By Bill Kopp
Surveying the landscape of 20th and 21st century music, one is unlikely to encounter anything stranger than the body of work credited to The Residents. The intentionally anonymous collective has been charting its own path – in music, video and the space in which those two creative disciplines overlap – since the late 1960s. Little is known about The Residents; they have steadfastly refused to reveal their identities, and even their working methods remain inscrutable. But the mysterious aggregation has created a staggering catalog, one that includes more than 60 albums of compelling, clever and often confounding avant-garde music.
The group’s activities date back to 1968, but The Residents’ official timeline pegs 1972 – when they adopted their name – as the true beginning. That makes 2022 the 50 year anniversary of the group jokingly self-billed as “North Louisiana's Phenomenal Pop Combo.” It’s a perfect time to look back at the group’s history.
And now in 2022, the San Francisco-based collective has cooperated with author/archivist Aaron Tanner in the creation of a massive hardcover book, A Sight for Sore Eyes, Vol. 1. Chronicling in words and images The Residents’ saga from its earliest days through 1983, the book is equal parts fascinating and illuminating. It won’t answer perennial questions regarding The Residents’ identities, but for those who dare to enter the bizarre world of the four (or however-many) myserious creatives, it’s an essential piece of the puzzle.
Over the years, a few bits of solid information about The Residents have found their way into the pubic sphere. While the identity of its members has always remained officially secret, it’s widely acknowledged that The Residents originally included Hardy Fox and Homer Flynn among their number. Even 15-plus years ago when the group released its uncharacteristically tuneful and accessible album The River of Crime, Fox was the acknowledged spokesman for the group. He would speak on behalf of the group as a representative of The Cryptic Corporation, The Residents’ business arm. And in live performances, Fox is likely to have been one of the figures behind the masks.
Fox passed away in 2018, by which time he had officially left the orbit of The Residents. Homer Flynn, who had long been recognized as the graphic designer responsive for much of The Residents’ visuals, took on the role of head of The Cryptic Corporation. And these days it’s he who accepts requests for interviews. No masks are involved, and Flynn appears onscreen via Zoom conferencing (albeit with characteristically odd and unsettling digital images replacing the actual room in which he sits during those chats). Some things have changed, while others remain constant: whomever is speaking on behalf of The Residents invariably refers to the group in the third person plural (“them”).
Across more than 350 pages, The Residents’ story is charted in A Sight for Sore Eyes, making extensive use of images – photos, posters, collages and other memorabilia – from the collective’s official archives. Flynn explains how The Residents came to work with Tanner, who is editor in chief and creative director at Melodic Virtue, the book’s publisher. “He’s somebody who had run across The Residents and [thought], ‘Hey they’ve got loyal fans; I can put a book together, and it’ll sell,’” Flynn says. “But obviously,” he quickly adds, “he’s more committed than that.”
“I’ve been creating coffee table books of bands – largely from the ‘80s – for the last few years,” Tanner explains. “And when the opportunity came up to do one with the most artful group in modern history, needless to say, I jumped at the chance.” Tanner believes that there has never been a group to rival The Residents in terms of their visuals carrying as much weight as their music. “They had a massive impact on the way I approach my design work,” he says.
Tanner, who lives in Indiana, first came out to the Bay Area to meet Flynn just over a year ago. “He and his son stayed with me for about a week to 10 days, and I pretty much gave them free access to The Residents’ archives,” Flynn says. “And he gleefully pawed through it.” The Tanners brought along a scanner and used it to capture super-high resolution digital images of the archival material.
Flynn is quick to admit that his work over the last half century hasn’t been focused primarily on building and maintaining a Residents archive. “I don’t necessarily have everything,” he says. “I have a good amount of memorabilia, but I mainly focus on ‘the parts that were used to make other parts.’” So Flynn put Tanner in touch with what he describes as “a handful of super collectors who had a lot more of the obscure stuff.”
That meeting in late 2020 was the first time Tanner and Flynn had met, but the groundwork for the project was already laid. “Since we started this project one month before the pandemic hit, it took a lot longer than we were initially hoping,” Tanner says. “I opted to wait nearly a year until it was safer to visit The Cryptic Corporation archives.” He notes that even though The Residents had compiled some material for the project, a lot of the most interesting pieces of the puzzle remained to be seen. “Nearly all of the unreleased material had yet to be unearthed,” he says. Ultimately, the work of creating A Sight for Sore Eyes took nearly 18 months.
And there were surprises all along the way. Tanner says that he was prepared to run across previously unseen artifacts such as handwritten notes and contact sheets from iconic photo sessions. “But,” he says, “I wasn’t prepared for just how many things I would find.” He counts among his favorite discoveries the blueprint for The Residents’ first studio at 18-20 Sycamore Street in San Francisco. “That’s where Vileness Fats was filmed and where everything from [the 1972 EP] ‘Santa Dog’ up through The Third Reich 'n Roll  was recorded,” Tanner says.
A big part of The Residents’ mystique has always been the group’s anonymity, its obscurity. So it’s reasonable to wonder if the idea of a book purporting to document the group’s story in visual form threatens that carefully-constructed and cultivated air of mystery. “I’m not particularly concerned about it,” says Flynn, noting that Tanner provided a review copy of the book before its publication. “If there was anything in there that I objected to, Aaron was happy to remove it.” There were, he says, “two or three minor things that I felt revealed too much, but for the most part… no problem.”
Along with the eye-popping images that fill the pages, A Sight for Sore Eyes also features reminiscences and observations from Residents fans of note. That list of luminaries includes Les Claypool (Primus, Claypool Lennon Delirium), magician Penn Jillette (Penn and Teller), Danny Elfman, Paul “Pee Wee Herman” Reubens, Andy Partridge (XTC), David J (Bauhaus), “Weird Al” Yankovic, Don Preston (The Mothers of Invention) and many, many more.
While The Residents are nobody’s idea of a commercial act (their 1980 Commercial Album was named as such because it featured a collection of 30-second songs, like a commercial) the collective has exerted a deep and incalculable influence upon some of the artists inhabiting the more creative corners of the musical landscape. Flynn admits some surprise at the participation of so many respected names for the new book. “It wasn’t the names so much that surprised me,” he says. “The surprise was that so many of them showed up, [and] were willing to do something for it.”
Even longtime fan Tanner was struck by the written contributions from some of those creative figures. He singles out Jillette’s remarks about the kindness of the band members. “I’ve worked with a handful of legendary bands over the years,” Tanner says. “Some were easier to deal with than others. But the mysterious beings behind the masks beat them all by a mile. I’ve never met people that were more kind.”
As the Vol. 1 part of the book’s title suggests, there’s more to come. Tanner cautions that the second volume remains a year or more away from production, but shares a brief outline. “It will start with The American Composers Series [circa 1984] and will end with the multimedia era,” he says. “It’s my hope that the book will be every bit as revealing as Vol. 1.”
Flynn notes that a third installment – publication date undetermined – will bring The Residents story up to present day. “I'm kind of curious to see how that works out,” he says. “I can't say enough positive stuff about Aaron,” Flynn adds. “I really enjoyed working with him, and not only that: I like him.”
The Residents’ creative endeavors have long defied easy classification. Their music touches on, explores and often adds to the conversation about everything from electronica to punk to lounge music to world music. Selections from among their many video productions have been placed in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
Tasked with summing up The Residents’ significance in a few sentences, Aaron Tanner offers this: “Constantly defying classification while remaining completely anonymous, The Residents have been regarded as icons in the world of experimental music for the last 50 years. They have been credited with being among the originators of performance art, the music video, and the music-based interactive CD-ROM.”
That’s a succinct, knowledgeable and accurate observation, but an incomplete one: it doesn’t address The Residents’ pioneering work in mashups and sampling. Still, mere words can’t get at the heart of what makes The Residents special. But taken along with all of the collective’s audio, visual and audiovisual output, Tanner’s A Sight for Sore Eyes Vol. 1 brings us closer to that goal.
Get the book A Sight For Sore Eyes with a 7-inch black vinyl record of the unreleased Not Available-era track, "Nobody's Nos."
For more information on The Residents go to www.residents.com