Lawsuits! Miming! An M-Person! Rave-pop glory! 30 years on, the inside story of Black Box’s ’80s mega-hit ‘Ride On Time’

Lawsuits, outrage, fur coats and a secret megastar's vocal - the 'Ride On Time' saga is a story for the ages

One of the stone cold classics of the rave era, ‘Ride On Time’ by Italian trio Black Box, can still kickstart any dancefloor.

As it celebrates its 30th anniversary, it’s time to reveal the full and gloriously mad tale of one of the most controversial Number One singles in history. The group got sued by disco legend Loleatta Holloway after they didn’t clear the sample of her vocal from her song ‘Love Sensation’. The model miming ‘Ride On Time’ on Top Of The Pops caused outrage to TV viewers who still didn’t understand what sampling was. Holloway’s vocals were replaced at the last minute by a future pop superstar. And then, the trio got sued by their next singer too.

As Black Box release a brand new – and officially cleared – retro disco mix of ‘Ride On Time’, NME goes deep with founder Daniele Davoli on the controversial story behind the song…

It was at the forefront of sample culture

“In 1989, a friend showed me an Akai sampler and I knew it was a game changer. As the resident DJ at a club in Bologna, I could do live remixes for the crowds. It cost £3,500, which was three months’ wages, but the club agreed to buy one. I started sampling dance hits and playing around with them in the DJ booth – including ‘Love Sensation’.”

It’s a heavy rock song, really

“One night, two session musician friends, Mirko Limoni and Valerio Semplici, saw my DJ set. They said ‘What’s that song where the girl screams at the top of her lungs? That’s really noticeable!’ They weren’t big dance music fans, and really I was a heavy rock fan, into Deep Purple. But people didn’t take Italian rock music seriously. Dance was the only culture available to us. ‘Ride On Time’ was the three of us trying to do a song with the power of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, but with a dance beat.

“Once I got to Mirko and Valerio’s studio, I already had the idea for the piano melody. Within 40 minutes, we had a basic backing track. The difficulty was working out what order to put Loleatta’s vocals on the track. That took about six weeks before the song was finished.”

At first, nobody wanted to release it

“I helped record companies assemble compilation albums in Italy, so I had contacts at all the major labels. But none of them wanted to know. I was told ‘This is really good, but it’s not what sells in Italy and we’d struggle with it internationally. You’re overdoing it.’ Instead, I was played Europop hits of the time, like ‘Call Me’ by Spagna and Sabrina’s ‘Boys Boys Boys’, and told ‘Why don’t you do something like that?’

“Eventually, I gave ‘Ride On Time’ to a local dance label, Disco Magic. They’d release almost anything, in the hope that one day they’d win the lottery by releasing something huge.”

It got big in Ibiza, and things started well

“‘Ride On Time’ took off in Ibiza, as the resident DJ at Amnesia stocked the single in his record shop. At the same time, DeConstruction Records in the UK asked to release another dance song I’d made, ‘Numero Uno’. I couldn’t let them have it, as I’d already given it to Beggars Records. When DeConstruction asked if I had anything else, I sent them ‘Ride On Time’. They couldn’t believe their luck – the rave DJ Mike Pickering had already played ‘Ride On Time’ to DeConstruction, but nobody knew who it was by. And then I sent it to them in the post. DeConstruction bought the song and said ‘Don’t worry, we’ll sort out clearing the sample of ‘Love Sensation’.’

Then it started causing outrage

“We hadn’t expected ‘Ride On Time’ to be a hit. I thought we’d sell a couple of thousand copies, enough to maybe buy some studio equipment. Being asked on Top Of The Pops was madness to three hicks from the Italian countryside. We realised we had to find a singer, because none of us three blokes from Italy would be convincing replacements for Loleatta Holloway. It wasn’t a big deal. Katrin Quinol was the girlfriend of a club owner I knew, who did a cabaret show where she mimed and did a little singing. Katrin was the perfect fit, and she knew what her role was.

“When the press started writing headlines like ‘Miming outrage on Top Of The Pops‘, we couldn’t believe it. Miming on TV shows in Italy, and everywhere else in Europe, was perfectly normal. Katrin looked great, her performances had energy and she was convincing enough that ‘Ride On Time’ stayed at No 1 for six weeks. We couldn’t see the problem.”

Then it started costing us loads of money

“DeConstruction were owned by BMG, whose legal team bought the rights to the sample from ‘Love Sensation’ from its record company Salsoul for $5,000 and 1% of the royalties. Or so everybody thought. When ‘Ride On Time’ got to No 1, Loleatta Holloway rose from the dead. Seriously – this was before the internet and I honestly thought she’d died, as nobody had heard from her in years.

“When Loleatta complained about not getting any money, BMG said ‘Look, we’re very sorry, but we’ve bought the rights from your record company.’ And at that point, Salsoul said ‘No, you haven’t.’ They said they wanted $500,000 – and when BMG said ‘You signed our deal’, it turned out Salsoul hadn’t signed. When they double-checked, BMG realised they hadn’t actually had the paperwork back from Salsoul to accept the original $5,000 offer after all. So that was fun. In the end, I think Salsoul got hundreds of thousands of pounds and Loleatta Holloway got what she asked for – a fur coat.”

It features a secret star on the re-recorded vocals

“When BMG realised they hadn’t cleared the ‘Love Sensation’ sample, everybody panicked. Their solution was to have a singer re-record Loleatta Holloway’s vocals. They flew to Milan with the new vocals and we had 24 hours to delete the original vocals and put the new singer’s take on instead.

“I’ve still never officially been told who re-recorded those vocals. BMG said it was a singer doing them a favour, someone who hadn’t released any music yet but was a big priority for BMG for the future. A year later, M People released their debut album and as soon as I heard Heather Small’s voice I thought ‘Oh, she must be the ‘Ride On Time’ girl!’ Heather’s voice is so distinctive, it can’t be anyone else, I don’t think. But when I asked BMG if it was her, they got very shy, saying ‘Look, nobody can know who it is. This can’t get out.’ It’s 30 years later, and I still don’t know for sure.”

It was all too much too soon for us

“‘Ride On Time’ was a hit before superstar DJ culture. We turned down producing a Duran Duran album, because they were the biggest band of the ’80s and we just about knew how to use a sampler. How were we going to tell them what to do with their guitars and drums? We were mega-excited to be DJing elbow to elbow with our favourite DJs like Mark Moore from S’Express. That was enough for us. We didn’t have the savvy of someone like Paul Oakenfold. He had the confidence to go up to Bono and say ‘Hey, why don’t I be warm-up DJ on U2’s next tour?’ and, next thing you know, our mate Paul was DJing in stadiums. We’d never have thought of that. Five years later, we would have been part of it, but it was too late for us by then.”

It didn’t get any easier with a new singer

“Once ‘Ride On Time’ was a hit, we thought it would be easier. We got sent tapes of singers to work with, and one of them was an incredible, powerful American vocalist. She was better than Whitney Houston. We recorded seven songs with her, and that was the basis of our debut album, ‘Dreamland’.

“We had three more Top 10 hits in the UK after ‘Ride On Time’, including ‘Everybody Everybody’ and ‘Fantasy’ with the new singer. [Daniele doesn’t name her, but he’s referring to Martha Wash, who also sang ’80s classic ‘It’s Raining Men’ by The Weather Girls.]’Dreamland’ went double-platinum in the UK and gold in America.

“Then our new singer said we’d used her vocals without permission too. She wanted to release her debut solo album, and I believe her record company didn’t want their new R&B star to be associated with Black Box’s cheap dance music, so she tried to claim that she thought she’d only been recording demo vocals. It was all rubbish, but it really damaged us: after Loleatta Holloway had criticised us too, people thought there was something dodgy about us. In the end, her album flopped and she got dropped anyway.”

But 30 years on, it’s time to celebrate Black Box’s legacy

“We haven’t seen Katrin since about 1992, but we wish her well. We did a deal where Katrin was allowed to perform PAs under the Black Box name in Europe, provided she didn’t do anything under that name in the UK. I never got to meet Loleatta Holloway, which is sad. She died in 2011, and I’d like to have apologised to her for how messy everything got. We didn’t mean to upset Loleatta.

“Because of the fallout from ‘Dreamland’, me, Mirko and Valerio were wary of the Black Box name and ‘Ride On Time’ for a time. We’ve carried on and we’re happy, but we mostly remixed for people under different names. But recently people like Alt-J have been asking us to remix as Black Box and it’s made us want to celebrate what we did together. We have a new singer, Celestine, and I’m based in the UK now so that it’s easier for us to play shows.

“We bought the rights to the Loleatta Holloway sample of ‘Love Sensation’ last year, but we hadn’t planned to do anything new with ‘Ride On Time’ this year. Then everyone started messaging us on social media, saying ‘Hey, congratulations on 30 years!’ Eventually, we thought we’d look really lazy if we didn’t do something. We didn’t want to do the same dance mix that everybody else does with Loleatta’s sampled vocals. So we decided to do a disco remix – what if it was a remix like Earth, Wind And Fire or Dan Hartman would have made in 1979? Valerio is a conductor, so he was able to get an orchestra for us. It was hard – not many musicians know how to play disco anymore – but it was a real exercise in pleasure, not a marketing tool. Now we’re all happy being Black Box again, it’s time to make the most of it.”