The Mole Show was the first tour by The Residents, officially debuting in October 1982 and continuing until July 1983. The tour was designed to showcase the plot of the first two albums of The Mole Trilogy but was ultimately a financial disaster for the group and resulted in the partial splintering of The Cryptic Corporation and the premature (and to date permanent) abandonment of the Mole Trilogy in 1985.
After a decade of making music together under the name The Residents and only performing on one occasion in 1976, the group decided to undertake a tour as a means of dealing with a number of tensions and conflicts that had arisen within the band. Between the sudden rejection of The Commercial Album by the once-friendly New Wave music press and internal problems in the group, they felt that they needed a new project.
The Residents had previously avoided the idea of touring or undertaking any serious live performances because their music depended largely on the studio, and the group feared that it would not translate well to stage. The previous live performances they had done in 1971 (prior to the official formation of the group as The Residents) and in 1976 only seemed to reinforce this notion. However, the release of the first sampler, the EM-U Emulator in 1981, was a big step forward in synthesizers, allowing musicians to take all those sounds which just can't be produced by conventional instruments and play them back with great precision and control. The group began using the Emulator on their 1982 album The Tunes of Two Cities (the second release in their ongoing Mole Trilogy), and realized that the increased freedom the instrument allowed them would remedy a number of the issues they had previously faced in performing live.
When The Residents decided that they wanted to tour, they knew that they didn't want to do the standard "rock concert" kind of show. They wanted something more theatrical, and considered reviving the opera idea which they had been playing with since Not Available in 1974, and more recently an abandoned attempt to perform the Eskimo album in a series of live performances. That project didn't provide the mood of impending doom the band was seeking, and so they decided to tour in support of their current project the Mole Trilogy, composed at that time of 1981's Mark of the Mole, and The Tunes of Two Cities. These two albums were to become the material for the new show: Mark of the Mole gave the show a plot, and The Tunes of Two Cities provided linking music between scenes.
With a second Emulator and help from EM-U, The Residents started putting a show together. The successes which they had been having with sales in recent years meant that The Cryptic Corporation was relatively well off, having grossed about half a million dollars in its eight-year history. With the capital from the company and the expectation that the tour would pay for itself, the group went all out with the production. The band attempted to hire Graeme Whifler, who had worked with them on Vileness Fats and most of their music videos, to direct the performances. Whifler, who had never done a live show before, turned down the offer.
The set consisted of huge 21' x 18' backdrops flanking a burlap scrim, behind which the band played. The Residents hired Kathleen French to do the choreography and Phil Perkins to design the lighting. The characters of the albums (the Moles and the Chubs) were represented by cut-outs which were manipulated by stage hands in Groucho Marx glasses. The band hired their friend and collaborator on the Ralph Records 10th Anniversary Radio Special, Penn Jillette, to come on the tour as narrator, to help tell the story. Perkins illuminated the stage from below and behind and used only one spotlight, trained on Jillette, who would come on between numbers to explain what was happening as a sort of Greek Chorus.
The first performance was a warm-up at The House in Santa Monica on April 10th, 1982, in front of an audience of sixty. It was a music-only performance -- no dancers, narrator, or sets -- to make sure that the Emulators were up to the task. The official opening was on October 26th at the Kabuki Theatre in San Francisco. The band had two sold-out shows there, then moved on for four shows in Los Angeles and one in Pasadena.
The shows were well received, though the audiences didn't always know what to make of them. Everyone on stage wore Groucho Marx glasses, except Jillette, who would take pot-shots at the show during his narration, poking fun at the primitive special effects and the strange story. Towards the end of the show he would (apparently) lose his temper, yelling at the performers and storming off stage. After a brief pause, Penn would be brought back on stage gagged, tied to a wheelchair, and wearing Groucho glasses.
In spite of its confusing nature, The Mole Show was initially a success for the group. The only technical problem which cropped up was overheating in the Emulator disc drives due to the eighty-five disc changes necessary in the show, but this was minor in comparison to the trouble they previously experienced trying to emulate their studio sound during previous attempts at live performance. Confident after the successful shows in California and reassured by their new business manager Bill Gerber (who had worked with DEVO), The Residents were set to take the show to Europe.
In July, Jay Clem (the business manager and co-founder of The Cryptic Corporation) left the company. He was apparently dissatisfied with the independent music business and went on to establish his own management company. Then, after the Kabuki Theatre shows, the president of The Cryptic Corporation, John Kennedy, announced that he, too, was leaving. He was tired of pumping money into the group without it going anywhere and the expense of staging The Mole Show was the last straw. To make things worse, he took The Residents' Grove Street studio with him. The entire production ground to a halt, and it was only with the help of friends and family that the tour could continue.
However, another problem came up when the band were preparing to take the show to Europe. The sets were so huge that only a 747 jet could carry them across the Atlantic, a huge expense. Then, with about twenty people to lodge and feed as they travelled, costs started climbing (they even reduced the number of dancers from four to three to try to cut costs). In order to raise funds ahead of time, the band had sold the merchandising rights for $10,000. At the shows, the stuff sold amazingly well, making far more money than The Residents ever got out of the tour. This decision cut deeply into the show's ability to pay for itself.
The performances themselves went very well, selling out all over Europe. The Mole Show was a critical success, but the touring itself was incredibly stressful. The English road crew the band had hired was rather surly throughout the tour because The Residents didn't supply them with any of the sex and drugs they were used to getting on rock 'n' roll tours. Furthermore, they didn't like having to wear the Groucho glasses, and they didn't get along at all with Jillette, who is very strongly anti-smoking, anti-drink, and anti-drugs. In the end, the group had to segregate the busses, with the roadies in the "Party Bus" and Jillette in the "Library Bus".
There were also the usual accidents and thefts one suffers when touring, but the band hadn't allowed for these, and had no leeway in their plans to cope with them. Other problems included Jillette being hospitalised just before a show in Spain with some sort of stomach problem (the group had to get their stage manager to cover the narration for that performance) and Jillette being attacked on stage by an irate member of the audience while he was tied to the wheelchair.
All in all, the tour was a nightmare for the group. After the last show at Leicester Polytechnic, on July 1st, 1983, the band vowed never to tour again. They had lost so much money that Ralph Records was in danger of going under, and the band was rescued at the last minute only by an invitation to perform one final Mole Show performance as the opening show of the November New Music America Festival in Washington D.C. At first they refused, but ultimately couldn't afford to pass up the money offered.
Unfortunately, the nightmare wasn't over yet. Their tour manager had failed to pay the English shipping agent, who was holding all of their sets and instruments in England until they could pay $16,000 for their return. The band convinced the shipper to take $10,000 up front and the balance after the festival, but even when they paid that cash to the shipper, he kept holding out for the balance without sending the gear. The Residents ended up arriving in Washington without anything and had to rebuild all of the backdrops and sets from scratch. They hired dancers from a local ballet school, begged an Emulator from EM-U, and had to convince their manager to do the narration because Jillette couldn't make it - all in the last two weeks before the show. They rehearsed at the local YMCA and the dress rehearsal went so badly that they couldn't complete it. Finally, to add insult to injury, the missing equipment showed up from England just hours before showtime after Gerber had threatened the shipper.
In spite of every indication that it would be as big a disaster as the tour had been, however, the "Uncle Sam Mole Show" performance was a spectacular show, possibly the best performance of the entire tour. After this, The Residents left the Moles behind for a while. The project had been started to deal with frustrations the band had been feeling, and it ended up being far more frustrating than the original problems.
The whole project had been an amazing critical success - the costumes and sets became part of the permanent collection at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art after the tour - but financially The Residents were nearly ruined. They eventually returned to the project in 1985 with the fourth part of the Mole Trilogy, The Big Bubble, and announcing that there were now to be six parts in total, but the Mole Trilogy was to be left incomplete with no further albums following this release.
- 10th April 1982 - The House, Santa Monica (music-only performance)
- 26th October 1982 - Kabuki, San Francisco
- 27th October 1982 - Kabuki, San Francisco
- 29th October 1982 - The Roxy, San Francisco (two shows)
- 30th October 1982 - The Roxy, San Francisco (two shows)
- 31st October 1982 - Perkins Palace, Pasadena
- 23rd May 1983 - Rotation, Hannover
- 25th May 1983 - Succession, Vienna
- 26th May 1983 - Succession, Vienna
- 27th May 1983 - Alabamahalle, Munich
- 28th May 1983 - Volksbildungsheim, Frankfurt
- 29th May 1983 - Schumannsaal, Dusseldorf
- 30th May 1983 - Metropol, Berlin
- 1st June 1983 - Falkoner Theatre, Copenhagen
- 2nd June 1983 - Markthalle, Hamburg
- 3rd June 1983 - Zeche, Bochum
- 5th June 1983 - Plan K, Brussels
- 6th June 1983 - Muziekcentrum, Utrecht
- 7th June 1983 - L'Olympia, Paris
- 8th June 1983 - Palais D'Hiver, Lyon
- 9th June 1983 - Volkhaus, Zurich
- 12th June 1983 - TeatroTenda, Bologna
- 13th June 1983 - The Rolling Stone, Milan
- 14th June 1983 - Teatro Apollo, Firenze
- 17th June 1983 - Salon Cibeles, Barcelona
- 18th June 1983 - Sala Extases, Valencia
- 19th June 1983 - Rock Ola, Madrid
- 20th June 1983 - Rock Ola, Madrid
- 21st June 1983 - Le Edad De Oro, Madrid
- 23rd June 1983 - Cinéma Le Fémina, Bordeaux
- 24th June 1983 - Théâtre Municipal, Poitiers
- 27th June 1983 - Town Hall, Birmingham
- 28th June 1983 - Hammersmith Odeon, London
- 29th June 1983 - Royal Court, Liverpool
- 30th June 1983 - Queens Hall, Edinburgh
- 1st July 1983 - Leicester Polytechnic, Leicestershire
- 7th October 1983 - New Music Festival ("Uncle Sam Mole Show"), Washington
Related releases Edit
- Intermission: Extraneous Music From The Residents' Mole Show EP (1982)
- Mole Show (Live At The Roxy) (1983)
- Mole Show/Whatever Happened To Vileness Fats? VHS (1984)
- Assorted Secrets (1984)
- PAL TV LP (1985)
- Mole Show: Live In Holland (1989)
- Mole Show DVD (2009)