Tribute to The Residents

Very few bands survive 35 years in the music business without undergoing major changes. Guitarists drown, drummers spontaneously combust, and singers get old and cranky. There’s no telling what might happen once rock stars reach a certain age. Fortunately, the Residents aren’t like most aging rockers.

As bands go, the Residents haven’t changed much over the years. True, one of them lost an eye back in the mid-80s, but other than that, they look about the same as they did when they released Meet the Residents back in 1974.

I can almost hear Jim saying:

“That’s because no one has ever seen the Residents or has a clue who they actually are. For all we know Thomas Pynchon is a Resident!”

True. But that was all part of the plan. And 35 years later, it’s starting to look like a brilliant plan.

In this era of tabloid news and paparazzi car chases, it’s almost unfathomable to think that anyone would start a band with the idea of intentionally adhering to a strict code of anonymity. The fact that the identity of the Residents remains unknown after all these years is all the more unreal when you consider that the band members are new media pioneers. How is it possible that a band can be so media savvy while remaining completely anonymous?

The Residents began working with video before they started making music. Before Meet The Residents, the group worked on the still unreleased feature film Vileness Fats for several years. While not much ever became of Vileness Fats, the group’s video experimentations resulted in some of the earliest music videos. As strange as it seems today, the Residents were regulars on MTV in the early years. If for no other reason than because they had produced more videos than anyone else at that point in time. It also helped that quite a few of their videos were precisely one minute long.

The Residents arguably invented the mash-up back in 1976. Third Reich and Roll remixed and recontextualized the history of rock music while portraying Dick Clark as a fascist dictator. The video featured an army of steaks pounding a swastika into submission—all part of the Resident’s long tradition of subverting cultural icons.

The Residents’ live performances have been sporadic but legendary. The shows tend to be more performance art than concerts and usually involve elaborate sets and a large cast of extras. The band’s history is full of harrowing tales of concert-related disasters. If you think Spinal Tap had a hard time, try touring with an eyeball on your head.

Historically, one of THE RESIDENTS’ primary obsessions has been the creation of alternative worlds.
— Vileness Fats entry on

This brings us to the CD-ROM titles the group produced in the mid-’90s. I hesitate to call them games because they weren’t games. Freak Show and Bad Day on the Midway were more like virtual reality environments that brought albums of the same names to life on a computer-sized screen. While other music-related CD-ROM titles of that era were lame at best, the Residents’ were addictive and strange.

Along the way, the Residents have made some music too. Nearly 60 albums in the course of their career, and there’s every indication that many more are on the way.

Some highlights:

  • The Commercial Album – The Residents present their own Top 40 in one-minute increments. The group purchased 40 one-minute spots on a Top 40 radio station in San Francisco, then played the entire album as if they were commercials.
  • Eskimo – A hypnotic sound-based documentary about the life of Eskimos. Contrary to the band’s Theory of Obscurity, Eskimo somehow became semi-popular and was seriously considered for a Grammy in 1980. The record made it to the semi-final round for Best Album before being cut from the final list. Regardless, the Residents were invited to the post-Grammy party, where they sat at a table with Donna Summer.
  • Wormwood: Curious Stories From The Bible – More recontextualizing – this time the Old Testament. The Wormwood tour was surprisingly controversial and allowed the Residents to finally get some free publicity from religious nuts who protested the shows and threatened the band. Of course, for all we know, those nuts might have been the Residents.

The Resident’s latest project, River Of Crime, is a serialized radio drama presented in five parts. As you might expect, you can buy River Of Crime from iTunes, but you can also buy a special collectors edition online from The Ideal Copy or at any Virgin Megastore. I mention the product because I think it represents yet another milestone. This has to be the first time anyone has ever released a professionally packaged CD containing two blank disks. Buyers get a special code that can be used to download the five episodes along with bonus tracks. The idea is that you’re supposed to wait for all five episodes to run, then burn them to the CDs. River Of Crime takes DIY to a whole new level.

Later this year, the Residents will release an album called Tweedles, and after that, who knows? It will most likely involve a strange mixture of media types in a way we hadn’t previously considered. If ever there was a band that understands the promise of convergent media, it’s the Residents.

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