Mind Widening Music: Bizarro Music #6 – The Residents
by Lee Widener
The Residents are one of the most enigmatic, long lasting musical projects to exist on the fringes of modern music. Formed in Louisiana in the late 60s, and moving to California soon after, they have never appeared in public without disguises. Most often, though not always, they wear tuxedos and giant eyeball masks. This has become the iconic image most people think of when referring to the Residents. The band has never admitted their identities, though it is generally accepted that the two main members are Homer Flynn, who acts as their spokesperson and manager, and Hardy Fox, their recording engineer.
The Residents have stated they remain anonymous because they want the focus to be on their work, not who makes it. This approach, of course has led to great speculation on who exactly is in the band, so their goal has met with mixed success. Musically, the band’s output can be divided into two categories- deconstruction of popular musical forms, and complex conceptual albums. This fits in well with what we call Bizarro. In Bizarro Fiction, literary genres, most often horror and science fiction, though other genres such as romance, crime and adventure, are deconstructed, turned on their heads, and mashed together to form new styles of storytelling. This often leads to rich world building within a Bizarro framework, which is analogous to the Residents conceptual work.
Formed in the 60s and still actively recording and touring today, the Residents have always sought to incorporate new technologies and modes of expression in their work. Early adopters of computers and recording techniques, their first releases featured heavy use of tape manipulation, computer processing, audio sampling and other methods of audio generation. Their second official release “Third Reich ‘N Roll” is entirely comprised of pop and rock songs electronically tortured, edited, spliced together, overdubbed with new vocals and instrumentals. The original songs were then removed, leaving a strange new musical composition. Here is a video with a section of music from this album:
As you see from the preceding video, the Residents were not adverse to using shocking imagery such as Hitler, swastikas and KKK costumes for shock effect. This echoes Bizarro Fiction, which often uses the same approach. In this next video, “Burn Baby Burn” from their Wormwood album combines images of a mushroom cloud with a flaming crucified person to create a new perspective on Christian iconography.
The Residents were one of the first bands to explore CD-ROM technology. In 1994 they released a fully interactive computer animated CD-ROM titled “Gingerbread Man.” As Roch Parisien from Allmusic.com explains it:
“An extra dimension of the surreal is added by going “interactive,” where every mouse or keyboard click generates seemingly random, unpredictable results. In fact, Gingerbread Man never seems to play exactly the same way twice.”
The Residents make extensive use of video technology. An early album, 1980’s “Commercial Album,” which consists entirely of one minute long jingles, was later expanded into “The Commercial DVD.” As Marc Masters explains it on Pitchfork.com:
“More immediately influential are the “one-minute movies” the Residents made for songs from 1980’s Commercial Album. These illustrative clips were among the first to show how the music video could be its own form– not just a song or a movie or an ad, but something in between.”
These bizarre little videos can be seen as the equivalent of Bizarro flash fiction stories. And through over forty years of musical output, we can see perhaps the future trajectory of Bizarro Fiction. The Residents started out as complete musical outsiders who started their career with crude, shocking videos and music, and gradually over time have embraced and mastered new technology and modes of expression, becoming, in the process more sophisticated in their approach and execution. They have remained on the fringes of the music industry, but by doing so have maintained a clarity of purpose and integrity.
They’ve never had a release from a major label, and in fact, ceased selling physical copies of their music years ago, in response to the changing face of the music industry. Still, they have a devoted fan base and play sold out shows whenever they tour. Bizarro Fiction may never have a NY Times best seller – but how relevant is that goal in today’s publishing industry? If Bizarro Fiction can continue to grow and adapt, as the Residents have, they’ll be around and doing better than ever forty years from now and beyond.
To close out this article I want to show you a couple live appearances by the Residents that illustrate how a work of art can be weird, shocking, incongruous, freaky, off the wall, and AT THE SAME TIME be beautiful, awe inspiring, meaningful, touching and profound. This is what the best Bizarro Fiction does. This first clip shows two numbers performed on a German TV show, Night Music, in 1989. It’s from their Cube E project, a three act performance covering the history of American music.
This last piece, “Wonderful,” from a live show in 2003, finds the Residents bemoaning the lack of a hit record, and reminiscing about the past. It’s a very personal piece, and the singer mentions the death of a frequent Residents collaborator, Snakefinger, who died of a heart attack five years earlier. It also shows him tempted by a devil, with a piece of the band’s past. It’s a beautiful and ironic moment for somebody who has steadfastly kept his identity hidden, yet regrets the lack of commercial success. The best art, no matter how weird, how far out there, stems from the artist’s life, the artists heart. Here’s to the Residents, and the future of Bizarro.
There is a wealth of Residents related content on Youtube, including music videos, documentaries and full concerts. I encourage you to watch.
Lee Widener is a lifelong collector of weird music. For ten years he ran the internet radio station NeverEndingWonder Radio, which specialized in odd, unusual, freaky and bizarre music, and still runs a small Halloween themed radio station, which can be found at Welcome to Weirdsville . He is the author of “David Bowie is Trying to Kill Me!” and “Rock N Roll Head Case” published in October 2015 by Eraserhead Press.