Reissue Of The Week: Ride’s 4 EPs

As Ride reissue their first four EPs, Richard Foster revisits his first-hand experience of the band’s glorious first phase, and assesses how the records stand up three decades later

Backstage at the Riverside Newcastle, sometime in the spring of 1990. Somehow, I’ve snuck in, tagging along with some loquacious ‘varsity types “who want an interview” with very popular Oxford indie rockers Ride. I find myself sitting on the edge of a grotty leather sofa in a graffiti-spattered space that feels like a dole office interview room. Singer Mark Gardener is drying his hair, using the noise of the hairdryer to stop any conversation. Andy Bell looks at us, saying nothing. Suddenly we are rumbled by the Riverside’s staff and find ourselves out of the door. One of the ‘varsity beans – wearing a yarmulka-style hat that seemed to be all the rage for a brief while – said something challenging about another Oxfordshire band who were about to play the Broken Doll pub and who were, apparently, “better”. So far, so gauche. Not that this tale means anything; more that the memory has stuck around in my consciousness as one of those grubby-fingered snapshots of a weirdly indeterminate era that felt more like Mike Leigh’s Naked than the Idiot Joy Showland that many would have us believe was a-happening all around us.

It was a good gig. I don’t remember the opening set from The Charlottes (outside that the girl at the door had handwritten their name alongside Ride’s on the ticket in marker pen, as was the way with Riverside tickets), but I do remember Ride being spectacular that night. Their sound, always full and pugnacious on record, sounded massive in the fust and gloom of the famous Newcastle club. If memory serves, ‘Seagull’, which turned out to be the opening track on their debut album, ignited a loud and increasingly jubilant set. I also vaguely remember lots of well-heeled wallflowers amongst the Riverside scruffs, cutting rug with abandon. There again, Newcastle crowds at the time were famed for their enthusiasm. That year local gig goers seemed to get their highs off the ultimate intoxicant, unbridled excitement. Clearly many still wanted to live in the Funhouse built on the back of the Berlin wall coming down, acid house, and 1989’s summer tours from the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays. Wry popsters The Sundays faced a gurning crowd that tried repeatedly to vault a crash barrier (!) in order to further seal their devotions; a psyched-out Charlatans put on a great show with UFO Club-style lighting; we got a blasting gig from the fabulously theatrical Lush, where the audience seemed like they were on a combined hen and stag do; and what looked like a kick-off on the Leazes End, when the arty Leeds act Pale Saints came to town.

Yet, within a space of eight months things felt very different, with bands still trying to embody a moment that had gone. Others looked as if they were disappearing into various scenes, the opposite of the “music is music” mantra that drove many a young imagination in 1988-90. Others – like Ride – had turned up and got their hooks into you for a while, and then somehow just melted away. Attending gigs by Slowdive, Chapterhouse and Northside felt like a waste of my time, even while I was in the room. Not that any were poor gigs, but the “future” promised to us so persuasively the year before felt somewhere else; less grassroots and utopian, more defined by the machinations of big indie labels or increasingly devoted musical sects. It all felt like a hiatus until My Bloody Valentine or the Roses, or The Fall (surely The Fall) would release something. Was I already beginning to be bored by it all, in that superficial, affected manner that comes to all twenty-somethings? My mate Mark got me into Gong, who played one of the greatest gigs I have ever seen at the Riverside in the early autumn of 1990 (or was it 1991?) but they were still a bunch of drug-addled middle-aged crazies in tights and cheesecloth! Later, my mate Dave and I went to watch odd, newborn misfits like PJ Harvey and Manic Street Preachers. The Orb gave many an ultraworld to live in. Anything to get away from an increasingly ebullient narrative flown by the likes of Creation Records.

Those first two Ride EPs, bought in the dawn of the world’s morning and the third, which soundtracked a sometimes beautiful autumn, were shelved and remained unplayed for twenty odd years. Outside of Lush’s glorious Mad Love EP and the formidable and often forgotten Pale Saints LP, The Comforts Of Madness, I didn’t really revisit any records from this time. Which is probably all very unfair on Ride.

Ride c.1990. Credit: Press

Ride’s first EP still has its brio intact more than three decades on. There’s a sticky sense of fun and daring here that later releases, with all their art and sense of scale don’t possess. ‘Chelsea Girl’ charges out of the blocks like a foal let out in a field on a spring day. Throughout, the track feels like it can’t keep up with itself, and the lyrics betray a similarly feckless, teenage impatience: “You must have something / what it is I just don’t know.” What does it mean? (What does it matter?) Following the predictable but fabulously cocky guitar squall to end the track, we get ‘Drive Blind’, which is still a monster and one of their best; the ice-cold riff sitting uncomfortably atop a glutinous guitar growl and an insistent, fill-heavy rhythm. ‘Drive Blind’ really does sound like a souped-up Ford Escort charging round dark country lanes in search of a party with the passengers holding their arse cheeks tight in fear.

There’s a messy groove on Ride that is very reminiscent of the times: ‘All I Can See’ is as lackadaisical and East Coast as anything on Teenage Fanclub’s Catholic Education. Diffident young English lads looking to riff off the chemtrails laid down by Dinosaur Jr., perhaps? Perhaps. For its part, the closer on the B-side, ‘Close My Eyes’, is full of the sort of fringe-heavy, lovesick mutterings many had at the time, when all of us dreamt of the bedroom action sketched out in MBV’s ‘Slow’, wondering whether it would happen in our bedrooms, too. Listening back after 30 years or so, the track could also be a Gen X take on ‘Down In The Park’, the beat certainly having something in common with that tapped out by Numan. No paranoia about being turned into a kitchen appliance here, though; it’s all about love and bodies and other squelchy stuff.

I remember sticking the second EP, Play on the day it came out, and having to sit down as it felt like the ultimate chemical rush. Opener ‘Like A Daydream’ balances out the increasingly choral, elegiac elements of their sound with a pounding beat. It sounded like they were about to find the missing chord, what with the psyched-out, metallic guitars reining in the incipient romanticisms. Lines like “I wish life could be like a photograph”, and “there’s so much more to think about than black and white” are the perfect teenage Great Thoughts, too; set down portentously in a bedroom adorned with posters of Mazzy Star. ‘Silver’ is just great; paced at stagger speed with the guitars brilliantly balanced as the story slowly unfolds. Gardener sings as if he’s down the pub after being dumped. ‘Furthest Sense’ now sounds like a pumped-up take on that buzzing Revolver sound which obsessed so many back then; the marriage of pounding rhythm and moreish riff wages continual war with the clever multi tracked vocal line. ‘Perfect Time’ hints at a sort of neurosis, the thud and bash of the sound almost runs away from the song itself, despite the slow sliding guitar breaks. It’s Ride at their messiest, on their 19th nervous breakdown.

Ride performing live c.1990. Credit: Press

With the Fall EP we notice a change. The band now sounds beautiful, at one remove, burned out. Their old dayglo energy is beamed in through another filter. We’ve moved indoors, and we practise staring out of the window, creating cathedrals of sound in our minds. That’s how the long autumn and winter of 1990-1991 felt for many wallflowers, Heaven Or Las Vegas escapism coupled with Gulf War nerves. Opener ‘Dreams Burn Down’ is a glorious song, a pure moment of revelation where everything comes together for the band and listener; the lyrics sound as if they have a hinterland and the rhythm creates caverns of space; not a moment is wasted. The coruscating guitar breaks are initially annoying but over time add to a growing sense of theatre, countering the latent beauty of the core melody. It really is a high point. Then an inevitable slump. ‘Taste’ now sounds like Ride-by-Numbers. It’s all there but not really furthering the cause outside of sounding pretty. Luckily the following track ‘Here And Now’ is another moody number, with a tough and scaly skin, the powerful bass and doleful harmonica part really adding to the atmosphere. Last track ‘Nowhere’ merely amplifies what has gone before and seems happy enough to wallow in its own ennui.

For the record, I didn’t buy Ride’s debut album, Nowhere, even though I’d enjoyed hearing the tracks on it earlier in the year at that Riverside gig. Just didn’t see the need. Was my consciousness picking up on the fact that their music started to sound too perfect, too nailed on, too “genre-defining”? Their big sound suddenly seemed to allow only rapt admiration; all head and no hips. I can’t remember listening to Ride, or all the other (proto)shoegaze bands after that particular winter. Which brings me to the last EP, 1991’s Today Forever. Hearing it probably for the first time as a serious “sit down listen”, it reveals itself to be a nice surprise and one that, due to the clear and confident song structures, can stand outside of that time pretty well; though echoes are familiar, of course. I must have heard it in other people’s rooms… ‘Unfamiliar’ is a sleek track, all charm and restraint. And ‘Sennen’ has transformed in my mind from being a downbeat song to being the best number Oasis never had. It’s a glorious tune, with a beautifully understated melody. ‘Beneath’ again marries clever guitar-driven pyrotechnics and an understated, folksy songline. Final track ‘Today’ is as good as ‘Sennen’, another torch shining a light towards Britpop, the big sound mixing psychedelia and an elegiac noise: a Deep English whimsy faced with sonic wipeout, a concoction so tarnished by the later oafish grandstanding.

Who knows where the time goes?

Ride’s 4 EPs is out now on double vinyl via Wichita Recordings

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