In 1983, an unknown songwriter named Edwin Bankston decided that if no labels were interested in putting out his record -- a nine-song country-boogie album called Over There...and Over Here, credited to "The Red Rippers" -- he was going to put it out himself. Featuring stream-of-consciousness lyrics, psychedelic lead guitar, and a choogling backing band of Pensacola, Florida-based session players, the album's lyrics drew heavily on his time in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, chronicling the frustration, bitterness, and "psychic wackiness" of the war effort, and in turn, the American public's response to it.
Bankston pressed about 3,000 copies of the LP and packaged the vinyl in a stark red-and-black sleeve featuring his mustachioed face sporting a pair of aviators. He took out ads in military-minded periodicals like Soldier of Fortune, The Navy Times, and Stars and Stripes to sell the record, reading: "Combat Music? Yes." Not long thereafter, he gave up on music. But Over There . . . and Over There lived on, becoming a private-press treasure, valued by record collectors and selling for triple-digit sums on eBay. This month sees the first-ever reissue of the record, by North Carolina label Paradise of Bachelors.
"Our friend and fellow record casualty Harmonica Dan brought the Red Rippers album to our attention, and though initially mystified by its ambiguous origins, my label partner, Chris Smith, and I immediately recognized it as a powerful and visceral statement about the costs of war and the work of soldiering from the perspective of a career military man," says Brendan Greaves of Paradise of Bachelors, which has overseen reissues from southern soul singer David Lee and psychedelic swamp rockers Plant and See (a multi-racial outfit fronted by Willie French Lowery, a member of North Carolina's Lumbee Tribe).
The label tracked the mysterious Blankston to Phoenix, where he settled after stints in Pensacola, Nashville, and Los Angeles, and approached him about reissuing the record.
"My jaw dropped," Bankston says. "I had no idea there were still copies of it around."
It's an album worth hearing in 2013. More than just an obscuro oddity, the record is a unique blend of Waylon Jennings-style country (the opening salvo of "I Roll"), psychedelic punk ("Firefight," with its harrowing lyrics and careening solos), blues ("Vietnam Blues," which includes the lyrics "They'll throw me in prison, and make me suffer, for shooting a reporter who's a lying motherfucker"), and even art-damaged soft rock (the harrowing but smooth "Bodybag"). The album offers a brutal look at life during wartime, absent jingoism yet resolutely proud. It also offers a singular sound, sharing New Wave elements with Dire Straits, a curious similarity to arena rockers Blue Öyster Cult, and songwriting that reveals a youth spent listening to Johnny Horton and Buddy Holly.
"[The record displays an] insider's perspective almost entirely lacking among American popular music's more strident and pacifist body of antiwar songs," Greaves says. "Ed's album is so effective because of its moving ambivalence. While antiwar, it is not anti-military by any means. Considering all the current news about troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and the terrible neglect and disrespect still facing our veterans at home -- 30 years later, the song sadly remains the same -- we felt this was a particularly relevant reissue."
Bankston is quick to point out that the songs aren't purely autobiographical: "A lot of the ideas for the different songs came from different guys [met in Vietnam]. I'd play one of those songs [while] taking a break, and a guy'd come up to me and say, 'What's that song?' I'd say, 'That's one of my songs,' and they'd say, 'You should write a song about this' -- because they had some experience that they thought would be a good song. Quite a few of the songs in there actually kind of came about like that. They weren't all about things I did myself, [some songs were] inspired by things guys told me about, things they had experienced, and it was there was of getting it off their chest and sharing it."
Bankston never released a followup record, saying he gave up music professionally in "'86 or '87." He began working as a carpenter and settled in Phoenix, not far from where he spent his pre-war youth at Eleven Mile Corner in Pinal County.
"I went to Nashville, and I tried real hard to get something going there," he says. "I tried different outfits in L.A. But I finally said, 'Well, you know I gotta do something else. I'm not going to make it playing music like this.' I was married, had some kids, and thought, well, I guess I better just be a square. I gave it a good shot and it didn't work out. So it's time to move on."
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Bankston is excited for people to get a fresh chance to hear the album, and he's making the most of the new push for the record: a share of all proceeds from the album's sale will be donated to the Wounded Warrior Project, a charity of his choosing. It would seem Greaves and Smith's response to the LP is markedly different than what Bankston heard in 1983.
"I'd put it around to a few different labels," he chuckles. "Actually [I sent the record to] anybody I could get a hold of. I tried 10 or 12 different people and I didn't get any interest in it. A couple of them told me, 'Nobody cares about the subject matter of this record.' You know how it is in the music business: You never get a straight answer. But I said, 'Well, heck, I'll just do it myself.'"