It is no exaggeration to say that The Residents is one of the most interesting phenomena in the (wide and diverse) world of popular music. Over the years, many insiders seem to be criticizing and rebelling against aspects of popular music and related culture. But The Residents were among the first to build their reputation by refusing to play according to the rules of what was “popular”. They avoided talking about their personal backgrounds and haven’t revealed their identities for decades while appearing in public hidden behind grotesque masks (of which dressing as giant eyeballs is only the most recognizable, and have turned into a kind of a symbol). Over the years, they have built their art on having a good laugh at popular music and its silly parade of charts and hits and all the mass media-induced hysteria.
The Residents in their earliest incarnation were different from anything else on the scene. They started their original music experiments and recordings in the late 60s/early 70s at a time when popular music was still considered rebellious and progressive by default. It would take years for the new breed of rebellious artists to come within the scope of music consumers.
Instead of following paths paved by the other artists, The Residents decided to create their own kind of popular music, their own universe. This was a heroic act, and -- as usual – at first only enthusiasts recognized it. The albums that came out from 1973 to 1979 (Meet the Residents, Not Available, The Third Reich’n’Roll, Fingerprince, Duck Stab/Buster and Glen, Eskimo) were obscurities appreciated by a very limited circle of followers. But today The Residents are (or should be) considered classics. The music on these early records sounded like soundtracks from vintage cartoons combined with noise that was considered “futuristic” whether it was performed on synthesizers or “acoustic” toy instruments. Also should be mentioned an additional touch of dramatic performance which would become more obvious when The Residents started to play live. Most of their live shows resembled theatrical performances more then rock concerts.
In the year 1980, The Residents released their Commercial Album, which was probably the last of the “classic” releases of the band. It contained as many as 40 one-minute songs, plus guest appearances not only by avant-garde music heroes such as Chris Cutler and Fred Frith, but also by some of the musicians from the emerging new wave scene such as Andy Partridge and Lene Lovich. The album toyed with the idea of “commercialization” in its weird and dark-humored way, and the band from that time on started seriously to work on bringing their music to a wider audience. This coincided with the production of the Commercial Album short video films. These attracted attention and were shown on the earliest MTV programs, which, back in 1982, still lacked quality rock video material and accepted even weird experimental stuff.
Since then, The Residents have produced piles of music material. They are still active, and their live appearances are very intense and by no doubt offer the highest-level production values. They will probably never appeal to the mass market (thank God almighty!), but they at least get the respect that they deserve. The fact that The Residents’ identities remain secret is also a reflection of the admiration shown by aficionados. There are probably thousands of people who have had a chance to meet or even collaborate with The Residents unmasked, and yet none have wanted to disrupt the mystery and reveal their true identity or photos to the media or general public. I can testify myself that the opportunity to meet The Residents without their disguises has that special flavor of mystery that would be foolish to lose.
Another important aspect of the band is its visual production based on superb album cover designs, their films, and their promotional material. It comes as no surprise that they have collaborated with a number of cartoonists and visual artists active on the American alternative scene. In his Brooklyn studio, I had a chance to meet Gary Panter, one of the most prominent underground cartoonists, who collaborated with The Residents for years. “They are a couple of years older then me,” said Gary. “One of them would typically write most of the lyrics, and another would do most of the music, and they have many people working with them. They are like SUPER-FOLK artists, that’s how I think of them, with roots in Louisiana music and kind of theatrical.’
The “folk” (superfolk!) element pointed to by Gary Panter obviously comes from the ability of the band to avoid “highbrow” attitudes. Their charm is based on dry humor rather then elitist nonsense. Not to mention their roots based in Shreveport, Louisiana (where they lived before moving to San Francisco), which would in certain circles instantly define them as outsiders.
Actually, the most recent product of The Residents is further proof of their ability to be prolific and inclusive despite their seemingly exclusive concept. A Commercial Album DVD that came out in the fall of 2004 consists not only of old and new videos created by The Residents, but also material by young and fresh visual artists from all over the world. These artists were invited to create new films based on classic Commercial Album one-minute songs.
The results are surprisingly fresh and imaginative, even by the standards of the rusty “old” fans of The Residents such as I, who had difficulty accepting all of the new directions that band was taking. The films on the Commercial Album DVD are evidence of the vitality of The Residents. Their 1980 tracks do not sound retro or outdated. In fact, they match wonderfully with the imagination of the emerging artists who brought new energy to The Residents’ mystique… Speaking of which, it should be considered universal in its appeal. As you can see from the new animations and films, anything that resembles The Residents could be The Residents. Any Eyeball wearing a top hat has potential to roll phantasmagoric film inside your head, and if it’s dark and humorous all the better.