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The Residents: In the eye of the beholder

How avant-garde rock icon the Residents changed pop music, and singer Molly Harvey's life, forever



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The men (or possibly women) behind the Residents have successfully kept their identities concealed for decades, and do not grant interviews. Their dedicated anonymity created a mania. Perhaps "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening said it best when he penned a bio for the group's now-defunct W.E.I.R.D. fan club circa 1979: "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."

When it comes to talking with the press, Fox and Flynn serve as the voices of the Residents, their plainspoken approach giving rise to even more speculation and mystery.

"The Residents are actually fairly normal people, and they wanted to maintain some separation between their public lives and their private lives," Flynn says. When he speaks, there is no denying that his languid, Cajun drawl bears an uncanny resemblance to the voice that can be heard singing, screaming, growling, and warbling throughout so many of the Residents' records. Yet he maintains that he is not a member of the group. "I have connections to the band prior to 1976, when Cryptic took over, but it was all fairly informal. My area of expertise is graphics," Flynn says. "I've done all or most all of the Residents' album covers and promo materials and that sort of stuff. I consulted with the Residents on a few things before we started the more formal relationship."

As punk and new wave become dominant cultural influences in the late '70s, the public became curious about the Residents. "Most of the time the market is controlled by market forces, but every once in a while the gate swings open and a lot of crazy people get to come to the party for a while," Flynn says. "That's what the punk and new wave era was; the music business had become stagnant, and all a the sudden there was a lot of new life and energy in music."

Over the years, the group has continually embraced new technologies. When music video became a viable format for pop music, the Residents were among the first to add visual accompaniments to songs. The group gained some notoriety via the USA Network's late-night variety show "Night Flight," circa 1981. During its weekly Friday- and Saturday-night broadcasts, videos for Residents numbers such as "Hello Skinny," the "One Minute Movies" — minute-long films meant to be watched repeatedly — or the stark black-and-white, Eraserhead-esque "Third Reich 'N Roll" music video were regular features.

After Cryptic took over Ralph in 1976, it upped the stakes. Other groups besides the Residents, ranging from terse art-punks MX-80 Sound and Tuxedomoon to the bombastic synth-pop of Swiss group Yello to warped guitarist and singer Philip Lithman, aka Snakefinger, were all part of the Ralph roster. The Residents even cowrote and produced the first two Snakefinger records, Chewing Hides the Sound (1979) and Greener Postures (1980). Snakefinger went on to become a regular sideman with the Residents until he died of a heart attack in the summer of 1987.

Cryptic's mission to expand the label's scope by signing what were ostensibly more commercially viable groups created a financial footing that allowed the Residents unhindered creative freedom.

Ironically, even though the other acts it had signed were superficially more accessible, none of them came close to selling as many records as the Residents. "Much of this had to do with the mythology and the image the group had created," Flynn says. "By working together, the Residents and Cryptic had created a more seductive image for the group, and audiences latched onto it."

When Harvey and Flynn struck up their friendship, the Residents were continuing to experiment with then-cutting-edge CD-ROM technology. The group was busy piecing together what would become 1995's Gingerbread Man. Flynn had mentioned to her that Cryptic was busy organizing everything for the Residents. One day, during his regular stop at Elsie's, Harvey was feeling a bit wired after drinking too much coffee. She was just trying to stay sane on a slow day at work when she put a set of fake buckteeth into her mouth and began talking in a Southern accent. "That was my go-to for nearly everything at the time," she says. "I said to Homer, 'Can't you give me a job or something? I can do voices.'"

She was partially joking, and even delivered the question in a way that would ease the blow of rejection. But he paused for a moment and then responded, "Maybe. ... Can you do an old woman's voice?"

Her reply: "Of course I can do an old woman's voice!"

Flynn consulted with the Residents about using Harvey for the project. She was brought into the studio to read for the part — a monologue for a song about an elderly woman who wants to be loved, but will never recognize that her manipulative ways contribute to her sense of agony. Just who was present during the recording session, or if Flynn was even there, Harvey won't say. "Because I was stupid enough to be there and not really grasp who I was with, I was able to read the part quickly and not be nervous," she says. "They liked that I worked fast, and once it was done, it was done. They recorded me and nothing much happened after that, not for a while."

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