Category Archives: Long Ryders

The Essentials: The Long Ryders’ State of Our Union

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Great albums transcend their times. Such is the case with this gem from 1985, which sounds as fresh my ears now as it did then.

In fact, if push came to shove and I really had to whittle down my voluminous Top 10 (lotsa ties!) to, say, a mere 25 titles (not as many ties!), this – the third release from Messrs. Griffin, McCarthy, Sowders & Stevens – would likely be among them. Since I bought State of Our Union at the newly minted (and now defunct) City Lights Records in State College, Pa., that fall, I don’t think I’ve gone longer than a few months without listening to it or – thanks to the 2-CD Anthology (1998) and Final Wild Songs box set (2016) – songs from it.

In many ways, the 11-song set – along with the Ryders’ 1983 E.P. 10-5-60 and 1984 LP Native Sons – served as a primer for what’s now called “Americana” music. It integrates rock ’n’ roll, R&B, country and folk into a tasty whole, contains glorious guitar work and incisive lyrics, and features melodies that burrow into the brain like a groundhog beneath a back deck. As with those earlier efforts, the Long Ryders build upon the traditions begun by such forebears as Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and Flying Burrito Brothers while incorporating a punk and post-punk ethos. They embraced the past while remaining relevant to the present, in other words, such as on the Tom Stevens-penned “Years Long Ago,” about how the nostalgic pull of the past often hides ugly truths:

“If we return to the places we lived in before
We turn from all that we’ve gained
If we lived out a life that we struggled to change
Just to turn back the calendar page
Then we’d see that our memory betrayed us
We’d see what had frightened us so
We’d hear all the voices that fall silent now
Pieces of years long ago.”

Another highlight: the anthemic “Looking for Lewis & Clark.

Another: “WDIA,” which offers a history lesson on the importance of America’s first black-run radio station to generations of black and white youth.

And another: “State of My Union.” Robert Christgau, the dean of American rock critics, said that the song “aggravates the honest chauvinism of Ronnie Van Zant’s reflections on the same subject with the gratuitous self-righteousness of Neil Young.” That’s a criticism, I think, but I find it funny. It’s a great song. Here’s a live version (and, yes, I’ve shared it before):

Here’s the album, via YouTube, in full (plus a few bonus tracks drawn from the Looking for Lewis & Clark EP that were added for the CD release):

The track listing:

Today’s Top 5: 1985

The year 1985 is likely best remembered for the simultaneous Live Aid concerts that occurred in London and Philadelphia on Saturday, July 13th. There were many performances that day and night – some good, some not, and many somewhere in-between – but the one that probably had the biggest impact, at least in the U.S., was U2’s. Their 18-minute set epitomized, and still epitomizes, everything good about this crazy little thing called rock ’n’ roll:

In every other respect, the year – like 1986 – was a transitional time. I wrote about it in my Top 5 for April 1985, so hopefully won’t repeat too much of myself here. In short: America was still rebounding from back-to-back recessions that occurred earlier in the decade. Unemployment stood at 7.3 percent at year’s start and fell to 6.7 by year’s end. Inflation was, thankfully, almost a non-entity, averaging 3.6 percent; and since the average wage increased by 4.26 percent from 1984, that meant most employed folks came out .66 percent ahead.

me_chevette_85As I’ve mentioned before, in ’85 I worked part-time as a department-store sales associate and, during the summer, worked full-time hours. I had no complaints. I had a car – a 1979 Chevette, dubbed the “Hankmobile” by my folks because I plastered an “I’m a Fan of Hank Jr.” bumper sticker on the back. (Yes, I was – and remain, to an extent – a fan of Hank’s, though that’s grist for another post somewhere down the road.) The Hankmobile got the job done – perhaps not in style, but so what? I bought a tape player, installed it and was good to go. (That’s me, sometime that summer, beside the car.)

Among the year’s top films: Back to the Future, The Goonies, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, St. Elmo’s Fire, The Color Purple, Witness, Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II. Back to the Future and The Breakfast Club rank among my most-watched films of all time – just as my wife can watch Remember the Titans ad infinitum, I can watch those over and over and over again.

The year’s top songs included “Careless Whisper” and “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham!; “Like a Virgin and “Crazy for You” by Madonna; “I Want to Know What Love Is” by Foreigner; “I Feel for You” by Chaka Khan; “Out of Touch” by Hall & Oates; “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears; “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits; “We Are the World” by USA for Africa; and, yep, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds.

The year’s top news stories included President Reagan’s controversial visit to a Bitburg, Germany, military cemetery; and the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists. Closer to home: the Philadelphia Flyers’ phenomenal goalie, Pelle Lindbergh, died in a car accident; and Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode dropped a bomb on the city – literally – that caused 65 homes to go up in flames.

For me, the year is noteworthy for other reasons, too: After two years of commuter-college life at Penn State’s Ogontz campus (now known as Penn State Abington), I headed to the mothership, University Park, in State College, Pa., in late August. It was, indeed, a “Happy Valley.” I had a good roommate that first year, made good friends (one of whom became my roommate my second year), and – like most everyone else I knew – partied way too much. I joined the Folk Show staff on WPSU, contributed to a quarterly student magazine, and discovered the joy of selling plasma twice a week.

That same fall, an independent record store opened in town: City Lights Records, where I often whiled away time and money. Here’s a student film from 2008 that tells its story:

img_2094Anyway, enough of the introduction; it’s time for today’s Top 5: 1985. As in, my Top 5 albums from that storied year… (all of which, small surprise, I’ve previously featured in these pages.)

1) Lone Justice – Lone Justice. Two words – and one name – as to why this tops my list: Maria McKee. The Little Diva, as she was nicknamed at some point in her career, is absolutely riveting throughout. Truth be told, to my ears, when she sings – whether with Lone Justice or on any of her stellar solo albums (and they’re all stellar), there’s no one better. Ever. That’s how I feel in the moment, at least. True, the delirium passes when the music ends, but man! I never want it to end.

2) The Long Ryders – State of Our Union. I wrote in my Top 5: Summer 1985 list that the Ryders “basically laid down the blueprint of the alt.country/Americana movement a decade before it became popular”; and this LP, to my ears, is their tour de force. As with Lone Justice’s debut, it’s an album – originally vinyl, then CD and now that CD digitalized as FLAC files – that I’ve returned to time and again through the decades. It never gets old. “State of My Union,” a Chuck Berry-infused, tongue-in-cheek tour of the South, is one of my favorite tracks, but they’re all great.

3) John Cougar Mellencamp – Scarecrow. A damn good album. “Minutes to Memories,” which I featured in my Top 5 for October 1985, is one highlight; “Small Town” is another. On this album, and the one (Lonesome Jubilee) that followed, Mellencamp tackled subjects and themes – the rural reality of the Reagan Age and small-town life, primarily – too often avoided by his rock ’n’ roll peers, no doubt because they hadn’t lived it. He had, and it shows.

4) Emmylou Harris – Ballad of Sally Rose. I’m sure I rank this higher than most would, but it’s the album that made this boy a fan. As I wrote in my remembrance of her 1985 concert at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, I bought it on vinyl on February 17th; picked up a double-album cassette of Pieces of the Sky and Elite Hotel on March 2nd; and saw her play Sally Rose from start to finish on March 29th. Perhaps it was that condensed introduction – some might say, instant obsession – with her music, but…wow. This set still packs an emotional punch. (For those not aware, it’s a fictionalized account of her relationship with Gram Parsons.)

5) Rosanne Cash – Rhythm & Romance. And, finally… Rosie! As I explained in that Summer 1985 piece, I discovered Rosie and this album via VH1.

And a few runners-up…

The Three O’Clock – Arrive Without Traveling

10,000 Maniacs – The Wishing Chair

Jane Wiedlin – Jane Wieldin

Pete Townshend – White City: A Novel

Today’s Top 5: April 1985 (via My Desk Calendar)

IMG_1016April 1985 wasn’t a particularly busy month for me, music-wise, but it was a monumental one nonetheless. On the 17th of that month (31 years ago to the day as I write) I picked up, on cassette, an album that – I hesitate to say that it changed my life, so I’ll say instead that it re-affirmed certain things.

The album in question, Lone Justice’s self-titled debut, was a shotgun blast of sonic newness that infused country-rock with punk, rock, gospel and soul. The music roared, soared and seeped from the speakers, and the mercurial Maria McKee’s vocals forged palpable emotions from the simplest of phrases. It helped, too, that she – and, presumably, the band – was about my age. It was the first time, I think, I heard someone my age singing about things I cared about in a style that I loved. It made me – someone who was often mining the past for musical revelations – feel like I wasn’t alone.

IMG_1018And three days later, I bought an LP that did it again: the Long Ryders’ Native Sons.

First, though: I was a few months shy of turning 20, a college sophomore attending one of Penn State’s satellite campuses while living at home. I worked part-time at a department store, though “part-time” is a bit of a misnomer. I often put in more than my scheduled 16-20 hours (Tuesday and Thursday nights, Saturdays and/or Sundays); the week of the 8th, for instance, I clocked 38 hours, though a large chunk of that was due to helping with inventory. The week prior, I worked 26 hours in total. I say so with certainty not because I possess total recall, which I’m glad I don’t, but my desk calendar, where I often tracked such things. (It’s a habit I wish I’d maintained, but – as I’ve noted elsewhere – I pretty much stopped after I departed for the Penn State mothership in the fall.)

IMG_1029In the wider world, the economy – as it had been for years – was sluggish, as evidenced in part by the 13 cent/hour raise I received on the 18th: unemployment was over seven percent and the gross national product was growing at a measly one percent. Most folks liked the Gipper, however, who’d just won re-election the November before, so he escaped blame. The economy was what it was, in other words. People just accepted it. The top-rated TV shows consisted of Dynasty, Dallas, The Cosby Show, 60 Minutes and Family Ties. Popular movies included The Breakfast Club, Ghoulies and Desperately Seeking Susan. The No. 1 single was “We Are the World.”

The Philadelphia Flyers, my favorite hockey team, had just clinched their division and were about to charge through the playoffs to the Stanley Cup finals (where they lost to the Edmonton Oilers). The late goalie Pelle Lindbergh (1959-85), in his last full season, was a wonder to behold.

In the months leading up to that April day, I saw two concerts: a Tribute to the Byrds at the Tower Theater (with Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Pure Prairie League – it was a far better show than the clueless reviewer claims) and Emmylou Harris at the Academy of Music. Albums that I picked up, in that same span, included the Byrds’ Untitled and Sweetheart of the Rodeo; Flying Burrito Brothers’ Last of the Red Hot Burritos; Emmylou Harris’ The Ballad of Sally Rose, Pieces of the Sky and Elite Hotel; Don Henley’s Building the Perfect Beast; Husker Du’s New Day Rising; and the Velvet Underground outtake collection VU.

Contrast those purchases with the Top 10 singles for the week ending April 20th (via WeeklyTop40):

1 WE ARE THE WORLD – USA For Africa
2 CRAZY FOR YOU – Madonna
3 NIGHTSHIFT – Commodores
4 ONE MORE NIGHT – Phil Collins
5 RHYTHM OF THE NIGHT – DeBarge
6 I’M ON FIRE – Bruce Springsteen
7 OBSESSION – Animotion
8 DON’T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME – Simple Minds
9 ONE NIGHT IN BANGKOK – Murray Head
10 MISSING YOU – Diana Ross

Yeah, I was out of step with the times. And, with that said, onward to today’s Top 5, April 1985:

IMG_10321) Lone Justice – “Ways to Be Wicked.” This song was written by Tom Petty and Mike Campbell for Damn the Torpedoes, but left behind. Jimmy Iovine, who co-produced that classic album, brought it with him when he signed on to produce Lone Justice’s debut a few years later.

According to the liner notes in Tom Petty’s Playback box set, Maria became upset after the fact when she realized – as a result of a Petty interview – the double entendre that “ain’t afraid to let me have it, ain’t afraid to stick it in” packs when sung by a gal.

2) Lone Justice – “Fortunate Son,” “Ways to Be Wicked,” “Sweet, Sweet Baby (I’m Falling),” “Don’t Toss Us Away” and “Wait ‘Til We Get Home.” One of the biggest regrets of my life: I never saw Lone Justice in concert. I have seen Maria a half dozen times in the years since (and given the infrequency of her tours, that’s saying something); and met her in 1993 at the (long-gone) Tower Records on South Street in Philadelphia. (It’s where she autographed the above CD cover.) This live performance from the Ritz in NYC in ’85 is incendiary…and makes me rue missing them all the more.

3) The Long Ryders – “Ivory Tower.” I bought Native Sons on the 20th based entirely on a Rolling Stone review, just as I did with Lone Justice. It wears its influences on its sleeve – literally, as the cover is a recreation of the cover for the never-released Buffalo Springfield album Stampede. (Not that I knew that at the time.) And the grooves pay tribute to the Flying Burrito Brothers and Byrds in addition to the Springfield – it’s basically an amalgamation of three of my favorite groups. Like Lone Justice, they mined the past while forging a new sound.

This song, written by the band’s former bassist Barry Shank, is wondrous – and features former Byrd Gene Clark on harmony vocals.

huskerdunewday4) Husker Du – “Celebrated Summer.” On the 8th of the month, I picked up New Day Rising on cassette – my second HD album. As with Zen Arcade the year before, I quickly formed a love-hate affair with it (and Husker Du as a whole); I wanted to like it and them more than I did. I’m not sure what didn’t connect with me. It’s packed with strong melodies and songs, but – for me – too often devolves into a minefield of noise. Maybe they needed a better producer.

5) The Fugs – “Nova Slum Goddess.” I bought this on the 27th. The Fugs, for those unfamiliar with them, were a satirical 1960s-era NYC band fronted by the poets Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg. I’m not sure how or why I got into their music, but I found them funny. I played tracks from this live album, Refuse to Be Burnt Out, on the Folk Show every so often.

And one bonus…

6) Simple Minds – “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” I didn’t buy this song for years, but it’s one I’ve always loved, and given that it was in the Top 10 at the time… well, why not feature it? The Breakfast Club, which it hails from, is one of those movies that never gets old (for me, at least). I do wonder, though, how this song would have gone over if Bryan Ferry – who was asked to record it first – had released it.