“It’s all a big surprise to me,” says Ed Bankston, 60, talking on the phone from his home in Phoenix, Arizona. “It’s like the ghost of Christmas past has shown up.” In 1983, the songwriter and guitarist Bankston started a label called Oracle Records to self-release Over There… and Over Here, the first and last album by his band the Red Rippers. Thirty years later, on January 29, the Paradise of Bachelors label reissued this long-forgotten, but gritty and vital, collection of rock and roll, boogie, country and psych tunes that tell the story of the Vietnam War from a veteran’s perspective.
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Bankston wrote some of the songs about his own experiences serving on an aircraft carrier during the war, and others were inspired by stories told to him by fellow veterans. The complex feelings of those who went overseas certain but returned home to a popular anti-war movement, and to the harrowing truth that their political leaders had betrayed them, are vividly conveyed in Bankston’s voice. Not to mention his electric guitar, which explodes on brawling, chunky tunes like “Firefight” and “Vietnam Blues.”
The Red Rippers played shows long enough for Bankston to sell the few thousand LP and cassette versions he had made of Over There… and Over Here. But after unsuccessfully shopping the album around to record labels, Bankston abandoned his dreams of being a professional musician. He became a family man, or as he says, “a square.” He was happy, but he tried his best to forget about the Red Rippers.
In 2010, the two founders of Paradise of Bachelors, an independent label that focuses on old and new American music, heard Over There…and Over Here for the first time. They were blown away, and decided to find Bankston. They succeeded, and the first reissue of the album is born. This is very good news, ’cause the record really rips. We called Bankston to talk about it all.
Did you grow up in a musical family?
My mother’s side of the family was very musical, but not my father’s. I guess it all came from my mother. My grandfather was a big fiddle player, and my brother was a bluegrass musician. He played the five string banjo.
When did you start playing?
I was 11. I got a guitar from Montgomery Ward and I was off. That would’ve been ’62 or ’63. It was an acoustic guitar. I still remember it cost me $14 because it took a long time to save up the money. I have no idea where it is now.
Did you teach yourself how to play?
I lived way out in the sticks. The only way to get around was to walk, so I didn’t have anything better to do than play guitar. I learned how to play by listening to my mother’s Johnny Cash records. All the Luther Perkins riffs were pretty easy to pick out. I also played with my brother. He was a couple of years younger than me, so we both kinda started playing together. We played together a lot. A few years later, I got a crown electric guitar. I taught him how to play bass so we could have a band.
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Were you writing your own songs at this time?
No, we were just playing other people’s songs. But when I was about 15, I started playing for money at bars. I lived in a rural county, and there were a lot of little redneck bars. I played Friday and Saturday night for $5 a night. I don’t remember the name of my first band. Most times I played under my own name. I found a bass man and a drummer and just played under the name Ed Bankston.
What songs were you playing live?
We played a lot of country songs. Johnny Cash and Ray Price, stuff like that. I found out while playing those bars that after a certain time everyone would be pretty snockered, and they liked to hear a lot of Chuck Berry and 1950s rock and roll. I’d start off early playing the country songs while everyone was sober, and then when everyone was snockered, we’d transition to the rock and roll and rockabilly.
Those must’ve been real wild scenes.
Oh, yeah. A lot of them were rough bars. There were a lot of fights and people throwing stuff. It wasn’t as bad as that scene in The Blues Brothers, but it was along those lines. I was still in high school at this time, so I was just playing for pocket money. When you’re 15 or 16, you’ll feel like big stuff if you’re out playing the bars. I met a lot of older drunk gals. You know how it is when you’re a youngster. I thought I was really something back then. Girls would say, “Hey Ed, are you going to the school dance?” And I’d say, “No, I’m going to play a gig at the Night Owl Tavern.”
Were you hoping to turn the band into a full-time job?
I assumed I would. I always assumed that I’d be a musician, and that’s what I’d do for a living. When I was about 17, my buddy and I came up to Phoenix. Waylon Jennings led the house band at a bar called JD’s. This was back before he was a big star. We snuck into the bar and listened to him play all night. He was the main bar musician in Phoenix, but he’d had no success outside the state at this point. That was a big inspiration for me. I said to myself, “Man, this is what I wanna do.” He had his hair all greased back and he was a natural. No matter how big the room, he’d get it going. He was a great inspiration for a young musician like myself.
Was this the beginning of his band the Waylors, or even earlier?
Yeah, I think that’s what he was calling it. He was a local DJ off and on, but I’m not sure if he was doing it at that time. He made JD’s into the hot place in Phoenix for country music. Actually, JD’s was over in Scottsdale. Back then, Scottsdale was just a little town outside of Phoenix. I think their town motto was: “The most Western town.” People would ride their horses into town on the weekends. It’s a lot different now. Now it’s a resort community, but back then it was a little hick town.
You had these musical ambitions, but when you turned 18, you enlisted in the Navy, right?
That’s right. That’s the kind of family I was brought up in. There was a war going on, so it seemed like a natural thing to do. And it was a great opportunity to get out of Pinal County. I was anxious to get away. There were only cotton fields there and nothing was going on. You know, when you’re 18, you just wanna see the bright lights and move around. There had to be something better than those cotton fields.
This was during the Vietnam War. Where were you stationed?
I was on aircraft carriers called the Kitty Hawk and the Constellation. I was attached to a fighter squadron. I did maintenance on the old F-4 Phantoms. That was my job. It was a lot of work, heat, sun and humidity, but I wasn’t getting shot at or anything. I was back and forth. I’d go over for eight months and then come back for four months.
What were your thoughts when you came back home and saw the growing popularity of the anti-war movement?
It was very surreal. I was raised on my dad and my granddad’s stories of World War I and World War II, so I was very surprised. I wasn’t expecting a hero’s welcome or anything, but I was really taken aback at how strident the anti-war movement was. Not just people out on the streets, but people all throughout the popular culture were against it. The public at large–average people–were tired of it and didn’t want to hear about. If you were a veteran, they didn’t care about you and they just wanted to move on. The veterans put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears.
Is this when you started writing songs about the war and the veteran’s experience?
Yeah, a few years later. I had a bug in my crawl about it all. It all made me feel very estranged. I started writing songs and I’d play them around. Several times I’d finish a set, and some guy who’d been in Vietnam would come up and say, “Who wrote that one song?” And I’d say, “I did.” We’d get to talking, and he’d tell me a story of his from the war and tell me to write a song about it. He’d want to tell his story to somebody, I guess.
There’s a song on the album called “Firefight.” I’d never been in a firefight, but a teenage Marine I met told me about his experiences in one, so I wrote a song about it. These guys I’d meet from the war, nobody wanted to hear about their experiences or the things they’d done. I listened to them and gave them the chance to tell their stories and get something off their chests. The veterans had a lot of pride in what they did, but they were very disappointed with the political leadership we got. It turned out it was all for nothing. As a country, maybe we shouldn’t have done it, but for the veterans, it was too late. They put a lot of great effort into it, and a great part of their lives.
You started playing as the Red Rippers. Where did this name come from?
I was in a squadron called the Black Lions. But there was a Navy squadron called the Red Rippers. I just thought it was a cool name, so I used it for the band. It was guitar, bass and drums. The other two guys moved around and changed a lot. I’d pick up guys here and there to play. Other than me, there was no set line-up for the band. We played clubs, bars and roadhouses, wherever we could get a gig. We played bowling alleys a few times. It was a small time thing. We’d play a lot of rockabilly and what they call roots music now, but I kept writing these original songs, so I figured we’d put together an album.
And you recorded the album down in Florida, right?
Yeah, that’s right. We rented the studio. I went in there and paid for it all myself. At the time, I thought I’d sell the album right off the bandstand. Then I got the idea that maybe I could sell the albums by mail. I made an ad and put it up in a few different magazines, described it and everything. If anybody wanted it, they could have it. When it’s all said and done, I about broke even on it. I made a little money, but not much. After I made it, for three or four years, I took it around. I went to Nashville and showed it around, but didn’t get any interest.
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Were you taking it around to record labels?
Yeah, probably about 10 or 15. I don’t remember which ones. I dealt with some in L.A. by mail. I spent two or three months in Nashville, knocking on doors. I never got any traction. Nobody was interested. I don’t know if it was the music or the subject matter. We were still at the point where the record people thought nobody wanted to hear about this stuff. I didn’t know the music business very well.
How many copies did you make?
I sold about 4,500, I think. It was probably half LPs and half cassettes. Those were the pre-CD days. A lot of people preferred cassettes so they could play it in the car. I haven’t seen a cassette myself in many years. I started my own label called Oracle and put it out myself. I guess that went along with the whole subject matter and everything. It wasn’t mainstream stuff. If the mainstream wasn’t interested, I figured I’d do it myself. Maybe it was a dumb idea, but I thought that if I could sell some of them and get magazines interested, maybe I could get a little groundswell going. Like I said, I wasn’t an expert in the music business, but I knew that if you could get a local groundswell sometimes it gets the big guys interested.
What magazines did you advertise the album in?
I was looking for veterans, so I put a big ad in Soldier of Fortune magazine. In fact, I was telling my son about this, and he told me I sold out. When I decided to put an ad in that magazine, I wrote a song called “Soldier of Fortune.” My son said, “Dad, that’s a sell-out move.”
Were you disappointed when there was no interest from any labels?
Very. I didn’t listen to the album for many years. I reached the point where I just quit playing music altogether and became a square. When Paradise of Bachelors got in touch with me, I said “What the heck?” I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know there were any copies in existence any more, but somehow those guys found one. I was so surprised when this new interest came up.
I turned my back on the whole music thing. I always thought of myself as a musician since I was a child, but eventually I had some kids and became a family man. Family’s a good excuse to give up something, though. I have no regrets about it. My kids are great. And now I’m starting to get some grand kids, and they’re great, too.
When this interest came up, and when Paradise of Bachelors called me, I remember thinking “What in the world would somebody wanna dig up that old album for?” But then I recalled that when I made the album, I was really proud of it. But I still don’t listen to it. I’m still coming to grips with this album reappearing in my life.
When’s the last time you heard it?
Oh, it’s been about 20 years. It was traumatic for me to quit the music business. It was hard to do, so when I did it, I did it cold turkey. I just walked away and never thought about it again. I shut that part of my memories off. The whole thing at the time, too, maybe it was just me, but I had a lot of bad feelings with the war and everything. Playing those songs was a cathartic experience for me, and for the guys who listened to them. But if it helped some other fellas deal with things, it was all worthwhile.
So even though you didn’t get any positive feedback from labels or the music industry, the veterans who heard your work really dug it?
Yeah, and that’s what encouraged me to do it. I always got a lot of positive feedback off the bandstand. I wasn’t playing Carnegie Hall, but I was playing honky-tonks and beer joints. These songs were perfect for a good roadhouse or a dive. Veterans said kind things to me almost every night. They always asked me where they could go buy the album. I’d say, “Here, gimme five bucks and you can have one.”
Did you stop playing the guitar completely?
I didn’t pick one up for many, many years until here very recently. I just started playing it again to entertain my grandchildren.
How’s it feel to play again?
It’s kinda funny. It’s strange. Playing guitar was the whole first half of my life. That was my whole self-image and everything. That’s who I was, who I thought I’d be. But then I had to reinvent myself in the workaday world.
The solo you did on “Firefight” was amazing and angry. Do you think you can still pull that one off?
I was a young man then, and I had a lot of anger in me. I don’t know if I can still pull it off. It might take me a few weeks to practice it.
Do you think you’ll write some new songs?
Writing songs for me was always a lot of work. A few songs just sorta came out, but most of them I had to struggle with. I spent a lot of time on songs. Maybe I will get back into it. I might if the inspiration hits. It seems like there’s more of an underground now for a lot of people who like to play what they call roots music. That might be right up my alley. I know all about those roots.
The reissue of the Red Rippers’ Over There… and Over Here is out now on Paradise of Bachelors.