Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands #10: The Residents

The Residents emerged as a performing and recording group in the late 1960s, and formally released their first record, the Santa Dog EP, in 1972. They’re originally from Shreveport, Louisiana, but their working career has long been based in the San Francisco Bay area. The Residents are still a ongoing concern, and have a new album, Metal, Meat & Bone: The Songs of Dyin’ Dog, due out imminently. Like, days from now. Its two lead singles, “Bury My Bone” and “Die! Die! Die!” are both scorchers, though you probably won’t want to click those song video links at the office or in front of the young children and sensitive adults in your life. You could click the album title one safely, though, and get your pre-order in.

According to Wikipedia, the group have issued ~190 works (live and studio albums, EPs, compilations, singles, films, videos, and multi-media projects included) between their alpha and ever-forward-moving omega poles. A little math work tells us that’s a four release per year pace for about half of a century. Impressive for sure, but probably still under-stating the actual reality of their output: if you check the collection and catalog page at the Residents’ website (which is beautiful in its own right, and well worth visiting), there are ~140 works listed there, and I can quickly spot some items in each of those sources that are not listed in the other source. So it’s probably safe to state that The Residents have pumped out at least five creative artifacts per year over their very long lifetime. Though maybe more. It’s also safe to state that every single one of them is deeply weird, and that I’m unaware of any other artists who have so relentlessly supplied the strange for so long.

In the ultimate statement of bizarre absurdity with regard to their collective creative processes, we have no sanctioned, official idea of who actually created all of that work, nor even what they looked like when they did it. For if you know nothing else about The Residents, you are probably aware that they have remained masked and anonymous throughout their entire career, with one important exception, which I’ll discuss later. (The group do credit their non-member collaborators, who have included Snakefinger, Fred Frith, Nolan Cook, Carla Fabrizio, Todd Rundgren, Laurie Amat, Black Francis, Isabelle Barbier, Chris Cutler, Don Preston, Molly Harvey, Eric Drew Feldman, and others). The group’s longest-running and most well-known disguise was the Eyeballs in Tuxedos look, which first debuted on their Eskimo album in 1979. It looked like this:

There have been a lot of other looks over the years, though. When Marcia and I last caught them live in Chicago in, they looked like this:

That show was strong and dark and strenuous and angry, even by their often extreme standards. They’ve endured some additional transformational losses since then, so it didn’t surprise me when they rolled out their latest look, which is also a bit strong and dark and strenuous and angry. Here ’tis:

I can’t wait to hear what this permutation of the group produces, especially given the strength, darkness, strenuousness and anger of its lead singles. While The Residents often exist within their own bubbles of mythology and misdirection, they are quite good at capturing the spirits of various ages, and I suspect that Metal, Meat & Bone (allegedly a modern tribute to an ancient Louisiana blues man) will be trenchant and timely accordingly.

That was certainly the case around 1998 when they displaced Hawkwind atop my Favorite Band pile. The Hawks were in one of their periodic fallow periods at the time, (not in terms of output volume, but rather in terms of material quality, alas), while The Rez had just issued one of their very finest works, Wormwood: Curious Stories from the Bible, which was pretty much exactly what it said it was. But it also tapped into the sociopolitical absurdity and discomfort emerging from and driven by religious zealotry within the highest levels of our Federal government, fanned and flamed by ever more strident and toxic talk radio and cable news outlets. Four years later, their Demons Dance Alone (2002) album offered their incredible response to the tragedies of September 11, 2001, and their next major album project, Animal Lover (2005) was also one of their finest flowers. Of course, in between those three tent-pole releases they also put out a gazillion other items of interest, most notably the Icky Flix 30th anniversary DVD, so it was a very good time to be a Residents obsessive.

I obliquely cited Our Finest Flowers above because that was one of the discs that moved the Rez to the top of my personal pile, some six years after its release. I’d been aware of and interested in the group since around the time of Eskimo (that image and album did wonders for their public profile), and my first Residents purchase was, in fact, their first full-length LP, Meet the Residents (1974), which I acquired in 1983 during the catch-up record shopping glut that followed my year of musical denial discussed in the XTC article of this ongoing Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands series. Other Residential purchases followed, and I liked whatever I acquired. Then one day in ’98, I had taken a bunch of vinyl to the epic Last Vestige Music Shop (which I’m very pleased to see is still in business) to trade in for CDs, and scored The Residents’ Our Finest Flowers and the then-newish Residue Deux (1998), and for no clearly discernible reason, those two discs just hit the right spot at the right time, scratched the right itch in the right way, and made me Rez Mad for a right long time thereafter.

It’s worth noting that those two discs were compilations and deconstructions of lost, rare, unreleased, or forgotten earlier works, because the Residents’ prolific and perverse nature means that some of their greatest work emerges from obscure corners, rather than from their main-line studio album stream. To cite another example of that paradigm, the version of the song that I’ve picked below as my personal #1 Residents track of all time was originally released in a very limited edition as a one-sided single in 1989, then appeared in a different form as part of a live multi-media show, then was not properly placed on a regularly-accessible full-length compilation album until  Daydream B-Liver in 2018. At least I think that’s the case. It’s often impossible to tell such things with absolute conviction.

And speaking of absolute conviction: The Residents’ anonymity has certainly been affirmed by the group and those associated with it with that, in bucketfuls. Their primary spokespersons over the years have been the members of their management and public relations team, The Cryptic Corporation, which was founded in 1976 by Homer Flynn, Hardy Fox, John Kennedy and Jay Clem. The latter two members departed the partnership in 1982, leaving Homer and Hardy as the public faces and voices of the organization.

And speaking of voices: the Singing Resident (also known as Mr. Red Eye, Mr. Skull, and Randy Rose at different times over the years) has audibly been around since the group’s debut, and he has a truly distinctive, unique voice, his native Louisiana accent and drawl prominent, his baritone range bountiful, his declamatory force powerful. Careful observers, over time, might just have noticed that Homer Flynn’s voice is, ummm, how shall we say it . . . identical to that of the Singing Resident. Coincidence? Fluke of shared upbringing? You be the judge. (The Singing Resident’s Southern accent was a part of what made me love them, actually, with me being a native of a Southern linguistic region, and always annoyed by Northern presumptions that those of us who speak that way are ignorant, and should change or suppress our mellifluous native tongues and tones in public discourse).

Hardy Fox also spoke frequently on the group’s behalf, though with a less familiar cadence and cackle. But then his health grew frail, and in 2016, he stepped aside from his Cryptic responsibilities. Shortly before he died of brain cancer in 2018, his website biography noted: “He co-founded the much loved cult band, the Residents, where he was primary composer.” Duly noted, sir. Thank you for your long-held secrecy and superb service. I’m glad you had the chance to de-cloak, if only for a brief moment.

I have a sweet Hardy Fox story as a coda to that acknowledgement. The early days of my deepest Residents obsessions coincided with those primordial Internet days when easy, direct contact with and between the artists we admired first became possible, and common. The Rez had a decent number of songs that had been deemed family-friendly enough to be played on the common area house stereo, one of which, “Whoopy Snorp,” (you can hear it in the Top Ten list below), became one of my young daughter Katelin’s favorite songs too. (Katelin had a fantastic “Residents for President” t-shirt even, cultured and smart political girl that she was, and remains). “Whoopy Snorp” contained these lyrics, among others: “And what is truth? I say, forsooth: Why, truth is like a Baby Ruth! And what could be ever sweeter? Well, maybe to have a yellow anteater. Old Yeller ate my cat today, and whoopy snorped, and whoopy snorped away.” I don’t quite know how or why she (or we) decided to do it, but Katelin sat at my computer one day and sent an email to Hardy via the Residents’ website, telling him how much she liked that song, though she also loved her cats very much and would worry about them being eaten had she an anteater. Hardy wrote back quickly, thanking Katelin for her note, and telling her that Old Yeller was so old now that he had lost all of his teeth, and could no longer eat cats, so all was well. Perfect!

The Residents’ voluminous and confusing catalog made selecting a Top Ten list a chore, though a fun one to complete. I’ve identified the original source albums and titles of these songs, but many of them appear in many other places in many other forms, so usefulness and accuracy of these citations will vary from user to user.

#10. “You Yesyesyes,” from Fingerprince (1977)

#9. “Smack Your Lips (Clap Your Teeth),” from Tunes of Two Cities (1982)

#8. “Moisture,” from Commercial Album (1980)

#7. “Hello Skinny,” from Duck Stab EP (1978)

#6. “Ugly Beauty,” from Roosevelt 2.0 (2001)

#5. “Whoopy Snorp,” from Residue of The Residents (1984)

#4. “God’s Magic Finger,” from Wormwood: Curious Stories from the Bible (1998)

#3. “On the Way (To Oklahoma),” from Animal Lover (2005)

#2. “Mr. Wonderful,” from Demons Dance Alone (2002)

#1. “From The Plains to Mexico (Single Mix),” from “From The Plains to Mexico” Single (1989)

Note #1: Click Here for an after-the-fact summary of this series, with a convenient listing of links for all articles contained within it.

Note #2: For those who stream your music, Marcia has created a Spotify playlist with all of the songs discussed in this series. Note that the browser embed link below is limited to 100 preview songs. We have confirmed that all 120 songs included in the series are available when you open the playlist in the Spotify app. Probably not unexpectedly, one of my selected songs above (“Ugly Beauty”) is not available through that streaming service. I’ve replaced it in the playlist with my #11 cut, “I Hate Heaven,” from Wormwood.

3 thoughts on “Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands #10: The Residents

  1. Pingback: What’s Up in the Neighborhood, July 4, 2020 – Chuck The Writer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s