Louisiana swamp rats who relocated to San Francisco in 1966 and created a stir by never revealing their identities and making head size eyeballs famous, The Residents specialised in proto-synth programming that pre-dated Devo and just about every cutting edge artist, with the possible exception of Can, the German experimental legends.
In 1971 The Residents mailed a homemade tape to Harve Halverstadt, the marketing director who had previously signed Captain Beefheart, at Warner Brothers. The tape – optimistically named The Warner Bros Album – proved to be too weird for Halverstadt and was locked in the vaults and forgotten about.
In 1972, after failing to secure a record deal with Warners, The Residents set up their own label, Ralph, to manufacture and distribute their records. The first of these was Santa Dog, an ambitious double 45 package which came in an elaborate hand-printed gatefold sleeve, based on a found photograph of a dachshund kitschily attired in a Santa Claus costume.
Released on April Fools’ Day 1974, The Residents’ first album proper was issued in an edition of 1050 copies, wrapped in a sleeve that shamelessly mocked The Beatles by “artistically” altering the Meet The Beatles cover to read Meet The Residents, complete with suitably defaced Fab Four mugshots.
Deemed unlistenable by the media, The Residents were seemingly doomed to languish in obscurity. Meanwhile, the small but devoted following gradually gathering around them eagerly awaited their next move.
Rather than sounding like a hastily assembled collection of outtakes, Not Available (1974) was a progressive spurt forwards, the haunting and somewhat worrying Ship’s A’ Going Down being just one example of its undeniable power and presence.
With the release of their third album The Third Reich ‘N’ Roll (1975), The Residents produced a selection of avant-garde arrangements of 30 songs from the 1960s. Somewhere in the dense, jumbled grind can be recognised Residents versions of such classics as The Surfaris‘ Wipe Out, ? & The Mysterians’ 96 Tears and The Beatles‘ Hey Jude, all crunched together to form two suites — Swastikas On Parade and Hitler Was A Vegetarian — designed to sound familiar and totally alien at the same time.
The album was released with a cover showing a cartoon Dick Clark (host of the popular pop TV show American Bandstand) sporting a Nazi uniform and holding a carrot.
Originally titled Tourniquet Of Roses and planned as a three-sided LP, Fingerprince (1976) was made up of songs (the two versions of You Yesyesyes being particularly memorable), while the whole of side two consisted of Six Things To A Cycle, a shortened piece for a ballet that had apparently been commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art but was never performed.
Duck Stab/Buster and Glen (1978), a compilation of two EP’s, followed. Duck Stab… had it all: chanting, atonal honking, high-pitched vocals, cartoon voices, nonsense poetry, comedy accents and sound effects. The Residents fused the weirdest sounds into an even weirder whole.
Eskimo (1979) – ostensibly a musical documentary on Eskimo culture – was an album of icy atmospheres, poetic electronics, and imaginary landscapes, concocted around a loose narrative told in the liner notes. There was also a subtheme of indigenous populations overrun by western commercialism (is that native chant actually “Coca-Cola is Life”?).
The Commercial Album (1980) was made up of 40 one-minute songs. Each song was recorded regardless of length and then – using a stopwatch – edited down to 60 seconds. Altering tape speeds also helped in getting the completed songs down to their required time limit.
But by the early 80s, The Residents were considered old hat by the majority of the New Wave music press more concerned in discovering the individuals lurking behind those eyeball masks, than with discussing their music.
To deal with the anger, frustration and confusion they felt at the time, they decided to record an album that they could eventually take on tour. That record was Mark Of The Mole (1981), the first part of a trilogy about two disparate societies at war with each other. Other albums in the trilogy followed – The Tunes Of Two Cities (1982), a mostly instrumental album of artificially induced big band jazz tunes and B-movie science fiction film themes, and The Big Bubble (1985).
In January 2010 The Residents began a series of tours titled ‘Talking Light’, touring North America and Europe. During the tours, which lasted until April 2011, the band appeared as a trio, with the explanation that the fourth member (“Carlos”) had grown tired of the music business and gone home to Mexico to care for his mother.