Blur 21 and Parklive (gig and the CD release) have created a wave of nostalgia among the music press the last couple of weeks. Questions about whether Blur are no more - allowing Alex James to continue his life in the countraayyyy, as Damon would say - have provided a fine subplot to what may ultimately be their final swansong this summer. But it is another 90s band who are dominating my iPod's persistent waves of music and this has been prompted by the rerelease of their less known LP Going Blank Again, initially released 20 years ago - the year before Blur's debut Leisure 21 years ago (thus the title of their new box set). Ride, like Blur, should also be regarded as one of the great bands from the 90s.
Formed in Oxford, by Andy Bell, Laurence Colbert, Mark Gardner and Steve Queralt, Ride's first release, Nowhere, became a classic of the late 80s/early 90s shoegaze scene. Shoegazing, which I've already referred to quite a lot in this blog - it's my current phase let's say - was but one stream of the dispersing directions that rock music had already taken since the late 1970s. With the 60s and 70s rock movement effectively a descendent of 20th century American blues (especially the 12 bar blues), it wasn't until the arrival of punk that the classic and typical structures of rock music began to change. Rock music in general, post Led Zeppelin, was beginning to exhaust the blues structure and too often became an indulgence in the various whims of self-indulgent guitarists trying to become the new Jimmy Page or Jimi Hendrix. Punk saw a rejection of this extravagant musicianship and a gigantic shift towards simpler, catchier and anarchic songs, whose purpose was not to show off the guitarist's mastery of the pentatonic scale, but instead to be loud and abrasive, pertaining to rebellion, rather than proggy psychedelic revelling. Despite punk's intentional ambivalence towards musical structures and so on, this initial challenge to the established rock formula changed modern music for ever and opened up a line of musical lineage that would ultimately culminate in Ride and the rise of Britpop afterwards.
Following the bombastic years of Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks and co, it was in post-punk that new guitar bands found a confidence to, within the 3-5 minute structures installed by pop music, create a new sort of expressiveness in their music - punk may have initiated the shift, but post-punk is as important for being a thriving genre post-12bar-blues. Incorporating elements of art rock legends such as Velvet Underground along with the influences of Krautrock and the rise of electronic music, bands like Television and Talking Heads paved the path for atmospheric and emotional rock music that could survive quite independently of the previously blues and folk shaded rock. While bands like The Cure and dream pop band Cocteau Twins were influential bridges between post-punk and shoegaze, it was the distortion heavy, angst ridden lineage of Joy Division through to The Jesus and Mary Chain that was more influential in creating the new techniques that would ultimately influence bands like Ride. Joy Division's low-fi atmospherics and The Jesus and Mary Chain's revolutionary distortion manipulation on Psychocandy saw guitarists begin to be able to use the sheer power of noise to create a grandeur of dreamy haze rather than bombastic riffs and solos. Concurrently the Metal scene used this distortion to create increasingly heavy riffs and increasingly extravagant solos - i.e. bands like Metallica and Iron Maiden. But while the 1980s metal scene's influence has been largely self-contained within 30 years of various subsequent metal music, the alternative use of distortion used by bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain went on to influence a wider field of music including electronic, ambient, alternative rock, noise and dream pop music among many other genres.
Although My Bloody Valentine's heavenly Loveless became the legendary lynchpin album for this reverb and distortion heavy dreamy rock music that became known as 'shoegaze', Ride's Nowhere was also a fine example of how far rock music had come since the increasingly leather trousered days of the late 70s. Indeed the early 90s is possibly the most underrated period of musical creativity in history. Shoegaze had found its ultimate platonic form with Loveless, metal was being subsumed by the peculiarly named 'alternative rock' movement as the new genre for the 'outcasts' with bands like Pavement, Sonic Youth the Pixies and even the Smiths following in the steps of REM to make catchy, poppy but still 'alternative' music; the Stone Roses were also leading the Madchester scene of drug infused psychedelic rock and grunge was kicking off in a big way with Nirvana's Nevermind round the corner. Add to this the underground rise of 'intelligent dance music' with trip hop band Massive Attack releasing Blue Lines and Aphex Twin releasing his Selected Ambient Works following Brian Eno's various ambient masterpieces in the 80s, as well as the meteoric rise of hip hop with collectives like Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest growing through the late 80s into the early 90s, and you have a whole wave of intelligent and dignified new musical genres being created out of the more caricatured diversity of the 80s. Even metal was beginning to develop a greater integrity as Rage Against the Machine's pedal heavy funk metal merged punk, metal and hip hop, while Tool were beginning to merge prog and art rock with metal to create some pretty epic music. As I say, it was a much underrated time for music.
Ride as forerunners of the shoegaze movement along with My Bloody Valentine definitely deserve their place among this great list of seminal groups. Nowhere has always been viewed as their classic and it is certainly their most quintessentially shoegaze album. 'Kaleidoscope' is a classic shoegaze track, evocative of Bloody Valentine's Isn't Anything period, while slower song 'Polar Bear' bears all the poppy emotiveness that underlined a lot of the shoegaze period. While title track 'Nowhere' sounds like a Jesus and Mary Chain throwback, there are also plenty of hallmarks of 90s nuances to come. 'Seagull' with its funky bass and psychedelic foretells bands like Kula Shaker, while the nasal vocals and harmonizing cello on 'Vapour Trail' sound very Oasis (for whom Bell would go onto become the bassist). But what made Nowhere such a great album was Ride's ability to create an overall dark and cold atmosphere via individually catchy and poppy songs. Perhaps it is on 'Unfamiliar' that Ride's greatest trait is exhibited: harmonizing droning vocals with catchy guitars to create a song that is both extrovertly poppy and internally complex and distracting.
That Ride were able to follow up Nowhere at all should be noted (My Bloody Valentine have famously not yet released a follow up to Loveless), but that they did so with an album as fine and creative as Going Blank Again is quite remarkable. Still fundamentally a shoegaze album, the guitars are still reverbed up and put into full dreamy escapist haze mode, but on Going Blank Again Ride are clearly captured by the aforementioned wave of creativity going around at the start of the 90s. Poppier and certainly lighter than Nowhere, Going Blank Again has probably been more influential to subsequent 90s bands. Soon to be characteristically 90s sounds emerged on the track 'Chrome Waves' with its synthesized strings and hip hop inspired beats (Ride noted that hip hop beats were a major influence at the time). The harmonizing 'aaahs' in the background to 'Mouse Trap', an otherwise classic shoegazing track in the Isn't Anything mould, were also quintessentially 90s while 'OX4' - a song about doing dope in Oxford - surely must have touched Britpop legends like Blur and Pulp. Going Blank Again also collects a wider span of Ride's influences. Already mentioned is the impact that hip hop had on them and you can also hear Jonny Marr's influence on the sunny, giddy guitar licks on 'Twisterella', the closest Ride come to a 'happy go lucky' song in this period. On album opener 'Leave Them All Behind' you get a Krautrock-like jam of 8 minutes of psychedelic riffs that just keeps on giving - the track could last many minutes longer if it wasn't for Ride's poppy constraints. 'Leave Them All Behind' can also be said to be a defining moment for 90s psychedelic rock as the squelchy wahhed guitars were to be later found on Kula Shaker again, as well as popping up in some unexpected places - America's poppy post grunge Third Eye Blind certainly seem to have been affected by Ride's guitar work on Going Blank Again. Typical of the time it was made, there's a lot happening on Going Blank Again.
Also typical of the year of its release - 1992 - is the Nevermind problem. As with many other alternative rock albums that year, Going Blank Again's sales were affected by the phenomenon that was Nirvana's Nevermind which saw grunge become the flavour of the month to the expense of shoegaze. While gunge became a sensation, shoegaze remained the foil for the dreamy outcasts who escaped the world via an internal haze of reverb rather than the more overtly rebellious angst that defined the grunge movement. Nonetheless, as with other great shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, Ride's legacy was strong enough to endure, such was the quality of their music. Ride's influence in particular, although not as grand as My Bloody Valentine's, was diverse and often surprising. Their mark on Britpop was not just confined to Bell's membership of Oasis but can also be found on their music, especially on Going Blank Again; their psychedelic guitar work is echoed on wide variety of bands such as Kula Shaker and Third Eye Blind; and the fact that they became a nationwide success despite coming from the previously low-key (in terms of music that is) location of Oxford inadvertently inspired future giants Radiohead as well as other Oxford bands like Foals to outgrow their quaint hometown (I highly recommend the 'Oxford scene' documentary Anyone Can Play Guitar for evidence of this).
The early 90s was a booming period for new music and new genres, one that perhaps has not been matched since. Ride certainly had their role to play within this with their two LPs from the period Nowhere and Going Blank Again. Overshadowed and perhaps underrated, recent rereleases and the 2001 best of compilation should hopefully preserve the great music they created during this period. Already regarded as one of the great shoegaze bands, Ride should also be regarded as one of the great bands of the 90s.