Let Them Eat Rock is the best album of the year. The only question is, what year? 1972? 1792? Definitely not 1995. On a debut album touched by only the slightest whiff of any musical influences from the last 20 years, Cambridge, Mass.’s Upper Crust has achieved something remarkable: The band has found a way to indulge self-consciously reactionary musical tastes in a clever and even pointed way.
In the ’90s, “modern rock” is gripped by the anxiety of influence, with up-and-coming bands striving to be at the forefront of the next trend by re-presenting existing styles in slightly varying combinations. And even while originality becomes scarcer, traditionalism remains taboo; artists who won’t cater to a novelty-starved audience are roundly ignored.
So as concern about who will be the next phenomenon to galvanize rock with something truly new yields ever more joyless exertions in the pursuit of progress, an increasing number of no-longer-twentysomething rock fans are throwing their hands up in disgust and retreating to music from which they once actually derived pleasure. The transformation of classic-rock radio into unashamedly ’70s-rock radio illustrates this defection. Rejecting the notion of “classic” rock, with its implication of a comprehensible history that has led to a present many fans don’t much like and can’t understand, a large part of the rock audience demands to be pandered to more directly: They simply want to disregard the last two decades.
Some performers have responded to this desire with ahistorical, generic rock ‘n’ roll (e.g., Hootie and the Blowfish), and some have even explicitly rejected the present era (Lenny Kravitz). In contrast to these witless exercises in regression, the Upper Crust has created a context in which its members’ taste for pre-punk hard rock doesn’t seem backward. Indeed, their reactionary tendencies are central to the band’s concept.
And for the Upper Crust, concept is everything: The quintet’s members dress up like dissipated pre-French Revolutionary dandies, complete with powdered wigs and makeup; they use idiotic names like Lord Bendover and the Marquis de Roque; and every one of their songs is about some aspect of their aristocratic lifestyle. In 1974, this would have been moronic, but 22 years later, the sheer chutzpah of the pose is exhilarating.
Fortunately, the music is exhilarating, too. Parodying hard rock is a tricky thing (when was the last time anybody listened to Spi¬nal Tap?), but the Crusties plainly love the idiot-rock they simultaneously celebrate, parody, and employ as self-parody. The title track is a Kix-quality AC/DC homage, with Bendover applying an uncannily accurate Bon Scott impression to lyrics about homeless people picking through the garbage behind his favorite restaurant (although the chorus-ending “Why don’t you eat rock?” could serve as a reproach to malnourished modern rockers). On several cuts, the Crust applies AC/DC’s dumb-dirty-joke lyrical approach to money and class. One track features the lines, “…she ain’t too good-looking and she’s kinda old/But she don’t have to be my rainbow she’s my pot of gold/She’s Old Money.”
The Young brothers et al. are not the Crust’s only apparent musical forebears, however: “Rock ‘n’ Roll Butler” is pure Slade, with a sing-along chorus so cheesy it concludes with “Rock ‘n’ Roll” chanted for its own sake. (Bendover also has a rock ‘n’ roll maid and a rock ‘n’ roll chauffeur, so the chorus doesn’t get stale.)
I knew nothing about the Crust when I first heard Let Them Eat Rock. Last November, the Fleshtones were playing at 15 Minutes (where the Crust will be appearing Jan. 20), and while the stage was being cleared after the opening act, lead ‘shtone Pete Zaremba handed the DJ a CD. Crude, decidedly pre-punk hard rock blared out of the club’s PA. The lyrics were undecipherable, although I did get the impression that the second song was about Little Lord Fauntleroy; I thought it was maybe a collection of Humble Pie rarities. I asked Zaremba what we were hearing, and in his proud Queens accent he said, “They’re friends of ours from Bawston, the Upper Crust. They’re a good, hod-rocking band.” He neglected to mention the wigs.
It had not occurred to me that it might be a new recordingbecause of the stringency with which the Crust adheres to its retro concept, the punk thrust of three of Let Them Eat Rock’s cuts is a strategic error: “Minuet” (which clocks in at precisely 1:00) is fueled by a love of the Ramones, while “RSVP” and “Little Rickshaw Boy” sound like the Soft Boys and the Buzzcocks, respectively. All three cuts are as compelling as anything on the disc, but not only are competent punk bands a dime a dozen, punk represents the coming revolution, musically speaking, that these dandies are busy ignoring. You can’t be a Royalist and a Jacobin at the same time.
Although the Upper Crust is certainly Royalist, a fondness for an ancien régime is all the band’s members (guitarist/vocalists Nat Freedberg and Ted Widmer, guitarist Dave Fredettethree guitarists, natchbass player Marc Mazzarelli, and drummer Jim Janota) share with their viciously snobbish stage personae. The music itself is atavistic and proletarian, with enough grunts to make Joan Jett jealous.
The ultimate success of Let Them Eat Rock lies in the dissonance between the parallel reactionary impulses the band indulges. The retrograde music seems witty because its extreme commonness undermines the class pretensions of the lyrics. By decking out the utterly plebeian in noble dress, the Crusties simultaneously mock the notion of superiority, the crudity of their music, and their own love of that music. The members of the Crust understand that simply wallowing in a spent genre would be boring. Yet through their intense desire to do it anyway, they have found a way to make it a joke, and a sharp one. As Bendover (Freedberg) has been quoted as saying, “We’re in the forefront of destroying alternative rock with our reactionary rock ‘n’ roll.”
But as forceful as their opening salvo is, it is hard to imagine even wanting to hear a follow-up album from these guys. There is plainly no room for the Crust’s shtick to evolve, and the humor would turn flat awfully quickly if the band became an ongoing success. If they are smart, they will let Let Them Eat Rock stand as a glorious one-shot raspberry to the idea of “modern rock.”CP