By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 12, 2016)
I once unintentionally attended a Residents gig, at a club in San Francisco, circa 1980. Technically, they weren’t really there. They were “appearing” via (mesmerizingly weird) videos. The videos were being looped, concurrently on several monitors, in a small room isolated from the main stage. This presentation functioned as a sort of passive “supporting band” for the act I was there to see, Snakefinger.
Then again, as defined in a documentary called The Theory of Obscurity: a film about The Residents (and by the artists themselves) they’re not a “band”…so much as they are an ongoing art installation. So in that context, I’ll state unequivocally that I saw The Residents (you had to be there, man!).
“The Residents Ultimate Box Set” (Museum of Modern Art)
Director Don Hardy Jr. has taken on the unenviable task of profiling a band who have not only refused to reveal their faces in any billed public appearances over a 40-year career, but continue to this day to willfully obfuscate their backstory (and the fact that publicity is handled through their self-managed “Cryptic Corporation” puts the kibosh on any hopes of discovery).
As I inferred earlier, can you even call them a “band” with a straight face? Or are they more of an “art collective”? Or are they just elaborate pranksters? One thing that does become clear as you watch the film, is they are all of the above, and more.
Attempting to describe their music almost begs its own thesis-length dissertation; it’s best understood by simply sampling it yourself. Just don’t expect anything conventional. Or consistent; they are experimental in every sense of the word.
Considering that they have over sixty albums to their credit, Hardy obviously can’t annotate their full discography in a 90-minute film, but he does spotlight some of their more seminal efforts, like The Third Reich’n’Roll (best album title ever) and the ironically entitled Commercial Album (40 delightfully dada 1-minute songs, which the band actually rotated as a 60 second spot flight on San Francisco Top 40 station KFRC in 1980…talk about a meta ad campaign!).
On a purely conceptual level (as pointed out in the film) The Residents could be seen as the antithesis of the Kardashians; whereas the latter are the poster children for those who are “famous for being famous”, the former are “famous” for shunning (and mocking) the Cult of Celebrity at every turn. Yet (paradoxically) they are lauded as innovative multimedia artists (Hardy shows how serendipity led these “failed filmmakers” into becoming a band, who then by necessity stumbled into becoming music video pioneers).
The Residents have also been more musically influential than one may assume; members of Devo, Primus, Ween and the Talking Heads are on hand to testify as such. I was a little surprised that Daft Punk isn’t mentioned, especially since they literally wear their influences on their sleeves (well, in this case, their heads). While The Residents are not for all tastes, Hardy has fashioned an ingratiating, maybe even definitive, portrait of them.