Perfect Sound Forever


Faceless Forever & the tale of Vileness Fats
Book excerpt from Jim Knipfel and Brian Poole

How's this for a challenge? Write an all-encompassing work about the Residents, a group that has remained stubbornly anonymous for over a half century and have purposely obscured their own story, adding in all sorts of legends and myths. Who would be mad enough to take up a task like that? Luckily for us, writer Jim Knipfel and Brian Poole of Renaldo and the Loaf (who also collaborated with the Residents) took on such a monumental task, getting input from the mischievous band themselves. As befits the mysterious crew, there's not a single photo in the book to interfere with your imagination, save for the nude centerfold of the band (which is invisible of course).

As part of the Residents' lore, there were a number of albums that were started and never finished. One of the most legendary ones is also one of their most earliest projects- Vileness Fats, conceived as a multi-media piece. As with all the things surrounding the Residents, the story is intriguing and baffling.

Faceless Forever- A Residents Encyclopedia is available from Cherry Red.

Vileness Fats (and Whatever Happened To Vileness Fats?)

The Residents' near-mythical and famously abandoned epic cult film, which consumed them from 1972-1976. The group have always conceded they were frustrated filmmakers at heart, and in 1972, three years before 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' was released and Midnight Movies became a nationwide phenomenon, they set about making what they felt would be the Greatest Cult Film of All Time, something they were originally calling 'Vileness Flats' (note the 'L').

The origins were simple - the group moved into a warehouse at 18-20 Sycamore St., where an open-layout ground floor seemed to make for the ideal soundstage. With that as impetus enough, they set to work on an epic film project, unencumbered by the fact none of them had gone to film school, they had no real idea what they were doing, and the "script" was more a collection of vague ideas that would come together and morph, ad-hoc, as required whilst the filming progressed. In an unenlightening nutshell, the plot (as it stood when the project was abandoned) concerned the efforts of an eternal Indian priestess and a pair of sociopathic conjoined twin tag team wrestlers to defend a town of one-armed dwarfs against a marauding gang of, well, nasty one-armed dwarfs. Oh, and there are some giant porkchop disguises and a knife fight and atomic shopping carts and a volcano and musical numbers from both The Mysterious N. Senada and Peggy Honeydew, but to go into any more detail would just confuse matters. As The Residents themselves once noted, 'Vileness Fats' was an effort to express N. Senada's Theory Of Phonetic Organization in visual terms. Hmmmm.

Obviously, soon after they began constructing German Expressionist-inspired sets out of cardboard, The Residents realized the open ground floor wasn't quite as big as first assumed, which forced two decisions. First, for the sake of scale, all the characters would have to be dwarfs, meaning the non-dwarf actors would need to crouch in bulbous costumes and shuffle about the sets. Secondly, after filming was complete on each set, the set would need to be dismantled and a new one constructed before filming could resume. As some of the sets, such as Uncle Willie's Nightclub, were fairly extravagant, this could take a good deal of time. Also slowing the process, work on the film could only take place at night and on weekends, as The Residents had day jobs. Slow as things could be, however, the group maintained complete control over every aspect of the production, which was as they wanted it, though it also meant they had to finance the film themselves. One Resident even sold his car to contribute, and the rest came from the hourly wages the group earned at assorted dead end jobs.

They may have been short on cash, but The Residents did have a large circle of friends, who gathered at the warehouse to help as needed. This could mean building sets, making costumes, handling the lighting or performing in the film. Among those within The Residents inner circle who appeared onscreen were Margaret Swaton as Peggy Honeydew, Joshua Raoul Brody as a waiter, Jay Clem in the dual role of St. Steve/Lonesome Jack and as Arf Berry, Palmer Eiland (who was fired during production) and George Ewart as the original Arf and Omega, a previously unknown caped dancer as Death, The Mysterious N. Senada as himself, Hardy Fox as Uncle Willie and Diane Flynn in various roles. Marge Howard, a bill collector from the University of California Medical Center who worked in the same office as one of The Residents, stole the show as St. Steve's mother, whilst Sally Lewis, who'd been introduced to The Residents at Snakefinger's wedding, was cast as Weescoosa. Graeme Whifler, who would go on to direct several videos for Ralph Records, was official on-set photographer, wrangled the lighting and directed the Napoleon scene, whilst John Kennedy was the film's editor.

The project meandered onward without much focus for four years, with the script being rewritten again and again and again. Around 1974, open reel black and white videotape hit the market, and The Residents jumped on it. Video was much easier to work with, and allowed them to see immediately what they'd just filmed. If a scene didn't work, they could shoot it again while the set was still standing and everyone was on hand, so by the time 'The Third Reich 'N Roll' was released in 1976 they had nearly fourteen hours of footage in the can. They still had over a third of the script to go too, and a few of the scenes left to be shot were particularly elaborate. The film had taken an awful lot of time and money as it was, and there was no saying when they might finish the thing. All involved also had to admit the sound on that fourteen hours of footage was pretty awful. Worse, Beta and VHS colour tape had just been introduced, deeming all those hours of 1/2" b/w tape outmoded. At that point there was no way to transfer the tape onto something better, and reshooting everything was hardly an option.

Enthusiasm for the project began to wane quickly. Oh, and they realised there was no way they'd actually be able to screen the film. So they stopped.

But that was hardly the end of 'Vileness Fats'. The Residents projected scenes from the film at the Oh Mummy! Show, stills were used on album sleeves and press releases, and spokesmen for the newly-formed Cryptic Corporation began dropping tantalising hints about this mysterious Residents film into interviews. 'Vileness Fats' became a major part of the growing Residential myth for almost a decade until finally, in 1984, The Residents had the means to transfer that 1/2" footage to VHS and compiled thirty minutes of select scenes, together with a newly-recorded accompanying soundtrack, into a video release titled 'Whatever Happened To Vileness Fats?'. The scenes focused mostly on Arf and Omega, but included several sequences featuring St. Steve's mother, as well as N. Senada's performance of 'Eloise'. Save for the new soundtrack, the sound was nearly inaudible, and it was up to viewers to make what sense they could of the storyline. Still, finally having a chance to see a few snippets of the mythical film was a mind-melting experience for fans, and when DVDs arrived over a decade later in the late '90s, The Residents' first thought was to release as much of the 'Vileness Fats' footage as they could on the new format. Ultimately, they opted to go with 'Icky Flix' instead, but that package did contain a remastered seventeen-minute edit of the film. Later, and thanks to 21st Century remastering technology, director Don Hardy was able to present several never-before-seen sequences (suddenly with audible sound) in his documentary, 'Theory Of Obscurity'.

But 'Vileness Fats' continued to haunt The Residents - it was the result of so much time and work at a pivotal moment in their development. For a few minutes there anyway, several decades after abandoning the film, The Residents considered going back and finishing it, but soon scrapped that idea as mere foolishness. They would never be able to recreate the visual tone, and most of the actors were long gone. Then, in 2015 they began to work on a screenplay, 'Double Trouble', which would not only use the existing footage, but tell the story of someone who himself is being haunted by 'Vileness Fats'. 'Double Trouble' soon morphed into 'Triple Trouble', and though the story had changed, 'Vileness Fats' remained front and centre. There is no saying, however, if we will ever get the chance to see all fourteen hours of the original footage.

Also see our interview with Residents associate Hardy Fox

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER