Rarely has a band been blessed by one musical trend and cursed by another in such a brief period of time as the Long Ryders. The group sprouted from Los Angeles' fertile Paisley Underground of the early 1980s. The movement heralded the return of guitars to rock 'n' roll and offered a more musically proficient complement to the town's rising punk scene.
At the same time, the band was cursed by its reluctant participation in corporate America's attempts at branding within the music business. The Long Ryders, along with peers the Del Fuegos and the Cruzados, agreed to appear in Miller beer commercials.
Both early '80s trends – burgeoning music scenes and corporate sponsorship – spoke to the ownership followers of the nascent indie-rock scene felt toward the bands. If they discovered a band, it was theirs alone; no one else could have them, particularly if someone else discovered them through a national TV ad campaign.
The Long Ryders' music survived this tumultuous period, even if their career didn't. Despite heavy touring – including a warm reception in Europe – and two more albums, the Long Ryders broke up in 1987. Aside from a 2004 European tour, the band hasn't performed together since – until now, thanks to local promoter Chris Chandler.
When asked why they chose Atlanta for their gigs, bassist Tom Stevens responded, "It chose us. Chris Chandler had been after us for some time to do this. He simply made an offer that worked for everyone, and we accepted."
That's no small feat, considering frontman Sid Griffin has lived in London for years and the other three members are scattered throughout the United States. Stevens is in Indiana, guitarist Stephen McCarthy lives in Virginia, and drummer Greg Sowders calls California home.
It might seem quaint looking back now, but the Long Ryders and their peers were a revelation at the beginning of the 1980s – a period still reeling from disco, the emerging prominence of the studio producer, and the diminution of the guitar. But the instrument re-emerged in music scenes across the nation, including the Paisley Underground. The Paisley Underground included bands such as Dream Syndicate, Redd Kross, Leaving Trains, the Plimsouls and the Bangles, all of whom embraced power pop and often were influenced by the jangly guitar sound of the Byrds.
The Long Ryders also added touches of Gram Parsons and Buffalo Springfield. They were countrified fashion plates, "cowpunks" sporting mutton chops, buckskin jackets and cowboy boots.
"It was a very, very fertile and exciting scene, and one supported from within by deep camaraderie," Stevens recalls. "We'd attend each other's barbecues, go to Dodger games together, and play on the same bill in Los Angeles and elsewhere."
After 1983's well received 10-5-60 EP, the band followed up with the smoother Native Sons (featuring former Byrd Gene Clark) in 1984.
The indie press swooned. The band was featured on the covers of hip music mags New Music Express and Whistle Test.
The group's breakthrough single, "Looking for Lewis and Clark," off its 1985 major-label debut, The State of Our Union, is arguably the Long Ryders' best song as well as its best marriage of punk and the Byrds/Parsons influences.
As a diss on then-President Ronald Reagan, the song also betrayed the band's political streak: "I thought I saw my government running away with my heart/I thought I heard Mabutu anthems in Johannesburg after dark/you can find them in the Yellow Pages, Baby/That's where you get your kicks back from the Navy."
Rarely had roots music felt so insistent, or had punk music felt so melodic or fleshed out.
The band's politics made an alliance with Miller beer in 1986 seem unlikely – except that the band, despite all its critical praise, was broke. But nobody was prepared for the fan and critical backlash to the commercial.
Spin magazine published an article in the mid-'80s eviscerating bands for "selling out," even if the payoff didn't exactly make band members rich.
Griffin called it a "disaster," and in a 2005 interview told music writer Diane Roka that the decision was a dubious one that challenged their fans' loyalty: "People felt, when all is said and done, that, how can this band, the Long Ryders, be these hip, cutting-edge guys, rebellious, and have songs that are anti-war and questioning this and that and sign up to a big American corporation? And that's a really good question to ask. And the answer is: We needed the money."
The band continued to enjoy success performing in Europe, but 1987's Two Fisted Tales failed to generate any interest. Plus, the hair-metal sounds of Poison and Faster Pussycat had moved in on L.A.'s vibrant punk and roots-rock scenes. The Long Ryders split up that same year.
The band's legacy lives on in two live CDs, a two-disc anthology, and a sound that anticipated the '90s alt-rock scene that produced Uncle Tupelo, the Jayhawks, Whiskeytown and more. Griffin has moved on to other music projects including the bluegrass outfit the Coal Porters, while guitarist McCarthy joined Dream Syndicate founder and early Long Ryder Steve Wynn in the roots-rock supergroup Gutterball and, earlier this decade, the Jayhawks.
The music is tough to find; used CDs go for as high as $60 on Amazon.com, and only half the anthology is available on iTunes.
"If we'd been 10 years older or seven years younger," Griffin says in the liner notes of the anthology, "we'd have cracked it."
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