by Chris Andrich
Anyone familiar with independent music in Canada should recognize the name of Ray Condo. As leader of the Hard Rock Goners and now the Richochets, Condo has had over a 15 year career in music. Moving from rockabilly to jump blues and western swing, Condo and his band have made a point of preserving a rich musical tradition, helped along the way with Ray Condo's dry onstage humour and genuine enthusiasm. On a stop in Edmonton to play at the Sidetrack Cafe (he has played here twice since, most notably a packed house at a Valentine's Day show at the New City Likwid Lounge) I had a chance to experience the wit and wisdom of Ray Condo after the show.
Chris: Start from the beginning.
Condo: If you want to go forward, you really have to know your past. That's the oldest philosophy of all the arts. You talk to any artiste, and man, if you want to get ahead study your past. That's how you figure out pattern cycles and how you appreciate what's what. How you get real values. You've got to know your sources, and I'm not saying just being pat or trad and just copying, being strictly trad, I'm saying know the stuff and then do what the hell you want afterwards.
Some of this stuff you said sounds like this band from Scotland, the Shaking Pyramids.
The Shaking Pyramids, I remember them. Yeah. They were lively. They had great energy. In the late 70s we were punkin' out in Vancouver and the punk scene was so fun. I was playing in a band called Secret V's and the aesthetic of the time was -- first of all you had to cut your hair off. We were sick of millionaire rock star Frampton hair farmers. So the whole punk scene was about, first of all, cut your fucking hair, then get up there and it was about small amps. It wasn't about Marshall amps or power like they're into now. It was small amps and lots of attitude, get up there with balls and express yourself with attitude and you'll learn the musical side later. That's how we did it. Shortly after that, punk went two ways. A bunch of us jumped ship and went roots, went right out, and the rest of them joined with the metal boys. Yeah, the punks grew their hair long, got Marshall amps and fused with the metal culture. Right? You saw that happen. Well, you're looking at a punk boy who went the other way. Fuck the long hair, fuck the Marshall amps, I'm going home and listening to Hank Williams. That's what happened.
Ray, how old were you when you got involved in the punk scene in Vancouver?
I've never been mature, but I was in my early, late twenties.
You saw it as a natural progression...
The punk thing was a very healthy social wave that had to kick out the jams, because we were sick and tired of millionaire rolling stones and millionaire rock stars trying to show us an aesthetic. I don't think so. They lost the ball a long time ago. The Pistols and the Buzzcocks was very fucking fresh and inspiring, and I still hold to a lot of those ideals, but I'm not as angsty and angry as I used to be. And I don't believe in nihilism. I believe in that 15-minute crash and burn and take no survivors. But it's only 15 minutes. You can't sustain that for a decade. It just doesn't make any sense. And the beautiful thing about that punk onslaught is that it really did open the doors for other forms of expression for everybody. It was a revolution. Democracy! Let everybody in. Fuck the god damn rock stars! If you want to do something different, you want to be a real, cool hip rebellious person, fuck rock altogether. Start a Hawaiian band! Impress me with something entirely different.
It seems like bands like the Cramps and the Gun Club incorporated a lot of roots music in what they did.
The Cramps are really interesting. They kind of represent that 70s, really, grunge sound. They were sonic and distorted and minimalistic. Unlike the other punk bands The Cramps were the only ones who got beyond the fucking 70s and 60s. Every band in the world has their roots in the 70s and the 60s. Except for the Cramps. They're drawing from the 50s. If you listen to their material, their inspiration is coming from the 50s. And that's what drew me to the Cramps. I said, yes, these guys might not play it like the old days, but they certainly understand the spirit of the old days. Rock and roll is about fun. It's about sex, drugs, and fun. It's about fucking and laughing and humour. It's not a gloom parade. If we're all gonna die, well, let's all die. I don't care if we all die tomorrow. Fuck. Let's all walk into the ovens singing a Cramps tune! And that's what I loved about the Cramps. They understood that essence of rock and roll: humour. Life-affirming. Fuck this shit. Let's party.
Have you talked to older rockabilly guys about this? I heard you toured with Ronnie Dawson from Texas.
In our circuit we're really fortunate to work with legendary people. Survivors like Sonny Burgess. Ronnie Dawson really is a phenomenon. He's quite amazing. But unfortunately for Ronnie, he's trying to compete with the young bucks, so he tends to go up there and he tends to just blare away on his guitar for the whole set. It's like, I've heard Ronnie sing, and I know he can sing some good country and a good ballad too. But he don't. He gets up there and he just fucking wails away on the guitar and I think it's that syndrome where he feels he has to compete with all these young bucks that are surrounding him. I think it hurts him. I think he drives some of the audience away. I wish he'd kind of calm down a little. Sing some country.
Now, Sonny Burgess, one of the original Sun rockabilly guys...
Sonny Burgess. He's the man. I can't critique him too easily. He's got it together. These guys are the last of an incredibly important time. The American Renaissance, you're talking from the 20s to mid-century, and after they hit the moon it was all downhill. Now, America has become international since the 60s. But prior to that there was an incredible American culture, as incorrect as it was, it was incredibly fucking gorgeous. Even in its naivete it had this transcending liberal quality to it that really did help the world. Us Canadians we can be pretty smug. We sit back in our armchairs, we look at the States and we think we're so superior to them because we all read and write and they don't. They're kind of illiterate. But, we work the States all the time. We're more of an American band than we are Canadian, and I love that culture. We draw most of our inspiration from, yeah, their past, but they still have stuff going that's really cultural. Sometimes reading and writing and the brain and all that isn't enough. Sometimes you need good old fucking gut level primitive instinct, which the Americans are good at. I admire that. That's really what rock and roll culture is really all about. You can't learn it in school. It's not a European cultivated thing. It's a North American spiritually primitive thing, and that's what the Europeans are so fascinated about. We live in these big ugly shiny malls and we have fascist cops that beat you up, we live in this incredibly primitive world to them. They're fascinated because we deliver such great stuff.
Should we all take time to learn about the 50s going back to the 20s? That different era?
Well the 20s is like the first 60s. The 20s is an incredible revolution led by the feminists. Babes who were like dressing different and acting up. It was the women and music that were breaking all the rules. Just like the 60s, it was really a wild fucking decade. Much wilder than the 60s actually. I figure 2012 we'll be ready to kick the jams again.