This article first published June 2013 in ACCESS ALL AREAS
‘Like a lawman checking your ID, First thing you know you’re a little less free’ Too Close To The Light by Stephen McCarthy/Sid Griffin/Tom Stevens/Greg Sowders (The Long Ryders).
A product of a Byrds, Gram Parsons, Dylan infatuation, fused with country music and a punk rock spirit, West Coast four-piece The Long Ryders sewed the seeds for what we now know as Americana/alt country. They released three LPs proper and the second, The State Of Our Union, on Island, wore the band’s heart on its sleeve. ‘The Long Ryders wish success and happiness to all bands’.
“So many groups were self-obsessed, we really meant that,” frontman Sid Griffin tells me on the phone from his North London home. Together with persistent gigging and a laudable lyrical liberalism, it was an attitude
that wowed the tastemakers. In the thick of his Style Council reinvention, pointedly down on all things rock ‘n’
roll, I remember Paul Weller picking out Griffin’s Looking For Lewis And Clark on Radio 1, giving the singer’s harmonica line particular credit.
“Noddy Holder was on that show and so was Phil Collins,” he recalls. “Weller and Holder liked the song and Collins didn’t, which is just how I would of chosen it to be.” The praise hasn’t abated either. Twenty five years after the band split, Griffin has been fielding compliments from a host of cult heroes, The Pogues’ Philip Chevron, Norman Blake from Teenage Fanclub and Viv Albertine of The Slits among them.
“Graham Coxon from Blur came up to me at a parents’ day, our kids go to the same primary school apparently. I recognised who it was just as we were shaking hands. He said, ‘The Long Ryders were a great band, Sid’. The fact that he knew my name knocked me out.”
Long Ryders were all over the college radio charts Stateside in the mid-1980s. They were NME cover stars and a phenomenal live band. A headline set at a festival in Barcelona left a mooted 100,000 punters baying for more and their turn at the Mayfair, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in 1987 is in the top 10 gigs I’ve seen.
It was their last throw of the dice, unlikely music video style TV ads for Miller Beer had burst the bubble, but they gave it everything. New songs, a blistering Lewis & Clark, a trip over their roots with I Had A Dream and a host of points between. I bumped into ‘Ginger’ from The Wildhearts a good few years ago, turns out he was at that gig too and held it similarly high regard. So did the BBC, releasing the set as part of its Live In Concert series, albeit shorn of the spirited take on The Damned’s Smash It Up.
“The Miller ad was the low point, definitely,” Griffin recalls. “The Stones advertised Rice Krispies when they were young and hungry. The Blasters, Los Lobos and X all did beer commercials, but only us and the Del Fuegos got ripped for it. [It wasn’t] fair, but I said yes at the time and that is life.” The Long Ryders struggled on for 12 months or so, but LA had turned it’s (short) attention to hair metal. “Sub-Motley Crue, imbecilic rock music,” Griffin shrugs. “I came over to London just as Kurt Cobain put a stop to it with Nevermind. I’d have stayed in America if I’d known he was coming.”
“Tom Stevens left the band and when Stephen (McCarthy) went too it wasn’t The Long Ryders anymore. A really level guy called me up from Spain not long afterwards and said why not go on tour as Sid Griffin & The Long Ryders? I was poor and he was offering me £2,000 a night, but I just couldn’t do it. Instead, I put the Coal Porters together, with Greg (Sowders) on drums. He’d still be there, but he was offered a job by Warner Chappel and he’s now senior VP and head of A&R.”
The Coal Porters
If you’re in a pub quiz and Griffin’s on another team, quit. His arts knowledge is incredible. He’s Radcliffe & Maconie’s ‘musicologist’ on BBC Radio’s 6Music, he wrote the first Gram Parsons biography and two acclaimed books on Bob Dylan with a third one pending. And he’s on the road between time.
Formed in London, The Coal Porters were an extension of The Long Ryders idyll, initially at least. They played the songs, together with some new ones, and a sublime version of the Velvets’ Femme Fatale, until Griffin saw Benny Andersson from Abba on stage with a traditional Swedish folk band, out to keep the scene alive. Since then, it’s been strictly bluegrass.
“You can look foolish playing rock ‘n’ roll when you’re 45 where roots music’s not about fashion and style. We’re unplugged, there’s no drums and I appreciate that might be hard for Long Ryders’ fans to deal with. But it’s still the same beating heart beneath the breastplate and when we play acoustic/bluegrass festivals around the world, the people there really aren’t interested that I was in a rock ‘n’ roll band. They don’t want to see an electric guitar.”
The State Of Our Reunion
The Long Ryders re-grouped in 2004 for a tour that took in a turn at Glastonbury Festival and culminated at Dingwalls. “It wasn’t about the money. I ended up exactly £732 better off. It was the chance to hang out with the guys again, to plug in and play those songs. There’s a box set in the works and we might do a handful of dates behind that. Greg still doesn’t get any holiday really, they work you non-stop in the States, so it won’t be any more than that. Otherwise, Long Ryders is dead. Like (UK critic) Johnny Black said, we were the perfectly right band at the perfectly wrong time.”
By Nic Howden