Posts Tagged ‘The Long Ryders’

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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.

Like their peers in the Los Angeles Paisley Underground movement of the '80s, the Long Ryders were a band who swore allegiance to the sounds of the '60s. Hear them at The Constellation Room this Friday!

A 1984 New York Times article on the emerging aesthetic acknowledged genre cowpunk as one of several catch-all terms critics were using to categorize the country-influenced music of otherwise unrelated punk and New Wave bands. The article briefly summarized the music’s history, at least in the United States, saying that in the early 1980’s, several punk and New Wave bands had begun collecting classic country records, and soon thereafter began performing high-tempo cover versions of their favorite songs, and that new bands had also formed around the idea.

By 1984, there were dozens of bands in both the U.S. and England “personalizing country music, several U.S. bands: X, the Blasters, Meat Puppets, Rank and File (playing “an updated version of 1960’s country-rock”), Jason and the Scorchers (with “authentically deep country roots”), and Violent Femmes (at that time incorporating “mountain banjo, wheezing saxophones, scraping fiddle, twanging jew’s harp, and ragged vocal choruses”)

Cowpunk was a catch-all term that critics had come up with to categorize a number of non-mainstream bands and artists who were heavily influenced by country music, but also parlayed their love of blues, roots, and rockabilly, while still keeping their punk, new wave, and/or psychedelic sensibilities close at hand. This emergence was, more or less, a reaction to the over commercialization of synth pop and punk evolving into hardcore. There was also a disdain for the current state of contemporary country music that had become bland, boring, and a hollow shell of its former self. The collective artists in the cowpunk movement were gifted songwriters that were appealing to rural intellectuals as well as finding a home on college radio. There was quite a number of bands that joined the ranks, but due to geographics (among other things), only a select few truly arose out of obscurity where major labels awaited, hoping for the next big cash-in.

The Long Ryders: Rising Phoenix-like out of the the Los Angeles-based band the Unclaimed, the Long Ryders were a major force in the Paisley Underground movement. Mixing their record collections of Gram Parsons, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Beatles, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, The Ryders birthed a unique, jangle pop sound but with an edge that would forever influence the alt-country scene that’s felt even today. Releasing a debut EP titled “10-5-60” in 1983 (and suffering a personnel change), the most well-known line up of the band stabilized afterwords with Sid Griffin, Stephen McCarthy, Tom Stevens, and Greg Sowders. In 1984 they released “Native Sons”, followed by “State Of Our Union” in 1985, and “Two Fisted Tales” in 1987.

Although the band was getting airplay on college radio, they weren’t getting the necessary support from MTV, which was a virtual kiss of death. The viewings of their videos were scarce at best, elbowed out of the way for more Top 40 friendly faces that weren’t sporting mutton chops and suede vests.

This brilliant chart by my pal Pete Frame tells you who the Long Ryders were better than any biog you will ever read.

The group disbanded in 1987, and their reunions have been sparse. Their released output since their demise has been obligatory “Best Of” comps and live recordings. All of the members have stayed active in the music industry in some capacity, including Griffin who has fronted the British-American bluegrass band the Coal Porters since 1991.

Rank and File, I had zero knowledge of this band with a fairly (in my opinion) punk name. The review of “Long Gone Dead” was vague, to say the least, but nevertheless, I made a mental note to look more into this group. In the pre-internet days, this wasn’t going to be done with ease. I perused the cassette section and I found my purchase of the week. I knew I was gambling here, but it had two things in its favour: One, it had been reviewed in Thrasher Magazine, and the other factor, it was on Slash Records, the groundbreaking label out of Los Angeles, CA that was one of the epitomes of musical cool, up there with SST and IRS Records. But something happened on the way to punk rock Valhalla, and it would change the way I would view (or listen) to American music forever.

For some three-chord deliverance, the opening track “Long Gone Dead” was over, I had to focus. Next came “I’m An Old Old Man”, which honestly, didn’t make me feel any better. But by the third song “Sound Of the Rain”, something clicked, and I ventured into an aurally voyeuristic experience that had me rewinding back to the beginning, over and over again. Then I gathered up the courage to listen to the entire recording, front to back, amazed that I didn’t wear it out. Finally, I was converted. But first, I had to find out what this was, because it wasn’t country music in the “Swingin’” sense or in any sense of the genre at all. This was something special, and it was called “Cowpunk”.

Rank and File: Here’s where it all began for me, Rank and File was the musical brain trust of brothers Chip and Tony Kinman who formed the band out of the ashes of their former California-based project The Dils. After migrating to Austin, TX, they hooked up with ex-Nuns member Alejandro Escovedo and released their first album “Sundown” on Slash Records in 1982. Their second release “Long Gone Dead” saw them institute more use of steel guitar and fiddle, and parlaying their love for traditional country music, they covered Lefty Frizzelle’s “I’m An Old Old Man”. For their self-titled swan song, the band went with a more pop-oriented, yet still twangy, sound to try and capture more commercial interest. Unfortunately, it never happened, and the band was dissolved. Afterwords, the Kinmans formed the synth pop experiment Blackbird, then ventured into the alt-country waters with Cowboy Nation.

Jason & the Scorchers: If there was ever to be a symbol of the movement as a whole, then this band should be the one holding the flag. Formed in Nashville, TN in 1981 by Jason Ringenberg, this Molotav Cocktail powerhouse was an amalgamation of ’70s punk bands like the Clash and the Damned fused with the traditional country music stylings of Hank Williams. It didn’t take long for the band to gel and kick out a debut EP fittingly titled “Reckless Country Soul” in 1982 where they paid homage to Hank and even attacked Jerry Falwell within the four tracks. A second EP titled “Fervor” was released the following year, with the video for their cover of Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” getting rotated regularly on MTV and giving them much needed national exposure.

However, commercial success kept eluding Jason and the Scorchers, as rock stations deemed them “too country” and country music stations found them to be “too rock ‘n’ roll”. Two full length albums, “Lost and Found” and “Still Standing” were released to little fanfare, and their label, EMI, dropped them. Going on a three year hiatus, the band returned with “Thunder and Fire” a more heavier and metal-influenced album in 1990 that got mixed and negative reviews. Feeling defeated, the band temporarily fell apart, with Ringenberg going the solo route, even taking on an alter-ego called “Farmer Jason”, Since 1995, Ringenberg has released ten albums to date with various line-ups of The Scorchers, and has seven solo releases under his belt, while original member Warner Hodges has also released solo work and is currently playing in Drivin N Cryin.

The Beat Farmers: Formed in 1983 by the charismatic Country Dick Montana, this San Diego-based group would also come to define the true meaning of cowpunk, with its rockin’ stew of swamp rock, Americana, and rockabilly. Included in the original line-up was Jerry Raney, Rolle Love, and Buddy Blue. In 1984 they won a Battle Of the Bands competition in their hometown, gaining them a cult following throughout Southern California. That same year, they signed a one-off record deal with Rhino Records for what would become their most well-known album, “Tales Of the New West”, released in 1985. One of the singles off this release was “Happy Boy” which received much support and airplay, giving them national exposure, but also pigeonholing them as a novelty act. After a stint in England to record the “Glad ‘N’ Greasy” EP (produced by Graham Parker) for Demon Records, they signed a seven album deal with Curb Records which wasn’t the harmonious relationship they expected. Fed up with working under Curb’s thumb, Buddy Blue quit the band, and was replaced by Joey Harris. The band soldiered on with the label, releasing the single “Make It Last”, and dabbling in side projects and movie soundtrack contributions. Becoming increasingly frustrated and dissatisfied with Curb, they found a way out of their contract in 1993, and began releasing albums for the Austin, TX-based label Sector 2. Tragically, Country Dick died of a heart attack during a performance in British Columbia on November 8, 1995. Three days later, the remaining members dissolved the band, eventually going forth and getting involved in other musical projects such as Raney-Blue, the Farmers, the Flying Putos, and Joey Harris and the Mentals, among others. Sadly, Buddy Blue died of a heart attack on April 2, 2006.

Green On Red: Formed in the Tuscon, AZ punk scene in 1979 as the Serfers, Green On Red made their move to Los Angeles and quickly became associated with the Paisley Underground. This heavily psychedelic-influenced four piece included Dan Stuart, Jack Waterson, Van Christian, and eventually Alex MacNicol. In 1982, they self-released an EP known at the time as “Two Bibles”, followed by them getting signed to Slash Records in 1983 to release their first full-length album “Gravity Talks”. Meshing twangy guitars with Ray Manzarek-style keyboard playing, the band sounded like a country version of the Doors, with some Velvet Underground influences, yet still able to churn out tunes that wouldn’t be out of place on a honky tonk jukebox. In 1985, San Francisco-based guitar player Chuck Prophet joined the band for the “Gas Food Lodging” album on Enigma Records, after which MacNicol would be replaced by Keith Mitchell on drums.

After “The Killer Inside Me” was released in 1987, the band called it quits. However, Dan Stuart began collaborating with Prophet in 1989, and the duo released “Here Come the Snakes” under the Green On Red name. Three more albums were released with their swan song “Too Much Fun” getting released in 1992. Since that time, the band has participated in numerous reunions under different line-ups.

Lone Justice: Fronted by the gifted and talented Maria McKee and backed by the tight unit of Ryan Hedgecock, Marvin Etzioni, and Don Heffington, Lone Justice’s blend of country rock, rockabilly, and punk, made them a popular draw on the Los Angeles bar scene. So much so, that Benmont Tench of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers fame was a frequent guest at their gigs for like-minded jamming. Gaining a reputation as a band that you had to get out and see and exposure in music periodicals brought them to the attention of Linda Ronstadt who helped them get signed to Geffen Records. They released their self-titled debut in 1985, followed by the single and video of “Ways To Be Wicked”, co-written by Tom Petty and Mike Campbell. A second single, “Sweet, Sweet Baby” was released, along with a support slot on a tour with U2, but with all of this going for them, the album just wasn’t selling. Even though critics loved it and placed it on their “Best Of” polls, the public wasn’t buying it. In the wake of this disaster, McKee’s bandmates jumped ship and she was almost forced to call the band “A-Lone Justice”. Hiring an all-new line-up, the new Justice hit the studio with E-Streeter Little Steven Van Zandt for the second album “Shelter”, which fared worse than its predecessor, abandoning the band’s original roots rock sound for a more typical pop/rock feel with synthesizers and drum machines, foreign objects to bands of this caliber. With its dismal sales, “Shelter” became the band’s Waterloo, and McKee broke up the band. Eventually, she would release solo material.

Finally It would be remiss if I didn’t mention Los Lobos. Although they weren’t cowpunk, they were and still are, champions and survivors of the music industry and true representatives of the roots rock movement. Having made one of their first public appearances in Los Angeles opening for Public Image, Ltd., in 1980, they were gathering enough attention that by the time they released their EP “…And A Time To Dance”, the 50,000 copies sold out. Now possessing some capital, they hit the road and toured all over the U.S. Their clout got them back in the studio in 1984 for their breakthrough album “How Will the Wolf Survive?”, released on Slash Records. With the release of the single and video of “Will the Wolf Survive?”, the band was making a statement on their struggles trying to gain success in the States while maintaining their Mexican heritage. After releasing their next album “By the Light Of the Moon” in 1987, they contributed several songs to the film and soundtrack of “La Bamba”, which the title track hit the number one spot on the singles chart. Los Lobos has since continued to tour with a diverse mix of artists, released numerous albums and singles, appeared in films, and all along the way, they’ve stayed true to their roots. Will the wolf survive? They sure as hell did…

There were scores of other bands that either flirted with or were wholeheartedly part of the cowpunk family tree. Now they would be more commonly associated with the “roots rock” banner than cowpunk, which today sounds antiquated to most rock historians. The Blasters, the Gun Club, the Cramps, the Del Fuegos, X, the Lazy Cowgirls, Blood On the Saddle, Mojo Nixon and others are held in the highest regard to music buffs that enjoy true American rock ‘n’ roll.

Interestingly enough, two performers who came along in the midst of the cowpunk movement have been churning out successful albums throughout the years since they were categorized in this genre. Dwight Yoakam was viewed as a “punk in cowboy boots”, brandishing a traditional Bakersfield sound on his “Guitars, Cadillacs,” album in 1986, earning him a shunning from country radio stations who found him “too traditional”. And Steve Earle, who felt more comfortable around punks as opposed to rednecks was also viewed with disdain with his 1986 album “Guitar Town”, which was considered “too rock”.

Also check out The Blasters, X/The Knitters, Danny and Rusty, Dwight Yoakam, Violent Femmes and Rosie Flores,  

The Long Ryders with their swaggering fusion of country rock mixed with a punk attitude were formed by several American musicians influenced by Gram Parsons and the Byrds, The band was a welcome relief from the manufactured pap clogging up the charts around this time, led by frontman Sid Griffin on guitar, autoharp, and bugle, Stephen McCarthy, guitar, steel guitar, mandolin, and banjo, Des Brewer, as bassist, (later replaced by Tom Stevens) and Greg Sowders, playing drums and percussion. With a sound reminiscent of Gram Parsons, Buffalo Springfield and The Flying Burrito Brothers, but with a harder edge, they hit the UK for some incendiary live shows before recording two more critically lauded albums and finally splitting up in 1987.

Their first album Native Sons was only held off the top of the UK Indie Charts by the Smiths’ Meat Is Murder .

Most of the key Americana bands of the last couple of decades cite the Long Ryders as an influence, but their rich history has never had a proper compilation until Cherry Red Records stepped in to create the 4cd box set “Final Wild Songs” – a lavish CD retrospective of the band. The set features all the original albums as well as demos, singles and rare live recordings. Re-mastered by Andy Pearce the recordings and in Sid’s opinion have never sounded so good. .

“In September 2013 the Cherry Red people came to me and said they were amazed that there had never been a Long Ryders anthology,” says Sid. “There has only been a one CD Best Of on my little Prima Records label.

“It’s all down to Steve Hammond who sat me down and said it is absurd there isn’t a Long Ryders collection, so he said let’s do a box set. I thought A, he’s dreaming and then B, I thought hallelujah.”

After the split Griffin settled in North London as bass player Tom Stephens, drummer Greg Sowders and, guitarist Stephen McCathy all went home to different part of the US, but they have all been involved in the production providing comprehensive track by track sleeve notes for their hard core fans. As well as their first mini album 10-5-60  and all three albums, fans will also be delighted to hear there are plenty of unreleased and hard to find tunes across Final Wild Songs. There are 20 studio songs that are very, very rare.” And the track listing features rare Long Ryders songs like ‘Time Keeps Travelling’, ‘As God Is My Witness’ and ‘Southside Of The Story’.

“There’s about 11 songs that are completely unreleased and there’s nine songs that were only released in the US . There are 20 studio songs that are very, very rare.”

Long Ryders Press Photos

Anyone who saw The Long Ryders first time round will recall they were one of the great live acts combining quality songwriting with a huge, uncompromising sound horned by endless touring.

“The fourth disc is a live CD that no-one has heard, which was actually a radio broadcast in one of the Benelux countries, and we played very well that night,” recalls Griffin. “I’d just forgotten about it and then some guy at the radio station sent us a copy two years ago, and I was blown away.

“So I thought let’s end the box set With this live show, and I’m really pleased as there have been a couple of live CDS on Prima, but this doesn’t repeat the track listings as it is from March 85. So the setlist doesn’t even have “Looking for Lewis and Clark” in it, it’s the Native Sons set that put us number one in the US Indie Charts.”

“The live shows were always better than the records. To me REM, our contemporaries, their records were always better than the live shows. I saw them live in their heyday several times, and it was a representative show, but it was not particularly a barnburner.

“Our live shows were barnburners which we didn’t capture on record other than individual tracks like I Had A Dream or Looking for Lewis and Clark where we sound really great. Mainly, as Roger McGuinn once said, our albums were really a souvenir of a concert as our live shows were just better.”

Perhaps the best news for their fans is the release of the box set is going to bring The Long Ryders back together to play some live shows and for Griffin it is a chance to complete some unfinished business.

“I’m really excited that it looks like we are going to be playing UK, Europe and the States behind this box set which is exciting as I have children now and they will be able to see The Long Ryders play which means a great deal to me.”

Final Wild Songs is released by Cherry Red on January 22nd 2016.