For the youth of America, rebellion becomes trickier every year. The radical is the norm, tattoos and piercings are more mainstream than not, and the parents of today's kids might well be rebel kids themselves.
"My mom's favorite band is U2," says Eddie Clendening, the barely 21 frontman for the Blue Ribbon Boys. "My dad's is the Police. My parents took me to the first Lollapalooza -- I threw a fit. I think that's why I got into rockabilly: I couldn't rebel and listen to punk rock, because that's what my parents were listening to."
Rebellion is rarely so danceable or multi-generational. Denver's Blue Ribbon Boys play a pure strain of rockabilly that's not blended with punk or swing or any other genre, thank you. Clendening fits the bandleader bill to a tee, with a voice that evokes the stars of the '50s (Elvis and Jerry Lee, in particular) and moves and guitar skills to match.
"I rock the shit out of pretty much everything," says the calmly cocky Clendening.
While Kurt Ohlen, Garrett Brittenham and Barry Newton (all also of the Orangu-Tones) man the bass, guitar and drums, respectively, the band, for all practical purposes, is Clendening's. He handpicks the often obscure oldies for the set list and writes all of the band's original songs, which are, without fail, about girls.
Nearly half of a century after rockabilly's initial wave of popularity, the Blue Ribbon Boys view its original stomp and verve as "'50s punk rock, man." According to Clendening, "it's just country guys listening to rhythm and blues...white guys making black music. It was music for kids, stuff that their parents wouldn't like."
"There's this idea that if you're playing at a certain volume level and you're playing with small amps, it doesn't rock," adds Ohlen. "I don't buy that at all. Some of that '55, '56 rockabilly rocks so hard, and it's just these hillbilly guys with tiny amps and no drums. It's the feel, not the volume."
Clendening has been a devout rockabilly disciple since seeing La Bamba before his tenth birthday. "I got way into Ritchie Valens," he says. "Then I discovered Elvis, and that was pretty much it."
After the Elvis fixation commenced, Clendening needed someone to deal him his rockabilly fixes. That's where Ohlen enters the picture. In the early '90s, a preteen Clendening would take the bus from the north suburbs to Wax Trax on Capitol Hill, then Ohlen's place of employment. Ohlen, a rockabilly veteran and a longtime fixture on Denver's music scene, found a kindred spirit in the juvenile Clendening.
"I've kind of been the Svengali figure," says Ohlen, the aspiring Colonel to Clendening's aspiring King. "Every time Eddie would come in, he'd have this big pile of stuff. He'd say, 'I only have this much money if I want to get home on the bus.' I was always like, 'Go ahead and take it.' I would take whatever money he had, but I was just so excited somebody was actually interested in the stuff."
Clendening started the band in 1999 with cohorts his own age but soon found himself looking for veteran musicians. "I started sitting in with people who were coming through town, playing songs with other bands," he says. "It got to where I enjoyed playing with people who knew how to play."
He eventually found that enjoyment playing with Ohlen. Almost ten years after selling the precocious Clendening old 78s from behind the retail counter, Ohlen caught a Blue Ribbon Boys act, promptly signed them to his Wormtone Records label and released the single "Messin' Around" in 1999. "We sold about 600 copies of it," says Ohlen. "In the grand scheme of things, that's not very much at all, but in the rockabilly scene, it's respectable." Ohlen signed on as a full-time bandmember in 2000; Newton and Brittenham came into the fold last year, as Ohlen replenished the lineup with players from his other projects. The band's full-length release is now in the works.
The ten years separating the twentyish Clendening from his thirtyish bandmates are a testament to the former's charisma. "Speaking as the record-label guy, we're trying to push it as more Eddie Clendening and the Blue Ribbon Boys," Ohlen says.
Newton's tale of his first exposure to Clendening provides a good indication of why he was happy to man the band's skins. "He was picking strings and cut his finger and was bleeding all over the place," he says. "A pretty young thing brought a towel up to him. He gave her the look, and she buckled a bit."
There is obviously something about Clendening that induces swooning.
"I actually got assaulted by a woman in front of her husband," he says of a show at the Ogden Theatre. "A lot of touching in strange places. Her husband was a little mad. He was like, 'I've never seen her act like this. We gotta go.'"
"You can't control your raw animal sexuality," interjects Ohlen. "It's a creature unto itself."
Rabid women aside, the popularity of rockabilly is on the wane after being buoyed by association with the once-hot swing revival. The core audience of diehards remains, but the broader trend of ever-accelerating cultural recycling is now grabbing on to the '80s more than the '50s.
"It goes in waves," says Ohlen. "Rockabilly becomes really hip and cool for a while and then people tire of it. Then it picks up again, and you get a new influx of younger people who are interested in it."
Perhaps in an effort to start the next wave, Ohlen is promoting a Labor Day extravaganza in Central City dubbed The Big Rock & Roll Show. The two-day event has an intriguing mix of backward-looking acts in the lineup, including oldsters like Bill Haley's Original Comets alongside younger bands like the Omens (which enlists some former members of Denver's now-defunct Down-N-Outs). "It's basically a celebration," says Ohlen. "It's what I call real rock and roll."
Ohlen promoted the Denver Rock N' Rhythm-Billy Weekend, the forerunner to the annual retro-fest Viva Las Vegas, from 1996 to 1998, until the flow of red ink forced him to abandon the project. "We just finished paying off our bills from it last year," he says.
This time around, Ohlen's not worried about accumulating debt. ("I'm not footing the bill," he says.) And The Big Rock & Roll Show's acts aren't limited to rockabilly: Surf, garage and R&B bands are on the roster, too.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Rockabilly is obviously still where it's at for Clendening, although he's grown more open-minded about music as he's aged. Currently, he plays in a "Beatles-esque" pop act called Thee Creetures 3. He even admits developing an appreciation for some of the sweatier, puffier moments from the '70s-Vegas-Elvis era and elsewhere. "I think the more I became a player of music, the more I appreciate good players," says Clendening.
To this, Ohlen rolls his eyes and looks as if he's just heard blasphemy. "That '70s Elvis stuff is so disposable. In 1956, Elvis was quite possibly the coolest person in the history of mankind. It makes me cry to see, you know, 'Polk Salad Annie.'"
While they may differ on the topic of the merit of fat-and-tragic Elvis versus the young-and-virile incarnation, Clendening and Ohlen see eye to eye on most other rockabilly topics. That's impressive, considering that the latter labels himself "the most hated man in rockabilly" due to his opinionated outspokenness. Ohlen appreciates the real deal -- not a mega-pompadoured caricature -- and he thinks he's found it in Clendening.
"What's the deal with the flames everywhere?" Ohlen rants. "It's almost a parody. Eddie's got the charisma I could only hope to scrape at. He knows his shit, he's got the voice, he's got no fear. He does it right. There are so many people who don't do it right, and he does."