"When you talk American culture, you've got to start with music," says Ray Condo, frontman of Ray Condo and His Ricochets. "That's the meat and potatoes of this country. It's the music that broke all the rules, and society followed. There's nothing better in the history of the world than American culture, problems and all."
Given the Ricochets' hepped-up amalgamation of vintage Western swing, rockabilly and other red-white-and-blue genres, these patriotic words come as no surprise--but Condo's nationality does. Even though he's as musically American as hot dogs, cheeseburgers and actors turned politicians, he hails from a land to the north. "I love it when people come up to us and ask if we're from Tennessee or Texas, and then they find out we're these crazy Canucks from Vancouver," he divulges with a chuckle. "It blows their minds."
Like many immigrants, Condo seems more American than many U.S. natives--especially when it comes to music. "I think there's a cultural genocide under way in this country," he declares. "And I get a little militant and angry about it, because when you're messing with people's culture, well, that's sacred. And if you take it away from people, you're going to have problems. Culture's more important than food and shelter." He has some serious questions about today's manufactured, market-focused music: "Where are the nutrients in it? Where are the real values for people to identify with each other? And how are we going to get Americans becoming one big, beautiful nation again?"
The answer, he believes, can be found in the work of bands like the Squirrel Nut Zippers, with whom Condo has been touring of late, that are going back in time to discover the country's musical past. In his opinion, "The whole rock thing is kind of passe now, and the kids have heard it all. They've heard all the power chords, the grunge, the ambient stuff, and they want to know about something else. Now they're getting hip to the fact that they do have a heritage they're not familiar with. They might have heard a bit of Hank Williams, but that's just the tip of the iceberg." He adds, "How long we can eat McDonald's or listen to McMusic before people start wanting some real stuff again?"
Condo's taste for genuine sounds can be traced back to Ottawa, Canada, where he grew up in a home that featured Fifties rock and country-and-Western as its soundtrack. During the mid-Sixties, when Condo entered high school, his interests turned to the Beatles, whose tunes he went on to play in a series of school bands. But he didn't make his first serious go of a musical career until the late Seventies, when he became the bassist for a punk group called the Secret V's. The group played throughout Canada for three years and released a few recordings. But, Condo recalls, "by the early Eighties, I was getting kind of fed up with punk--because I realized it was just an angry statement that couldn't last. You can't sustain that kind of angst and anger. So I started going back to my roots--listening to Hank and digging deeper. And rockabilly was what woke us up to our roots. When I started listening to the legends again, it was really fresh on the ears and big on the soul factor. I got reborn."
To give voice to his newfound convictions, Condo helped form a roots-rock outfit, the Weird Vibes, that had a regular gig for five years at a Vancouver warehouse/speakeasy. He insists that the city was the perfect place for a former punk to discover the music of America: "It was really what you could call 'Liverpool meets Nashville.' We had this wonderful mix, way before Seattle. Seattle was nothing in the late Seventies and early Eighties. We used to go down the West Coast, and there'd be nothing until you hit Frisco or L.A. But Vancouver is in British Columbia, so we had this Anglo connection to England. When the Pistols took off, we were only one or two beats behind them and picked right up on it. But we also had the American connection and a good honky-tonk tradition. We were in the right place at the right time to absorb things."
Following the demise of the Vibes, Condo formed a hillbilly thrash outfit branded the Hardrock Goners in honor of Hardrock Gunter, a rock-and-roll forerunner now living in Golden ("Rock's Roles," February 29, 1996). When Condo is told about Gunter's whereabouts, he is both thrilled and stunned. "Man, oh man," he gushes. "I wasn't even aware that he was alive. I discovered him by going through the rockabilly and country bins looking for the old, obscure stuff. He was a super-big influence on us, and that's exactly where we got the name."
When the Goners disbanded in 1995, Condo put together the Ricochets, which includes steel guitarist Jimmy Roy, guitarist Stephen Nikleva, stand-up bassist Clive Jackson and drummer Steve Taylor. Since then the act has released two stellar albums on San Francisco's Joaquin imprint. The latest, Door to Door Maniac, is a barn-burning example of what happens when the finer elements of American music are resurrected by someone who knows what to do with them. The disc features tasty jump blues and swing delivered with an emphasis on recklessness and grit that sets it apart from the work of more martini-friendly contemporaries. "She Likes to Boogie Real Low," "Feelin' No Pain" and "Shadow My Baby" leap from the speakers amid bursts of exuberant slap bass, loose-wristed drumming and high-caliber guitar punch. Meanwhile, Condo's vocals, which easily shift from satiny croons to crazy-cat shouts, provide the proper hillbilly touches with a gravy of on-the-edge danger. His versatility is epitomized by the juxtaposition of Billie Holiday's smoky "Tell Me More" with "Great Shakin' Fever," a reverbed, runaway train of a song that does the Johnny Burnette Trio proud.
"We never do anything pat," Condo says. "We might be traditional, but we're not conventional. I call it cartoon-and-Western. We want to keep 'em smiling but not lean too much on the technology. It's good that we can scratch and hurt ourselves and play real instruments." The performers try to match the intensity of their idols, which Condo admits is no easy task. "When you think of the legends and what hard places they came from, they had seriously hard lives. But when it came to the music, it was upbeat and joyful, transcending the pain with humor, fun and sex. It's funny how, here in the latter half of the century, we've got all these well-fed suburban kids who are all depressed and leaning on synthesizers, sucking in their cheeks and doing bad drugs. I call it the gloom parade; it's just the opposite of real rock and roll. Real rock and roll isn't gloomy or angsty--it's about transcending life. Who the hell wants to listen to gothic-industrial death music after a hard day at the factory? That's why I like this new wave of what's happening. We're trying to pick up the mood here.
"We're not trying to reinvent anything," Condo admits, and he means that literally: The Ricochets play virtually no original material. But try dismissing them as a cover band and Condo will offer a passionate defense of the format. "Every other band in the universe is forced by the industry to write their own material," he says. "That's the name of the game; the record companies won't touch you unless you do. So now we're swamped in a sea of mediocrity on account of it. But in the old days, there were great cover artists: Gene Vincent, Elvis, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong...do I have to go on? These people weren't writers; they were musicians. Now we've lost that tradition. Ever since the Beatles and Dylan, everybody's a damn literary pop star. But not everybody's Leiber and Stoller, or Hank Williams, or Cole Porter.
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"So whoever calls us a cover band, fine," he continues with a hint of contempt. "But find another cover band that's as fresh. We're some of the few people who are reviving the archives. All the Pearl Jams in the world, they might be walking around like they're the cutting edge, non-commercial-entity guys, but I'm afraid people who are forced to write their own stuff are doing the commercial thing. We're the real anti-commercial guys, because we're passing up all those quick publishing rights and those quick royalties. Most people think we're fools doing what we do."
But for Condo, there's nothing foolish about spanking the planks of American stages with a band from outside the border, and he and his mates are having a ball in the original stamping grounds of their sonic forefathers. "I'm getting a big kick out of getting a personal look at American culture, which is something that we were raised on. To be in the motherland, getting to know the country, is a great experience. And we're talking the language, but we're not taking it for granted. We're totally inspired by this culture. It's not dead yet.
"I would really like to see this country revive itself, because there's nothing better that's going to replace it. I feel honored to be a part of this, and I have a lot of faith in Americana. I'm not putting down the Europeans or the Brits; they're wonderful in their own way. But why should they rule and imperialistically take over pop culture? I mean, there are lots of DJs who believe that the Brits did it better, and I wholeheartedly disagree with that. We can spin vinyl and prove the fact. We could have a class in school--call it 'Rock and Roll 101'--and you could put on the best Stones and the best Beatles. Spin it all you like. I'll put on the Isley Brothers singing 'Shout' and just blow it all away."
Ray Condo and His Ricochets. Friday and Saturday, December 5 and 6, 9th Avenue West, 99 West 9th Avenue, 572-8006.