Santa Dog’s a Jesus Fetus: A Look Back at the Residents, Part II

By Ben Arzate

Read Part I Here

Dedicated to Hardy Fox 1945 – 2018

Despite the premature demise of their American Composers Series project and the death of their good friend and long-time collaborator Snakefinger, the Residents continued to work on new projects. In 1988, the Residents released what is, in my opinion, their best album, God in Three Persons.

While the spread of CDs as a format was a contributing factor in closing the American Composers Series, as it was planned with the format of vinyl records in mind, they embraced it with God in Three Persons to make it their longest album up to that point.

The album tells the story of Mr. X, a greedy huckster who meets a pair of conjoined twins with magical healing powers. He becomes their manager and takes them on the road, eventually falling in love with the female twin. He later learns that the twins are not fixed as male or female, but able to change their genders. Confused by his intense feelings for them, he eventually comes up with a plan to separate them.

The album is sung in a talking blues style by the main singing Resident with guest singer Laurie Amat acting as the Greek chorus and singing the opening credits. It used the organ riff from “Double Shot of My Baby’s Love” by the Swingin’ Medallions as a musical motif and marked a departure in their sound due to virtuoso guitarist Snakefinger passing before he could record his parts for it.

From the ashes of the Mole Saga and the American Composers Series, the Residents next developed and began performing a three-act musical show called Cube-E in. Each of the acts, titled “Black Barry,” “Buckaroo Blues,” and “The King & Eye” traced the development of rock and roll through song covers. Act one covered soul and gospel songs, act two covered country songs, and act three covered Elvis Presley. The covers from the third act were recorded as an album of the same name in 1989.

Ever adapting to new technologies, the Residents spent the first half of the 90’s developing three CD-Rom projects. The first one, Freak Show, was a multimedia project that involved a concept album released in 1990 where each song talked about a circus freak and a CD-ROM released in 1994 with interactive pictures and animations of each character.

Gingerbread Man, their first actual foray into computer multimedia art, released in 1994, had a similar concept. The story of the album followed the Gingerbread Man of the fairy tale as he met various curious characters on his run. The album was released as an enhanced CD that included pictures and animations of each of the album’s characters like Freak Show.

In 1995, they released a full-fledged game called Bad Day on the Midway. Like the prior CD-ROM projects, it involved a character-driven story, this time about the various people at the midway of a fair. The player could switch between the characters to learn more about their story and solve various puzzles. It received praise from the gaming press and a TV show adaptation to be directed by David Lynch was optioned but never made. The soundtrack was released as a stand-alone album as well under the title Have A Bad Day.

Technology changes continued to be both a friend and enemy to the Residents as CD-ROMs soon became obsolete with the rise of the internet and computers upgrading to the point of no longer being able to play older ones. Another CD-ROM was in the works called I Murdered Mommy!, but it was eventually scrapped with the music for it being released in 2004.

For a time, the Residents turned back to music and performance. In 1998, they released Wormwood, an album of songs based on strange stories from the Bible such as the beheading of John the Baptist and the murder of Abel by Cain. The project was controversial due the Resident’s humor and irreverent lyrics of subjects considered by many to be holy.

The disclaimer that they had no intention of trashing the Bible but to get a better understanding of it at the beginning of the shows for the album’s tour didn’t prevent a backlash which culminated in one of the members being pelted in the head by a rock during a show in Greece.

In 2002, the Residents released Demons Dance Alone. A response to 9/11, this proved to be one of their darkest and most depressing albums. In my opinion, it’s also one of their best, second only to God in Three Persons. None of the songs make direct reference to 9/11, but all of them are about grief, loss, and regret.

Its linear notes contain a note saying, “The Residents have left the building.” It goes on to say that since no one claims themselves to be a Resident, as they are an anonymous band, then all people have the potential to be a Resident. They would explore this idea more thoroughly later.

The 2005 follow-up to Demons Dance Alone was Animal Lover. Another downbeat album, the songs on this one are also a set of stories about various sad characters. The linear notes contain an accompanying written story for each song re-telling the songs from the perspective of a different animal. Sometimes a companion, other times simply a bystander.

Exploring yet another new medium, the Residents released a five-episode podcast series, later released as an album, called The River of Crime. In the tradition of radio plays, the podcast told a series of hard-boiled stories about a young boy fascinated with crime as it seems to follow him everywhere. The album version came with the instrumental only backings of the podcasts as a bonus.

They would continue in this storytelling vein for the albums Tweedles!, The Voice of Midnight, and Bunny Boy, released between 2006 to 2008. Tweedles! tells the story of a sex addict whose flings often hurt his partners and lead to regret.

The Voice of Midnight is an adaptation of a short story by ETA Hoffmann about a man with a deep fear of the mythical character Sandman. Bunny Boy is both an album and an ARG. The ARG had the titular Bunny Boy in a Youtube series where he asked his viewers to email him so they could help locate his brother who had disappeared on the island of Patmos in Greece.

In 2010, the Residents still continued with their storytelling with The Talking Light tour, but with a major change. The band was now presenting themselves as a trio rather than a quartet with individual names where before they had none. The singer called himself Randy Rose, the keyboard player Charles “Chuck” Bobuck, and the guitarist Bob. Randy claimed the fourth member, Carlos, had quit to take care of his mother in Mexico. The Talking Light, rather than being a tour to support a new album, had the Residents performing new renditions of older songs in between ghost stories told by Randy and other guests.

The new individual identities also saw Randy and Chuck trying their hands at solo projects. In 2012, Randy presented Sam’s Enchanted Evening. This one-man show was about an old man from Louisiana recalling his life and singing the various songs he remembers fondly. Chuck released his first solo album called Codgers on the Moon, a collection of spacey, gamelan inspired instrumentals.

The Residents also released what would be their last studio album for five years, Coochie Brake. This was a more ambient album inspired by a Louisiana swamp of the same name. Carlos returned briefly to do Spanish vocals for the album.

The major release of their 40th anniversary in 2012, however, was The Residents’ Ultimate Box Set. This was a set with every album, EP,and single the Residents released up until that date as well as several other items, including one of their original eyeball masks, all housed in a large refrigerator.

They also offered a “mystery item” in addition for $5 million. Ten were available, but because of its very steep price of $100,00, only one of them sold with another one being donated to the Museum of Modern Art. The mystery item was never bought and what it was remains unknown.

Chuck would retire from touring in 2016 and, shortly thereafter, from the Residents altogether. He continued to release solo albums, however, and did work on their 2017 album The Ghost of Hope. This first new album after the five-year gap was a collection of songs which each told the story of various train disasters. While this album was being promoted, Randy himself also retired from performing as the singer and a new quartet of Residents began to tour.

At the end of 2017, Hardy Fox, a manager of the Cryptic Corporation, came out and admitted to being Chuck Bobuck and the primary composer of the Residents since the beginning of the band. Tragically, Hardy Fox passed away Oct. 30th of this year from brain cancer.

It’s been an open secret among many fans of the band that the Cryptic Corporation managers and the Residents are one and the same. This is especially true of “Randy Rose” and Homer Flynn who have the same voice and look very similar but for the mask and wig Randy wears. Though Homer has yet to confirm he is Randy, it’s likely he’ll do so in the very near future.

Despite that, does losing the “original members” mean we lose the Residents? One of the projects they released this year is I Am A Resident! which consisted of seven remixes by the Residents and twenty-four covers submitted by fans. They took the idea that everyone had the potential to be a Resident to heart. Four wannabe hippies from Louisiana have created something far too big to contain just them.

It seems less appropriate at this point to ask what the future holds for the Residents and more who are the Residents, really?

Well, one of them just might be you someday.

Santa Dog’s a Jesus Fetus: A Look Back at the Residents, Part I

Dedicated to Hardy Fox, 1945 – 2018

By Ben Arzate

In 1966, four (possibly more) young men left Shreveport, Louisiana for San Francisco, California. Like many young people of their generation, they intended to join the growing hippie movement. However, when their truck broke down in San Mateo, they decided to stay there and began working on various artistic projects.

Among other things, they recorded a demo tape and sent it to Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers rejected the demo and returned it. Because the band had not included a name with the tape, it was addressedsimply to “the Residents.” And thus, one of the strangest, most prolific and ambitious rock groups in modern times was christened.

The first project that the Residents began work on was a film called Vileness Fats. Between working on the film and working day jobs to fund it, they recorded and released their first album, an EP called Santa Dog, in 1972.

The album was designed to resemble a Christmas card from an insurance company, “presented” by “Residents, Uninc.” with each of the four songs attributed to different bands named Ivory and the Brain Eaters, Delta Nudes, The College Walkers, and Arf and Omega featuring The Singing Lawn Chairs. Who the actual Residents were was not known as they chose to remain anonymous.

Santa Dog established their early sound. Noisy, lo-fi, and primitive with parodies of rock, Broadway musicals, jazz, Christmas music and commercial jingles, with lyrics full of weird, nonsensical and humorous wordplay. In the future, the Residents would create new versions of Santa Dog every few years as a gift for their fans.

Still continuing to work on the film, they recorded and released their first full-length album, Meet the Residents, in 1974. Both the title and the album cover were parodies of the Beatles. This created legal issues with the Beatles’ label, forcing the Residents to change the cover on the reissue.

Meet the Residents opens with an incredibly goofy cover of “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” and only gets goofier from there. Some of the highlights of the album include “Spotted Pinto Bean,” a song that sounds like it’s from a ridiculous musical, “Smelly Tongues,” a noisy song which references the four senses with its lyrics “smelly tongues look just as they felt,” and “Seasoned Greetings,” another parody of Christmas music.

Their next album was Third Reich and Roll. This took their affinity for pop culture parodies to the extreme. Each of the songs on the album is a demented cover or mix of pop songs from the 1960s, many of them mangled beyond recognition.

The album was ahead of its time with its use of mash-up and sampling. The covers here make their cover of “Boots…” on Meet the Residents look downright normal. The use of Nazi imagery, including swastikas, dancing Hitler children and Dick Clark in an SS uniform was especially shocking at the time and required the album to be censored for release in Germany. In a recent interview, one of the Residents’ managers stated they regretted the cover art of the original release.

Not long after Third Reich and Roll was released, the Residents were forced to cancel Vileness Fats due to various issues with the production. They would go on to release various parts of the existing footage in other projects, the first of which was a promotional video for Third Reich and Roll. The first ever release of it was a half hour featurette called Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats?

Not ones to be discouraged by the failure to complete Vileness Fats, they continued recording music. The single The Beatles Play the Residents and The Residents Play the Beatles continued their use of mash-up, sampling, and parodies of pop culture with the A-side being a collage of several Beatles songs and the B-side being an incredibly sarcastic cover of “Flying.” Their single cover of “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones received some notoriety for how intentionally disgusting and borderline unlistenable it was.

Around this time the Cryptic Corporation was founded to act as the Residents’ managers. The four members of Cryptic consisted of Residents collaborators Homer Flynn, Hardy Fox, Jay Clem, and John Kennedy. There has been some speculation that these four were the actual Residents, but we’ll come back to that.

Their next album was Fingerprince; it was originally planned to be a “three-sided” album where one side of the record would play a different set of songs, depending on where in the groves the needle was set. However, this proved to be too expensive to press and a regular two-sided album with the third side’s songs released as a separate EP called Babyfingers.

CD reissues simply combined the songs; the songs were still primitive and noisy-sounding here, but with lyrics that told more coherent stories. “Godsong,” for example, is about God’s disgust with mankind. “Walter Westinghouse” sounds almost like a silly folk song. The entire B-side consists of a mostly instrumental suite called “Six Things To A Cycle,” which sounds like a mixture between Harry Partch and carnival music.

Their next release was an EP called Duck Stab!, which was re-released as a single album with a second EP (never released on its own) called Buster & Glen shortly thereafter. This ended up being the most successful Residents album to date, its songs still being noisy and primitive but much more accessible than their previous work. It contained some of their most well-known songs such as “Bach is Dead” and “Semolina.”

During this time, the Residents had been working on an ambitious album that was subject to numerous delays and conflicts among the band and with management. Due to the delays and a shortage of funding, the Cryptic Corporation decided to release Not Available in 1978.

Originally recorded in 1974 to be a follow up to Meet the Residents, the band had decided to lock the album away until they forgot about its existence. Not Available had been a significant departure from Meet the Residents. While still noisy and dissonant, it was a more straightforward rock opera which told a strange tale about about a love triangle between a woman named Edweena and two men named The Procupine and The Catbird.

Finally, in 1979, the Residents released the Eskimo. The album was a fictionalized depiction of Eskimo culture involving recordings of harsh winds, chanting in a fictional language, tribal drum, and homemade instruments. The linear notes included absurd stories about the Eskimos and served as a parody of the ignorance and mistreatment of Native American peoples. It also introduced their iconic look of tuxedos, eyeball masks, and top hats with its cover art.

Their next album, Commercial Album, was a response to the following they’d amassed with Duck Stab!/Buster & Glen. Each of the 40 songs was a minute long and the album came with instructions to loop each song three times to get a commercial pop song. They also bought advertising space on a Top-40 station in San Francisco, which resulted in the album being played on the station over the course of three days.

Encouraged by their increasing critical and commercial success, they set out on their most ambitious project yet, the Mole Saga. This would be a series of six albums accompanied by elaborate stage shows. The story of the Saga was about an underground people known as the Moles. When a storm destroys their home, they’re forced to relocate to the city of the Chubs. The Chubs initially welcome the Moles as cheap labor, but when the Moles begin marrying Chub women, it results in intense racial conflict that eventually breaks into a war.

The first two albums were released within a year of each other. The Mark of the Mole, released in 1981, set up the story of the destruction of the Moles’ homes and their migration. It had a dark and tribal sound to reflect the type of music listened to in Mole society. The Tunes of Two Cities were “in-universe” songs from both the Chubs, who listened to big band music, and the Moles, whose music reflected their pessimistic religious views.

The elaborate stage shows proved to be a disaster. They were fraught with production problems, negative reactions from the audience due to their confrontational nature that resulted in at least one assault on the performers, and an inability to make back their extensive budget.

This led to two of the original founders of the Cryptic Corporation, Jay Clem and John Kennedy, leaving the company and the cancellation of the rest of the Mole Saga. Though they would record part four in the Saga, The Big Bubble, and released it in 1985 to mixed reviews. This album was another “in-universe” set of songs from a band called the The Big Bubble which was a mix of Mole and Chub people, reflecting the real life racial tensions in the United States that eventually led to the creation of rock and roll music.

After a collaboration with Renaldo and the Loaf called Title in Limbo, the Residents proved they weren’t going to be deterred in the least and jumped into yet another ambitious project. The American Composers Series was to be a ten record series where each record covered the songs of two great American artists on each side, starting in 1984 and ending in 2000.

The first, George and James, were covers of George Gershwin and James Brown. The second, Stars and Hank Forever featuring the songs of John Philip Sousa and Hank Williams, gave the Residents the closest they’ve had to a real commercial hit with their discofied version of “Kaw-Liga” becoming popular in European clubs.

Despite that, this series would also come to a premature end. The move from vinyl records to CDs and the prohibitive costs of licensing the songs meant that only two of the albums would be released. To make matters worse, their long-time friend and collaborator Snakefinger died in 1987 due to a heart attack.

However, in spite of all these setbacks, nothing would stop the Residents from going right ahead with new projects.

Stay tuned for part two…