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The Residents

The eyeball mask, soon to be retired.
The eyeball mask, soon to be retired.
The Residents
The Residents

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of the San Francisco band The Residents, a group that's credited with pioneering punk rock, art rock and techno. They presaged the future of independent labels, music videos and CD-ROMs. So, why have so few people heard of them? For All Things Considered, NPR's Neda Ulaby came up with some answers.

For starters, it's not easy to interview The Residents. They have steadfastly refused to reveal their names. They perform behind large eyeball masks.

And they won't talk to reporters. So they furnished NPR with a spokesman: Homer Flynn. "I generally see myself as a manager, babysitter, enabler," he says, insisting that he himself is not a member of the band.

Flynn says The Residents started as a group of nerdy outsiders in their Louisiana high school. They moved to San Francisco at the zenith of that city's hippie heyday. The four friends collected thrift-shop instruments and held jam sessions where musicians were allowed to play only instruments that they didn't know how to play. When they sent a homemade tape to Warner Bros., a rejection came back addressed to "The Residents." Hence, the name of the band.

They proceeded to form their own label, Ralph Records.

In 1972, The Residents released a record that was both a single and greeting card. They called it "Santa Dog," an anagram of Satan God. They mailed it to Frank Zappa and Richard Nixon, among others. They tried to make a movie, performing in tuxedos and silver masks alongside enormous rubber stalks of broccoli. That project failed, but they did succeed in releasing their first album: Meet the Residents. "They took the Meet the Beatles cover and, like, totally defaced it," says Flynn. "That got a lot of attention."

The Residents argued that mainstream pop was boring, hegemonic, and brooked no experimentation. But some of their music, like the song "Constantinople," did wind up on progressive FM stations.

Although The Residents weren't wildly popular, they developed a cult following that includes Penn Jillette, who toured with them in the early 1980s with his partner Teller. Just as Penn and Teller mixed comedy and magic, the Residents mixed music and performance art, following in the tradition of dada.

Not surprisingly, exposure became less frequent, as The Residents pursued even more idiosyncratic projects. Jillette is fond of an album consisting entirely of pseudo-Eskimo chants.

"On about the 20th listen (you notice) that what some of the Eskimos are chanting is "Coca-Cola adds life," he says.

It was on the 1979 Eskimo album, against a bleak polar landscape, that The Residents first posed with huge eyeballs for heads. The look became their signature. But now The Residents want to retire the eyeballs and focus more on composition than on sound and texture. While The Residents carved out a space for sonic innovation, they're basically the only ones in it. Jillette says people relate to The Residents' anarchic spirit, but they don't seem to relate enough.

"We know that we have to have Garth Brooks and Eminem and Britney Spears," says Jillette. "And there's all sorts of reasons why that happens. And we know we have to have local bar bands. What really seems odd to me is that there aren't 150 groups like The Residents that are kind of a collective of people that just do — for lack of a better word — art."

Ultimately, The Residents say, what they do is entertain themselves, and that is something everyone can understand.

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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