“One thing that really bothers me that I always hear in these, quote, histories of rock & roll is that from ’59 to ’64 rock & roll died.”
Like a roller-coaster at apex, Michael Hurtt, guitarist, vocalist and indefatigable mouthpiece of the Royal Pendletons, is about to hurtle into another issue.
If Hurtt were a contestant on “Jeopardy!,” his seven dream categories would be: Stupid Things Local Music Journalists Have Written, Clothing of the Late ’50s and Early ’60s, Obscure Figures of New Orleans Rhythm & Blues, Soul Food, Vinyl, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, and The Royal Pendletons.
“’59 to ’64 was when the coolest shit came out,” Hurtt says, horrified. “Surf. All that early pre-garage stuff, frat rock—the Sonics and the Wailers and those bands. It was just insane. What it was was that rock & roll took on a much more local flavor. There was like a band on every block; they all recorded, none of them got famous. That was punk. That was rock & roll.”
“Basically, ’59 to ’67 is what we do,” Pendletons guitarist and vocalist Matt Uhlman manages to squeeze in.
“Rock & roll is supposed to be kind of stupid,” Hurtt posits. “You know, that’s the whole idea. But some people had this idea that it was supposed to grow up, and when you try to make rock & roll grow up, it ruins it. And that’s what happened in ’67. Some of what came after it was good, but it wasn’t really rock & roll.”
Two thing are necessary to begin to understand the Pendletons: 1) they’ve got more enthusiasm for New Orleans than a year’s worth of Y.L.C. mixers, and 2) they’re very serious about stupid music.
For years, the Pendletons were more of a concept than a band. Growing up in Indiana, Hurtt and Uhlman had long wanted to put together a group to do the stuff they’d always been obsessed with—R&:B, surf, garage rock, swamp pop and early punk. “One reason me and Matt became friends is that we were into a lot of the same kind of music,” Hurtt explains. “You had all these punk bands and then you had all this other stuff like Eddie Cochran and the Trashmen right along side it. That was all new to us.”
The first band Hurtt and Uhlman put together was called Modoc, named after a Pacific Northwest Indian tribe.
“Basically we were trying to do the exact same thing we’re trying to do now in Modoc,” Uhlman says.
“But we weren’t good enough, so everybody thought it sounded like Pussy Galore,” Hurtt adds. “They all thought it was great, which was okay but not what we wanted.”
Hurtt conceived the Royal Pendletons in Indiana with his brother just prior to moving to New Orleans, but the Pendletons didn’t gel, or rather start to gel, until Hurtt and Uhlman moved to New Orleans, which, to hear Hurtt explain it, had always been his spiritual home anyway. “I used to like jazz when I was really, really young—Louis Armstrong and ’20s stuff,” Hurtt says. “That was what first made me interested in New Orleans, and then from there I was just interested in the city itself. I thought if you were going to move someplace, you might as well move here.”
The first New Orleans Pendletons performance, more of a free-for-all than a show, was at the RC Bridge Lounge in 1992, featuring Hurtt, drummer Barry Goubler and bass player Kevin O’Brien. While the execution was raw, the seeds of the Pendletons had been sowed. Not long after that, Hurtt met up with King Louie Bankston, better known as Louie the Punk.
Bankston played bass and drums with a succession of bands including the quasi-legendary Clickums, Gerry and the Bastardmakers and—with Hurtt—the Dirt Boys, the Emulsifiers and King Louie and the Harahan Crack Combo.
“I was never really into R&B; I didn’t really appreciate it until I got with Matt and Mike,” Bankston says. “My mother’s been into it all of her life. She’d tell me stories about high school and seeing all this shit on the weekend. And now she’s surprised that I like the shit.”
Eventually, the Pendletons evolved into a working line-up of Hurtt, Bankston and Uhlman, who moved to New Orleans not long after Hurtt. But they knew that to achieve what they were going for with the Pendletons, they needed an organ. Enter Michiganite Tommy Oliver, an acquaintance of Hurtt and Uhlman’s and veteran Estrus recording star with his band the Monarchs. Hurtt hit him up when Oliver came to New Orleans for Jazz Fest one year and eventually convinced him to forsake the Monarchs for the Pendletons.
That was two years ago. In May 1995 the Pendletons finally got their act together enough to record and release a 7-inch on Memphis-based Goner Records, which specializes in garage punk and retro R&B. The record is available locally at Underground Sounds.
The Pendletons have an image problem, a problem which they probably bring upon themselves. Maybe because of their sartorial sense, maybe because of their technical ability, maybe because no one else in New Orleans is anything like them, casual observers have pigeonholed the Pendletons as everything from rockabilly to punk to the dreaded K word. If you wanna jump start your conversation with the Pendletons, try calling them kitsch.
“Kitsch is a negative word,” Uhlman says, bristling. “Kitsch means bad. Kitsch means shit.”
“There are bands—too many of them, I think—that are making fun of music,” Hurtt starts. “The problem is they’re not making fun of themselves. If you’re up there as a performer on stage, to a certain extent you have to look at it as if you’re making fun of yourself just by being up there. That’s fine, that’s rock & roll. We think rock & roll was invented by geeks. That’s what made so many people that have different stylings about them great, because they didn’t give a fuck.”
Which brings us to another Pendleton platform: Different stylings does not mean worse stylings. “‘Louie Louie’ is technically one of the finest songs ever written,” Oliver states for the record. “Go home right now and listen to ‘Louie Louie’ by the Kingsmen. I challenge any drummer anywhere to get up on stage and try to duplicate what that drummer is playing.”
“That shit is some of the best played music,” Uhlman follows up. “Those guys are virtuosos. If Clapton tried to get up on stage and play the guitar solo from ‘Louie Louie,’ guess what? He couldn’t fucking do it. He can’t because he’s not as good. It’s a fact.”
The key to understanding the Pendletons is realizing that punk may have gotten them on stage in the first place, but they’re not a punk rock thing. They don’t want to be Pussy Galore or Guitar Wolf or the Cramps or even the Kingsmen; they don’t want to be…so bad they’re good.
They’re not trying to deconstruct ’60s music—they’re trying to recreate it. Like the same geeky white kids who in the ’60s invented punk rock, the Pendletons want to be the real deal—Cookie and the Cupcakes, Lightning Hopkins, Huey Smith and Sugarboy Crawford rolled into one. And like those same geeky kids who realize they can’t, they want to expose the world to their music.
And now a word from our sponsors.
In 1909, brothers Clarence, Roy and Chauncey Bishop purchased an idle woolen mill in Oregon with the intention of starting a new manufacturing company. The Bishops, grandchildren of the English weaver who had founded Oregon’s second woolen mill, called their new company, based in Pendleton, Ore., the Pendleton Woolen Mills.
“Which is still active today,” notes Tommy Oliver. “The Pendleton name just exudes style and class. In the ’50s they made genius shins and jackets. A lot of surfers wore them. On the Beach Boys’ first album—where they’re all carrying surf boards—they’re all wearing Pendleton shirts.”
“It was a real stylish thing in the early ’60s,” Hurtt interjects. “The main people that wear them today are cholos out in L.A.—you know, low riders. We were always fascinated by that whole culture. Here’s a bunch of young kids who in the ’70s were listening to doo-wop, who completely don’t care about anything except for their own little style in their own little neighborhood. And despite the fact that they’re all in gangs and they’d probably kill us if they ever laid eyes on us, we still think that’s cool because it’s a tradition in a certain community of Mexican guys. They all listen to old rock & roll and R&B stuff and they all wear Pendleton shirts.
“It’s the thing, you know.
“It’s kind of weird to have a band called the Royal Pendletons, down here in the tropics…”
Weird or not, the Pendleton shirt is a fitting namesake for the Royal Pendletons. Like a flannel in the land of Guayaberas, the Pendletons don’t quite fit in in New Orleans, or at least they don’t fit in where they think they ought to fit in.
“So many people misunderstand why we’re doing this,” Hurtt says. “Basically, we’re doing this because we really think this shit is cool. We think this shit is great.”
“This,” he concludes, “is rock & roll.”