, extreme novelty caricature in a “serious” version of many pop music comic hits. Such a dramatic work actually originates from a culture of parody of popular genres, which embodies our times’ gnomic subculture. It adds layers of post-modern meaning to the whole operation.
Not only is it one of the Residents’ greatest works, but it will remain as one of the forerunners of the neo- and post-industrial sound. At the same time, it constitutes a trait union between expressionist theater, post-minimalist art-performance, opera, and rock music.