Several years ago, I was in New York City visiting a friend, and we were spending the evening at a DJ night called Subway Soul Club. When another attendee struck up a conversation, it came out that we were, for all intents and purposes, from New Orleans.
"Do you know the Royal Pendletons?" he asked. Sure, I answered. I saw them around all the time. "Oh," he said, sounding slightly awed. "You actually know the Royal Pendletons?"
The Royal Pendletons — guitarists Michael Hurtt and Matt Uhlman, drummer King Louie Bankston and organist George Thomas Oliver IV — formed in New Orleans in 1993. None has ever made a consistent living from music; other vocations have included journalist, opera prop master, owner of a coffee-roasting company and hardware store clerk, along with a variety of other musical projects. In 15 years, the band released only one full-length studio album, Oh Yeah, Baby (1998), on Sympathy For The Record Industry. (It also put out four 7-inches, and this month issued a single and a live album on its own label, Allons.) Since its most active period in the late '90s, shows have been infrequent — once-a-year infrequent. And yet, the Royal Pendletons remain the stuff of legend. Its fan base and name recognition are international, enough so to support a recent, successful, monthlong European tour.
The Pendletons play straight-up '60s Nuggets-style garage rock, the sort of music you'd hear blaring from an LSU frat party circa 1966. Carefully chosen covers like the Downliners Sect's "Glendora," a love song to a department store mannequin, are interspersed with originals. Songs range from what could be undiscovered mid-century gems, like the reefer-madness number "You've Got To Pay The Chinaman" and the rollicking cruiser "Hot Rod Dissertation," to unleashed, messy rock 'n' roll splatter like "The Leather" and "Stormy," which Uhlman dedicated to weatherman Nash Roberts "and the Super Doppler 6000" at a show last week.
The group's chemistry relies on the interplay of four distinct personalities: Hurtt at the front, grandstanding and speechifying like a running buddy of Huey Long's; Oliver coolly manning the organ with few words or gestures; Uhlman, in a loud Madras blazer, rocking out with goofy, unfettered glee; and King Louie abusing the drums like a Muppet off its strings. The style comes together best on the (as far as I know) never-recorded track "The Knaughty Knight," inspired by the intriguing bar of the same name on the Westbank Expressway service road. The song combines the finest expression of Hurtt's command of showmanship and utterly purple rhetoric with the band's unleashed rocking.
"We used to drive by there, and we thought it was amazing, because it was this totally pristine, 1960s-style place with the Old English lettering on the sign, all painted black on the outside, with a sign on the door that said 'proper attire required,'" Hurtt says.
The story of the 2008 single "Louisiana Party Music" is nearly as long and convoluted as the history of the band. For a time in the late '90s, the band members lived together in a house on Constance Street, which they dubbed Pendleton Manor. One fortuitous day, Tommy Oliver found a reel-to-reel tape machine in the trash and brought it home. To test it, they ran through a couple of '60s garage-rock covers with one microphone — the Swingin' Medallions' "Double Shot of My Baby's Love" and the Pleasure Seekers' "What A Way To Die." Because they were cover songs, the band didn't rush to put them out. Then life interfered with a series of marriages, divorces, job changes, moves and Hurricane Katrina.
"Louie got divorced, and his wife threw the tapes in the trash," Hurtt remembers. He had a cassette copy, but it sat under water for 10 days in his flooded house. Astoundingly, they were able to clean it and salvage the recording. "It sounded amazing," Hurtt says. "It was really, really raw and we could never get it to sound like that again."
After a packed opening set for King Khan and BBQ last week at One Eyed Jacks, I asked Uhlman what, after 15 years, it meant to be a Royal Pendleton. He pondered for a moment.
"Dedication," he said.