If you’re in the mood for a serious sonic ass kicking and some balls-to-the-wall belly laughing, get an Upper Crust album, turn it up to 11 and enjoy. Better yet, watch the documentary about the band, Let Them Eat Rock, or their live DVD, Horse & Buggery. Only then can one truly appreciate the hyper-parodic visual spectacle that the Crust presented during the group’s 24-year existence.
But before ye doth do as such, o noble, prudent folk, brace thine fine selves! Ye knaves as yet unbaptized in the gloriously depraved waters of “roque ‘n’ rogue” may ne’re regain moral turpitude following such forays! Alas, forewarned is forearmed!
To understand the gist of the Boston-based quartet, think of them as a clever combo of two legendary bits of video spoofery: This Is Spinal Tap, the 1984 Rob Reiner-directed classic, and Blackadder the Third, the 1987 BBC series set in 18th- and 19th-century England starring Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie and Tony Robinson.
But don’t let The Upper Crust’s posh personae, silly stage names and bawdy buffoonery blind you to the ferociousness of their chops and their ability to blow the bloody roof off any place they played. As Richard Skanse wrote in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide, “there’s as much rock as mock to their singular brand of ‘roque’” and “there’s plenty of worthy riffs and double-entendre wit to go around.” Call the band a novelty act if you like, but know this: The Upper Crust was a novelty act with fangs.
Rosy-cheeked and clad in powdered wigs, velvet knee breeches, pantaloons, ascots and buckled shoes on stage – and adopting all the pretention, posturing and pomposity one would expect from Georgian-era aristocrats – the band was as AC/DC-influenced as a group could possibly be without being derivative, frontman Lord Bendover personifying a highfalutin, fop-Torie Bon Scott right down to the sneer. KISS is the other obvious influence in terms of ludicrous outerwear and limitless attitude; Buzzcocks and The Ramones leap to mind in terms of acoustical force, frenzy and fury.
The Upper Crust recorded six albums, made multiple tours of North America and Europe, opened for Aerosmith, The Damned, The Go-Gos, The Dictators and Tenacious D and performed on Late Night with Conan O’Brian and The Late Late Show with Craig Fergusson.
The group originated from Boston-based surf-rock outfit The Clamdiggers, which included all the original members of The Upper Crust: guitarist-vocalist Nat Freedberg, guitarist-vocalist Ted Widmer, lead guitarist Dave Fredette, bassist Mark Mazzarelli and drummer Jim Janota.
The Clamdiggers’ schtick was dressing as yuppies: pink sweaters tied around their necks, polo shirts (with collars often up), whale- or anchor-print khakis or Nantucket Reds and, to complete what Janota called “the yacht club look,” Sperry Top-Siders. “We thought a yuppie hard-rock band was an idea so atrocious, so stupid, that we had better explore it to its fullest,” he told NPR in 2015. “But it wasn’t long before we went for the 18th-century look.”
BECOMING “THE UPPER CRUST”
And they “went for that 18th-century look” in a big way beginning in 1993, adopting period-appropriate stage names to round out the gag: Freedberg became “Lord Bendover,” Widmer became “Lord Rockingham,” Fredette became “Le Duc d’Istortion,” Mazzarelli became “Marquis de Roque” (aka “Marquis Mark”) and Janota became “Jackie Kickassis.” All were in their early 30s at the time.
Mazzarelli left after the band recorded their debut album, replaced by Chris Cote (“Count Bassie”), who was in the band Seks Bomba and had spent a few semesters at Berklee in the ‘80s. Widmer left after they recorded their second LP – for a speechwriting job in the Clinton Whitehouse – and was not replaced, making the band the four-piece that it remained for the next two decades.
SONGWRITING, EARLY PERFORMANCES
Freedberg was the primary songwriter; Widmer and Fredette wrote a number of tunes and all band members contributed their musical and lyrical ideas. In a July 2000 profile headlined “Why The Upper Crust Rule,” The Boston Phoenix called Freedberg “a satirist with dead-on aim and a habit of writing songs that are at least as good as and sometimes better than the stuff he’s making fun of.”
During their first couple years, the band built a solid local following through gigs at Chet’s Last Call in Boston and Green Street Grill, The Middle East and T.T. the Bear’s Place in Cambridge, among others. In mid-1995, with enough material written and their live act razor sharp, they hit the studio.
LET THEM EAT ROCK
In October 1995, Upstart Records (co-founded by Cote) released their roqued-out debut album, Let Them Eat Rock (simultaneously a play on the phrase “let them eat cake” and a reference to AC/DC’s 1977 LP Let There Be Rock). The 11-track disc, partially recorded at Fort Apache Studios and Q Division in Boston, includes boisterous odes to privilege like “Old Money,” “Little Lord Fauntleroy” and “Friend of a Friend of the Working Class” and the side-splittingly silly “I’ve Got My Ascot ‘N’ My Dickie,” setting the tone for the band’s consistent greed-is-good lyrical theme.
THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE UPPER CRUST
They cut their sophomore effort, The Decline and Fall of the Upper Crust, at Zippah Studios in Brookline and Emperor Norton Records issued it in October 1997. Another 11-track outing, songs included “Rabble Rouser,” a celebration of the status quo, “Ne’er-Do-Well,” on which Bendover brags about being a “dandy” who “ruins young ladies everywhere” and “Boudoir,” with him singing about seducing a shy, unlikely-of-legal-age chambermaid.
The album confirmed the band’s self-professed ethos – “if not great and excellent, then debauched” – and AllMusic’s Adam Bregman called it “as grand a time as a night of abandon in the brothels of Barcelona.”
“BACK IN BLACK” COVER, ENTITLED
In 1999, in a move that shocked nobody, the band contributed their rendition of AC/DC’s classic “Back in Black” to the Reptilian Records collection Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be: A Tribute to AC/DC.
In 2000, they recorded the double album Entitled at Kissy Pig Studio in Allston. Released by Reptilian, the LP was not cut before a live audience as its “double live” promotion might indicate; it was made using a live audio and video feed from the studio room to an adjacent audience room since that allowed more technical control. Robert “Brother Cleve” Toomey provided between-set deejaying.
Initially, they intended to debut the new songs heard on Entitled on their third studio album, but Emperor Norton temporarily abandoned that project. As for older material on the live disc, the two-minute-long “Tell Mother I’m Home” was hailed by critics as a bare-bones, bare-knuckled “roquer” for the ages.