[13 March 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Among the onslaught of “Anniversary Special Edition” music reissues that are released this year, there are two you are unlikely to see. In one sense, that’s a shame, because they are closely-related albums by two of the primary British indie bands of the 1990s. “Underrated” is a word that often gets thrown around in attempt to cover for questionable taste. But it most certainly applies to Ride’s Going Blank Again and the Charlatans’ Between 10th and 11th, both released 20 years ago this March. The lack of dubious remastering, “bonus” discs, or “playing the album in full” anniversary tours should not preclude you from (re)discovering these albums. They are, after all, certifiable classics.
In terms of context, the parallels between Going Blank Again and Between 10th and 11th are notable. Released within two weeks of each other in March, 1992, both were highly-anticipated sophomore albums that followed successful and generally acclaimed debuts, both of which were released in 1990 on iconic indie labels. Ride’s Nowhere had been well-received by critics and made the Top 20 in the UK. Their use of heavily-layered guitar effects, dense atmospherics, and effete, buried vocals made them ripe for the “Shoegazer” tag that had been applied to their Creation Records lablemates My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive.
The Charlatans had enjoyed a huge single, “The Only One I Know”, and a UK Number One album, Some Friendly. But the lasting impression was they had gotten away with it more than earned it. Most folks, not least the critics, saw the quintet as stand-ins for the superior “Baggy” dance/rock band the Stone Roses, whose own eventual sophomore album, it was supposed, would put the Charlatans back in their place. Adding to the sense of impending obscurity was the departure of guitarist Jon Baker, whose clean, careful sound had gone a long way in shaping the debut. Hyped-up scenes, hit albums and singles, big shows, rabid fanbases… 1992 looked to be a pivotal year for both these bands.
The early returns, in the form of trailer singles, looked—or sounded—great. Ride’s “Leave Them All Behind” was, in its uncut version, an eight-minute epic that started with a very Who-like sequencer pattern before exploding into a sonic whirlwind that was just the right side of unhinged. Steve Queralt’s snarky, assertive bassline and a brief, ponderous interlude were reminiscent of the Cure, and, as usual, the close harmonies of co-leaders Mark Gardener and Andy Bell triggered Byrds comparisons. The sheer scope, magnitude, and confidence of the track, however, revealed ambitions that extended into progressive rock, garage music, and beyond. The Charlatans’ “Weirdo” introduced itself with a demented, haunted-house organ riff that was just killer. With its tight, electronic rhythm and new guitarist Mark Collins’ snarling solo, it was at once faster, heavier, and harder than anything the band had done before.
When placed in the contexts of the albums that followed, these singles served different purposes. Opening Going Blank Again, “Leave Them All Behind” was a calling card for the intense, brash, and thrilling experience that was to follow. 20 years later, Going Blank Again remains a sonic rush. Its genius is in appealing to the most basic melodic sensibilities of rock’n'roll without sacrificing the reverb, atmosphere, and noise that made Nowhere such a critical landmark. This alchemy is most evident in the follow-up single, “Twisterella”. Starting off with a nifty little bass lick from Queralt, the song quickly hits you with a perfectly summery, uplifting, melodic guitar riff. But this is no trifle, as the pounding chorus and moody keyboard break make clear. When Gardener sings “Any minute you will feel the chemistry”, he’s spoken too late. “Twisterella” is the sound of a band at the height of its powers.
Actually, that’s the feeling you get throughout Going Blank Again. The album is a blissful 50-minute trip, with Ride in the driver’s seat along with co-producer Alan Moulder, a master at obtaining clarity and definition with effects-heavy guitar bands. Drummer Laurence Colbert is the fuel, playing as if he is in a to-the-death drum-off with Keith Moon, so restless is he. “Not Fazed”, “Mouse Trap”, and “Time of Her Time” provide further breathless indie pop action. If it’s tough to keep them straight, that’s just a sign you have gotten caught up in Ride’s slipstream. Anyway, such homogeneity is broken easily and surely enough by the more reflective numbers. “Chrome Waves” is a glacial oasis amid the album’s churning dynamics.
Ride - “Twisterella”
“Cool Your Boots” is an epic weeper that becomes increasingly angry, thrashing around as if trying to whip itself out of its lovelorn state. But the real heart-stopping moment here is “Ox4”. Named simply after the Oxford postal code of the band’s home ground, it begins with a melancholy instrumental interlude before being overwhelmed by squealing feedback. Out of the murk rushes a rhythm track that is breathtaking in its perfection, a strummed Rickenbacker straight off a Byrds record interlocking with postmodern, post-punk effects and disaffection. “Never been so far away… / Just lost the last thought in my head / What happens now?”, sing Gardener and Bell, before being swept away by a mournful synthesizer line. You close your eyes, sit back, and feel the absolute catharsis that is Going Blank Again, is what happens.
While in Ride’s case “Leave Them All Behind” was a bit of foreshadowing, the Charlatans’ “Weirdo” was a bit of a red herring. When Between 10th and 11th arrived, the track was tucked away on the back end, a conspicuously frenetic moment on what turned out to be a surprisingly calm, introspective, almost mournful album. What exactly the Charlatans are mourning on Between 10th and 11th is unclear. Opening track “I Don’t Want to See the Sights” suggests it is a sort of lost English innocence. Several others point toward a failed relationship. Or, maybe, it is simply the end of the unbridled hedonism of the Baggy era. Hard to tell with Tim Burgess’ opaque lyrics. In any case, if the album is an abrupt turn away from the easy dance-pop of Some Friendly, it is also a quantum leap in musical maturity and sophistication. Gone is the jaunty shuffle rhythm that permeated every track on the debut, replaced by more subtle yet evocative playing from drummer Jon Brookes. Calmer does not necessarily mean lighter, either, as evidenced by “Weirdo” and the divebombing guitars of “The End of Everything”. Throughout, Collins’ playing is rougher and more bluesy than Baker’s was, combining with bassist Martin Blunt’s deep, propulsive grooves to give the Charlatans a newfound edge. And the material is powerful, each song dropping you in on a different aspect of the band’s troubled psyche.
“Ignition” alternates singsong verses with a big, escalating chorus. The brilliant, soaring “Page One” is Between 10th and 11th‘s pop apex, while the beautifully melancholy “Can’t Even Be Bothered” is the saddest song the band have ever recorded. As with Going Blank Again, the choice of producer is key. Flood was coming off success with electronic-oriented bands like Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails, and he is certainly responsible for much of Between 10th and 11th‘s crisp, clean sound, as well as the background layers of various effects and noises. If the so-called “Second Summer of Love” had to end, the Charlatans provided a musically evocative, emotionally affecting denouement.
The Charlatans - “Weirdo”
The critics, and much of the public, did not agree. While Going Blank Again received mostly glowing reviews and landed in the UK Top Ten, Between 10th and 11th was widely panned, and failed to make even the Top 20. Almost from its release, it was billed as a huge disappointment. This was a sentiment shared by most of the band, too. “Weirdo” has become one of the Charlatans’ signature tunes, but Burgess has since all-but-dismissed the rest of the album as a lesson learned. Many fans disagree, though, and Between 10th and 11th has, over time, joined Going Blank Again as an album worth respecting.
In March 1993, Ride and the Charlatans co-headlined a pair of weekend concerts in different English locations. Dubbed the “Daytripper” shows, they were a big success with fans and critics alike, and served notice that both bands had weathered the deaths of Shoegaze and Baggy intact. After that, the bands’ careers diverged. Ride ditched the effects pedals for a relatively bland psych-rock sound, floundered, and split in 1996. Andy Bell started the short-lived band Hurricane #1, and since 2000 has been slumming it as the bass player in Oasis and its Beady Eye offshoot. The Charlatans finally found their feet, not to mention the top of the British albums chart, again with their eponymous 1995 album. That started a run of successful, well-received records that established them as one of the foremost British rock bands of the 1990s. They are still recording and touring.
Thanks to exceptional material, strong performances, and farsighted production, Going Blank Again and Between 10th and 11th have aged incredibly well. Twenty years on, they still sound fresh, contemporary, and vital. Their influence can still be heard wherever atmospheric guitars, traditional rock values, and state-of-the-art technology come together. From Smashing Pumpkins to Death Cab for Cutie, who have covered “Twisterella”, and from the Killers to the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, the legacies of Going Blank Again and Between 10th and 11th are clear. Not coincidentally, most of these bands have also worked with Flood and/or Alan Moulder.
We may yet see “Anniversary Special Editions” of Ride’s and the Charlatans’ less-celebrated but no less seminal albums. Either way, they are due for a fresh listen.