I, somebody

It began in the early '70s, in a Canadian Dada-Surrealist magazine styled to look like Life. Tucked inside was a flexi-disc sampler of four songs from the Residents' first album, Meet the Residents--a tongue-in-cheek sendup of Meet the Beatles. Instead of the familiar mugs of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, the accompanying ad introduced four bloodshot eyeballs. Send two dollars, the ad said, and they'd send you the whole album. Who could resist such an invitation?

That was the beginning of the curious cultural phenomenon known--and unknown--as the Residents, an anonymous group of individuals whose names and ranks have been guarded from the general public ever since. Twenty-six years and some 40 albums later, the band is still working to tweak the status quo and question pop culture; it's now touring an elaborate, holy-book inspired stage show called Wormwood: A Curious Collection of Bible Stories, and has released an eerie accompanying album full of interesting, emotionally awkward music and odd operatic singing.

Since none of the members will reveal his or her identity, all Residents interviews are conducted through band "spokespeople" who may or may not be actual members in disguise. These days, questions are answered by a man who calls himself Hardy Fox ("I describe myself as a babysitter"), and he's quick to explain the concept for the thousandth time: "The Residents are fascinated by American culture. The eyeballs represent their looking at American culture and coldly watching it, watching from the wings."

If they're watching American culture, they've also become a part of it. And they've also been flipping the script on the whole age-old performer-audience contract: Gaze at me; make me what you need. As their audience peers at them, guess what's creepily staring back?

Despite all the enigma, there are several quick, reductivist ways to describe the Residents: an old-time new-wave outfit (an odder, more threatening Devo), punk progenitors (still respected as its highbrow foster-father), performance-art collective (its stage shows smack of "rock opera"), and concept band. Though nothing about them is certain, they supposedly moved from Shreveport, Louisiana, to San Mateo, California, complete neophytes to the music world who bought the first commercial four-track. Amateurs with good equipment, they started the band in 1970, recording at home. Their first demo tape was promptly returned by Warner Bros. Records, addressed to "resident," and the name stuck.

Since those early years, the Residents have remained groundbreaking and critically cherished, if not for their music then surely for their irreverence and anti-celebrity stance, even as they have dropped in and out of cult popularity. As recently as 1996, the band's cult status seemed to flourish: That year, the Long Beach, California-based Vaccination Records released a worthwhile covers compilation called Eyesore: A Stab at the Residents, which contained some obvious contributors (Thinking Fellers Union Local 282) but also a few surprises, including Cracker's "Blue Rosebuds"--a love song by way of Edgar Allen Poe.

Lately, though, the band has also been the subject of rare but severe critical skewering by writers annoyed by the stubborn perseverance of the band and its rough, heavily synthesized aesthetic.

"Its cheap-synthesizer music had a charge of the fresh during the punk and New Wave eras," Ben Ratliff wrote in a New York Times review of Wormwood, in which he slammed the record, calling it "shrill," "ham-fisted," and "ponderous." "Now it sounds more like what it is: sourly cute ditties with croaking singing." (Ratliff later warms up a bit to the live show, acknowledging that after all these years, "there was still something unsettling about seeing the group in person.")

The Residents might feel a little ideologically retro and musically clunky to one critic, but the band's influence--and nostalgic appeal--is getting stronger. Maybe it's because people long for the days when the Residents' brand of status quo-tweaking seemed incredibly subversive; see, for example, the band's freaky version of the Stones' "Satisfaction" (recorded before Devo's version), which, in 1977, seemed to stand for everything punk. Funky, strange, ugly, creepy, dissonant, underground, and even melodic in unexpected ways, it questioned the day-to-day American culture even more--on certain levels--than the Sex Pistols prodded British culture. Now that almost all old punk treasures have been mined in revue tours and critical reveries, there's still something incredibly cool and terrifically unseemly about the Residents. No wonder those inflatable plastic eyeball blow-up toys seem to be just about everywhere these days.

Nobody, except a select few who do business with the band and the people in the group's multimedia clubhouse, Cryptic Corporation, even knows who they are--or how many of them there are. Three? Four? Fox says that all the original members are still with the group and that, no, he's not one of them, but he also teases, "We don't shy away from that. That keeps people from looking too closely." Rest assured that anonymity is a big chunk of their appeal.

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Sara Scribner