March 9, 2003
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
'Shoegazers," the English music press called them, alternating with an
even less flattering title: "The Scene That Celebrates Itself." But while
the shy and brainy members of the English quartet Ride were never
particularly demonstrative onstage, they crafted some of the most
hard-hitting psychedelic rock ever made, and they were never particularly
immodest or egotistical about their accomplishments.
Guitarists, vocalists, and co-songwriters Andy Bell and Mark Gardener,
bassist Stephan Queralt and drummer Loz Colbert came together in Oxfordshire
in 1988 when the musicians were still in their late teens, creating a
harder-rocking analog to the trippy dance sounds being made in Manchester by
the likes of the Happy Mondays. Like Creation Records labelmates My Bloody
Valentine, they favored a dense, mysterious and swirling sound based on
waves of heavily echoed, reverbed and chorused guitars, but they played with
a passion and ferocity that was pure punk rock. Queralt and Colbert's
rhythmic assault owed as much to the early Who as Bell and Gardener's
space-bound guitars and enigmatic vocals owed to "Meddle"-era Pink Floyd.
THE GREAT ALBUMS
Ride: 'Carnival of Light' (1994)
The track list:
1. "Moonlight Medicine"
2. "1000 Miles"
3. "From Time to Time"
4. "Natural Grace"
5. "Only Now"
7. "Crown of Creation"
8. "How Does It Feel to Feel"
9. "Endless Road"
10. "Magical Spring"
11. "Rolling Thunder"
12. "I Don't Know Where It Comes From"
NOTE: Ignition U.K. remastered and reissued the record in 2001,
adding three B-sides from the singles released in support of the disc.
Ride made its mark on the English rock scene with an impressive flurry of
activity in a two-year period that produced four excellent EPs and two
brilliant albums (1990's "Nowhere" and '92's "Going Blank Again"), all of
them mining the evocative sound described above. But it was with its third
disc, 1994's "Carnival of Light," that the group crafted its masterpiece,
retaining its signature sound while moving toward stronger and more
self-confident song structures.
"I thought it was a great album, but it's funny because a lot of people
who were attached to the earlier Ride noise thing didn't take to that album
at all," Gardener told me during a recent conversation. "If you like the
more psychedelic angle, that was definitely a psychedelic thing--we were in
a very psychedelic frame of mind in the studio. [Laughing] It was a
psychedelic time for all of us, really.
"I've always been looking for transcendence. I think certain things in
life happen, and you want to be able to feel like that. Obviously, I was
experimenting with drugs at that time, but now there are other ways that I
can achieve that--yoga and the mantra. But more than that, music has always
been the ultimate vehicle for me, my ultimate drug. Wherever I am, I can
always put some sort of music on that will help me transcend."
Early on, news about Ride's most transcendent recording didn't bode well.
After producing so much strong music in such a short period of time, the
group went into a period of hibernation, alienated by the typical
build-them-up-and-knock-them-down cycle of saturation coverage by the
English press, and a chronic inability to break into the U.S. market on
anything larger than a mid-sized cult level. (The early '90s were xenophobic
years in the States as MTV and modern-rock radio turned a deaf ear toward
even the most amazing British sounds in favor of Seattle grunge.)
There were reports that Bell and Gardener were no longer talking (the
disc was the first to feature individual songwriting credits), and the
album's original producer, George Drakoulis (Jayhawks, Black Crowes), walked
off the project after several weeks to work with Primal Scream. John Leckie,
a veteran studio hand who had worked with John Lennon, Pink Floyd and the
Stone Roses, was called in to replace him. But while the crafting "Carnival
of Light" might have been laborious, the result was well worth the trouble.
By '94, voracious rock fans Gardener and Bell had internalized 25 years
of inventive guitar rock, and the disc boasts echoes of the Floyd, the
Rolling Stones, Gram Parsons-era Byrds, and psychedelic folkies the
Incredible String Band (notably on a sitar-driven instrumental called
"Rolling Thunder"). Deep Purple organist Jon Lord made a guest appearance in
the studio, and the band recorded an incendiary cover of "How Does It Feel
to Feel" by the Creation, the legendary psychedelic mod band that gave
Creation Records its name (and which employed a violin bow for its chaotic
guitar solos years before Jimmy Page stole the trick for Led Zeppelin).
The album's tone is set by the opening track, Gardener's anthem
"Moonlight Medicine." Droning violins by the Electra Strings yield to first
one and then another typically massive Ride guitar riff while the insistent
rhythm emphasizes the singer's vision of escaping via the powers of love (or
is it an unnamed drug?). "With senses running wild/We touched the sky," he
sings. "It looks like heaven in my eyes/The more I find/The more I need your
medicine in my life."
"Basically 'Moonlight Medicine' is a song that is all about being in a
place in France, in an old chateau on a sort of psychedelic night," Gardener
recalled. "I was specifically trying to get at that feeling without giving
away the specific story."
Indeed, Ride always raised more questions than it provided answers,
preferring to let listeners fill in the blanks with their imaginations. This
may have been the reason that it never breached the American mainstream--at
the time, the alternative audience here just didn't want to work that hard,
though the group did win prestigious acolytes such as Billy Corgan, who
would tap their early producer, Alan Moulder, to record the Smashing
Pumpkins' most successful albums.
While the lyrics on "Carnival of Light" sit higher in the mix than on any
other Ride album, Gardener and Bell still didn't have much to say. They
relied on poetic notebook scrawlings such as "God is on my side" and "Angels
come from time to time," but their unfailing knack for crafting indelible
melodies turned these open-ended phrases into powerful and emotionally
charged choruses on tunes such as "From Time to Time," "Birdman" and the
elegiac album closer, "I Don't Know Where It Comes From," which evoked the
Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" in its moving use of the
Christchurch Cathedral School Choir.
Ride disbanded after a harsher and less melodic fourth album, 1996's
"Tarantula." Bell returned with a strong self-titled release by a new group
called Hurricane #1, but it was even less successful than Ride; he
eventually opted to step back from the spotlight and assume a supporting
role as the bassist in Oasis.
When I mentioned that the Noel Gallagher isn't worthy of kissing Bell's
boots as a songwriter, Gardener laughed and wholeheartedly agreed. "But I
think Andy just doesn't want the pressure of fronting a band right now," he
said. "He just wants to play music and pay the mortgage."
Gardener briefly fronted a new band called the Animal House with former
Ride drummer Colbert, then dropped out of the music scene to travel,
spending several months in India. Now he's back and looking for a solo deal,
performing in England with backing from a young band called Goldrush, and
undertaking an acoustic solo U.S. tour that brings him to the Abbey Pub,
3420 W. Grace, at 9 p.m. Monday. (Tickets are $10; call 773-478-4408.)
Almost a decade after its release, "Carnival of Light" stands as a
psychedelic classic, and Ride's influence lives on via acknowledged fans
such as Coldplay and Travis in the U.K. and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club in
the U.S. And fans can hope that the story might not be over yet. "I don't
think any of us would ever rule out that maybe some day we would play some
gigs again," Gardener said.