The Great Albums

Ride's psychedelic guitar rock for the ages

March 9, 2003


'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.


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"

6. "Birdman"

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.