Joke Band Respect: Surf Punks, Upper Crust

Many people, including close friends and family of mine, hate joke bands. I understand the sentiment. Music has an almost sacred ability to break through left-brained chatter, reconnect you to the present and to emotional truth, and lift your spirits-- so it seems almost profane to turn the whole thing into a joke-- to drag it back into the domain of distancing, cleverness, and the inauthentic. But some joke bands have meant a lot to me, and I sincerely love them-- with The Surf Punks and The Upper Crust at the top of the list.

The Surf Punks were primary stars of my teen years. One of my favorite concert experiences ever was seeing them with my friends Ed and Peter at Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, probably around 1982. They set up an entire beach scene on stage, complete with a lifeguard station. For their finale, guitarist Drew Steele donned an emergency life vest, stood in a kiddie pool, and let drummer Dennis Dragon (who also played on his brother's The Captain and Tennille albums) poured the following over his head: maple syrup, chocolate syrup, strawberry syrup, marshmallow Fluff, and several boxes of breakfast cereal. Now, that's entertainment! Steele then took the life vest off and threw it into the crowd, and Ed caught it. I believe that this {price-, worth-}less piece of rock history still resides in a paper bag in the back of a closet at Ed's parent's house. Here is a short taste of Surf Punk magic, a video for their 40-second song "New Lead Guitar."

The Upper Crust, champions of faux-aristocratic "roque music," played songs like "Monarchy In The U.S.A." wearing breeches, stockings, and powdered wigs. If you know the AC/DC song "Big Balls" then you have a sense for what the Upper Crust's songs are like-- but the Crust develops the concept further. They put on a fantastic show which I enjoyed at Bottom Of The Hill in San Francisco about 10 years ago, but I missed seeing them with original member Lord Rockingham, who had left the band to write speeches for Bill Clinton. Here is a video of their rousing "Let Them Eat Roque" (2:48). Enjoy!


  1. I was in a band that was, if not a joke band had a number of joke songs – our set tended to go from extremely dark material into our light-hearted stuff as a way of taking our audience on a musical transformation.

    In writing each song came as it did. On a given night I might perform the number in which I explored my favourite Camus quote to reflect on a painful breakup and the number in which I professed my adoration of a white cookie.

    Performing both, I truly wanted to connect with my audience, and I feel looking back that I truly did.

    I guess what I’m saying is addressed to those who write off joke bands. Walk a million miles in their shoes first. Even the bad ones have had the guts to expose themselves to dismissal.

    Nice tracks thank you Paul, gave me a chance to reflect on the good times.

    Jonah Lewie In the Kitchen at Parties is one of my favourite joke/serious tracks.

  2. Holy cats! I never thought I’d read another mention of the Surf Punks. Years ago, I listened to a few of their songs courtesy of my older brother (I was a wee bit too young to have independent visits to musics stores). I remember a few snippets… “Ooooh the beach is nothing but a bird bathroom, bird bathroom, bird bathroom… Watch out!” Followed by airplane-strafing-attack sound effects… My wife has stopped hitting me when I sing that as we walk along the beach :-)

  3. Probably my favorite joke band has to be Crucial Youth — they were a spot-on parody of the late 80s straight-edge “youth crew” hardcore bands. But instead of just warning their listeners to stay away from drugs and alcohol, Crucial Youth took their rhetoric to a whole new level of purity with themes like avoiding masturbation, looking both ways before you cross the street, and proper dental hygiene. That last theme was addressed in their crowd favorite “Positive Dental Outlook,” during which the lead singer would march around on stage with a six-foot tall toothbrush — or as they called it, “The Youth Brush!”

    Their album “The Posi-Machine” (on milk-colored vinyl!) came packaged with a little zine spelling out the band’s philosophy via some funny comic strips — my favorite is “Safe Mosh Do’s and Dont’s with Safety Squirrel.”

  4. One of my favourite favourite bands is a joke band, and I am most definitley a serious music fan. Half Man Half Biscuit from Birkenhead, whose songs are rediculously funny but loaded with honesty, they capture the mundane and make it special. They are a band to be admired, one of the last truely indie bands, who tour to coincide with Tranmere away games so you have to work hard to see them! Check out their website/youtube – here’s a few reccomendations: ‘All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit'; ‘Keeping Two Chevrons Apart'; ‘Paradise Lost (You’re The Reason Why)'; ‘Joy Division Oven Gloves'; ‘Corgi Registered Friends’, the list is endless. There’s a lot of UK/North West/sporting references in there, but the overall sentiment is universal I think.

  5. Some “joke” bands put a hell of a lot of work into their jokes. My friends the Consortium of Genius (a mad-science act) put on shows filled with props, musicianship, and silliness. And musicianship; they’re no slouch when it comes to actually playing their instruments.

  6. My kids have a plastic shark bath toy, and I still (courtesy of the Surf Punks) still have to occasionally sing, “Shark attack! Shark attack! weee-oooo!” at bathtime.

  7. While not ‘joke bands’ I really like the tradition of folk-type acts to throw in humor into their music- take “White Collar Holler” by the late Stan Rogers (if you work in IT, you must listen to and know this song, because it is your life).

    My favorite rock ‘joke’ band has got to be the Tuff Darts- When I worked at a college radio station, I saw their album, and written on the LP was simply: “Music good, lyrics weird”

    Don’t forget the Mentors, for the ultimate in over-the-top offensiveness that spins the dial back to humor.

    Oh yeah, then there is Blotto, and the DC area legends The Slickee Boys.

    Geez, I guess the ‘joke bands’ have always been my favorite. I really think that people that don’t enjoy them are uptight and need to realize that music is often just about having fun.

  8. I actually identify personally as “upper crust” which is to say, a crust punk who intentionally lives a decent standard of living despite poverty. For example, squatters who find nice houses, or build interesting shacks hidden in the woods. Drinking good beer while being homeless, that sort of thing. Being a traveling crusty freelance graphic designer works for me.

    Still, the Upper Crust as a band sounds fun enough, I won’t take it personally.

  9. Loved the Surf Punks!! Just spent 15 minutes watching their videos on youtube. Gonna be stuck in my head all day!

  10. It’s hard to believe the Upper Crust is still around after 12 years– as much as I like their schtick (and songs) I couldn’t believe they could keep it up for this long. It’s also a testament to how fickle the music business is that after all this time, appearances on late night TV, a constant stream of AC/DC-worthy riffs and musicianship, they are still largely unknown. I remember seeing them back when they started and they had sold out a small club in Boston (the Middle East? T.T.s?) and announced on stage “We have been informed that we have sold out this venue, and we must admit: it was always our intention to sell-out.

  11. I grew up with, and was the road manager for the surf punks in the early eighties, and it was amazing being around dennis and drew…just totally flipped out, wacky, fun guys. The Santa Cruz show that you mention paul, was totally amazing…while we were setting up the show, there were all of these union stagehands around, and after the show, there was actually a UNION SWEEPER to clean up drew’s mess from the closing song, “i can’t get a tan”. Boy was he grumbling about the maple syrup.

    there is a long post up on my blog from a couple of years ago about the early days of the surf punks, with notes about the album covers, the videos, some photos from my archives and other bits and pieces about “localism” in those days. Dennis and drew were really smart guys, and it’s really only in retrospect that their genius has become apparent to a lot of people… Its great to hear that they were influential to you… i thought they were amazing too…

  12. I’m actually friends with Chris Cote, the guitarist for the Upper Crust. He is literally the most talented musician I have ever met.

    Once at a summer BBQ he picked up a guitar and just became this human jukebox: not only could he launch right into virtually any song we came up with, but threw in a flawless impression of every singer. Chris had 15 people in hysterics for an entire afternoon.

    1. I can verify this about Chris Cote a.k.a. Count Bass-y, although I never really dug his pre-Crust band Seks Bomba, the highlight of their shows was his mock-middle-eastern-style singing which could easily fool most ethnomusicologists.

  13. I played in a “joke band” called Boo Boo Bunny for 10 years. People liked it. It wasn’t parodies and such – it’s mostly sophomoric dirty jokes set to music.

  14. I love Another Wasted Night by Gang Green. Songs about drinking and a cover of “Voices Carry” by ‘Til Tuesday (I think that’s a joke). I inherited a box of albums that included it as well as My Beach by the Surf Punks.

  15. Like Spike Jones and his City Slickers, Kay Kyser and his Kollege of Musical Knowlege, Ray Stevens, the New Vaudeville Band, the Fugs, the Mothers, Flo and Eddie, Hubb Kapp and the Wheels, Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band, Sha Na Na, and every other band who made more jokes than “serious” music weren’t among the most entertaining acts we could ever watch. Even KISS was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. I know a number of “serious” music fans who consider the Kronos Quartet a joke band. Finding joy in an entertaining group of musicians is in the ears of the beholder.

  16. I’ve seen the Upper Crust a couple of times here in Boston and they kick peasant ass! I saw them once at the (now defunct) Axis nightclub and they played with two female go-go dancers on either end of the stage. One was dressed like a houseboy the other like a carriage driver. “Let them eat Roque!”

  17. Gang Green were an all too real, not joke, band. The ‘Til Tuesday cover will always be their big hit, but all the other songs – about booze and coke and girls – were done in a serious as serious skate rock efforts. Much like Bad Brains had it’s heyday, Gang Green as a hardcore band had it’s peak with the Modern Method releases…

    Speaking of bands from MA., has anyone ever heard of the PAJAMA SLAVE DANCERS?

    They played around Boston quite a bit in the 80’s and had a record on Restless. They were more of a college/joke band than a punk band, but the music was punk inspired. I had a lot of fond memories listening to that record up in my brothers room.

  18. Got to put a plug in for The Toy Dolls. Like the Surf Punks, really a great band with catchy tunes you end up singing to yourself, and annoyed relatives, years later.

    Hard to find a faster version of “Blue Suede Shoes”.


  19. My favorite joke band is the Gomers.
    Able to cover any piece of music in the style of any other just shows the amazing musicianship they possess. The musicians involved also have worked with Adrian Belew, Richard Cheese, Reptile Palace Orchestra, King Crimson, and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

    1. How about motherfucking Ween as one of the greatest joke bands of all time!! :-) I love that you cannot tie Ween down to a genre; they write great music as well. And live shows do not ever disappoint.

  20. The 2009 Boston Music Awards winner : Rock Act of the Year was The Upper Crust!
    My cousin is Chris Cote aka Count Bassie is a great musician, incredible singer, and performer.

  21. So so many really good bands fit this category. Two that come to mind immediately would be The Go-Nuts (with Deke Dickerson and others, most of their songs were about snack foods), and The Hanson Brothers, which is a lot of NoMeansNo dressed up like The Hanson Brothers doing their best Ramones impression and singing songs about hockey and beer (and canada).

  22. Let us not forget the Fearless Iranians from Hell (FIFH) who still confuse and confound angry young men who discover them.

  23. I think one of the best joke bands around is the Arrogant Worms. They hail out of the Toronto, Canada, area and have great shows. Some of their songs are: “Carrot Juice is Murder,” “Jesus’ Brother Bob,” and “The Mounted Animal Nature Trail.” Funny, funny stuff–and their singing and music abilities are great.

    And I second that “Weird Al” Yankovic is great.

  24. I became familiar with The Upper Crust through one of the Guitar Hero franchises- I thought I recognized them for what they were (AC/DC tunes with a schtick) by listening to the one track, but upon acquiring the album, I realized just how deep the dedication to the stage act went. The “Entitled” double album is a worthy addition to the library of any music fan that doesn’t take themselves too seriously, and likes prototypical Angus Young riffs.

    Listening to the album, I occasionally find myself thinking, “Wow, that’s such an immature joke, I can’t believe they just made that.” And then I have to admit that I laughed at it, and move on.

  25. Wow, I remember now being a big fan of the Surf Punks in about 1986-87, and I had completely forgotten about them.

    Nice. I will have to pick up a few copies of their stuff and relive my awkward ‘tween years, listening to these guys and punk music but living too far from a surfable beach and not being allowed to own a skateboard.

  26. I love the Surf Punks! Shark Attack! Bird Bathroom! So many great tunes. I play them for my kids – on a cassette tape nonetheless – and they love them too!

  27. I always liked Schlong. Their cover of the entire Fleetwwood Mac album Rumors done on a 7″ and retitled Tumors was majestic. They also did the entire West Side Story soundtrack which was funny, but not nearly as good.

    Loved me some Surf Punks back in the day. They were in fairly regular rotation with my Dead Kennedys, Dayglo Abortions, Butthole Surfers, Black Flag, Crass, etc. wendyleah already mentioned the brilliant Half Man Half Biscuit. They were incredible and remain woefully under-recognized.

    I never thought of any of the above as joke bands. Satirical, definitely (though Crass were pretty overt…) But unlike the comedy records that I would listen to a few times and then they’re not so funny anymore, I played the shit out of those records and tapes and never got tired of them. I also think it’s part of the reason I’m as politically and socially aware as I am.

  28. My childhood friends and I were big Surf Punks fans in the early ’80s. “The beach is nothing but a bird bathroom, the sea is nothing but a fish toilet……..LOOKOUT!” hehe.

  29. “We don’t have to work all day in Mali-boo.
    Drive our mother’s great big BMWs — brand new.”

    … Don’t forget the Surf Punks had a winter outfit called Ski Patrol or something … I think Tommy Jordan of Geggy-Tah was in that band … in fact, I found a link about Ski Patrol:

    1. Actually, ski patrol wasn’t the “winter band” of the surf punks. One of our roadies, named Eric, who i went to school with at pepperdine, had a college band that played around the L. A. area, and once or twice, drew showed up and sang a song or two, and we had Ski Patrol open up once for the surf punks, at a Wave Pool in arizona… i think that was 1983 or 1984, and Marshall Berle (one of the promoter guys from gazzari’s on the sunset strip, and the guy who discovered RATT, put that show together). I also designed the logo for Ski Patrol, but i forget Eric’s last name…

  30. Somebody ripped my stick! That guy must be a dick!

    That’s all I remember of the Surf Punks from the early 80’s. First band I ever played with was Three Day Stubble, originally based in Houston, but moved to S.F. in the late 80’s. I am still featured on their video Rubbin’ And Wigglin’ For You, doing just that.

    And this thread would not be complete without some mention of the brilliant Spinal Tap, Tenacious D, and Flight of the Conchords (the latter are apparently quitting the show because their music is getting so successful. A bad idea imho.) Frank Zappa asked rhetorically “Does Humor Belong In Music?” My answer is a resounding Yes! XD

  31. Memphis has a great local rap group Lord T and Eloise who revel in “Aristo-crunk”, basically wearing powdered wigs and rapping about conspicous consumption circa pre-Revolutionary France. Hilariously recommended.

  32. I love the surf punks. And actually this is perfect moment to plug Tony Creed, the punks lead guitarist, who now makes amazing silver jewelry ( He’s still an animal, and his jewelry rules.

    I have a limited tolerance for funny in my music, but it has it’s place, damn straight.

    1. Thanks for the Dead Milkmen & Zappa. How about Mr. Bungle? or even the Butts? Mr. Bungle esp has some very good circus parody organ music. (say that fast five times.)

  33. THREE DAY STUBBLE!!!!!!! Stubble bloody stubble, they we’re several of the best, punkest, wildest shows I ever seen in this here short and happy life: Purple Onion, Burning Man, opening for GWAR on Mardi gras day in New Orleans. Can’t get enough stubble. SF had a rich vein of joke bands, another great was National Disgrace. Some of them are among the more important bands in indy/punk/rock history. Caroliner? a joke that’s kept getting funnier for the past 25 years.

  34. I’ve seen the Upper Crust about a dozen time. They are by far the most fun you can have for about $10. Always a great time, if you like your AC/DC by way of Versailles.

    Have to give respect to the triumphantly awesome and hilarious Satanicide. So good. Hilarious in person, great show.

  35. I’m not sure what the criteria is for ‘joke bands’, but I have to say, my favourite all time band in terms of fantastic lyrics and ability to make parodies out of every day experiences and people, would have to be King Missile (apparently now called King Missile III). I am lucky enough to own the Fluting on the Hump/Mystical Shit double CD from Shimmy Disc (my very first purchase “on the internet” as I live in NZ and it was tricky to come by locally. It’s one of the most treasured in my collection. They are probably best known for “Jesus Was Way Cool” and “Detachable Penis”, but my personal favourite would have to be “Sensitive Artist”, followed by “Take Stuff from Work”, “Gary & Melissa” and “Cheesecake Truck”.
    Another great satirist is Meryn Cadell, who I discovered at around the same time (early 90’s). Her Angel Food for Thought album is fantastic, very sharp, funny, and sassy. She can get her point across very succinctly. Every woman should own a copy! She is probably best known for “The Sweater” but my favourites would have to be “The Sweater”, “Job Application” and “The Pope”. and “Barbie”.

  36. The Upper Crust were (are?) great! You had to see them talking down to the crowd, referring to them as serfs, to really appreciate them. The show I saw, no one got it, or they didn’t care. I loved it. I can’t imagine their albums would do them justice though.

  37. Oops, I didn’t mean to necessarily label Gang Green as a joke band. I just discovered them at the exact same time as the Surf Punks. But they don’t take themselves too seriously either, do they? I feel the same way about Nomeansno, and their alter-egos The Hansen Brothers.

  38. By this time, anybody who has kids knows about the Aquabats, thanks to Yo Gabba Gabba. I must confess to liking that show a lot. Sleep deprivation only enhances the experience.

    Why has nobody mentioned Skid Roper and Mojo Nixon? Or the Asylum Street Spankers?

    Of course, the most awesome joke band around I discovered right here on BoingBoing:

    Cookie Mongoloid. Sesame Street speed metal. Just the antidote for too much Raffi.

  39. “Surf tomorrow, tonight, DISCO!”

    or the classic: “Get out of the water and don’t look back! Shark attack, shark attack…”

    But I can’t believe you didn’t mention one of the greatest “joke” bands of all time, the Forgotten Rebels. First song, “Nazis,” in 1977(!), was immediately viewed as the end of civilization by humorless Canadians who didn’t get the joke, and the intentional offensiveness has continued with tongue firmly in cheek ever since.

    Here’s a back-in-the-day video of the band performing their signature song, “Surfin’ on Heroin.” Enjoy.

  40. i LOVE SURF PUNKS! my best friend and i used to share one walkman and one set of earbuds and listen to them as we walked to school, everyday for months on end. i love “somebody ripped my stick” and “my wave”and all the rest as well. i gotta dig my cassette out and rip it to my ipod for sure!

    another “joke” band i like was called Elvis Hitler, they did a song called “green haze” it was the music of purple haze with the words to green acres. and what about stormtroopers of death (SOD) they were joke-y for sure “the balled of jimmy hendrix” is like 30 seconds long and ends with the words “your dead”

    ahhh the 80s….

  41. Too Much Joy (previously mentioned on BoingBoing at may be the most serious joke band in history. Behind the jokey titles and the LL Cool J cover, all their lyrics were deadly earnest laments about the sorry state of the world, how record companies were screwing them over, and how they had less success with women than they’d like. Their best songs (e.g. “Kickin'”, “William Holden Caufield”) were about how getting older does not equal growing up. Except for the Otter Song, about how cool it would be to be an otter. Still a favorite. And, I think, best taken at face value.

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