By Chris M. Junior
As he helped to assemble the new Long Ryders box set, “Final Wild Songs,” singer-guitarist Sid Griffin says he was reminded of a few things, among them just how good the band was as a live act during its 1980s heyday.
“In the studio, I reckon we were hit or miss,” Griffin adds. “Our ‘Native Sons’ album was an obvious hit, but the following two albums, ‘State of Our Union’ and then ‘Two Fisted Tales,’ are not quite so powerful. Yet when I heard the box set, I realized we had really good songs, we were Americana and alt-country before anyone used those terms and, most importantly, we were an incendiary live act. By this I mean R.E.M., The Smiths, The Replacements and so on may have made better albums than us, but I say with my hand on my heart we can whip all three of ’em live when on form.”
The four-CD “Final Wild Songs,” released in January by England’s Cherry Red Records, pulls together the best of the Los Angeles band’s studio efforts. The first three discs are devoted to remastered material from the aforementioned albums, plus the EP “10-5-60” as well as B sides, demos and previously unreleased concert recordings. The fourth disc is a 15-track concert from March 1985 that was unearthed by bassist-singer Tom Stevens.
This month, the classic Ryders lineup — Griffin, Stevens, singer-guitarist Stephen McCarthy and drummer Greg Sowders — will play a handful of U.S. shows on the East Coast. While on the road recently with his bluegrass band The Coal Porters, Griffin checked in to discuss “Final Wild Songs,” the backlash The Long Ryders endured for doing a beer commercial in the 1980s and more.
Goldmine: A lot of work by a lot of people goes into assembling a box set. Talk about your involvement with “Final Wild Songs” and the contributions by the other guys in the band.
Sid Griffin: “ ‘Final Wild Songs’ was over two years of work. It paid off, but it was not a completely lighthearted, fun project. Steve Hammond of Cherry Red Records told me it would take two years, and it took two years and four months from that conversation onward to completion.
“I oversaw the project with Steve. I went through literally hundreds of photographs and sought out more. Steve and I got the Island Records archives and then the BBC archives and discovered some surprisingly good studio tracks that were unreleased and, to our delight, some live radio broadcasts that were unreleased in any format. There were about seven Long Ryders radio gigs broadcast in Europe alone, and after they were broadcast, only two of them ever made it to the CD format. So we had a lot to work with.
“We put a notice on some of our websites, and fans chipped in snapshots, fliers, gig posters, ticket stubs to 30-year-old Long Ryders gigs, bits of memorabilia I had never seen before — you name it. I am so pleased the band inspired enough people to keep all this stuff. Without it, the box set would have been much less the visual package that it was.
“I made the call to get Phil Smee to do the box set artwork. He is, without question, the U.K.’s leading graphic arts designer with regard the music industry. To put it in perspective, Phil designed the famous Motorhead logo, so he could certainly design our box set.
“The wild card I knew I could play is Long Ryders bassist Tom Stevens. Tom is an archivist who makes even me look like a caveman with no possessions. Tom has high-quality tapes of so many shows, knew so many facts off the top of his head, had photos I’d long forgotten about, etc. When I got him onboard, he, with help from no one else, was responsible for the live unreleased tracks you hear on the box set. He had everything and had a memory to match it.”
GM: Were there other shows in consideration for the fourth disc, or was the March 1985 show in Europe far and away the best live recording and performance available?
Griffin: “There are about four or five other live radio broadcasts we found, but some we had not been able to hear in time for the box set and we picked the best one. [Recently] Steve Hammond got me the Long Ryders’ gig in London in December 1985 and, hoo boy, that is another killer with no filler — a total thriller. So now we have another live show that can match the one on the box set — and if we do further reissues, we have something unreleased and rare to add to the package, which is great.”
GM: In the mid-1980s, The Long Ryders were widely criticized within certain areas of the music community for appearing in a Miller Beer TV commercial. But these days, bands license their actual songs to commercials with regularity, yet the backlash is minimal at best. What’s your take on that?
Griffin: “The Long Ryders doing the Miller Beer ad killed us in the USA. It killed us stone dead. We went from hot to cold in about three weeks. I was stunned, it really blew me away then but such is life.
“What happened was we were not getting any radio airplay to speak of on commercial stations. Sure, we were the No. 1 college radio indie act, but on regular AM and FM rock commercial stations, we were the 4,397th most important act they had to play on the air. So we all thought we could get around this ‘maintaining radio silence’ attitude by doing a beer commercial, which would appear not just on radio but on TV. The advert we did was a huge hit demographically. TV viewers responded to it well, so it was saturated during the NCAA basketball finals that year. For about two weeks you could not not miss it on USA TV.
“Now remember: The Del Fuegos, another fine band, a great bunch of guys, were also condemned for their Miller Beer ad, too. But X did a Budweiser ad. The Blasters and Los Lobos did beer ads. No one has ever said a thing about those bands doing a beer commercial. Not that anyone should have, but my point is: Why condemn the Long Ryders and the Del Fuegos when other bands did the same thing? Why just us two?
“And then Dave Marsh wrote a scathing piece on us for doing the beer ad. Years later, this shill for Bruce Springsteen said not a word, not a single word in print or on the air, when Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band did a beer advert that got national attention. I saw a two-page spread in Newsweek where The Big Man with his sax was promoting a beer and thought, “Poor Clarence, he is in for it!” — and not a word was said by a soul. Certainly Dave Marsh now looked the other way and kept schtum. Marsh was such a hypocrite, such a turd — it’s pathetic.
“Now Rod Stewart, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones all do advertising tie-ins with tours and perhaps ever appear on TV doing the ad itself. My take? Bands have always done this. The Yardbirds did an ad for Great Shakes, the Rolling Stones did a Rice Krispies ad in 1963, the Jefferson Airplane did an advert for Levi’s jeans, Pete Seeger and The Weavers did a Chesterfield Kings cigarette advertisement for radio and TV, Pete Townshend and Keith Moon did USA recruiting advertisements during the Vietnam War — and you pick on my band for promoting beer? It killed us in the States, and when I read the skinny-tie San Francisco band Bonnie Hayes & the Wild Combo slagging us off in BAM magazine, I nearly fainted with embarrassment. Oh dear, how could we fall so low?”
GM: As for the handful of Long Ryders shows in the United States this fall: Will the sets be chronological — a la the box set — and/or be different each night? And what’s the likelihood of special guests joining the band onstage?
Griffin: “The Long Ryders shows on the East Coast in November will not be any chronological presentation of the ‘Final Wild Songs’ box set, no. These East Coast shows are really ‘getting to know you’ shows to illustrate to old friends we can still rock da house like The Ramones crossed with The Byrds. The set changes every night; you can do that when you have been playing with guys you have known over half your life.
“As for special guests, none are planned at this point. I imagine someone here or there will come onstage, but I have no idea who right now.”
The Long Ryders on tour (schedule subject to change):
Nov. 9: Monty Hall — Jersey City, N.J.
Nov. 10: Bowery Ballroom — New York
Nov. 11: Once Ballroom — Somerville, Mass.
Nov. 12: Café Nine — New Haven, Conn.