Back from Nowhere, Ride delivers at the Riv
If the primary measure for the validity of a band’s reunion is whether the group left unfinished business in need of completion, a strong case can be made for the return of Ride, the groundbreaking Oxford quintet that was one of the most vital in the shoegaze/dream-pop scene of the early ’90s.
As dedicated manager Dave Newton noted in the balcony of the Riviera Theater Friday night, Ride only played Chicago twice in its first incarnation. When the band asked for a show of hands for how many had seen it back in the day, a mere handful in the packed crowd shot up. And as great as it is on the four albums it produced between 1990 and 1996, it was always louder, harder, and much more intense—almost overwhelming in the style of its peers and Creation labelmates My Bloody Valentine—onstage.
The enormously talented Andy Bell, who fronted the group with fellow guitarist-vocalist Mark Gardener, went on to become a hired hand with Oasis, then Liam Gallagher’s Beady Eye. He likely played to more people at some festivals than had seen Ride on the entirety of its first U.S. tour, and that just ain’t right: Think of John Lennon joining Herman’s Hermits.
The influence of the group’s swirling guitars, seductive harmonies, and driving rhythms looms large on the current rock scene, with Montreal’s Besnard Lakes, which opened with a strong set on Friday, just one of a dozen worthy examples. And though Ride’s last album Tarantula represented a bit of a retrenching, number three, Carnival of Light, is an unjustly overlooked gem that significantly broadened the trademark hazy sound, offering a dozen new directions that could still have been explored if Bell, Gardener, frenetic drummer Loz Colbert, and stoic bassist Steve Queralt hadn’t gone their separate ways for a time.
So, hell, yeah, it was great to have the original foursome back at the Riv. And through an 18-song, more than 90-minute set, Gardener’s Sinatra-style hat masking the loss of the long bangs of yore was the only significant sign of the passage of time.
The undulating waves of guitar once again hit you and dragged you under like the sonic embodiment of those ominous swells on the cover of the classic debut Nowhere. The gorgeous melodies for the open-ended lyrics still were the life preserver for holding on and pushing forward to the white light. And Colbert’s unswervingly steady drumming, the anchor to keep you grounded, was all the more impressive for never faltering as every other sound veered in and out of time in an ocean of tremolo that left this listener feeling as if his internal organs still are vibrating 12 hours later.
Of course, the other measure for whether a reunion is more than an oldies tour is whether the band still has something to say, and Ride offered no new material (yet). And by avoiding the songs from Carnival of Light, with its far broader palette of varied sounds, song structures, and tempos, the group appeared more monolithic than in fact it originally was. (As alluring as that Nowhere haze was and is, the psychedelic fog could make you wonder, “Haven’t they played this song already?”) Manager Dave said the band was adamant about not bringing a fifth member along to replicate the more orchestral songs of its third album, but to add some variety to the night, a stripped-down semi-acoustic treatment of those tunes would have been perfect.
These are quibbles, and they’re more about hopes for the future if Ride continues then they are notes of disappointment about Friday. For now, like most fans, I’m just glad to have the boys back. And, in that spirit, I’ll tack on a video of Ride live in 1992 and the liner notes I’m still proud to have been asked to write for the 20th anniversary reissue of Nowhere in 2011.
RIDE LINER NOTES: Nowhere Never Sounded So Good
By Jim DeRogatis
After years of gushing about my favorite bands in fanzines, I was a few weeks into my first professional gig as assistant editor at Request in fall 1990 when Nowhere arrived on my desk as an advance cassette from Ride’s U.S. label, Warner Bros. I already had fallen in love with the band’s hypnotic, mysterious, and moody sounds via its initial salvo of three four-song EPs: the self-titled debut in January 1990; Play that April, and Fall that September. Anyone interested in adventurous rock at the time bought everything issued by the U.K.’s independent Creation Records, and Ride’s music was more than enough to justify those costly imports.
Even so, Nowhere was something else: a musical tour de force where every element seemed perfectly conceived and working in blissful harmony, from the enigmatic cover art of that giant oceanic swell, to the crisp, powerful, yet hazy and disorienting mix of Alan Moulder (a name already familiar from his work with the Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine), to those swirling, intertwining guitars, intimate but otherworldly vocals, and sublimely open-ended lyrics of Andy Bell and Mark Gardener. Then I saw the band during its first American tour, and was even more stunned to discover its ferocious power onstage, where the rhythm section of Laurence “Loz” Colbert and Steve Queralt could only be compared to the immortal Keith Moon and John Entwistle.
Of course, I pressured my editors non-stop to write a feature about the band, and they finally relented, though they cut out all of my hyperbolic raving about how Ride was the sound of the future, even as it lovingly referenced three decades of psychedelic rock past. At the time, just before the alternative-rock explosion, many critics contended that everything that could be done with two guitars, bass, and drums had been done, and the only ground to break was in techno and hip-hop. For me, Ride obliterated that argument, though few American writers agreed. Ironically, many would be saying the same thing about a year later, after the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind.
Soft-spoken and supremely polite in that oh-so-British way, the driving forces of Ride merely wince when asked about the group’s origins, before confirming that, yes, the band really did start when Bell, playing guitar in the orchestra, and Gardener, crooning “Grease is the word (is the word that they heard)” onstage, met during a production of the ’50s rock musical at the Cheney School in their native Oxford. Both were in their mid-teens. “It was kind of a crappy old school, but known for good stage productions,” Gardener says. “That year it was Grease, and I thought I would give it a go. I never really ever thought of singing out loud before; I just knew at that point that I absolutely loved music, and that’s why I started to gravitate towards Andy.”
The two bonded over a mutual devotion to the Smiths. A musical prodigy who could play any instrument he picked up, Bell had grown up entranced by the sounds of the psychedelic Beatles—“Those were the only records in the house that were pop music”—while after Johnny Marr, the music that most captivated him in the mid-’80s came from California’s Paisley Underground, in particular the Rain Parade. Added to these influences were the dark, foreboding, and enigmatic images of the Velvet Underground as portrayed in the book Up-Tight, which Bell and Gardener spent hours scrutinizing.
In 1988, the two friends began Foundation Studies in Art and Design at North Oxfordshire College. There they linked up with Colbert and Queralt, who they already knew slightly from Cheney. Queralt had a four-track cassette deck, and they began rehearsing and recording. “At the time, in the Art Foundation group, we had a project to try and paint movement,” Gardener recalls, “so the whole thing about movement was in our heads—‘riding’ and ‘ride.’ Plus, Loz had just bought a ride cymbal when we were trying a few name ideas. ‘Ride’ was great, too, because it has different connotations, from sexual, to movement, to ‘being taken for a ride’—just very simple and effective. It said a lot, but it also didn’t say anything. It suited the soundscapes and all the ideas we were trying to create—just all very wide open.”
Gardener and Bell say the essential Ride sound was there from the first jams at Oxfordshire, with most of the songs starting with a musical idea from Bell. “Things like ‘In A Different Place,’ when I was about 15 or 16 years old, I had a couple of guitar lines like that which I’d just play for five minutes,” recording on a cheap cassette player, Bell says. Gardener sang Bell’s words, and the riffs became songs as they were fleshed out by the band in rehearsal and honed onstage at club shows booked by Dave Newton, Queralt’s boss at an Oxford record store, and Ride’s future manager.
After he saw the group opening for the Soup Dragons in 1989, the legendary Alan McGee signed the band to Creation. “Mark was the one who was friends with Alan McGee,” Bell says. “He was the more outgoing person. I just remember him coming back with these stories of some wild nights out, meeting people like Alan or some guy from an indie band that got signed that we would be impressed by.” The first three EPs followed in short order, recorded by Marc Waterman at EMI’s studios. “He was just the house engineer guy,” Gardener recalls, “and we got on really well with him. At that time, we smoked a bit of pot, and he smoked as well, and it was, ‘Hey, man, this guy is really cool! He knows what he’s doing in the studio,’ because we really didn’t—we just knew what we were doing with the music.”
The EPs were well-received, with Play and Fall cracking the Top 40 on the U.K. charts—a first for Creation—and the British music press cheering the band on, albeit with its usual snarkiness. Thanks to the Oxford connection, Ride was dubbed part of “the scene that celebrates itself,” though the musicians always were more shy than cocksure, and together with ascendant peers such as My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, they were labeled “shoegazers,” even though, as noted earlier and evidenced by the live recordings from the Roxy in L.A. during that first American tour, they were fierce onstage. Chalk it all up to their innocent schoolboy facades.
“We were just out of school, and we had no intention of pretending we weren’t by being ‘rock and roll,’” Bell says. “We thought it was really corny if a band had a bottle of Jack Daniels onstage.” The musicians just tried to be themselves. “The posing only came later on,” Bell adds, laughing.
“We were just enjoying making the music we were making and not really having a lot of agendas other than enjoying each other’s company and recording and playing shows,” Gardener says. “We obviously were excited about the EPs—we didn’t expect in any way for things to start going into the charts—and we were with Creation and all was great. Then it was, ‘Alright, guys, now we need the first album!’”
The Nowhere sessions took place during the hot summer of Italia 1990—World Cup soccer remains a watershed event for these boys—with Waterman once again behind the console, though this time they worked at London’s Blackwing Studio, housed in a former chapel and famous for yielding early recordings by Depeche Mode and Yazoo. “Basically, you’ve got the four of us and Waterman going into this weird studio in a bizarre old church, which had a big stone room where Loz set up his kit,” Gardener says. “What happened during those sessions was us becoming nocturnal. Marc was great at that, because he would keep going until we dropped. I think when you record an album, it is affected by whether or not you record during the day or night, and it started getting that darker vibe about it. Some of the tracks we had demoed, but a lot of it was sort of spontaneous and pulling the tracks together there and then. We just set up and bashed it out as live as possible.”
Gardener and Bell were 20 years old, and Bell was still writing songs and living in his bedroom at his parent’s house in Oxford. “All the songs are mine except ‘Decay’ and the song ‘Nowhere,’ which was a jam with Loz’s words on it,” he says. “Mark made me sing lead on ‘Vapour Trail,’ and me and Mark had just bought new Rickenbacker 12-strings and matching Roland GP-16 effects units. I was playing through Vox Combo and Hiwatt heads and a Marshall cab, with lots of wah-wah. We started recording with Marc Waterman, but he caved under the pressure.”
“As a recording engineer and being a part of the vibe and whole process, Marc was fantastic,” Gardener continues. “The pressure came when we needed to finish the record, and that meant having it properly mixed. ‘How do you mix this thing? There is all this noise and chaos!’ What you do with mixing these days is easier, because with [digital] technology, you can record things, get away from them, and come back fresh and pick up where you left off. In those days, you couldn’t do that.”
“So we were there with our half-done album, and Marc kind of had a… I don’t want to say nervous breakdown, but he couldn’t take the pressure,” Bell resumes. “I don’t know exactly what happened, but I remember Alan McGee coming in, insisting that Alan Moulder come in and mix it, and he made it sound like how it was. He did not create anything about it; he just kind of balanced what was there.”
So there it was, then as now, with the eight original tracks on Nowhere augmented by the addition of the Fall EP that preceded the album and the Today Forever EP that followed in March 1991. And while Bell and Gardener never could be accused of celebrating themselves, they remain proud of these sounds as they look back two decades later, Gardener from the recording studio he runs in Oxford, and Bell from the new band he’s crafting with Liam Gallagher and Gem Archer after his stint as the bassist in later-day Oasis.
“They managed to gel with what I was doing, and we all kind of made something so much greater than what we could have done alone,” is how Bell sums up Ride. “When I listen to Nowhere, I have to get past the vocals, because we didn’t spend too much time getting them really right. But I get why everyone loves it, and I love it, too… At the time, I kind of worried that those first two albums were going to get really dated. I thought the sound was getting faddish at the time, and I wanted to make timeless music. But it’s ended up that the stuff we did first sounds the most timeless.”
When Gardener listens, he hears “the realization of some of the dreams we had at art school—things were coming into fruition, and that’s an amazing feeling. At the time, we had so many labels, like shoegazers, and I just thought, ‘Well, we could be part of this or that, but at the end, we’re just Ride, and I hope whatever we are doing now will stand the test of time.’ Without sounding too pretentious, great art does, and I think it has.”
As do I, boys. As do I.