Randy, Chuck and Bob: Excerpts from ‘Never Known Questions: Five Decades of The Residents’
11 Feb 2016
Ahead of their forthcoming show at Hackney Empire, take a look back at The Residents' brilliant and bizarre live history
In recent biography 'Never Known Questions: Five Decades of The Residents', author and long-term expert Ian Shirley digs into the minutae of the Louisiana art troupe's collective psyche, documenting the long and winding road from their formation in 1969 to their current status as veteran musical oddballs.
Throughout that time, their live shows have become a key part of their ammunition, with costumes and visuals (their famed eyeball helmets in particular) as integral to the experience as the music itself. As The Residents return to London for a celebratory show at the Hackney Empire, take a look at an extract from 'Never Known...' where Shirley reminisces back to 2010 and the unveiling of the men behind the masks...
"Considering that The Residents had originally intended the eyeballs to be just another image change to promote the Eskimo album before they moved onto something new, it’s remarkable that, over the years, the eyeballs probably helped to sell more Residents items that there are letters in this book. The orbs proved so popular that new models that were easier to function inside for photo shoots and live work were developed to replace the originals, and the eyeball imagery was used on everything that could be merchandised, from T-shirts to earrings. The Eskimo image also became the stock imagery used whenever something was written about the band in print or online.
But, by 2010 the eyeball, tuxedo and top hat combination were thirty years old, and, like the logo of a long established multinational company, was outmoded and no longer reflected what The Residents were creating in the digital age. Their solution was to reinvent themselves in a totally new, original and almost shocking fashion - abandoning the eyeballs, The Residents stepped out of their branded shadow to reveal themselves to their fans as a power trio of Randy, Chuck and Bob. Oh, and there had been a fourth Resident named Carlos, but he’d recently left the band after a dispute with Randy, the lead singer and front man. It seems there was in-band friction behind the dressing room door, or fictional friction at least…
The unveiling of Randy, Chuck and Bob certainly got fans interested, and totally refreshed The Residents’ image in the modern world of social media, where Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other bite-sized sites are the main windows into culture. The eyeball, tuxedos and top hats were gone, and crucially, in Randy, The Residents now had a spokesman.
Although garrulous onstage or online, he was canny enough not to give face-to-face interviews to journalists, but more than happy to post his thoughts online and answer the odd question. It still feels equally strange and thrilling to read online, “Well, Rest Aria was written by my buddy Chuck so I don’t really don’t know too much about it. But as I recall, Chuck tried to gather up a bunch of people to play it but it didn’t really work, so he played most of the parts himself. He never talked about that stuff much so I don’t know what inspired him, but he sure used to practice it a lot.”
Of course, there was also a very practical purpose behind this image change - slimming down to three members was part of a new touring strategy. As Hein Fokker explains, “From Bunny Boy onwards, they reinvented themselves by being Randy, Chuck and Bob. Three people on stage, and the idea was if they wanted to do this and make it financially feasible we had to have a show that could fly. We are travelling with six people, so we can take six boxes and everything has to be in those. They designed a show that could fly anywhere and it is still like that, it’s still Randy, Chuck and Bob, and we have done three tours, Talking Light, WOW and now Shadowland. Of course, there is some local production, but that is minimal. The show is small, and has the minimum hauling around of cases but maximum expression on stage.”
The first tour of what is now seen as the Randy, Chuck and Bob era was the Talking Light outing, which embraced over fifty dates, starting with a warm up show in Santa Cruz on the 23rd January 2010 and ending in San Francisco on the 16th April 2011. Sandwiched between those dates were four distinct tranches of shows across North America and Europe. “As Frank Zappa said in 200 Motels,” laughs Fokker, “touring drives you crazy. He is completely right, and that is why tours a month and a half long are too long. At this point, two weeks is max because you are working with older people. Even myself, I would go for a month no problem, but when people get tired they make mistakes.”
He continues, “With The Residents’ shows, when there is just one fuck up in the audio or one computer not starting which makes the show dead, its very bad because you are naked on stage and the people watching suddenly have nothing. With a normal rock and roll band that can be fun and they can make a joke out of it, but not with The Residents, it is too theatrical, and that happens when people are touring for too long.”
The Talking Light tour saw Randy clad in a bald wig with a frizz of grey hair and a bathrobe, and looking like an ancient monument, although on stage he moved with energy and vitality. Meanwhile, both Chuck (on laptop) and Bob (on guitar) not only sported masks to conceal their identities but had dreadlocks, making it look like Randy had hooked up with two digital rastas. As with every tour, Talking Light included a theatrical presentation. There were three circular video screens behind and above the performers, stools for Chuck and Bob and an armchair and fireplace for Randy, who would appear on stage last as Chuck generated opening music from and old Coca-Cola advert. Initially, the plan was for the show to be based around ghost stories told through the medium of TV, but, as Hardy Fox told a journalist from Pollstar in November 2011, “The TV aspect has shrunk down to almost nothing at this point. Originally, that was going to be a big aspect of the show. But it’s really taken a different angle. This show is concerned with the universal experience of death. Not so much the negative aspects of death, but the overall.'"
'Never Known Questions: Five Decades of The Residents' by Ian Shirley is published by Cherry Red Books and is out now.
The Residents play Hackney Empire on Saturday, Feb 12. Last remaining tickets here: http://bit.ly/1LdMhgm