Not many bands have the bravado to sell a $100,000 box set housed in a refrigerator, but then again, the Residents aren't just any band. In a city with a musical history that tends toward the eccentric, this San Francisco outfit enjoys a reputation as the weirdest of the weird. This, after all, is the group whose members appeared in public only as cyclops-like top-hat-and-tuxedo-wearing eyeball-men. Last Christmas marked the 40th anniversary of "Santa Dog," the group's demented first single, and to celebrate it, the Residents released an infomercial on their website advertising the sale of 10 refrigerator-housed "Ultimate Box Sets" — each $100,000 set containing every release in the group's catalog, an eyeball mask, and other memorabilia — along with one $5 million mystery box. Those prices might seem pretty steep, but as Residents' lead vocalist, Randy, says in the video, "Have a bake sale! Break open those penny jars! Sell a goddamn kidney if you have to!"
Originally from Shreveport, La., the members of the Residents arrived in the Bay Area in the late '60s and soon found themselves operating on the fringe. Early albums such as Meet the Residents and The Third Reich and Roll found the group executing twisted Zappa-esque riffs on pop culture that combined tape manipulation and freakish dissonance into an uncompromising sonic aesthetic. They quickly earned the group a rabid cult following. This early sound is best exemplified by their complete dismantling of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction." Technically a cover version, it transposes the song's signature riff into a genuinely scary dirge, with sloppy, tinny guitars buzzing over crashing, arrhythmic cymbals. The only recognizable element is the vocals, which are delivered in a sinister voice that occasionally leaps into hideous screams.
Later the Residents explored multimedia and high-concept ideas through a prolific output that includes an entire LP of one-minute pop songs called The Commercial Album, a musical film titled Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats, and a concept album inspired by the Inuit, called Eskimo. Through it all, the actual people behind the project have remained cloaked in mystery. Only recently has the veil been somewhat lifted to reveal "Randy," "Chuck," "Bob," and "Carlos" as the members of the Residents. So to say the group has a flair for the absurd would be an understatement. In fact, it's that absurdity — and a corresponding appreciation of the absurdity of life — that is the group's core message. Though there are often aspects of joking irreverence on the surface of the Residents' work, there is usually something deeper at play beneath. And while their art and music deal with a variety of subjects, the group most often tries to express the banality of consumer pop culture.
This is partly the case with the $100,000 box set, which mockingly pushes the crass consumerism behind the collector's mindset to its ultimate, unattainable conclusion. At the same time, these box sets are more than just abstract statements; they are real, and the Residents do intend to sell them. They have their eyes on the art market and museums with an appreciation for the avant-garde — such as the New York Musem of Modern Art, an institution that already keeps some of the group's material in its permanent collection.
Why do this now? Talking with Homer Flynn, the group's manager and spokesperson, one gets the sense that, like many other local artists, the Residents are feeling the crunch of the Bay Area's high cost of living. Simply put, they need the money. "It's a real product and that's the way that most of the Residents things are," Flynn says of the box set. "They're not so out of it that they [don't] know they need to pay the rent, pay the bills." Asked about the general state of the music industry, he sounds discouraged. "Honestly, it seems like a really difficult climate right now. The problem is that you're a needle in a haystack and the haystack is the size of the sun. How you draw attention to that needle is the challenging thing."
One way to get attention is release a $100,000 box set in a refrigerator, something that, arguably, the Residents are uniquely able to pull off. But why a refrigerator? Is it a reference to the group's one-time fixation on cold climates? The reality is much more mundane. Flynn says a whole array of other large objects were considered, only to be rejected: a coffin (too morbid, even for the Residents), and a safe (too heavy and unwieldy). In the end, the fridge seemed like a natural choice: It has that Residents-style absurdity to it, it's highly functional, and, as he explains, "You can buy something like that from Lowe's and they'll take it back within 30 days, no questions asked. So if you're, say, shooting an infomercial for an ultimate box set, and you need a refrigerator ..."
The group is still in talks with potential buyers, but Flynn is confident that the ultimate box sets will be sold. Which leaves the question of the $5 million mystery box. While all 10 ultimate box sets are still available, only one deep-pocketed buyer will have the luxury of discovering just what the Residents are selling as a one-off. Flynn, understandably not wanting to divulge too much, is still remarkably candid. "I'll put it this way: The Residents have owned everything they've done for the past 40 years. If you think about it, there's only one thing they could sell that could be worth that much. It's not particularly tangible so much as [it's] something that has value in our culture. So feel free to speculate."
It's easy to assume this is all a gag at the expense of the art world. But think about how much the rights to the Residents' full discography might go for on the open market, and suddenly that box becomes a lot less mysterious. And if this 40-year-old group does find a buyer for the big-ticket box, it seems likely that there could be some more modestly priced box sets (or at least a few reissues) in its future.