Over the course of a recording career spanning several decades, the Residents have remained a riddle of Sphinx-like proportions. Cloaking their lives and music in a haze of willful obscurity, the band's members never identified themselves by name (though in the 2010s they would begin playing with the notions of individual identities) and always appearing in public in disguise — most often in tuxedos, top hats, and giant eyeball masks, which became one of their visual trademarks. The Residents also famously refused to grant media interviews, though "representatives of the Cryptic Corporation," the business entity behind the group, would sometimes speak on their behalf. Drawing inspiration from the likes of fellow innovators including Harry Partch, Sun Ra, and Captain Beefheart, the Residents channeled the breadth of American music into their idiosyncratic, satiric vision, their mercurial blend of electronics, distortion, avant jazz, classical symphonies, and gratingly nasal vocals reinterpreting everyone from John Philip Sousa to James Brown while simultaneously expanding the boundaries of theatrical performance and multimedia interaction. Their early work (as presented on 1974's Meet the Residents and 1978's Not Available) was dominated by organic instruments performing in a purposefully atonal and chaotic manner. Beginning with 1979's Eskimo, synthesizers and electronics became a large part of the Residents' musical palette, and nearly all their albums from that point on would be conceptual in nature, with 1981's The Mark of the Mole launching a multi-album narrative cycle they would never complete. With 1984's George and James, the band began taking an idiosyncratic look at the work of other artists, and 1991's Freak Show was the first of several projects where they adopted CD-ROM technology to add visuals to their soundscapes. 2014's The Wonder of Weird found the Residents embracing individual identities for the first time, introducing lead singer "Randy Rose," guitarist "Bob," and multi-instrumentalist "Chuck," who, as Charles Bobuck, would begin recording solo material and deliver the group's closest intrusion into the real world. However, with the 2018 album I Am a Resident!, they continued to confound expectations, reaffirming their long-stated belief that the Residents could be anyone — or no one.
It was commonly accepted that the artists and musicians who would come to be known as the Residents first met in Shreveport, Louisiana during the early '60s, and late in the decade, they relocated to California, eventually settling in San Francisco. They began making music together, recording with the help of guitarist Philip Lithman (aka Snakefinger) and N. Senada, a mysterious mentor to the group who was long rumored to be Captain Beefheart. The group had no name at the time, and according to longtime group spokesman J. Clem — one member of the Cryptic Corporation, the band's representative body — they received their name when Warner Bros. mailed back their anonymous demo tape, addressed simply "for the attention of residents." (The demo tape would see limited release in 2018 as The Warner Bros. Album, and a collection of early recordings would be issued in 2013 using the after-the-fact group name the Delta Nudes). Finding no takers for their oddball sounds, the Residents founded their own label, Ralph Records, for the purposes of issuing their 1972 debut "Santa Dog," released in a pressing of 300 copies which were mailed out to luminaries from Frank Zappa to President Richard Nixon. Their debut full-length, 1974's Meet the Residents, reportedly sold fewer than 50 copies before the group was threatened with a lawsuit from Capitol over its cover, a twisted Dada-esque parody of the artwork for Meet the Beatles, though the artwork remained unchanged.
The follow-up, 1974's neo-classical excursion Not Available, was recorded with the intention of its music remaining unissued; locked in cold storage upon its completion, only a 1978 contractual obligation resulted in its eventual release. Released in 1976, The Third Reich 'N Roll was their next official offering, two extended medleys of radically overhauled pop oldies covers presented in a controversial jacket portraying a Nazi resembling Dick Clark clutching an enormous carrot. After a 1976 concert in Berkeley, California that cloaked the Residents behind an opaque screen, wrapped up like mummies — the most famous of only three live performances mounted during their first decade of existence — they issued an abrasive 1977 cover of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" which became an underground hit on both sides of the Atlantic at the peak of the punk movement, where the group began to find an appreciative audience. As the decade drew to a close, the group expanded their growing cult following with 1977's Duck Stab/Buster & Glen, a reissue of two early EPs. 1979's Eskimo was the first Residents album to enjoy major coverage in the music press and represented a critical and commercial breakthrough for the musicians. The album purported to be adapted from traditional Inuit folktales and melodies, though a careful listen revealed this was a put-on. 1980's Commercial Album was a set of 40 pop songs, each 60 seconds long; the group created short films for several of the tunes, and purchased 41-minute commercial spots on a major San Francisco radio station, with each of the album's songs being played once over the course of several days.
In 1981 the Residents launched their Mole Trilogy, a prog rock collection of albums — 1981's The Mark of the Mole, 1982's The Tunes of Two Cities, and 1985's The Big Bubbles — recounting an epic battle between a pair of tribes named the Moles and the Chubs, though The Big Bubbles was billed as "Part Four" of the series and a proper finale was never completed. A lavish, multimedia tour, The Mole Show, followed, which marked the first extended live tour for the group. They also mounted another ambitious project, the American Composer series, although only two of the projected titles — 1984's George and James (a reinterpretation of songs by George Gershwin and James Brown) and 1986's Stars and Hank Forever (celebrating John Philip Sousa and Hank Williams) — ever appeared. In the wake of financial and corporate difficulties brought on by the expense of staging The Mole Show, the Residents lost control of the Ralph Records catalog, and their next two albums were released by other labels — 1988's God in Three Persons (a talking blues outing issued by Rykodisc) and 1989's The King and Eye (a reinterpretation of Elvis Presley's life and music released by Enigma Records).
The Residents regained the rights to their music in 1990; they formed the New Ralph label and began reissuing long-out-of-print material as well as Freak Show, a meditation on circus sideshows and carnival dementia. Four years later, Freak Show was reissued as a CD-ROM, marking the group's first leap into the new digital interactive technology; Have a Bad Day followed in 1996, and included the soundtrack to the CD-ROM game Bad Day on the Midway. In 1997, the band celebrated its silver anniversary with the release of the career-spanning overview Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses. Wormwood: Curious Stories from the Bible followed the next year, with Roadworms (songs from Wormwood as performed in the stage show) being issued in mid-2000. They followed that up with the Icky Flix DVD, an incredibly detailed collection of their videos that featured both old and new soundtracks, 5.1 digital stereo Surround Sound, countless hidden videos, and in-depth histories of each individual track. A subsequent tour incorporated the DVD, while guest singer Molly Harvey joined the band on-stage for some truly creative duets. Several high-concept projects followed the 2002 compilation Petting Zoo. The first was Demons Dance Alone, a complicated pop album that recalled the catchier material from Duck Stab and The Commercial Album. The live retrospective Kettles of Fish on the Outskirts of Town contained three CDs and a DVD.
Despite the release of so much old content, new material wasn't in short supply. Their releases throughout the latter end of the 2000s first decade included Animal Lover (2005), Tweedles! (2006), The River of Crime (2006), The Voice of Midnight (2007), The Bunny Boy (2008), The Ughs! (2009), Ten Little Piggies (a sneak peek at projects in the pipeline, released in 2009), and Coochie Brake in 2011. 2010 saw the group launch a tour that presented them in a new light; performing without extensive props or dancers, the Residents played as a three-piece, introducing gregarious lead singer "Randy Rose" clad in a grotesque old-age mask, accompanied by guitarist "Bob" and multi-instrumentalist "Chuck," both sporting dreadlocks and robotic face gear. The trio was documented on the 2013 album Ten Two Times, as well as 2014's The Wonder of Weird and Marching to the See: The Wonder of Weird Tour, and 2015's Shadowland: Part 3 of the Randy, Chuck & Bob Trilogy. "Chuck" was widely believed to be the same artist who released a handful of solo projects under the moniker Charles Bobuck, who in turn was alleged to be Hardy Fox, a longtime Cryptic Corporation figure and occasional Residents spokesman.
In 2017, Fox revealed in a blog post that he had left the Cryptic Corporation and would no longer be working with the Residents; one of his last projects with the entity was one of their most idiosyncratic concept albums, The Ghost of Hope, inspired by train accidents of the late 19th and early 20th century. Fox made clear that the Residents would go on without him, and putting another twist to the notion of the group's identity, the band released an ambitious project in 2018 called I Am a Resident!, in which fans and admirers presented their interpretations of songs from the Residents' catalog, along with an extended mashup mix assembled from the submissions for the projects. The Residents also took a step toward preserving their legacy with a series of "pREServed Edition" reissues, presenting remastered and expanded versions of Meet the Residents, Fingerprince, Duck Stab/Buster & Glen, and Third Reich 'N Roll. On October 30, 2018, Hardy Fox died at age 73 after battling brain cancer. ~ Jason Ankeny & Mark Deming