Unearthly Sounds Volume 5: The Residents
by J.W. Wargo
Subversion is the act of overturning something. To ruin, pervert, corrupt, and confound. It can be used subtly and introduced slowly over time, or overtly and seem like an act of extremism.
In the arena of pop music, where a whole slew of standards and conventions (4/4 time signature being a prominent one) dominate the construction of songs, a band’s sound can easily be lost in the mix.
Enter four persons who wish to remain anonymous.
Sporting a slightly altered picture of another foursome, The Residents 1974 debut album “Meet the Residents” was a clear statement that they had arrived to subvert popular music.
They claimed to hail for Shreveport, Louisiana, but like the rest of their early history this could have been fabricated by the band. Mythology and rumor surrounds them, with an Australia magazine even going to so far as to claim the Residents were the Beatles in disguise.
What is known is that they first became active in California’s Bay Area around 1969. They had been messing with tape machines and experimenting with sounds, recording the results onto unreleased cassettes.
They founded Ralph Records in 1972 to begin releasing their first studio albums. The record company is run by the Cryptic Corporation. Coincidentally, this corporation was set up around the same time as the record label and run by four men who claimed they were only managing the band and not the members themselves. Much of the speculation on the Resident’s identities is focused on this interesting detail.
“The Mole Show”, their first tour based on a trilogy of concept albums, featured the band playing behind a curtain while actors/dancers told the story on a stage filled with elaborate set pieces manipulated by stagehands. The whole performance was hosted by Penn Jillette, who acted as sort of a spokesperson for the band during the tour.
Though ultimately cancelled before it was completed due to complications on the road, “The Mole Show” showed that the Residents could translate their studio sound onto the stage. Despite the tour being successful with many sold out shows, it proved a strain on the group. When one half of the managers left the corporation in 1982, fans took it to mean half the band members had left as well.
The Residents continued on, however, and with more tours and experimentation. In the 1990’s they embraced computers and MIDI instrumentation, adding digital music to their sound and releasing some of the first multimedia CD-ROMs ever.
The performance art tours continued, as well. From their three act history of American music show “Cube-E” in the late 80’s, to the “Wormwood” tour a decade later, based on their concept album of the same name, that retells stories from the Bible.
The group hasn’t slowed down in the 21st Century, still releasing prolifically in the new millennium. Making use of the internet, a whole new form of interactivity for the band to experiment with, they began creating storytelling projects, most notably the weekly “Timmy” YouTube video series. The series brings back a character from one of their earlier albums, who tells offbeat stories set to “home movie” like footage and the band’s music.
Most recently the band has begun touring again, and for the first time have attached identities to their alter-egos. The lead singer, in an old man mask, calls himself “Ralph”, and he is accompanied by two others, “Chuck” on keyboards and “Bob” on guitar, in odd, gas-mask like helmets covered in dreadlocks.
It may be that the world will never know who is truly behind the surrealistic musical madness that is The Residents. It is exactly what the band wants as they believe it is necessary in order for their music to remain pure. They call this the “Theory of Obscurity”:
“‘Theory of Obscurity’ states that an artist can only produce pure art when the expectations and influences of the outside world are not taken into consideration.” –from Wikipedia
“Theory of Obscurity” is also the name of a new documentary being produced on the band, which hopes to shed some light on this mysterious band’s 40 year odyssey. Earlier attempts to document the band failed due in part to the band’s refusal to help out. This will be the first time the band is cooperating with such a film, perhaps a admission that in this identity heavy, social-media obsessed age we find ourselves at currently, the band is ready to connect and interact with their fans on a whole new level.
For now, the “official” story rests with the Residents, and you can start your descent into their subverted world at their website.
Then again, what if their entire backstory really was fabricated? The truth could have been right in front of our giant eyeballs this whole time.
J.W. Wargo is a writer and Nomadic Bizarro Storyteller currently off the road and writing in Hawaii. His first book, Avoiding Mortimer, was released as part of the 2012 New Bizarro Author Series. He has an art contest related to the book currently going on until September 21st.