The Long Ryders - Biography
For a band that carried forward the country-rock style of The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and The Flying Burrito Brothers into the ‘80s, The Long Ryders have been lumped with some unusual artistic bedfellows. To some, they were a mutant garage-rock act, thanks to their origins as an outgrowth of the founding Los Angeles garage-punk act The Unclaimed. (The Ryders in fact share space with The Unclaimed on Rhino Records’ 2005 box of neo-garage groups, Children of Nuggets.) The quartet was also frequently corralled with members of LA’s early ‘80s “Paisley Underground” – The Dream Syndicate, The Bangles, The Rain Parade, Green On Red, etc. But, in the end, they had more in common with such successors as The Jayhawks, Uncle Tupelo, and Wilco than with their feisty Southern California contemporaries. These “cowpunk” operators were the progenitors of ‘90s twang.
The Long Ryders were founded out of guitarist-singer-songwriter Sid Griffin’s frustrations with The Unclaimed’s limited musical palette. Kentucky native Griffin had joined the group in 1979 after his arrival in LA to attend college. The band was fronted by hardcore garage devotee Shelley Ganz, who patterned its black-turtlenecked look after Sean Bonniwell’s Music Machine and its sound after the grungy, faceless ‘60s teen garage combos heard on compilations like Nuggets and Pebbles. It was an entertaining band, but a limited one, and Griffin sought an outlet for his admiration of Roger McGuinn (to whom he bore a prominent physical resemblance), Gram Parsons, and Clarence White.
In late 1981, Griffin and The Unclaimed’s bassist Barry Shank began rehearsing with drummer Matt Roberts (who soon returned to Ganz’s fold) and guitarist Steve Wynn. In a matter of months, Wynn would exit to found The Dream Syndicate, but the association gave Griffin’s new band a toehold in the developing “Paisley Underground” scene. Drawing its name from Walter Hill’s film about the Jesse James gang (misspelled to avoid any potential legal problems, and in homage to The Byrds), the group recruited Virginia singer-guitarist-songwriter Stephen McCarthy, a relatively recent LA émigré with country credentials, and drummer Greg Sowders, previously with the local ska act The Box Boys.
Playing in a fairly straightforward country-rock style, the Ryders gigged regularly with their paisleyed brethren, building a local reputation. In late 1982, Shank exited the band and moved to Texas to pursue an academic career. The group’s new bassist Des Brewer was on hand just long enough to record the group’s debut EP, the stormy 10-5-60, which sported a sound resting somewhere between The Byrds of 5D and Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde. After another rotation in the bass chair, The Long Ryders’ lineup solidified for good in early 1984 with the addition of Indiana-bred Tom Stevens.
The band’s debut LP Native Sons (1984) – produced by Henry Lewy, who had also worked on The Flying Burrito Brothers’ 1969 country-rock landmark The Gilded Palace of Sin – was released on Lisa Fancher’s LA indie label Frontier Records. After a couple of poorly capitalized American tours, the Ryders decided to test the waters in the UK, where they met with instantaneous success, in spite of their relative obscurity at home.
Feted on the cover of New Musical Express and making a high-profile appearance on TV’s “The Old Grey Whistle Test,” they caught the eye of Island Records’ British office, which signed them and put them in the studio with Will Birch of the jangly post-punk pop band The Records. Their major-label bow State of Our Union (1985) included the fiercely rocking “Looking For Lewis and Clark” and “State of My Union” and the ballad “Lights of Downtown,” later covered by the English pub-rock band Dr. Feelgood. (The same year, Griffin, McCarthy, and Stevens joined Steve Wynn and Dennis Duck of The Dream Syndicate and Dan Stuart and Chris Cacavas of Green On Red for the sloppily entertaining Paisley Underground hoedown The Lost Weekend.)
Unfortunately, any momentum and good will that the band had generated with that album and their overseas buzz were immediately dissipated by what in retrospect must be among the worst business decisions ever made by a rock band. In 1986, the Miller Brewing Co. began recruiting grass-roots rockers for a series of national TV ads for their beer. Today, these kinds of sponsorships are commonplace, but in the immediate post-punk era such a commercial association was still a major no-no for a credible group. The Long Ryders were among those who took the money and paid the price. The “sellout” backlash that greeted those spots crippled their career, and they never really recovered from the tarring they took.
The Ramones’ producer Ed Stasium stepped in to produce their swan song Two Fisted Tales (1987), a strong effort produced at Chris Blackwell’s Jamaican studio Compass Point. Despite excellent original material and a bright cover of NRBQ’s “I Want You Bad,” the band unraveled soon after its release.
The core members of The Long Ryders have all continued in music with varying degrees of prominence and success. Griffin settled in England, where he fronted the bands Western Electric and The Coal Porters and founded his own label, Prima, which has reissued most of The Long Ryders’ catalog; a regular contributor to Mojo magazine, he also wrote the first biography of Gram Parsons and the 2004 BBC documentary Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel, and a book on Bob Dylan’s “basement tapes,” Million Dollar Bash. McCarthy went on to play with Steve Wynn and the members of House of Freaks in Gutterball, and, aptly enough, toured and recorded with the last edition of The Jayhawks. Stevens returned to the Midwest, where he cut several independent albums. And Sowders has enjoyed a long career as a senior VP at music publisher Warner/Chappell.
Today, The Long Ryders’ music sounds prophetic. It revisited the breakthrough country-rock sound of the ‘60s, but imbued it with an energy and unpredictability born of punk rock. Anyone who wants to hear a draft of alt-country is directed to the Ryders’ albums, all of which remain bracingly exciting.