Eddie Clendening and the Blue Ribbon|
Boys are the Real Rockabilly Deal
BY ERIC PETERSON - August 29, 2002 - 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
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
"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
"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
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,"
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
"You can't control your raw animal sexuality," interjects Ohlen. "It's a creature
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.
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,"
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
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."
westword.com | originally published: August 29, 2002
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