If you count back to the release of their first single, “Santa Dog,” The Residents have been releasing work for 45 years. It’s amazing to ponder, almost half a century of continuous innovative productivity, in music, film/video, and interactive digital media.
Their initial burst of creativity resulted in a run of deeply weird and absolutely wonderful releases culminating in 1979 with the definitive opus Eskimo or in 1980 with the definitive opus The Commercial Album, depending on who you ask (I’m on team Commercial Album, if you’re keeping a tally). In the ‘80s, they embraced the BIG IDEAS that would define the rest of their career, most notably embarking on the multi-LP “Mole Trilogy.” In the ‘90s, they reached a commercial peak with three universally acclaimed CD ROM “albums”—fully interactive music and video projects that hybridized concept albums, video games, and animated films. In the 21st Century they’ve settled into a long string of conceptual releases that started with 1998’s Wormwood, wherein the band tackled THE BIBLE.
The Residents’ album concepts have often revolved around getting into the heads of the marginalized—they did a CD ROM about sideshow freaks (Freak Show), an online interactive missing-person mystery (The Bunny Boy), a first-person narrative of a sexual predator (Tweedles). So it was a surprise to learn that their new album would be about something as comparatively prosaic as train accidents. The band discovered a trove of turn-of-the-20th-Century news articles about the dangers of train travel, and, struck by the contrast between the eloquent expressiveness of the era’s newspaper writing and the utter mayhem of the events described, they conceived The Ghost of Hope. The album includes contributions from keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman, whose weirdomusic bona fides are enviable—he’s served with Captain Beefheart, Pere Ubu, and the Pixies, among many, many others.
It’s Dangerous Minds’ privilege today to share that new album’s track “Train vs Elephant.” Though the title would seem to be a straightforward enough description, we nevertheless reached out to the band for comment, and were treated to an exegesis by Homer Flynn, the Residents’ longtime spokesman and graphic designer, whose tenacious insistence that he’s not their singer has been widely disbelieved for about as long as he’s been their press mouthpiece.
TRAIN VS ELEPHANT
September 17, 1894
At the time of this strange incident, the railway line connecting Teluk Anson and Tapa, in the western part of Malaysia had recently been completed, so exposure to train travel was relatively new. Several years later, a Malaysian man recalled the time in his youth when he found a sign shrouded in the undergrowth on the outskirts of his town: “THERE IS BURIED HERE A WILD ELEPHANT WHO IN DEFENSE OF HIS HERD CHARGED AND DERAILED A TRAIN ON THE 17th DAY OF OF SEPTEMBER 17, 1894.”
Curious, the man researched the incident, speaking to several people old enough to remember the suicidal encounter between the train and the elephant. Some felt the bull was seeking revenge for the death of a calf recently killed by the same train, while others felt the event was purely a territorial dispute with the elephant defending its turf from the newly invading “Metal Monster.”
The British engineer claimed the beast had staked its spot in the center of the tracks and no warning deterred its determined charge as the train thundered down the track at a speed of fifty miles an hour. While the impact of the crash killed the elephant, the bull did successfully derail the engine and three coaches.
While you’re here, enjoy the first video from The Ghost of Hope, “Rushing Like a Banshee.” There’s no song by that name on the album—it’s an excerpt from a longer piece titled “Death Harvest.”
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
That time when XTC’s Andy Partridge sang for the Residents
TV Eye: The Residents speak (well, sort of) in vintage ‘interview’ from New Zealand television
‘Satisfaction’ shootout: DEVO VS the Residents VS the Rolling Stones (spoiler: the Stones don’t win)