by Michael Schell
The Residents in 1979.
Aim the searchlight of American Maverickism at the regions where prog rock, synthesizer music and multimedia intersect, and you’ll soon discover The Residents, the quirky San Francisco band known for eyeball masks, offbeat albums like Eskimo and The Third Reich ‘n Roll, and audio-visual projects such as the touring Mole Show and the interactive CD-ROM Freak Show. Active since 1971, the group labors anonymously, shrouding its members’ identities in layers of obfuscation and misdirection erected as a safeguard against vanity and commercialism—a concept they call theory of obscurity.
Hardy Fox in 2015 film Theory of Obscurity.
Anonymity can be hard to maintain in an era of Internet searches, fan forums and digital voice/image analysis. And for several years the suspicions of Residents fans have been focused on two former Louisiana Tech roommates listed as employees of the band’s management company. One is Homer Flynn, ostensibly the group’s art director, but despite repeated repudiations widely considered to also be its vocalist and lyricist. The other is Hardy Fox, who died of brain cancer on October 30, not long after admitting that despite his own decades of denial, he was indeed The Residents’ longtime keyboard player and principal composer.
Tributes to Fox have been flowing in print publications, social media and the web, most of them concentrating on The Residents’ most popular works—impious songs such as “Santa Dog” and “Hello Skinny”, or the more poignant recessional from the Mole Show. But in deference to the spirit behind theory of obscurity, now seems a good time to single out a lesser-known item lurking in the periphery of The Residents’ canon that might better represent pure, undiluted Fox.
The Thumb of Christ
Pollex Christi, supposedly written by a German composer named N. Senada (one of The Residents’ many sarcastic pseudonyms, this one punning a city in Baja California), appeared in 1997 on a limited edition CD. It’s a 20-minute synthesizer piece with occasional bits of drums and other conventional instruments mixed in—essentially a solo studio composition by Fox. It’s uncharacteristic of most Residents projects in being entirely instrumental and untexted, but it is characteristic in a different respect: it’s made up entirely of quoted material, mostly works by famous dead Germans.
The piece begins with the iconic four-note motto that launches Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Ives used the same motif throughout his Concord Sonata, calling it “an oracle—the Soul of humanity knocking at the door of the Divine mysteries.” But Fox’s hipster oracle would rather hit the weed than a hymnal, and Ives’ prudish transcendentalism has been exchanged for a more materialist kind of channel surfing. We quickly slide into a paraphrase of the opening of Orff’s Carmina Burana, followed by a short Valkyrie ride on synth and baritone sax. After a whiff of Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto, we return to Carmina Burana, which goes on to contribute several extended passages to the proceedings.
Since this is The Residents, and not Switched-On Bach, high German is obliged to share the stage with low American. Three times the masters’ descended wisdom pauses to allow the theme songs from Peter Gunn, Star Trek and Popeye the Sailor to pass. Wagner returns in the form of a passage from the Tristan prelude that’s presented basically intact, but his overture to Tannhäuser is bowdlerized into a four-beat disco groove. When Orff has the floor, the music is often shifted to the minor mode, giving it an oddly dark tone (the normally celebratory Meadow Dance, for example, assumes a particularly sinister character in Pollex Christi). And throughout the piece, the selection of intentionally cheesy synthesizer patches, often with exaggerated vibrato, keeps the tribute an impertinent one. Fox said “I love all the music I mess up. It is my amusement park.”
The Residents on Night Music (NBC, 1989).
Onward and Outward
Fox’s style of synth mashup reached its apogee in an even more obscure album called Codgers on the Moon (2012), where, using a new alias (“Charles Bobuck”), he appropriates Stravinsky as source material in an especially arcane way that owes something to Igor’s own appropriation of Tchaikovsky in The Fairy’s Kiss. Along with Pollex Christi, Codgers offers an insight back into the more familiar world of the Residents’ famous American Composers Series albums of the mid-1980s, which featured covers of Gershwin, Sousa, James Brown and Hank Williams. The latter’s “Kaw-Liga”, reinterpreted with a pop beat and a bass line cribbed from Michael Jacksons’s “Billie Jean”, is a particular favorite of Residents cognoscenti. The band’s newest release, I Am a Resident! (2018), may be the ultimate mashup, wherein the band remixes covers of its songs submitted by its own fans.
Homer Flynn and Hardy Fox at Johansson Projects, Oakland, in 2011. Behind them is Flynn’s artwork for The Third Reich ‘n Roll.
With Fox’s passing, The Ghost of Hope (2017) now enters the books as his final Residents album. It’s a collection of songs about train wrecks whose closing number, “Killed at a Crossing”, describes the death of a woman who had worked as an able typist, realtor and detective while living under several false identities. Committing suicide on the tracks, her body and effects are scattered by the impact of a locomotive, dispersing the artifacts of a life marked by an odd mix of integrity and duplicity:
Leaving random relics
Like leaves after the wind
She called herself Mrs. Orwell
And Mrs. Burton Bain
And Arabella Campbell
And Mrs. Arthur Payne
It seems an apt epitaph for Fox and the band he co-founded half a century ago, whose diffuse influence can be found among ambient musicians like Brian Eno, New Wave groups like Devo and Talking Heads, video artists like John Sanborn, and even celebrity acts like Penn & Teller. The surviving members of The Residents continue to record and perform, attuned like Fox to the fulfillment of their own expectancies. It’s a loop that never quite closes, unsure whether it is on familiar ground or venturing somewhere quite new.