A bunch of Louisiana hippies in the late 1960s head to San Francisco, don giant eyeball masks and spend the next 45 years creating a weirdly outlandish musical universe under the cover of total anonymity. It’s an unlikely recipe for success, but that blueprint has enabled The Residents – rock’s resident art jesters and social commentators – to continue challenging their cultishly rabid audience with aural and visual assaults that skirt the fringes of acceptable behavior and norms.
Twisted covers of rock untouchables like The Beatles, Elvis and The Rolling Stones, ground-breaking pre-MTV art videos, Blue Man Group-like choreography, and music that pop-culture bible Pitchfork describes as a combination of “tape collage, sound effects, playful electronics, confrontational noise, arty surrealism, pop-culture satire, abstracted takes on traditional music from classical to blues to country, and, perhaps most importantly, an ever-present, animalistic beat.”
Inspired by late ’60s avant-garde musicians like the Sun Ra Arkestra and Captain Beefheart, The Residents burst onto an unsuspecting public in 1974 with Meet The Residents, whose cover parodied Meet The Beatles. But the similarities ended when the needle hit the record to reveal songs (in the loosest sense of the word) featuring dissonance, alternatingly child-like and eerie atmospheres and vocals and constantly changing time signatures.
“It was music nobody ever heard before,” recalled Homer Flynn in a phone interview from San Francisco last week. Flynn is The Residents’ spokesman, graphic designer and member of the Cryptic Corporation, the organization that manages the band’s multimedia enterprises. The three members of The Residents have never been interviewed or spoken publicly, and only in recent years have begun to be identified with real names – Randy, Chuck and Bob.
“Given the kind of music that The Residents do and their general image, it certainly does not seem like something you would expect to have lasted this long,” Flynn added with a touch of a southern drawl.
“And there’s an enormous amount of gratitude that they’re still able to record and perform around the world.”
The band’s vast catalogue of over 40 albums run the gamut from 1979’s Eskimo – consisting mostly of non-musical sounds, percussion, and wordless voices, 1978’s controversial The Third Reich ’n’ Roll – a 1960s’ rock parody featuring musical icon Dick Clark on the cover in an SS uniform with a number of Hitlers dancing on clouds behind him, 1980’s Commercial Album consisting of 40 songs, each containing one verse and chorus and lasting one minute, and 1998’s Wormwood, a “musical” based on Bible stories with the band wearing ecclesiastical robes and performing in a brightly lit fluorescent cave.
Not all their experiments have been well received, Flynn admitted.
“I think in some cases – like the Nazi imagery – the band was naïve,” he said. “From their point of view, as something well in the past, it was acceptable to make fun of it – comparing rock ’n’ roll and its mass mentality to Nazi Germany is still, I feel, a valid statement. On the other hand, I don’t think they were necessarily prepared or sensitive to the impact it would have on people who were affected by the Holocaust.”
Others took exception to the “blasphemous” Wormwood, resulting in a physical response at a show in Athens.
“The performance was well-received, but ended rather strangely when someone in the audience threw a rock, hitting our guitar player in the head. Luckily, he was wearing a huge eyeball mask,” said Flynn. “But those eyeballs had a band that secured it to your head, and the rock actually caused the band to cut his head and he had to leave the stage before the show finished.
“But we would like to perform Wormwood again, it’s a piece they feel strongly about.”
However, on their upcoming visit to Israel, where they will perform on May 8 at the Barby Club, The Residents have something else behind their masks – the celebration of their 40th anniversary by performing Shadowland, Part 3 of the Randy, Chuck & Bob Trilogy.
For the last four years, the band has taken a concept show on the road with the trilogy beginning in 2010 with The Talking Light, a study of ghosts and death; reflecting on love and sex, the group continued with their Wonder of Weird tour in 2013; and finally with Shadowland, the focus is on the beginning of life with music from The Residents’ extensive catalogue interspersed with short videos about birth, rebirth, reincarnation and near-death experiences.
“What they’ve done is gone through life in reverse, from death to birth. The songs they picked from their catalogue reinforce the theme of beginnings and rebirth,” said Flynn, adding that the theme is apt since it’s been 25 years since The Residents last performed in Israel – at a sold-out show at the Cinerama in Tel Aviv.
“I have fairly strong recollections of that show and visit, even though we were in the country for less than 12 hours total,” he said.
“There was a theater production taking place at the club but it was an off night, so all the scenery was still on stage, pulled back and draped in white sheets. So The Residents performed in front of these ghostly white images behind them.
“The show ended so late and we had such an early flight out that we didn’t even take a hotel. So afterwards we were sitting at this bar on the Mediterranean on a beautiful balmy night, feeling quite good about the show. And at the table next to us were some people talking about an article that had come out in a paper in Tel Aviv beforehand written by someone who had seen us a couple weeks before in Paris and said that The Residents were the next big thing coming out of America and not to miss the show. Well, these people had gone to the show because of that article, and now they were sitting there saying what a terrible show it had been. It was an odd 12 hours.”
Perhaps, but it was certainly no odder than your average performance by The Residents.