By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Among the finest purveyors of comedic rock — or “rocque,” as they prefer to say — currently in operation, Boston-based outfit the Upper Crust has been bashing out it’s hilarious brand of hard rock for over two decades. The crew was founded in 1994 when the veteran musicians in goofy garage-surf band the Clamdiggers hatched the idea for a filthy rich rock and roll group, eventually settling on the concept of posh 18th century noblemen in powdered wigs and buckled shoes dealing out thematic anthems like “Let Them Eat Rock” and “Friend of a Friend of the Working Class.”
Anchored by lead singer and guitarist Lord Bendover (aka Nat Freedberg, whose sneering, lascivious delivery echoes original AC/DC singer Bon Scott), lead guitarist/vocalist the Duc D’istortion (David Fredette) and drummer Jackie Kickassis (Jim Janota), the quintet released it’s debut album Let Them Eat Rock the following year. The songs showed off a knack for witty, lyrical double-entendres and crunchy riffs that nodded equally to parody metal heroes Spinal Tap, punk icons the Sex Pistols and glam-rock giants Kiss.
By the time the band released it’s follow-up effort The Decline & Fall of the Upper Crust for Emperor Norton Records in 1997, bassist/vocalist Count Bassie (aka Chris Cote) had joined the fold. The album showed the group further refining it’s trademark “rocque and roll” with such catchy tracks as “Cream Of The Crust,” “Boudoir” and “Persona Non Grata.” Third guitarist Lord Rockingham (real name Ted Widmer) would depart shortly thereafter, reducing the band to the current four piece line-up that performs to this day.
The band would release the double-live disc set Entitled in 1999, capturing the band’s blistering performances and comical between-song banter onstage prior to their third studio recording, Once More Into the Breeches two years later. The Upper Crust would go through a period of relative quiet during the rest of the decade, but still managed to keep it’s profile up with an appearance on the animated children’s show Code Name: Kids Next Door in 2007 to go with earlier late-night television performances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.
The lull in activity has been broken in recent years with festival appearances (the band played at the All Tomorrow’s Parties in Southern England and fellow comedy rockers Tenacious D’s 2014 Festival Supreme in Los Angeles) and more recent touring on both sides of the Atlantic in the company of San Francisco’s own geriatric, cross-dressing punk rock crew the Grannies. Last year, the band released a split live album with the Grannies, a precursor to the first new Upper Crust album in eight years, the recently issued Delusions of Grandeur. Packed with some of the band’s best material yet — ranging the surf-infused lead single “Little Castrato” to pummeling rockers like “Heads Will Roll” and “Fopped Up,” the collection proves the group’s rapier wit and talent for penning indelible hard-rock hits remain undiminished.
CBS SF recently spoke with Lord Bendover, talking to him about the early years of the band and the new album ahead of the group’s triumphant return to the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco Thursday night with frequent road partners the Grannies.
CBS SF: I wanted to get a little bit into the pre-history of the Upper Crust. From what I’ve read, you were already playing in a garage-surf band called the Clamdiggers when you came up with the idea. How long did the transformation into the Upper Crust take?
Lord Bendover: The concept for that was we were a New England surf-rock band, which was a vague concept that was confused with nautical stuff. So anything that had to do with the ocean or the beach was mixed in. We were dressed in nautical costumes for that one.
CBS SF: And it sounds like the Upper Crust idea came up during a drunken ride home back from a Clamdiggers gig?
Lord Bendover: Yeah, we were loading out after a show and our drummer Jim Janota came up with the idea. He thought it would be hysterically funny to have a band of really wealthy, privileged people doing rock and roll. It flies against the stereotype. But once we kind of glommed on to the idea, it was not really foreign to the concept of rock and roll at all, because rock and rollers were — at least for a time — the aristocracy of our society. I’m not sure that’s still the case.
So we went along with that idea and started filling it out and we evolved into our 18th century costumes and characters. And there you have it. That was the birth of the band.
CBS SF: There was an eight-year gap between Revenge for Imagined Slights and the new album. As noblemen of leisure, why did it take so long to record Delusions of Grandeur?
Lord Bendover: It took so long precisely because we are noblemen of leisure [laughs]. We just couldn’t be bothered. We’d made four or five records up to that time. I can’t even be bothered to recall the exact number. We felt that it was sufficient. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, got an urge to make a new record. It was prompted mainly by our guitar player, the Duc D’istortion, who wrote a couple of songs. That made me feel like I could chip in, and so I wrote the rest of the record. So we went back in the studio and figured we’d blast out one more. And it came out OK.
CBS SF: The band was playing shows locally around Boston and touring irregularly during that gap; how many of the songs besides “I Stand Corrected” — which you re-recorded for this album — have you been playing live?
Lord Bendover: No. There were the couple of songs that the Duc wrote early on in the game, and we started incorporating those in our set. But most of the record was actually written in the studio. We were in the studio for about eight months making the record on and off. We’d write a song and then go back in and record it. It was done kind of piecemeal like that. And “I Stand Corrected” is the corrected version from its previous version. We had to set the record straight and put out the proper three-verse version as opposed to the four-verse version that was on the earlier record.
CBS SF: This album has a couple of tunes — “Frippery and Foppery” and Only a Lowly Lackey” — sung by Count Bassie, who hadn’t sung lead before to my knowledge. Is there a connection between who writes the lyrics and who ends up singing the song when recording? Or do you write collectively and you just decide whose voice is more suited for a tune in the studio?
Lord Bendover: That is Count Bassie on both of those songs. I wrote both of those songs, but he’s got an amazing voice. He’s got a great range and he’s incredibly loud and has amazing technique. It’s easy to give him songs like that, and it’s even easier when you consider that I couldn’t sing them in the first place. They’re way out of my range. We happen to be gifted with a very talented vocalist in Count Bassie.
CBS SF: There are few other influences audible on this album. The AC/DC element is still there, mostly because of your vocal delivery, but you also have the Beach Boys nod on “Little Castrato” and touches of Oasis and the Sweet on other songs. Do you feel like you were broadening your sound on this album?
Lord Bendover: It kind of happened naturally. I just read a review that said, “Well, these guys are supposed to sound like AC/DC and — sure enough — this record sounds like AC/DC.” I was thinking to myself, “It doesn’t really sound like AC/DC.” I can see how our previous records have been compared to that sound and, as you say, the vocals might have a similarity and the guitar has something AC/DC-like to it.
On the new record, we’re drawing from all kinds of sources: a lot of glam rock and a lot of blues rock from the ’70s. We’re not an AC/DC clone band that happens to dress up as 18th century noblemen. We’re a band firmly rooted in the rock of the ’60s and ’70s. And it just happened to come out the way it came out.
CBS SF: You mention black bile and bloodletting in “I’ve Taken Leave of My Senses.” Do the Upper Crust apply leeches prior to performance to balance the humors?
Lord Bendover: Well, we like to balance our humors the night before our performance. Because it would be unseemly to go out covered with leech marks. Also it weakens you, so it’s nice to get a good night’s sleep in between blood letting and performance. That song is a Duc D’istortion original. It’s reminiscent of another earlier song of his, “Bleed Me.”
CBS SF: You know, when you mentioned rock stars being part of a sort of modern aristocracy earlier, it did occur to me that Keith Richards is rumored to have done the same thing by changing his toxic blood out with blood from a health individual. So I guess it makes perfect sense…
Lord Bendover: It does really [laughs]. It’s a long tradition that’s been associated with “rocque and roll.” And we’re proud to carry it on.
CBS SF: A solid portion of your touring over the past few years has been with the Grannies. I know Sluggo (aka Doug Cawley) from the band got his start playing music in Boston. How far back does his connection with the Upper Crust go? Does it go back before the Upper Crust?
Lord Bendover: It does. Someone on has been posting some posters on Facebook, old flyers from local clubs that list our bands playing together in the mid-to-late ’80s. We’ve known Sluggo for a long time. Our bands played together decades ago. We’ve toured with the Grannies in the Northeast and the Midwest and in Germany and Holland over the last year and a half or so. We’re sister bands. We’re very friendly with each other. We can gig with them any day and we’re very happy to be out there with them on the West Coast.
CBS SF: When was the last time the Upper Crust played in San Francisco? I know I saw you at the Covered Wagon and the Bottom of the Hill, but I think I missed the show at Slim’s that was the most recent SF gig back in 2010…
Lord Bendover: Yeah I think it might have been Slim’s. I think you’re right. But my memory is nonexistent. I’m the wrong one to ask for the record of the band. The Duc knows all that stuff. He can name dates and times and places. Our last show out there I believe was with…what was the girl AC/DC cover band?
CBS SF: There are a few of them out there, but the local one is AC/DShe.
Lord Bendover: Yes, AC/DShe. We played with them. It was a blast. It was a great show and they were a lot of fun to play with.
CBS SF: I was tempted to come down to LA when you played Tenacious D’s Festival Supreme in 2014. Was there any consideration given to touring the West Coast then?
Lord Bendover: I think at the time nobody could do it for one reason or another. So it was just a fly out, do the one show and then come back again. We’d love to do more extensive touring on the West Coast. We’re missing Los Angeles on this trip. It’s just San Francisco and then up to Seattle and Portland. But we will get back and do Southern California as soon as possible.
CBS SF: I actually have one question that I have to credit my son on. When I got the new album and was playing it in the car and talking about the band, he remembered from when he was little that the Upper Crust were on the animated show Code Name: Kids Next Door. I had no idea! How did that happen?
Lord Bendover: The creators of that show were fans, and they just animated us in an episode. The parents went away and the kids threw a party and we were the band. It was pretty funny.
CBS SF: How difficult is the upkeep of powdered wigs and velvet knickers while on the road?
Lord Bendover: We just refreshed our knickers. Some of our costumes were getting a little threadbare, so we went to our tailors. Or more properly, our tailors came to us and fitted bespoke new outfits. So we’ll be looking in fine form for the shows out there.
CBS SF: I remember reading about you having a “posh pit” back in the early days where well-heeled fans got to pay for the privilege of sitting in a velvet-roped area with overstuffed chairs and brandy in snifters. Did that really happen and is the tradition still being upheld?
Lord Bendover: No, that hasn’t happened in a little while. Lately, we’ve just gotten in the habit of storming onstage, rocking a set, and then storming offstage. We used to do a lot of props. We had a bunch of Grecian columns, ivy and nymphs and satyrs and candles. But a lot of clubs won’t let you have candles these days, so all our candle holders are sitting in our storage facility now. So we mostly keep it to a stripped-down set of rocque and roll.
We don’t do the super elaborate stage shows, but should the opportunity arise, we will resurrect some of that stuff at a convenient venue. I don’t think we’ll be flying in a cargo jet out to the West Coast with a massive crate of props this time around.
CBS SF: As part of what some would describe as the original 1 percent, it seems the band is a natural fit for the current billionaire president’s administration. Were you invited to perform at the inauguration?
Lord Bendover: No, we weren’t invited to perform. And in a fit of pique, we dedicated a song to — I can’t call him the president, because it just doesn’t trip off my tongue very well. But we dedicated a song to him called “I, Diarrhea Fiend” which can be found on our website. It’s a beautiful song. And we figured since he’s an enthusiast of…ummmm, what have you, he might like that one.
The Upper Crust play the Bottom of the Hill on Thursday, May 25, at 8:30 p.m. with the Grannies, Nobby Styles and DJ Sasquatch Borracho. Tickets are $12.