The LONG RYDERS – ” The Albums ” A Buyers Guide

Posted: July 3, 2021 in MUSIC
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Like their peers in the Los Angeles paisley underground movement of the 1980s, The Long Ryders were a band who swore allegiance to the sounds of the ’60s, but unlike The Dream Syndicate or The Rain Parade, or Green On Red, psychedelic rock played a relatively small role in their musical formula. Instead, The Long Ryders were powerfully influenced by the roots-centric approach of early folk-rock and country-rock acts, in particular The Byrds The Flying Burrito Brothers and Buffalo Springfield. With the exception of  The Bangles were the paisley underground band who came closest to achieving mainstream success, hitting the charts in the U.K. and earning a sizable cult following in the United States while making their mark on college radio. The Long Ryders would later prove to be a major influence on the alt-country movement that rose up only a few years after the band split.

They were the Group Most Likely To, a barnstorming band of Americans who flew over from Los Angeles and simply staggered those who were used to the cultured ineptitude of British indie bands by being able to play 75 minutes of hard-hitting rock’n’roll, without falling apart or letting the energy diminish.

The Long Ryders burned only briefly, but for a while their flame was fierce. They were part of the Paisley Underground movement of LA bands who shared a common interest in the various forms of psychedelia. Frontman Sid Griffin told me of their sound: “I had this idea, which I said in rehearsals: ‘Let’s take the Byrds’ guitar sound and wed it with punk energy.’ Then Steve McCarthy [joined on guitar and] brought in a huge dollop of country, which I didn’t see coming.” Or, as he put it in 1985: “weirdness and energy played on country and western instruments”.

The Long Ryders formed in 1981 out of the ashes of Griffin’s previous band, the Unclaimed. The early Ryders, like the Unclaimed, were dedicated to life in the garage and although Griffin and his peers hadn’t been particularly good at being punks, they seized on its iconoclasm and commitment to energy. The iconoclasm, though, was directed at different targets. While the Ryders loved the Velvets and the Stooges and the other touchstones of punk, they also revered the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield (the cover of their first full-length, Native Sons, was a recreation of the cover of Buffalo Springfield’s abandoned album “Stampede”. And they wrote off other musicians who’d inspired punks: “David Bowie – I despise that son of a bitch,” Griffin said in 1983. “Bowie and his ilk were bad for rock and roll – and I’d love to see that in print, because it’s true. I think many of the new bands share that revulsion.”

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The garage-band Ryders was present only on their debut mini-album, “10-5-60”, a handful of tracks that, while deeply indebted to the 60s, were played with a fierce, wild energy, especially on the title track. Live, they would mix their own material up with covers including Dylan’s “Masters Of War” Merle Haggard numbers; songs by the Lovin’ Spoonful and Neil Young; Public Image by PiL; Anarchy in the UK; the 13th Floor Elevators’ You’re Gonna Miss Me.

If that doesn’t sound like such an enticing proposition now, then consider that in the early 80s, it represented something rather different. In the UK, postpunk had faded into the black of goth, the early scratchings of what would become indiepop, the screeching noise of the industrial groups, the studied cool of Factory. The Smiths aside, there wasn’t a whole lot that satisfied the needs of those who wanted something that stood as an alternative to the mainstream, but was still recognisably rock‘n’roll.

That need was met not just by the Long Ryders, but by a score of other US groups: REM, the Replacements, the Meat Puppets, the Dream Syndicate, the Rain Parade, Jason and the Scorchers, Thin White Rope and True West. Some of them tilted the balance more heavily in favour of punk, but all turned back to American music of the previous 20 years as their bedrocks. And all received a gracious welcome from the British music press. The Zippo label, based in west London, became the first stop for many of these bands, putting out their early albums before they decamped to the majors.

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The album that secured the Long Ryders their major label deal was 1984’s “Native Sons”, where they wholly embraced their heroes without ever seeming overwhelmed by them (it was even produced by Henry Lewy, who worked on the first two Flying Burrito Brothers albums) and featured guest vocals from former Byrd Gene Clark. “Native Sons” received strong reviews from critics, and fared especially well in the United Kingdom, where the group’s take on American musical traditions, mixed with a progressive lyrical viewpoint, clicked with critics. 

There were country covers “Sweet Mental Revenge”, Byrds pastiches that were perfect for 1965 “Ivory Tower”, rave-ups “I Had A Dream” cheerful country rockers “Ruin Dusty Run”. But the leap never came. The band signed to Island. Griffin as he admitted to me – was convinced he was about to become the spokesman for a generation. But while their first album, “State of Our Union”, brought the band’s best-loved song, “Looking For Lewis and Clark“, but the tide had turned.

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Their first album for Island,State of Our Union”, was a success at college and alternative radio in the U.S., while the single “Looking for Lewis and Clark” became a chart hit in England.

But by 1985, when State of Our Union came out, the Jesus and Mary Chain’s influence had permeated UK indie. While the groups who were springing up shared many of the same loves as the Long Ryders – Primal Scream were taking the exact pairing of the Byrds and the Pistols, but their shambling amateurism seemed much more in tune with punk – their attitude seemed very much different. And the press started to turn, too.

A fabulous story-song, “Light of Downtown” is quite possibly the great Long Ryders single that never made it. Lyrically, it’s a dark take of murder, prison time, and regret. Yet with all of the that, the band couches this tale in an ultra-buoyant musical atmosphere of post-punk moxie and folk-rock chops. Build on a devastating modal riff and some excellent chord changes, it’s also extremely accessible. In addition, it’s also one of the best recorded songs of the band’s cannon.

An NME feature contrasting the US and UK indie scenes featured Bobby Gillespie sneering that while the Long Ryders spoke of wanting to combine punk and Buffalo Springfield, all he could hear was the latter. The writer pondered that perhaps it wasn’t the case that the Long Ryders were too good to be true; perhaps they were too true to be good. Whatever that meant.

It was not so much downhill from there, as stasis. The Long Ryders didn’t get much smaller, but they certainly didn’t get any bigger. Sid Griffin later admitted they made a mistake signing to Island, who didn’t know what to do with them. They lost their indie credibility, and there was a germ of truth in Gillespie’s criticism: the longer they went on, the more the Long Ryders seemed like another roots-rock band and less like the harbingers of revolution.

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1987’s “Two Fisted Tales” wed the upbeat jangle of acts like R.E.M with their love of classic twangy sounds. The LP’s first single, a cover of NRBQ’s “I Want You Bad,” earned plenty of radio play, and U2 invited the band to open a string of American dates on their tour in support of their album “The Joshua Tree”. However, The Long Ryders relentless touring schedule was wearing away at the group, and by the end of 1987, both Tom Stephens and Stephen McCarthy had left the band to pursue other interests.

While Island offered Griffin and Sowders the opportunity to cut another album for the label, in the interest of band unity they declined and dissolved. After the group’s breakup, Sid Griffin remained active in music, forming the band The Coal Porters and running his own record label, Prima Records, as well as distinguishing himself as a music writer, penning well-reviewed books on Gram Parsons and Bob Dylan.

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In 2004, The Long Ryders staged a reunion tour that included an appearance at the Glastonbury Festival (one of these shows was documented on the live album “State Of Our Reunion” , while the band played a handful of American dates in 2009. In late 2015, Cherry Red Records released a Long Ryders box set, entitled “Final Wild Songs”, which included 10-5-60, Native Sons State Of The Union, and Two Fisted Tales, along with rare and unreleased tracks and a 1985 concert recorded in the Netherlands each album had grown into a three-CD set with the addition of demos, outtakes, and live recordings.

The Long Ryders folded in late 1987, but they occasionally staged reunion tours, and in 2019 they released a new album, “Psychedelic Country Soul” which revealed that their skills as songwriters and performers had faded little since the ’80s.

Still, the ramifications of what they did rumbled on. Within a few years, a new generation of musicians would try to do the same as the Ryders had: combine American folk music with the lessons they had learned from the independent music scene. Bands like Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, Richmond Fontaine, Freakwater, the Jayhawks, the Old 97’s and more would seize on what the Long Ryders had done, and in the process create a new genre: alt-country. It’s not the worst legacy to leave.

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