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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 analogouseskimo 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.

 

 

Out Now: A Brutal Chill in August

Word Horde is proud to present the latest book from author and illustrator Alan M. Clarke. A Brutal Chill in August is a fictionalized historical account of Polly Nichols, the first victim of Jack the Ripper.

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We all know about Jack the Ripper, the serial murderer who terrorized Whitechapel and confounded police in 1888, but how much do we really know about his victims?

Pursued by one demon into the clutches of another, the ordinary life of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols is made extraordinary by horrible, inhuman circumstance. Jack the Ripper’s first victim comes to life in this sensitive and intimate fictionalized portrait, from humble beginnings, to building a family with an abusive husband, her escape into poverty and the workhouse, alcoholism, and finally abandoned on the streets of London where the Whitechapel Murderer found her.

With A Brutal Chill in August, Alan M. Clark gives readers an uncompromising and terrifying look at the nearly forgotten human story behind one of the most sensational crimes in history. This is horror that happened.

Head to Amazon to get your copy!

Book Trailer: Ecstatic Inferno

John Skipp, the head of Fungasm Press, has put together a trailer for Autumn Christian’s book, Ecstatic Inferno. And just like the book, it’s a trip.

Weird Movie Watch: Zashchitniki

There are a fuckload of superhero movies these days. So many that they’ve settled into a steady rhythm of diminishing returns. The bigger and more mainstream superhero movies become, the more flawed most of them become. The good ones feel like the same story over and over, and the bad ones are just plain terrible. But with so many superhero flicks, we also get weird experiments like Zashchitniki (Guardians to us English-speakers). It looks like all of the superhero stuff we love filtered through Russian culture and dubbed to hell. In other words, it looks awesome.

Yes, that’s a bear-man with a Gatling gun. Thanks for that, Russia.

Thanks, Japan: the Plush Isopod

Japan creates all sorts of weird stuff, and today we’re going to explore their love of the adorable daiogusokumushi, or Isopod.

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Americans might find this creature strange or creepy, but to the Japanese (and weirdos all around the world), it’s cute enough to warrant its own stuffed animal. Soft, intricately detailed, and the exact size of a human baby, the plush isopod will bring comfort and luck to your family while also freaking out any salesmen or religious figures who may stop by at any time. They’re available in several sizes and colors and hopefully will replace the bear as America’s favorite stuffed companion. Just imagine the peaceful sleep you’ll get with an isopod as your pillow.

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Thanks, Japan.

Kevin Donihe, Bizarro Missionary

Very recently, author Kevin Donihe visited Rotterdam, the Netherlands to attend the UBIK: FUTUROSITY festival! While he was attending, Donihe was given a microphone and thrown in front of a crowd, because this is what you do with Kevin Donihe. The result is one of bizarro fiction’s top writers sharing his thoughts on weirdness and cavemen. Don’t fear the weird. Embrace it.

Weird Movie Watch: Antibirth

A woman on the edge, living on the poverty line and fueled by drugs and partying, suddenly finds herself pregnant, only this pregnancy isn’t thanks to a one night stand. There’s a paranormal conspiracy afoot and the woman’s mind begins to shatter as her body undergoes a series of unnatural horrors. This is Antibirth, a new horror film coming to (probably select) American theaters soon. Classic body horror for the twenty-first century, presented by director Danny Perez like a surreal fever dream.

Antibirth will be available on VOD on September 2. If you like your movies to be weird as hell, check it out!