The Harrowing Songs of The Red Rippers

“Don’t go looking for my enemies – that’s their ears there on my belt.” “He been down in Vietnam, burning babies for his pay.” “Now get the bag into the plane.” All lines from The Red Rippers’ Over There... And Over Here, one of the most visceral anti-war albums ever to be put to wax. Ed Bankston, the man behind the project, came home from the war to find a country that hated him and the men he served alongside. As he began to write original songs in its aftermath, he found himself writing what he knew: the ugliness of what he had seen over there... and over here.

In 1983 Bankston went into a Florida studio with a number of session musicians and put these tales to tape. Knowing that such hard-edged material would be a hard sell for a label, he set up his own and sold the album independently, advertising in military-related magazines like Soldier of Fortune and The Navy Times. Eventually he sold out of his initial run, but it ended up being his only foray into recorded music. This year Paradise of Bachelors has put out a lavish reissue of the album, complete with extensive liner notes. Excerpted here is a portion of the oral history of the record’s conception taken from conversations with Bankston himself.

I grew up in Northeast Texas. I actually come from a long line of sharecroppers back there. My dad was in the Air Force in World War II. He was out plowing behind a mule on his eighteenth birthday, and two years later, he was getting shot down over France by German artillery. On my eighteenth birthday, my dad took me up to Phoenix, and I enlisted in the Navy. To be honest, I thought the uniform looked sharp. I said hey, that’s the uniform girls will like! I flew out to boot camp in San Diego. I didn’t know. I didn’t think anything of it. I thought that was just the way things were done. That was in 1970.

I was in a fighter squadron on an aircraft carrier, the Kitty Hawk. I started off as an enlisted man. I was an electronics technician, and I worked on F-4s. Basically I installed the electronic systems. I was never anywhere to get shot at – mainly what I remember was the work. We’d just work and sweat, and it was twelve hours on, twelve hours off, and you’d just work and sleep, work and sleep. It was a lot of toil to keep the planes in the air. That was ’71 and ’72. A lot of the worst fighting was over by then. We just sat in the Gulf of Tonkin and flew air operations every day. The old Kitty Hawk...

I was in an F-4 squadron, the Black Lions. I highjacked the Red Rippers name because I liked the unambiguousness of it. I always liked that name. There were two other squadrons, one of them was the Red Rippers, and the other one – I really liked the name – was the Puking Dogs. I think their official name was the Black Griffins. They painted a facsimile of the griffin on the tail of their airplanes, kind of with his back hunched and his head bent over growling. Of course, as soon as other people saw it, they said, how come you’ve got a puking dog on the tail of your plane? Once the first guy said it, they could never get rid of it.

The Puking Dogs Ronald Miller

I became a pilot later, flew off of several different carriers. I ended up being in the military 12 or 13 years. Well, I was going to get out, and then I got a chance to get commissioned and go to flight school, and it was kind of an offer I couldn’t refuse. So I did that as well. I was kind of a redneck made good, I guess.

I thought since it’s a specialized record for a specialized audience, I’d run an ad in Soldier of Fortune.

The war turned out to be a sort of perfect storm of psychic wackiness for me. The apparent pointlessness of the war's strategy destroyed my trust in our political leaders, and the villainizing of the servicemen by the popular culture estranged me from that culture. I was left in a small community of veterans that seemed to be adrift from the greater society. As you can imagine, I was infested with anger, resentment, a feeling of betrayal.

All my relatives, when wars came along, would always volunteer and serve. And so, when the public and the popular culture and the press and everything kind of turned against military people, and veterans, the vets just didn’t know quite what to think. They were kind of surprised, and well, they didn’t know exactly what was going on, because that wasn’t the world they grew up in. So there was a lot of resentful feelings about that. And the thing kind of snowballed for me, because after I’d written a few songs like that, I really got a strong reaction out of other veterans. They’d all want to share their experiences.

I guess at the time I did the album [in the ’80s], I had about 35 or 40 songs like that, that I had written during the ’70s. I had written a few about my personal experiences, and I’d play them around here and there, maybe at barbecues, in clubs. I’d have people coming to me saying, well, where’d you get that song, you know? So I’d say, well, you know, I wrote that, and they’d say, well, you should write a song about this, and they’d start telling me their particular experience they had. They really wanted to get it out, you know? So a lot of the songs on the album are like that, where guys came up to me and told me their stories.

They were really looking to bend somebody’s ear about it. A lot of times they had something they wanted to get off their chests to somebody, and I appeared as a sympathetic figure they could unload on. Which you know frankly, I was glad to do, because I felt the same way. On the album, there’s a song called “Firefight.” I still remember the guy that was telling me about that. That all came from an old Marine First Sergeant. He gave me all the dope that went into that song, plus he gave me a great recipe for peach cobbler!

Back then, at most of the gigs, I’d cover some of the current Top 40 type country, because that’s what people would request a lot. As the night went on, you’d play more and more of what you like and less and less what the audience likes, and hopefully you find an audience that will get together with you on it. After a certain point in the night, they just want a good beat to dance to mostly. I ran into guys, when I was playing those songs in bars and clubs and honky-tonks, and it’s funny, you can tell – I’d be singing one of those songs, I’d be singing and I’d look around, and you can tell if it was really connecting with somebody. Like I say, they would almost always come over and say hey, who does that song? I would say, well, that’s one I wrote. And they’d go, oh really? And it would be off to the races.

Over time, playing the songs around here and there, I saw other vets finding the songs meaningful, so I wanted to disseminate them for what it was worth. I went into studio and put down the tracks, using some studio fellas. A lot of times, what I’d do is I would play rhythm guitar on the first run through, lay down that, do vocal tracks with the drum and bass, and go back and overdub the lead guitars. I think there were a couple of cuts on the album, I had a keyboard fella come in. I almost always played three pieces. I would just get a bass man and a drummer to back me up. I was kind of like John Fogerty – I just needed somebody to keep a beat behind me, and I would do my own thing.

I thought, rightly or wrongly, that the subject matter would disqualify the album from consideration by anyone in the music business, so I formed Oracle to do it myself. I pressed about 3,000 copies and advertised them around in publications I thought would reach my audience. I remember I had a lot of response from an ad in Soldier of Fortune magazine. That was just an idea I came up with. I thought, if you’re going to market a record yourself, you’re limited in what you can do. I thought heck, since it’s kind of a specialized record for a specialized audience, I ran an ad in there, probably for six or eight months in 1984. And I ran some ads in The Navy Times and The Army Times and different military publications. I ended up selling all the albums that I had pressed, and just about broke even moneywise.

It’s funny because not too long after this album, I kind of quit the whole music thing and started living the straight life. That album for me, I don’t know, I’d say it was the pinnacle of my career. I had kind of a lot of things … I had a little adjustment trouble there, and kind of put together that album – it helped me get things into focus and helped me turn the corner and move on with my life. I probably wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t run into so many people who seemed to connect with the songs. And it wasn’t like every time I’d play them, there’d be a huge crowd of people saying oh, that’s great. It was a relatively small number of people, but it was like if the people were connected, they seemed to really connect. I know that a lot of returning veterans had a hard time adjusting. I like to think that for maybe one or two guys, it did help. Well, nobody can prove it didn’t, right?

By Ed Bankston on February 12, 2013

On a different note