Double Door, March 19
By J.R. Jones
At its most flamboyant, rock 'n' roll has always been as much masque as music. Elvis Presley and Little Richard lit up the stage in loud costumes that objectified their electric personae. The Beatles posed as military bandsmen, the Stones dressed up as wizards, and the matching suits of the early 60s evolved into the psychedelic foppery of the Beau Brummels and Arthur Brown with his flaming crown. Kiss, David Bowie, and Elton John used their elaborate disguises to ritualize their distance from the audience, and the heroes of punk and new wave, though they attacked that distance, wore a comparable amount of makeup. The 70s brought the Residents in their eyeball masks, and the 80s begat GWAR, a horror-metal band that performs in huge rubber monster suits. Now the surf punks of Man or Astroman? wear 50s sci-fi getups and Marilyn Manson is raking in the bucks with his Alice Cooper revival. And then there's the most retro of them all, the Upper Crust, a Boston pop-metal act that poses as dandies from the court of Louis XVI.
Like most costume bands the Upper Crust is working a gimmick, but this one is sheer genius. Let Them Eat Rock, the band's 1995 debut, merges the cliches of the spoiled rock star and the contemptuous nobleman; its witty rip-offs of AC/DC, Cheap Trick, and the Buzzcocks excoriate the poor and celebrate the pleasures of wealth and dissipation. As a parody of hard rock, the record ranks second only to This Is Spinal Tap. But as broader satire, it sinks its fangs into a truth most entertainment ignores. "Why not celebrate the fact that all rock stars are incredibly wealthy?" singer-guitarist Lord Rockingham asked Paper last year. "We consider ourselves the most honest band in the United States today." Bruce Springsteen can sing about Tom Joad all he likes, but rock has long been the property of the leisure class and characters like Manson less demons than court jesters. In their periwigs, beauty spots, jabots, and knickers, the lords of the Upper Crust bring rock closer to what it ought to be: a sharp slap in the face, reminding us that the lords of entertainment are bona fide members of America's ruling class.
The Upper Crust's best songs begin as simple gags but peel like onions. "Let Them Eat Rock," the opening number at the band's Double Door show last Thursday, featured singer-guitarist Lord Bendover delivering a dead-on impersonation of late AC/DC growler Bon Scott: "They say there's people starving, dropping down dead in the streets / The lazy slobs, they ain't got a job, they say they ain't got enough to eat / Let them eat rock." As a loving, head-banging homage to AC/DC the song ignites like a firecracker. But who would dispute that its central sentiment is spoken in country clubs across America, or that many working poor, clad in $20 concert T-shirts, gobble up the entertainment doled out to them by multinational corporations? Later in the set, lead guitarist the Duc d'Istortion made the point even more succinctly, updating the philosophy of Louis XIV in "Highfalutin." "I got divine right to rock 'n' roll all night / I said baby I was born to rule."
Admittedly the Upper Crust strikes the same chord over and over, but it's a great chord. On the debut Lord Bendover declares himself a "Friend of a Friend of the Working Class": "I never had to work an honest day myself / 'Cause since the day I was born I been rollin' in wealth." The rollicking "Little Rickshaw Boy" finds him checking on his investments in Hong Kong and shrieking at his ailing rickshaw driver, who can barely drag him to his next appointment: "Just as we got to the bank the boy collapsed / In a puddle of mud and filth he gasped his last / And I stepped over him as he expired / Then I turned around and said, You're fired." In 1996 Lord Rockingham augmented the band's Swiftian lyrics when interviewed by the coffeehouse magazine Cups. "Poor people and homeless people," he suggested, "ought to be dressed in more interesting clothes. If we could just raise money to buy better wardrobes for the poor, they wouldn't be so depressing--maybe clown suits or mime outfits."
But no masquerade can go on indefinitely, as Lord Rockingham learned last Thanksgiving when he was outed by the National Enquirer as Ted Widmer, Sandy Berger's head speechwriter at the National Security Council. The Washington Post followed up on the story in January, repeating Widmer's claim that he had quit the Upper Crust long before giving up a lecturing position at Harvard to sign on with the Clinton administration. But the paper also reported that as recently as Halloween Lord Rockingham had performed with the band at a Lower East Side rock club.
And in any case, there he was on the back cover of the band's new and aptly titled CD, The Decline and Fall of the Upper Crust, in periwig, white pancake makeup, and lipstick, standing cane in hand over a woman wearing a Marie Antoinette wig and bright rouge on her bare nipples. Now that Clinton is shoulder-deep in allegations of sordid conduct, the Lord Rockingham crisis has probably fallen low on the press office's list of things to spin. But the Upper Crust's randy encounters with lower-class tarts would make a perfect sound track for our first rock 'n' roll president. On "Rock 'n' Roll Butler," one of the best numbers at the Double Door, Bendover spies his maid "bending and stretching in her tight little skirt." When she welcomes his advances, keeping a lid on things is the butler, who's "neat and discreet" and "couldn't be any subtler."
But perhaps the most interesting kink in the Upper Crust story is the band members' backgrounds: Widmer's father is headmaster of Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. Lord Bendover is Nat Freedberg, the son of a Harvard art history professor and the great-grandson of Joseph Pulitzer. The band's new record label, Emperor Norton, is the plaything of Harvard grad Peter Getty, the son of oil baron philanthropist Jean Paul Getty; he named the label after Joshua Norton, an Englishman who came to San Francisco from South Africa in 1849, lost his money speculating in real estate, and in 1859 declared himself emperor of the United States. (Mark Twain was a reporter in California at the time, and Norton is said to have inspired the King in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.) Widmer--who wasn't with the band Thursday and may have shed his lace and knickers for good--earned a doctorate in American civilization at Harvard, where he worked on the Lampoon with Conan O'Brien. The "old boy network," as Freedberg called it in the Post, won the Upper Crust a plum gig performing on Late Night in 1995--an event the NSC must have overlooked in its background check on Widmer.
In one sense a Pulitzer fronting the Upper Crust is the ultimate in slumming--a blue blood posing as a common man who dresses up as a blue blood. But in another sense it just adds more layers to the onion. The Upper Crust may not really be the most honest band in America, but compared to this decade's endless succession of groaning college grads in torn jeans and wrinkled T-shirts it comes pretty close. In his landmark 1962 study of the American underclass, The Other America, Michael Harrington argued that the advent of mass-produced clothing had helped make the poor invisible because Americans of all classes had begun to dress the same. So even as Lord Rockingham suggests costumes for the poor, the Upper Crust does us a service with its own finery: when the revolution comes we'll know right away who's to be guillotined.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Marty Perez.