An interview with the Long Ryders
I mean, John Fogerty goes away for ten years, comes back with basically the same sound, and slots into 1985 as seamlessly as he did into 1975. You can read that reassuring continuity – talent will out, Old Fart’s revenge. Or you can read it that nothing significant’s happened through the intervening decade. All that spit ‘n’ vomit New Wave warring, Year Zero Manifestos, Fairlight state-of-the-art fantasias, digital/synth/Linndrum hi-tech progression’s come to… what? The Old Man Down The Road? Rock ‘n’ Roll Girls?
All this heavy introspection is prompted by the Long Ryders sound-check play-in of Fogerty’s rip-roaring “Almost Saturday Night” (from his 1975 ‘John Fogerty’ album), guitars running like glittering shrapnel across the stage, sharp, exciting, exhilarating – add your own adjectives, the UK music-press have already had a field-day with theirs, clichés flying faster’n the angry buzz of Rickenbacker’s on heat. Paisley Underground, Byrds revivalists, psychedelicatessens, new-Rockism. ‘AllMusic’ even calls them ‘cowpunk’. And at the centre of it all, four wastrels from LA, the Long Ryders, an album called ‘Native Sons’ (Diablo, 1984), and a near-charting single called “I Had A Dream” that’s just about the best guitar-trafficking Rock anthem since the Flamin’ Groovies ‘Shook Some Action’. It’s about time someone took a semi-detached look at the images, and reality behind them.
Sid Griffin’s sat on stage now, carefully gaffa-taping the back of his guitar for some musicianly esoteric reason. He’s tall – rangy I think’s the word, with l-o-n-g white denim pants, pointed-toe boots and a ‘Sin City’ jacket-top, shaggy shoulder-length hair, sideburns down to… here, and jet-lagged rings under his eyes.
The Long Ryders – ‘we’re young men, you gotta understand. We may LOOK old – ‘cos I haven’t been home in two months, you know what I mean? I got bags under my eyes and all that. But I’m the oldest guy, and I’m twenty-six. Just six months ago people thought we were an up-and-coming band. Now they think we’re ready to – I don’t know what, storm the Bastille or something. We’re getting a lot of contracts waved in our faces. Suppose we’re at the point in time where people, in twenty years time, will complain that we made the wrong decisions.’ He grins good-naturedly. Adopts a stoned-dumb accent protesting ‘HEY, I NEVER GOT ANY MONEY!’ Then pauses for a moment, readjusting back to straight-man role. ‘That’s where we are now. It’s frightening in a way, but I’m glad, it’s what we wanted. But I will say this – we’re only confused because things are happening quickly to us in a positive manner. We’re NOT confused because we’re STOOOPID! Just that suddenly, it’s HERE WE GO…!’
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Sid Griffin, from St Matthews, Kentucky, tries out on stage with tall dark Virginian Stephen McCarthy while their guitars are balanced out at the control-desk. The mike-stand wavers precariously between them, nodding and swaying in sympathetic vibrations as they move. Griffin notices the action, and tests it, shaking first one leg, noting the answering degree of mike-quiver closely, then both legs. ‘Hey’ he announces, ‘I can’t do my Elvis, but I CAN do a Gene Vincent with the bad leg!’
Bass-player Tom Stevens, in Brian Jones fringe and red-patch lumberjack jacket, grins contagiously. He claims some seventy-eighty parts Irish ancestry, talks excitedly of seeing Europe flash by ‘from the back of a van, Castles and things, looks REAL nice.’ Of a twenty-four-hour break in Paris spent catching up on sleep, and a projected detour to Berlin – ‘to see the wall, and just to… like, talk to the people,’ which fell through due to schedule restrictions. He expresses concern about ‘Irish Jokes’ in the UK. I counter his concern with ‘but aren’t there Polish jokes in the States?’ ‘Oh sure, but they’re just a bit of fun, they don’t mean anything against Polish people.’ Same with Irish jokes in England. The best Irish Jokes are told by Irish comedians. He looks relieved.
Simultaneously, ‘both of you together’ says the guy at the sound-mixer. ‘E-chord’ says Sid. And they break into an impromptu rag-out of “I Had A Dream” cutting like a laser through body-tissue, as clean and pure as morning sunshine over the desert…
While behind them, oblivious to the aurals, a Punky girl-Roadie positions stage furniture, an Elvis Presley poster – a late-seventies Hawaiian oddity rather than a more insurrectionary early Rocker, and two amp-draping ads for ‘RED-MAN CHEWING TOBACCO – IN FOIL POUCHES’. Perhaps the Long Ryders have a sponsorship deal with ‘Red-Man’, I suggest? Tom grins indulgently, ‘naw, it’s just the picture of the Indian Chief we like. I’ll tell you – what we really want is a regular Wooden Indian, you know? Like you used to get outside storefronts. This is just our Bargain Basement version of the Wooden Indian…’
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The Los Angeles-based Long Ryders were ‘formed by a guy named Barry Shank, that’s S-H-A-N-K, and me,’ as Sid Griffin tells the tale. ‘We left a band called the Unclaimed and we did this. We found Greg first (drummer Greg Sowders, ex-Box Boys), and then Stephen (McCarthy). Then – er, Barry left to get married and all this other stuff, and we got Tom Stevens on bass guitar.’ He neglects to list now-Dream Syndicate Steve Wynn’s brief Ryder-hood crammed in between Barry and Tom. And that the band-name is a corruption of the 1980 Walter Hill Western movie ‘The Long Riders’. ‘So we’ve been going about two-and-a-half – I guess nearer three years now.’ Griffin has a background in writing – ‘I went to journalism school, and even have a degree in it. A fat lot of good THAT does me! – sitting in a Night Club playing Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ and he even authored a definitive life of the late ‘Grievous Angel’ Gram Parsons (‘Gram Parsons: A Music Biography’, Sierra Books, 1985).
I offer to buy him a drink. He asks for Whisky Sour.
Picking up on that Gram Parsons angle, reinforced by former-Byrd Gene Clark guesting on the “Ivory Towers” cut on ‘Native Sons’, ignited by that magic Rickenbacker jingle-jangle, it all fuels the ‘revivalist’ tag he claims to resent. ‘You’ve got to understand that WE don’t consider ourselves reviving ANYTHING,’ he delivers with some considerable vehemence, ‘and I think when people see the show it’ll make a bit more sense. I mean, by god – we’re as influenced by that first Clash album and the Sex Pistols album as any records ever made. We don’t have spiky hair and all that, we just take their energy and their attitude, and put it on Country-Rockish music. A straight Country musician would probably be appalled – he’d say ‘ah, the songs are too fast, there’s too much energy, blah blah blah,’ and the Punk would think ‘ah well, they do all these Merle Haggard-George Jones licks.’ And they’re both right. That’s the secret of our formula, a sort of souped-up Country Rock. We don’t play any Gram Parsons songs because people would expect us to – and when you do what people expect, you’re DEAD. I love Gene Clark, but he’s no more an influence than John Lydon is, you know? I don’t really dig most of the revivalist acts. There’s been one or two in the States I like – the Chesterfield Kings in New York. Other than that it seems pointless. I mean – it’s 1985. We’ve got our own problems in 1985. I don’t need to sing about the problems of 1966.’
It’s getting less confusing already, with New Wave spit ‘n’ vomit neatly catalysed into the formula. But the nagging doubt about the John Fogerty equation remains. ‘It’s a good point you’re making’ muses Sid. ‘I really like that point.’ Then sets out to dismember the point in a well-argued blue-streak fast-accented sales spiel. He can talk that talk, and then some.
‘I can’t speak for the Irish, but in England they always go ‘you’re bringing the guitar back’. Well, we’re not bringing the guitar back from anywhere, ‘cos it didn’t GO anywhere in my country. We like keyboards and synthesisers ‘n’ all that. Technology SHOULD move forward. Music SHOULD move forward. I’m all for the twenty-first century, but on the other hand, that doesn’t mean the guitar’s obsolete. It’s like, if a new style of woman’s hair or dress comes in, that doesn’t make a 1961 photograph of Marilyn Monroe any less attractive to me. She’s still pretty. That photograph will be of a beautiful woman in the year 2010, I don’t care what women dress like in that year. I’ve listened to the guitar probably every day of my life, so I don’t consider we’re reviving anything, ‘cos where did it go? It didn’t go anywhere. In England and Ireland you just get to see REO Speedwagon, Journey, stuff like that, and they ARE horrible, I admit it. I admit they’re horrible – so no wonder you guys think the guitar’s obsolete and it’s terrible, those bands PLAY it terrible. But it’s like, what do you know of American food? Most people know McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Well, I’m from Kentucky, and the worst thing we’ve got is Kentucky Fried Chicken. So, I mean, you know what I’m saying? Of course people think the guitar went away – all they know is McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken! THAT’S what I’m saying.’
Two down. One to go. Hi-Tech, Sid? ‘There’s a lot of revivalist bands that you and I could name that would never use state-of-the-art stuff – ‘cos they wanna get the sound of yesteryear’ he argues carefully. ‘But we’re not like that. We recorded our album in A&M’s Los Angeles studios. State-of-the-art studios – where they did the charity single “We Are The World”, not a very good record, actually, but it’s got its heart in the right place! We recorded ‘Native Sons’ there last year during the Los Angeles Olympics (July-August 1984), we got it for cost ‘cos no-one wanted to be in the studios during the Olympics. It was recorded very quickly too’ he laughs. ‘‘Cos we didn’t have any money! So we’d rehearse a batch of songs like fiends, go in and record them, come back, rehearse some more, record them and get to hell out! And I think it’s a good record. I don’t think it’s the greatest record ever made, but it’s a damn good record. You SHOULD use state-of-the-art equipment. I don’t see any advantages in using BROKEN-DOWN equipment. I admit we didn’t use synthesisers. We put ‘em on one track – on the band-composition “Too Close To The Light” which is on the ‘Native Sons’ album, but to me it just sounded stooopid. It was a complete affectation. It was not our bag. It was bullshit. So we took them off. It was wrong, it was wrong…,’ a pause.
‘The Human League have put out a couple of good songs. I read some Phil Oakey interviews, he’s a talented guy, but he’s now using a guitar isn’t he? Four or five years ago he was keyboards-keyboards. Now he’s using Sly Stone riffs, lots of bass guitar, and some funky soul rhythms like chunka chunka chunka chunka. The guy’s eating his own words. There’s NOTHING wrong with guitar.’
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The Long Ryders on stage turn in a dazzling set that fully justifies the verbals. They synthesise – no pun, all the diverse energies of Rock’s various phases, its action and reactions, progressions and regressions, licks and predilections, launders them all clean and shiny-new. Suddenly it’s not confusing at all. They draw on the past, sure, but deliver it up revitalised into what can only be 1985.
‘Last night in Manchester’ confides Griffin before we close, ‘a guy took his pants off on the balcony and hung his moon – his fanny, over the balcony. And it was just a great moment. I admit, I admit it was childish, it was juvenile, it was infantile, but on the other hand – in terms of Rock ‘n’ Roll, it was a funny moment. That type of warmth is so hard to find. How could you put THAT on a Revox tape? You can have a guy do that live and it’s a scream. I don’t want people to think we’re some stoopid show that they have to stare at, and applaud politely at the end of each number. I LIKE people shouting, I LIKE people grabbing the mike, I LIKE people applauding and throwing their coats in the air, and all that. I think human expression is… well, there’s not enough of it for one! Society doesn’t WANT you to take your pants off!!!’
Nothing confusing about THAT…
As I’m walking towards the out-door afterwards, Sid Griffin yells across the dance-floor ‘thanks for the Whisky Sour.’ No problem. The Long Ryders deliver good value.