The Residents’ New Book Illustrates 50 Years of Art-Rock Weirdness

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The Residents in 1979. (Poor_ NO! Graphics)

Ask even the most ardent fans of The Residents about their first exposure to the art rock group, and their responses are likely to focus on the visual rather than the aural—the unsettling, unforgettable sight of four men in top hats and tails whose heads have been replaced with giant eyeballs.

“My first memory of seeing The Residents was on Night Flight back in the ’80s,” remembers graphic designer Aaron Tanner. “However, I was too young to comprehend what my still-developing brain had actually witnessed. Fast forward to the early ’90s when Primus covered ‘Sinister Exaggerator,’ and all of those memories of ‘creatures’ with eyeballs for heads came flooding back.”

Cover of 'The Residents: Site for Sore Eyes, Vol. 1,' a visual history of the famed art rock group. (Melodic Virtue)

Or as Death Grips drummer and co-founder Zach Hill puts it, “Being a Bay Area/Northern California native, the eyeball was like the weirdo kids’ Mickey Mouse. And you’d see it before even knowing what it was.”

Bay Area mainstays The Residents remain masters of media and mystery. Though the band has been around in one form or another since the late ’60s, no one is entirely sure who the members of the group are (although there are some theories). The enigma has an undeniable allure, and The Residents add to their strange appeal through off-kilter music—jazz-inflected psychedelic rock and electronic experimentation that warps and wriggles like a worm under a heat lamp. Their striking album art, film and video work, and eye-popping stage performances make them all the more intriguing.

It feels entirely appropriate then that the first official book to track the history of this unique group, The Residents: A Sight For Sore Eyes Vol. 1 (out Jan. 7 via Melodic Virtue), is an almost entirely visual document. The hefty tome tracks through group’s evolution from their earliest days as hippie dropouts who landed in San Mateo in 1968 to their 1983 performances of The Mole Show, a stage show featuring magician and collaborator Penn Jillette. The volume is a sumptuous feast of photos, film stills, promotional material and collages of critical reactions to the music. (“Somehow, I thought of it as sounding like what Steely Dan or Frank Zappa might sound like on strong acid,” said one critic of the Residents’ 1977 album Fingerprince.)

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Though it was created with the active participation of The Residents and their appropriately named management group, The Cryptic Corporation, the book itself was initiated by Tanner, who made his way into their circle through another similarly unclassifiable group that he works with closely.

“I’ve been Ween’s primary designer for over 15 years, and all of their self-released albums were distributed through MVD,” Tanner says, referring to the entertainment company. “After I had started producing books and realized that MVD was also working with The Residents, I asked for an introduction.”

From there, Tanner was allowed access to The Residents’ voluminous archives. “Digging through those old boxes was my version of visiting Disneyland,” he says.

He unearthed all manner of ephemera, including the legendary rejection letters the group received after submitting their demo tapes to Warner Brothers Records’ merchandising director, Hal Halverstadt. “I hate to tell you this,” reads one, “but Baby Sex”—the group’s now-fabled 1971 demo—“did not (repeat, did not) set Burbank on its ear.”

Other surprises include some stark digital visuals that the group put together in 1992 as a proposal to turn their 1979 album Eskimo, an unsettling ambient work, into an opera, and pictures of a prototype video game for the Atari 2600 based on their 1981 album The Mark of the Mole.

Tanner also didn’t shy away from including the controversial album art and promotional photos for the group’s second album, The Third Reich ’n Roll. The former includes a cartoon of American Bandstand host Dick Clark in a Nazi uniform, and the latter finds the band members dressed up as oversized swastikas. All of it tied into the concept for the album—the original liner notes are a snarky treatise on the ways “rock and roll has brainwashed the youth of the world,” and the music is made up of heavily edited and deconstructed versions of pop hits like “The Twist” and “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.” Still, the album was originally banned in Germany, and a window display announcing its release caused a protest at a Berkeley record shop.

“I knew I was going to deal with a few taboo artifacts before taking this project on,” says Tanner. “But ultimately, the use of Nazi symbols by The Residents in 1976 was done as satire and in no way represents our or their support for that ideology. It’s unfortunate that there’s been an unironic resurgence of this iconography, and that it’s no longer just history but evidence of a current threat within the U.S. and abroad.”

What is not included in A Sight For Sore Eyes is any kind of critical essays or liner notes to walk the uninitiated through this period of The Residents’ past. (That work was already done by the 2015 documentary The Theory of Obscurity.) Instead, Tanner peppers short quotes and tributes from artists that have worked directly with the group or cite them as an influence.

It’s an appropriately motley bunch. The Zach Hill quote above is taken from the book, and he’s joined by Pee-Wee Herman creator Paul Reubens, “Weird Al” Yankovic, XTC’s Andy Partridge, Dan Deacon and Ween co-founder Aaron Freeman, who says that hearing “Constantinople,” a track from the Residents’ 1978 EP Duck Stab, “fucked up the way I hear music.”

When it comes to the legacy of this singular American ensemble, there’s really no higher praise than that.