We know the exact year (1989) when Ride rushed out of the North Oxford Art College hoping to dose us all with some noisy and joyous psychedelica. But can we recall the moment they stopped trying? In the beginning they seemed like pure freshness and excitement: godlike like new Byrds with monastery harmonies, thundering drums and blinding guitars. But viewed from the mount of the Angel of History, they were clearly a quick pick-me-up during the drowsy hours of third watch, just before the glorious dawn of Nevermind and Bricks are Heavy. Their trick was hardly new, just the latest permutation of some noise/melody innovations that the Jesus & Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine (not to mention Dinosaur Jr. and Hüsker Dü) pioneered a coupla years previous. Still, there was something unique and uplifting about their particular sound, redolent as it was of genuine romantic angst and squalor. Shoegazing, that’s what the Brit press dubbed it (allegedly because Ride stared at their shoes while playing, ho ho, though the name’s dichotomy of ostentatious introspection and stoned apathy was right on). Soon you had a movement, with lots of fun little bands like Chapterhouse and Lush locking into place as sleepy avatars of the newest old sound on the block. Now that shoegazing is spent — gone for 10 years now — listening to The First Time Records’ new compilation OX4_ The Best of Ride is . . . well, it’s like staring at your dirty old pair of Chuck Taylors in the closet. Your brain is suspended between the sublime and the mundane as the tender memories flood in, though they’re caged by the bare facts of dumb lyrics and irritatingly uniform monks-at-the-breakfast-table multitracked vocals. Still, it’s a long disc of great-sounding tunes (only one dud in the bunch), and those of us who have shed the layers of our youth by selling back our Ride CD’s could do well to catch up again. Newcomers will be astounded by the huge booming-moaning psychedelic sound, and old ex-fans will be bowled over by the sweetened memories.
As with any compilation, fans will quibble with the song selection here. Fifteen songs in 67 minutes actually seems a bit sparse to me (yet still exhausting when you listen straight through). Their 1990 classic Nowhere is represented by only one song (“Vapour Trail” — and no, “Dreams Burn Down” and “Taste” don’t really count). Also I was hoping to hear more from their 1996 closer Tarantula (which everyone ignored, especially me), since the sole song here (“Black Night Crash”) is pretty great. Otherwise I have no quarrel. With Ride, the obvious stuff was often the best stuff, and the sad trajectory of their inspiration is well-clouded here by putting their best stuff end-to-end.
The story of Ride’s origin is pretty blank overall, a run-of-the-mill success story. In 1989, four young prettyboys from the North Oxford Art College clicked as a band and started jamming and gigging. Mark Gardener and Andy Bell were the frontmen — their tender voices would intertwine and coast together on most Ride tunes, and their blinding-melodic guitar counterpoints would define the band’s sound. Bassist Stephan Queralt was the oldest of the bunch at 21, and though he wasn’t funky, his amps sure were loud. Finally, there’s Loz Colbert, the berserk drummer whose flying hair, wild eyes, and breakneck sticks were the very opposite of shoegazing. He was probably the band’s most distinctive personality anyway, though that’s not much of an achievement. An A&R fuss soon churned up, and Ride signed up with Alan McGee’s Creation Records, an obvious choice since the label had already turned Jesus & Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine into sonic icons.
Two quick 1990 EPs (Ride and Play) kicked off their recording career, and your heart will get to palpitating when their distilled essence — the flyin’-high trilogy of “Chelsea Girl” / “Drive Blind” / “Like a Daydream” — leads off this compilation. Putting the Velvets into overdrive (both with the title and the color-blurred sound), “Chelsea Girl” was a breathtaking debut, a chunky glop of shiny, wet neo-psychedelic mud. The opening line goes, “take me for a ride away from places we have known”, and later they gripe “It’s a different time now things are moving much too fast”. That sort of two-bit escapism usually puts me off, but at least they sing bravely from their esophagus here, rather than out of their nose like Lou or the Reid brothers. Another pleasant feature is the rotating minor-chord wall of feedback that ends the song — soon to be a trademark of their sound. Maybe formless electron clouds shaped by calloused fingers were dusking over every corner of the tuneful cosmos then. Or maybe Ride were just inspired thieves.
Remember when you used to dare yourself to coast your bike down the hill with no hands and your eyes closed? The best part was the panic and then the slow-motion wipeout. Well the feedback’n’hellfire bridge in “Drive Blind” captures that scabby-knee crash pretty effectively: you see the bright spots, and then the song resumes its noisy tingling calm. Still, nothing can top “Like a Daydream”, a statuesque little tune that still sounds strong and awfully beautiful today. It takes off with a Stooges riff and then soars all over the place in a rarefied troposphere of frozen choral voices and cirrus guitar filigrees. “I wish that life could be just like a photograph”, they moan (rather tritely but beautifully), and now, at last I get it: if a sonic picture of Ride could be frozen in time, then this tune is it.
From this point you can hear Ride getting inflated, or inflating itself. “Taste” and “Dreams Burn Down” (both from the 1990 Fall EP) substitute ostentatious technique for magic. When they sing “the taste just slips away” among their new choral-noise gimcrackery, you wonder whether they’ve resigned themselves to their fate: contrived inspiration. Witness the stately-stoned pace of “Dreams Burn Down”, which is fairly dull until you get to the brain-melting guitar raveups.
But was Ride’s pan about to flash? Not bloody likely. Rather than throw out the stems with the bongwater, they toured relentlessly, lit up some lively fertile romances, and then dropped Nowhere, the breakthrough album that seduced even nose-picking American kids like me. This stuff was magic: tender fingertips of love shifting into the clutched shoulders and purple kisses of lust, usually in the same song. I still love that album, even though I sold it long ago. Tunes like “Seagull” and “In a Different Place” still echo in me, and the memories are good. And yeah, you betcha, “Vapour Trail” really is a sweet song, all romance, bad poetry, inspired melody, and condescension. It still sounds mighty charming today (though I’d lop off that annoying cello at the end), and it even rivals “Like a Daydream” for pure radiance. Good choice, though I still wonder why there aren’t more good Nowhere tunes on here.
In 1992, Ride stopped the world and melted with us. After the stopgap EP Today Forever (represented here by “Unfamiliar”), they tried to win the shoegaze game with the over-the-top LP Going Blank Again. This was some serious angelic noise, but they sure weren’t angels, what with Japanese groupies and fucked-up drug habits pursuing them all the way to the bank. The 8-minute UK top-10 hit “Leave Them All Behind” sets the tone. An incoming tide of “Baba O’Reilly” keybs and blue-foaming guitars takes up the tune’s first two minutes. Then come the voices: competitive, arrogant, and not a little stupid, these shoegazing spiritual leaders march solemnly into their hilltop monastery with the convincing proclamation that they will “leave them all behind” and that “there’s nothing we can’t do”. True enough, since nobody much cares about Chapterhouse or Slowdive anymore, right? The other Going Blank Again tracks here are the great weary-joyous indie anthem “Twisterella” and a memorably beautiful tune called “OX4”, replete with a slowed-up stolen hook and a spine-tingling lone synthesizer (happily, the version included here deletes the tedious intro and outro from the original album, so you just get the core tune, and an excellent tune it is).
Next thing you know, NME proclaimed Ride “the only band that matters”, and the curse was on.
During the next two years, shoegazing slowly died, and Ride were busy getting married and becoming daddies. Duly inflicted by the dread scourge of “maturity”, they recorded a straight-psychedelic album, Carnival of Light, which raced to the UK Top 5 in 1994 and then raced back down again. The songs represented here are charming though. “Birdman” is damn near a folk song, and “From Time to Time” has a nifty little addictive hook that sounds like stoned cupids stringing their bows. Their hit cover of the Creation’s drug-addled “How Does it Feel to Feel?” is heavy and woozy, like having a stegasaurus as your post-op nurse. But then there’s the terminally dull “I Don’t Know Where It Comes From”, this compilation’s only unequivocal dud (even despite the semi-ironic couplet, “Turned on the radio tonight / and I was overwhelmed with shyte”). Meanwhile their new labelmates Oasis were overwhelming the radio with snide anti-shyte singles like “Shaker Maker” and “Live Forever”. Now was Ride’s turn to be left behind.
The band was soon overwhelmed with internal tensions and all that predictable nonsense, and the mythically bitchy sessions for their final album Tarantula seemed to precede any objective critical consensus. The album was ignored. However, the sole song here, “Black Night Crash”, is really great. Almost Strokes-like with glammy-grunge riffs and bratty vocals, it seemed as if Ride were gonna reinvent themselves yet again as a snot-rock band. But alas, they broke up instead.
There’s an extra disc of four outtakes and rarities here, though it’s sure to disappoint all but the most eager fans. “Something’s Burning” and “She’s So Fine” — both outtakes from the Carnival of Light sessions — are nicely forgettable Brit-hippie pop tunes, and “Tongue Tied” (a Going Blank Again reject) is painfully boring. But the alternate version of Nowhere‘s “In A Different Place” is truly beautiful: slowed down and tricked up with a nice soundscape of glowing-wire guitars, they take that puppy-lust undergrad moment of our collective lives and milk it for all it’s worth: “And we’re smiling when we’re sleeping / And we’re smiling when we’re waking up”. It’s even dreamier than the original, and you’re sure to get a bit blubbery by the end.
Ride began with some astounding attempts to create a sonic soundtrack to falling in love or collapsing into bliss. Part of the magic — despite their awkward way with words — was a genuine striving for catharsis. But when love became easy — even expendable — for them, and drugs were an expensive and plentiful curse, then the inspiration was lost, and their usual sonic devices took over. And when they tried to cut out the sonic devices in order to increase the inspiration (on the retro-psychedelic Carnival of Light), they apparently lost it all. It didn’t help that the band seemed to be just some pretty quartet of interchangeable lads, without individual personalities. They were an amorphous collective Sound, and the sound became a genre (shoegazing), and then the genre died, slowly. Still, OX4_ The Best of Ride captures their moment pretty well: a blind drive down into some sonorous and lovesick expanses of sound.