Meet the Residents

By Orb

The Residents are the bastard children of Frank Zappa. Don't believe me? Check out a sample song lyric:

Once upon a time I played electric guitar,
And they said I was a rock and roll star.
Now my body calls me on the telephone,
So I sit and watch my TV all alone.

Maybe if I put a bullet in my brain,
They'd remember me like Kurt Cobain.
And the parasites on MTV
Would wipe their eyes and act like they knew me.

But I wouldn't be a hero, I'd be dead,
Just a corpse beside a note that read:
If you like to pretend that you never grow old,
You've got what it takes to rock and roll.

See what I mean?

The Residents are some sort of Vietnam-era spawn, or really the spawn of the spawn, the revolt of a few cerebral brainiacs that realized that popular music was being codified, marketed, spoon-fed to the masses, and controlled into the ground. They are like netherworld antiheroes, not the Iggy Pop kind (no one's throwing themselves into glass on stage at their shows), but antiheroes nonetheless. And they are all the while doing things that the general public just finds confusing and probably, for a good cross-section of society, even alarming. The Residents also refuse to let people know who they are, not even willing to sell themselves to sell the message, unlike every other poor bastard out there trying to make a living while making art.

Who are the Residents? Who the hell knows? They appear in pictures as giant eyeball heads dressed in white tie and tails, like some evil urchins on their way to Satan's coming-out party. No one has ever captured a picture of the Residents, and their names have never been released. Here are the facts as they are known by sheer historical fact, rumor, and innuendo: The Residents met in high school in the sixties in Shreveport, Louisiana, and came out west in 1966. There they met up with two European musicians, Philip Lithman and N. Senada, and began to record. They recorded 'The Warner Brothers Album," which was wholeheartedly rejected by Warner Bros. in 1971. They formed their own record label, Ralph Records, and in 1972 released their first single, "Santa Dog," which was followed by an album titled "Meet the Residents," immediately taking a satirical potshot at those rock-and-roll icons, the Beatles. Over the years, they have also done some collaborations, usually with artists and groups with purely underground followings such as John Cage, and the seriously twisted Negativland.

In work that has spanned almost three decades and a stunning number of studio and live albums, satirizations of the vanities, inanities, and potential evilness of society have been the one consistency. Their pieces are darkly symphonic. There are no wailing guitar solos, no songs with a hook. These are dark, stormy thoughts and stories, and it is obvious that the Residents never intend that it be easy for the listener.

With all that said, the Residents have oozed out their general strangeness to encompass the then-newly expanding multimedia field, producing three CD-ROM titles, one that is more interactive album than anything and two that would certainly qualify as full-fledged games, despite the ever-present performance art feel to them.

Freak Show

Based on a 1990 album, Freak Show is really a series of works, some historical, some more along the lines of performance art, and finally some stories embracing the style of underground comix popularized by such comic art hash houses as the Rip Off Press. The Residents call this their "Virtual Slideshow," and more accurately you could really call it a Disneyland of the Damned.

Freak Show features artwork by Jim Ludtke and a number of other artists. It is set in a sideshow tent and in the living quarters of the freaks that work the show. The player is allowed to explore all of these places, including the trailers the freak performers live in, each area telling the sordid story of some sad creature's life. The game is not a ruinously dark affair, however, and it is also chock-full of hidden treats and surprises, albeit consistently disturbing ones.

In one tent area, there's a section called "Pickled Punks," which contains photographs and historical narrative of actual circus freaks from the late 1800s and early 1900s. There are 90 biographies of performers largely forgotten as participants in one of the seedier episodes in entertainment history. This whole area of the game is highly evocative of Todd Browning's underground 1932 cult classic "Freaks."

The trailers the inhabitants live in feature the Residents' music in abundance. One trailer contains a comic book, disingenuously entitled "The Freak Show," with artwork done in a wonderful replication of the old DC Comics "House of Secrets" style of the 60s and 70s. Another trailer contains clips of the Residents' stage performances, including bits from "The Mole Show," the 1982 tour that featured Penn Gillette from Penn and Teller as the narrator. The player is also treated to clips from their myriad videos, as well as a discography.

Freak Show was performed in 1991 to an invitation-only live audience in San Jose, and this videotaped concert culminated in musician/producer Todd Rundgren editing a live video mix of the performance on stage directly afterwards. The live mixes were later released by Apple Computer in a limited edition CD-ROM. It was also made into a touring show by the Residents in 1995, which featured a full orchestra and singers hired to perform as the circus freak characters found in the game.

The Gingerbread Man

The enigmatically titled The Gingerbread Man was billed as an "extended album," and it is a series of stories of characters told in song. These characters, let me just say right up front, are really unpleasant people. Really. They are not given proper names; rather, they are referred to by the dark titles of the underbellies of people's lives—the Sold Out Artist, the Ascetic, the Aging Musician, the Confused Transsexual, the Old Woman.

It features eleven cuts in the Residents' avant garde style. It's a visual theme album the Residents call an "interactive musical study of nine characters." I don't know about all that, but I do know the music stayed in my head long after the CD was put away. And it didn't stay like some lyrical life-affirming pop tune, but more like the Alka Seltzer ad droning at you just before you turn off the TV and go to bed, one of those things that doesn't easily slide away but instead kind of picks at you as the night passes.

Navigation in The Gingerbread Man is done via something called an "Enter Eye." Apparently the Residents refuse to explain this to the user, but instead demand that she be smart enough to just figure it out. The artwork for this was also done by Jim Ludtke.

This is not to say The Gingerbread Man is not interactive—it certainly is. You can click merrily away, all the while listening to the Residents' throbbing, disturbing music.

Bad Day on the Midway

Bad Day on the Midway is really the title where the Residents hit their stride in the medium, and it is the most ambitious gamewise. It has a fleshed-out storyline, brought out by the player exploring the midway and talking to the characters she finds, and of the trio, Bad Day has more game-like qualities than the other CDs.

It is the story of a midway carnival and its denizens, told through the course of an evening as the player wanders throughout the midway and explores the rides and exhibits. Plenty of the Residents' odd music and humor is present, as well as more dark characters, pretty much the hallmark of a good Residents work.

The game gives the player only a certain amount of time to talk to characters and explore before a disaster strikes the midway or the player is done in by a crazed killer on the loose in the midway. It's not designed in such a way that if something wrong is done, you get a "you lose, loser" screen, but instead the story wraps with a variety of deviations. There are better paths through the night that do get you more of the story, and details are fleshed out, but it is easy enough to go back in and reexplore these points. The game is played in the first person, and the player changes into the characters that are met throughout exploration.

The game continues on the carnival freaks theme, and it is full of more comix-style art and lots of small films.

Bad Day was picked up and published (interestingly enough) by Inscape, who also published two other really weird titles, The Dark Eye, a great game based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and Devo: Adventures of the Smart Patrol, one that totally sucks. I just want to meet the ex-Inscape thumbs-up guy, I'll tell you. How did those three games get picked out, anyway?

Bad Day is the best of the bunch and definitely a game to be tried out.

The truth of it is, though, if you're a fan of anything twisted or out of the norm, all three of the titles are going to be something you'll want to get your hands on and check out. The End


Freak Show

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The Gingerbread Man

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Bad Day on the Midway

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