This timely anthology might just help to finally set the record straight: The Long Ryders made some of the best rock and roll of the early '80s.
Talk about the American underground music scene of the early '80s and you’ll maybe get misty-eyed reminiscences of seeing R.E.M. in a college frat-house basement or the Replacements in I-forget-the-name-a-that dive bar, or you’ll hear ponderings on the universal influence of the Dream Syndicate or Hüsker Dü. But you won’t often hear mention of the Long Ryders, and that’s a damn shame, because they were a central band in all that mix and, but for some dumb luck and, frankly, naivety on the part of the underground music audience of the time, the band would rightly be acknowledged for their own influence and the fine body of work they left behind, three albums and an EP of hard-edged, authentic American roots music that hasn’t aged a bit. As Cherry Red’s four-cd box set Final Wild Songs demonstrates, the Long Ryders deserve acknowledgement as a vital influence, a necessary link between the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and the Flying Burrito Brothers of the '70s and the “alt-country” movement of the '90s, which brought great bands like Old 97s and the Jayhawks to the fore.
So what went wrong? Well, it has to be said. The Long Ryders committed the ultimate sin: they sold out.
That is, they made a beer commercial. And everyone went ape-shit. And it was all but over for this fine band. Let’s review that. A hard-touring, damn talented rock band made up of four guys who drank beer and played music for people who drank beer while they were listening to them made a beer commercial, so fans in the growing underground audience stopped listening to them because, apparently, making a beer commercial was selling out to the big corporation, and so those listeners went off to find another band (who were probably themselves owned by or indebted to a big corporation who was underpaying/underselling them but who would not accept money to advertise another big corporation’s product) that they could drink beer while listening to. Man, that’s an unruly sentence. Can you follow its logic? If not, that’s kind of my point. It shouldn’t make sense. Not anymore. Not in an age when there’s probably at least one performer in your own music library who you discovered via a commercial. But as Bill See pointed out in a thoughtful PopMatters essay a few years back, “What’s a Sellout?”, times were different then.
The Long Ryders let Miller Brewing Company put them in a TV commercial, and all of a sudden, all the great songs from Native Sons and State of Our Union and all those years of sleeping on fans’ floors or in the van while touring meant nothing. Many old fans ignored Two Fisted Tales while new fans failed to materialize and that excellent album became their swansong. Long time critics darlings, the music press, too, turned on the band, with Spin devoting an article to shaming them for their decision (not that it stopped the magazine from accepting Miller Brewing Co.’s money to run the print version of the ad in a later edition).
Final Wild Songs gathers all of the Long Ryders’ formal releases along with a trove of demos, unreleased, and live cuts, culminating in the fourth CD’s blistering live set recorded in the Netherlands during their first overseas tour in 1985. Of particular interest to longtime fans, though in retrospect a rightful source of regret, are the songs “He Can Hear His Brother Calling”, Ring Bells”, and “Basic Black”, all of which would have been featured on the next Long Ryders album had the band not called it quits in 1987. By the evidence of these songs, that album would have been killer.
The Long Ryders -- Sid Griffin, Stephen McCarthy, Tom Stevens, and Greg Sowders -- though often grouped in with other bands of LA’s “paisley underground”, were always more plaid than paisley, their country leanings moored to punk’s energy more so than psychedelia’s introspection. Which is not to say that their songs lacked depth; rather, they just worked on your feet and pulse first. They could jangle like spurs, but the band was as prone to use their boots to kick up a ruckus. Songs like “Come Join Our Gang”, “Looking for Lewis and Clark”, and “Gunslinger Man” were brash, ballsy staples on college radio during the early/mid-'80s. Heard on this collection, they haven’t lost any of their power. Other cuts like “The Light Gets in the Way”, “Baby’s in Toyland”, and “If I Were a Bramble and You Were a Rose” show off the band’s dexterity and their softer side.
Maybe time will be kinder to the Long Ryders than their own decade was. In the years since the band’s end Sid Griffin has become a music journalist of note while Stephen McCarthy has collaborated with Steve Wynn in a number of projects, noteably the '90s band Gutterball. Their work deserves to be discovered by a new generation of music fans and should be re-embraced by those who heard it the first time around. Cherry Red’s done us all a favor by making this stuff available again.
The band will be touring in support of this set’s release. If they hit your town, I’d recommend you check them out. It promises to be a great show. Hell, buy the guys a beer if you get the chance. They’ve earned it.