Never Known Questions: Five Decades of The Residents

Never Known Questions: Five Decades of The Residents

by Ian Shirley


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781909454262
Publisher: Cherry Red Books
Publication date: 02/01/2016
Pages: 300
Sales rank: 404,912
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Ian Shirley is a music journalist whose features and reviews have appeared in a wide range of publications, from the Times to Record Collector magazine. He has also published three novels, as well as several biographies of bands, including Bauhaus, Pink Floyd, and Green Day. Ian is currently the editor of Record Collector’s Rare Record Price Guide and also runs the magazine’s vinyl reissue label.

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Never Known Questions

Five Decades Of The Residents

By Ian Shirley

Cherry Red Books

Copyright © 2016 Ian Shirley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-909454-27-9


The Obscurity Of Theory

"There is no true story of The Residents. You should know that right off. The secrets of The Residents will never be revealed by anyone but The Residents themselves, and so far they aren't saying much." - Matt Groening, 1979.

As a music journalist I have interviewed hundreds of musicians, written hundreds of features and knocked out a few books. Thus, tales of how bands got together fall into a number of categories. These range from school friends who shared a passion for music to those inspired by the shared epiphany of witnessing a live performance and wanting to get up on stage themselves. Then there is boredom, or meeting like-minded people through accident, design, an advert in a music paper or plain chance. Other artists have been through several bands before finding the right chemistry or chemicals to bind their atomic parts together. Some, like Orbital, The National and Oasis, even found an inbuilt advantage as membership included brothers, for whom it became a natural thing to work together.

When dealing with the formation of The Residents, though, everything hangs on a mixture of facts, disinformation and conjecture. After all, we are dealing with a band that, to the public at large, have traded on keeping their identities secret for over four decades since the appearance of the Santa Dog EP in 1972. Thus, during their subsequent career there has been more disinformation than truth. Even the garrulous Randy Rose, who revealed himself as the lead singer of The Residents in 2010, bends fact into fiction. The most effective purveyor of counterfactual early Residents history was The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, who, back in 1979, penned The Official W.E.I.R.D Book of The Residents as part of the band's early fan club. This slim book blended fact, fiction, myth and red herrings, and worked with many of the central tenets under which The Residents worked, such as The Theory Of Obscurity, which laid down the mantra that The Residents would conceal their identities so that people could focus on the music, art and visual presentation they created.

To be frank, when dealing with the self-styled most well-known obscure band in the world it's only right and proper that there remains a veil of secrecy over their origins. If this were a biography of Barack Obama, Bill Gates or Bono from U2, I would invest time and pages writing about ancestors or school days and looking for the seeds of what turned them towards success in politics, business or megalomania tempered by irony. Maybe one of The Residents wrote an essay at school about how they wanted to be a film director when they grew up, or another dreamed of making records or becoming the new Andy Warhol. Who knows? So, there are no dates of birth here, no records of High Schools or Colleges attended. No first kisses or mystical moments when a first guitar or tape-recorder was handed down by a hip older brother or found in a junk shop. As Hardy Fox of The Cryptic Corporation told a journalist in New Zealand in 1987, "I've heard mother say they can't brag – they seem to get over it."

What is documented is that they hailed from the Shreveport area of the American South, and once they got through College and worked for a short time they decided to head West. As Homer Flynn, also of The Cryptic Corporation, once stated, "The South in the '60s ... was not a pleasant place for anybody who had any kind of offbeat point of view about life at all. So it's not particularly hard for me to see why they were glad to get out of the South." They went to San Francisco because one of them, or a friend, was already living out there. According to legend, their truck broke down in the residential San Francisco suburb of San Mateo. Life is too short to challenge this fact or wheedle the precise information out of Fox and Flynn. The key fundamental is that they settled here, eventually taking a low rent apartment en-masse.

They did not immediately begin making music. At this time in the late '60s, despite San Francisco being at the centre of the flower power and hippie movement, bearing witness to bands like Frank Zappa And The Mothers Of Invention or Captain Beefheart required money, and so to finance their lifestyle they got jobs. One of them, at one time, unloaded luggage from continental airliners and was a source of amusement to the others, because in order to retain his job he had to keep his hair short. Randy Rose once related a story at a Residents show about a coffin being unloaded from an aircraft which was dropped, causing the body to fall out. Was that a true story or disinformation based on fact? Apparently the others had jobs that ranged from selling insurance to working in a medical facility. According to Roland Sheehan, who actually lived with them in San Mateo during one summer, "Two of them worked as clerks in the filing room of a big hospital out there. Obviously they weren't getting rich but rent and all that at that time was much lower than it is now."

Sheehan had first met one of The Residents down South. "I grew up in a little town in the North of Louisiana, Dubach of all places, and me and my brother and a few other local guys were playing in a band. I met (one of them) at a mutual friend's house and we just clicked right off. He was three or four years older than me but age didn't make a difference, and he became the band's manager and did all of the artwork." The Resident concerned was studying art and was soon designing flyers to promote the band, as well as helping with mail-shots sent out in order to secure bookings for Sheehan's band. And, it is not the one you think....

The band were called The Alliance, and after a number of personnel changes and the passing of time they became reasonably well-accomplished, playing British invasion music and, as Sheehan played keyboards, even songs by The Doors at proms and other dates as far afield as Arkansas. The Alliance ended up breaking in a new studio in Ruston, Louisiana, and recorded a single – Somewhere They Can't Find Me/(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone whose sleeve design was the first manifestation of a Resident on a record. "We paid for it and made it locally, and needless to say it was not a mean seller," laughs Sheehan today. He also met The Residents' other creative friends at this time, and thus when Sheehan signed up for a three-month course to study recording techniques at San Francisco University he came out to stay with them in San Mateo.

By this time The Residents were already expressing their artistic natures. This ranged from making silkscreens, painting and even taking photos of themselves posing naked in boxcars on the railway sidings next to their apartment. I actually saw these photos when conducting research for the first edition of this book, and these particular Delta Nudes were full frontal. Maybe The Residents will release them one day – with strategically placed eyeballs to cover their modesty. According to Sheehan, music was just one string to their bows, "They were working regular jobs, and after work or at the weekends they would work on their art. By art I mean movies, music, painting whatever. In other words, they were working to pay the bills but what they really wanted to do was be in film and music."

Early musical activities were probably a natural extension of their interest in the progressive and chart music of this time, inspired by the bands they saw at venues like the Fillmore West, films like 2001 A Space Odyssey, in which the soundtrack meshed perfectly with the visuals Stanley Kubrick put on screen, and the records they were buying. "We would go to Tower Records, which at that time was the biggest record shop out there, and we would spend hours there," recalls Sheehan. "They were buying things like world music, Beefheart, Zappa and Sun Ra, but they would also listen to The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and Neil Young. So it was a wide range, not just one or two genres. I would also buy world music - I remember buying Olatunji - but I didn't buy Captain Beefheart or the Mothers. But they were buying all that kind of stuff. They bought albums I had never heard of in a place that was like Walmart with thousands and thousands of records, and a lot of them were promo copies. We would walk out with armloads – literally armloads of records. If you paid ninety nine cents for an album and it is not very good, so what?"

Perhaps at this time they considered forming a band in the traditional sense – guitar, drums, bass, keyboards and vocals – and writing songs. What needs to be stressed is that even at this point some of The Residents could play musical instruments. You see, some of them had been in bands during their days at College in the South and, whilst not technically proficient, must have scratched or honked their way through a number of garage songs, chart hits and maybe a James Brown number or two - Randy once gushed on stage about briefly meeting the Godfather Of Soul when he performed a show at Lafayette, Louisiana in 1965.

Thus, when they turned their minds to making music there was some competence there. And ideas. Lots and lots of ideas.


Santa Dog

"There were always girls. Back then a drawl was a great way to attract a girl if you were from Louisiana out there in California." - Roland Sheehan.

They were not a band, they did not have a name but they began making music together for their own amusement around 1969. Crucially, at this stage they were less interested in performing live than in recording. An alleged Resident once related that "The tape recorders were more important than the instruments" and Cryptic Corporation spokesman Jay Clem told Keyboard magazine in 1982 that, "... they had something like a two-track and a single track and they just mixed down and mixed down." Not that The Residents would agree with Clem's statement, as one of them later commented on this comment, "The information is technically embarrassing. That's what happens when accountants are allowed to talk to the press."

The way their music was played and recorded at this time was informal. Due to the constraints of day jobs and social commitments, they only jammed on some evenings and at weekends. Sometimes these sessions were highly structured, and they might try to cover a song or work out an original idea that someone had brought along, just like any other band. At other times they would just jam and see if anything came out of it, even experimenting with not allowing musicians to play their default instrument as, "It would stimulate new ideas you would not have had otherwise."

Of course, who these musicians were remains a moot point. Although the core of the group who would go on to become The Residents was present there would be also be a number of other people involved, as Roland Sheehan confirms, "There would be parties and there would be musicians. I first met Snakefinger at one of these and we jammed together. The Residents would pick up a drum or whatever was laying around or basically make their own (instruments). There were other folks around who were able to play the guitar, bass or drums. As I remember I was the only one playing the keyboard back in those days as most folks wanted to be rock and roll guitar players for some reason." Another person who got involved with the proto-Residents around this time was Pamela Zeiback, "I was the girlfriend of one of their roommates. I remember the place was near the railroad tracks, and one of them had white sheets hanging from the ceiling breaking up the rooms into small spaces. It was really cool. I used to jam and sing with them in that place a lot."

There was, however, a definite decision at some point to start recording on a reel-to-reel recorder, and parts of these jam sessions were taped - the fact that Sheehan spent three months studying recording techniques in an eight-track studio at the University of San Francisco may have helped them with this. The Rusty Coathangers For The Doctor tape was recorded around June 1970, and The Ballad Of Stuffed Trigger in August of the same year (with Sheehan present). Both tapes have since taken on legendary status amongst Residents fans and collectors as they document some of their earliest recordings. Of course, this was not The Residents but a group of friends having fun, and it sounds like it – a segment of the song Rusty Coathangers – acoustic guitar and vocals - has seen the light of day, and Roland Sheehan played a crucial part in its genesis. "So, I was there with those guys one hot afternoon," he told me, "and looked out of the window and there was an old pickup truck. It was a 1953 or 1954 pickup, real rusty. But what caught my eye was that there had to be thousands of rusty coathangers in that truck, so I called over other guys and said, "You all got to see this." We were bored and did not have anything better to do, so I picked up my guitar and there was a two-track reel-to-reel tape recorder there - as I recall we had one microphone – and we began to write a song about rusty coathangers. That evolved into Rusty Coathangers For The Doctor."

The Ballad Of Stuffed Trigger is another early track that has seen the light of day, and Sheehan also had a hand in this song, "It may have been that same afternoon, or a day or two later, and we got talking about Roy Rogers' horse that had died. Roy had taken the horse to a taxidermist and had Trigger stuffed! So there again it was one of those things, a fluke really, and we wrote a song called The Ballad Of Stuffed Trigger." Jay Clem later said of these tapes, "The first two are highly documentary in nature. Most of them consisted of conversations, but there was some actual music." Actually, there was a lot of music on both tapes, which document many jam sessions where the players were drunk, stoned or just having an exceedingly good time. You can hear that the tape recorder was usually switched on just as songs were about to be performed or when everyone was working up to play something, although on some occasions a track just starts.

Both tapes run for around thirty minutes and the conversations are usually playful banter between several people. They include some great lines like, "Play something with some rhythm to it" or "Who wants some dope?" which give a great feel for the time. Musically there are spaced out jams and cover versions of songs like Let It Be, Satisfaction, Bringing In The Sheaves and House Of The Rising Sun woven into other tracks.

Considering that The Residents have been very thorough in releasing most of their music recorded over the last forty four years, after hearing these tapes it's quite understandable that they've kept them under physical and digital lock and key. It's not bad music – hell, it is great to listen to! – but it is Pre-Residential, and as their technical and professional prowess improved over the following years this music was seen as part of their musical adolescence and, for them, best forgotten.

Probably also best forgotten are some of the antics the group got up to at this point, which range from the bizarre to the downright hilarious. Even today, Roland Sheehan recalls some very weird scenes from inside the goldmine, "I remember one girl, I walked by this room one night and she was laying on the bed, she did not have a stitch of clothes on but she was wrapped up with a big snake. Now look, I'm from Louisiana – that's stuff you don't see every day. It was just wrapped around her and (one of them) was fully clothed on the edge of the bed talking to her as if it was no big deal. So, I walked by trying to be cool and said, "How you doing? My name is Roland." And all of the time I'm looking at that big snake."

On another occasion, Sheehan got the opportunity to look at another snake – of the trouser variety. "I tagged along with a few of the guys and their girlfriends and we pulled over in the woods somewhere. They were going to make a porn movie! You have to understand this was not a professional deal, they just decided, "What the hell, we'll make a porn movie." I tag along and they throw a blanket on the ground and one of them has an eight or sixteen millimeter film camera and this guy and girl get out of their clothes and start getting after it! I'm standing there thinking, "Yeah, now I can tell everybody I've been involved in making a porn movie." It was real short and the processing of the film was not very good because they probably did it themselves - they did not want to take it down to the local Walmart to have the film processed for obvious reasons. They never did anything with it, but that is the kind of stuff they did just for the hell of it. They had nothing to do, the girl was ready and willing and so off we went."


Excerpted from Never Known Questions by Ian Shirley. Copyright © 2016 Ian Shirley. Excerpted by permission of Cherry Red Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Author's Note,
The Obscurity Of Theory,
Santa Dog,
Vileness Fats,
Meet The Residents,
The Third Reich And Roll,
The Cryptic Corporation,
Duck Stab,
Ralph Records - Buy Or Die,
The Commercial Album,
Rock 'N' Mole,
And If I Recover Will You Be My Comfort?,
Enter The Professor ...,
Stars & Hank,
God In Three Persons,
Bad Day At The Freak Show,
Demons Dance Alone With Jesus,
Full Mute,
Randy, Chuck And Bob,
The Theory Of Obscurity,
The Author Recommends,
Other Titles Available From Cherry Red Books,

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