In the midst of endless mid-80s synth pop the arrival on these shores of The Long Ryders with their swaggering fusion of country rock with punk attitude was a welcome relief from the manufactured pap clogging up the charts.
Their first album Native Sons was only held off the top of the UK Indie Charts by the Smiths’ Meat Is Murder and led by frontman Sid Griffin they hit the UK for some incendiary live shows before recording two more critically lauded albums and finally splitting up in 1987.
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 stepped in to create Final Wild Songs – a lavish four CD retrospective of the band – much to Griffin’s surprise.
“In September 2013 the Cherry Red people came to me and said they were amazed that there had never been a Long Ryders box set or 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 10-5-60 EP, 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.
“It couldn’t have come much out better frankly as it looks great and sounds great. Tom and I did all the preparation, and we’re over the moon with happiness,” notes Griffin.
“There’s about 11 songs that are completely unreleased and there’s nine songs that were only released in the US or Madagascar or somewhere ridiculous. There are 20 studio songs that are very, very rare.”
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.”
With so many contemporary bands queuing up to cite The Long Ryders’ sound and attitude as an influence does Griffin think his no compromise quartet were that inspirational?
“I know it as the Black Crowes were Mr Crowe’s Garden who were influenced by REM and Chris Robinson had short hair,” asserts Griffin. “They were heavily influenced by REM’s Murmer and Chris and his brother toured with us a lot.
“Two other examples are Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt and then Wilco. Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy were working in record stores, and doing Black Flag influenced bands, but Uncle Tupelo came out of seeing the Long Ryders play and how amazed they were by that kind of sound.”
Given how very American their sound was it seems astonishing that in an era when blokes from Sheffield were warbling on about cocktail waitresses who didn’t want them that The Long Ryders were so popular on this side of the pond. Griffin is equally at a loss to explain it.
“I have no idea why but the only thing I can say is at the time those beastly synth pop band were dreadful. It kills me when I see these tours of Stock, Aitken and Waterman as it was superficial sissy pop music then, and it’s the same now.
“I’m clutching at straws here, but Europe was swamped by that garbage. Let’s be fair these people had hits and I didn’t and I think that’s why people like Andy Kershaw got behind The Long Ryders in the way that they did as it was something forceful. It had elements of punk rock, but we weren’t out of tune and bashing out songs, as there was a little more craft to it.”
One of the plus points of The Long Ryders getting commercial success in an era when bands could actually make money off their records was a chance for Griffin to work with his heroes, including enigmatic ex-Byrds legend Gene Clark who offered some vocals on Native Sons.
“Gene was a very quiet guy, polite and very Missouri,” remembers Griffin. “No-one knew him very well and I talked to the old Byrds bass player Chris Hillman about a million times in my life who said he, Michael Clarke and Gene shared a home in the early days of the Byrds. The three young Byrds bachelors shared a home, and Chris said I couldn’t explain Gene to you in million years.
“Gene was a really nice guy and he didn’t sound like a genius as he was. People seem offended when I say this but he was a really good looking guy and I was 27, 28 when I worked with him, and he would have been 45, and I’d be with hip young people like X or the Blasters, but girls wouldn’t look at you if Gene Clark come in the room at the Whisky a Go Go or wherever. He was an incredibly talented guy.”
But 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 22.