It’s a glorious Easter Sunday in Oxford and the city is thronging with visitors admiring the historic dreaming spires, basking on college greens or grappling with punts on the river Cherwell. Out along the Cowley Road, however, a different branch of Oxford history is about to be re-enacted.
Twenty years ago Ride’s career fizzled out, with the ‘shoegazing’ sound they pioneered becoming a dirty word. Now, their reputation restored by numerous young disciples of their surging dreampop, Ride are back and playing the first gig of their comeback trail to 500 overjoyed fans in the venue where it all started for them – Oxford’s O2 Academy, formerly the Zodiac.
Emotions are running high when the quartet take to the stage and recently freed Beady Eye guitarist Andy Bell rings out the opening chords of ‘Polar Bear’. It’s followed by the whirling rush of ‘Seagull’ – a startling reminder of how, by tethering the heady psychedelic noise of My Bloody Valentine and Spacemen 3 to accessible pop tunes, Ride became the first great guitar contenders of the ’90s. Drawing largely from their classic albums ‘Nowhere’ and ‘Going Blank Again’, as well as the much-loved early EPs, the show is exhilarating, showing how Ride built the cathedrals of sound that bands from The Horrors to Toy and Cheatahs to Tame Impala now worship in.
Proud locals in faded ‘Nowhere’ T-shirts punch the air as the soaring guitars of hometown anthem ‘OX4’ rush skywards. “Welcome back!” someone shouts. “You’re better than Oasis!” yells another. Bell, who spent 10 years playing with the Gallagher brothers, looks politely away. Among the crowd are newlyweds Simone and Rick, who flew in from the US that afternoon to make the show. “We woke up in New York on the morning of our wedding to find out Ride had announced the gig while we’d been sleeping,” Simone explains. “There was a point, waiting for our connecting flight at Reykjavik, when we thought we might have gone slightly mad! But it’s Ride; there’s no way we couldn’t be here.”
Backstage before the gig, the band are admiring a gift from a local baker: a dozen yellow, flower-shaped cupcakes with the letters R-I-D-E iced on them. It’s a tribute to the daffodil-strewn sleeve of Ride’s second EP, ‘Play’, which broke into the Top 40 25 years ago this month – the first Creation Records release to do so. The old order, with chart music on one side and guitar bands on the other, was breaking down, and Ride were kicking the doors open.
“I used to work in a record shop,” remembers bassist Steve Queralt. “I’d look at the charts, and indie bands would always get to Number 41. The Wedding Present would stall at 41, The House Of Love would stall at 41. Then all of a sudden there was that Top Of The Pops [November 23, 1989] where The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays were on. It was like it happened overnight. Suddenly indie bands were in the charts.”
Ride duly made their first appearance on Top Of The Pops in March 1991, performing ‘Unfamiliar’ from fourth EP ‘Today Forever’. “It was probably one of the most surreal experiences of my life,” says drummer Loz Colbert. “Looking back it was like, ‘What the hell were we doing on that?’”
“We didn’t really enjoy it,” adds Bell, “’cos you think it’s gonna be like [1960’s TV show] Ready Steady Go! and everyone’s gonna be having a great time. It’s not. There’s only about 12 people in the audience, they’re being herded round really rudely and there’s a boom swinging round and someone’s ducking not to get hit by it.”
“It did feel like we were gatecrashing a party,” Queralt continues. “It was the establishment and we didn’t feel part of it.”
Yet while the Mondays and the Roses had spent years building up their fanbases, Ride were propelled into the public eye before they’d had a chance to hone their stagecraft or interview soundbites. As a result, they tended to hide behind their thick fringes and dreamy soundscapes. Critics accused them of having nothing to say, but their open-ended, hazily romantic songs are exactly what drew their fans in. Ride found themselves spearheading a whole wave of new, southern English guitar groups, their good looks and fey brand of psychedelia seized upon as an antidote to the laddish Manchester sound. Likeminded acts such as Slowdive, Chapterhouse, Lush, Swervedriver and Moose scored a string of indie chart hits in Ride’s wake – a scene mockingly described as ‘shoegaze’, though the term has long since be reclaimed and deployed as a positive.
Ride hit their creative peak with 1992’s expansive ‘Going Blank Again’, trailed by the masterful eight-minute single ‘Leave Them All Behind’, both of which landed in the Top 10 with ease. But by this point Nirvana were in the ascendancy and Ride’s lack of lyrical conviction began to count against them. By the time they returned with 1994’s disappointing ‘Carnival Of Light’, Bell and frontman Mark Gardener had become creatively estranged. The album failed to ride the coming Britpop wave and the shifting balance of power was illustrated by the fact that they ended 1994 supporting new labelmates Oasis at the 4,500 capacity Brighton Centre – a venue that they’d headlined just one year before.
It was to be Ride’s last ever UK gig. As revealed on posthumous 1996 album ‘Tarantula’, former focal point and pin-up Gardener had become sidelined by Bell’s songwriting ambitions. While ‘Tarantula’ was being mixed, Gardener seized the wheel and announced his departure, effectively ending the band.
“We’d been from school to college doing the band together,” he says, “And we weren’t very good at saying ‘no’ or ‘stop’, which might have done us some good. In the end we crashed the car, just to get out of it. But I think that’s the beauty of it in a way, at no point was it a career.”
“It was one of those all-or-nothing type bands,” continues Bell. “Carrying on as a three-piece without Mark wasn’t anything we thought of.”
Bell tasted further success with his band Hurricane #1 before becoming a key member of Oasis for 10 years, subsequently following Liam Gallagher into Beady Eye.
Gardener and Colbert joined forces in a group called The Animalhouse, although their sole major label album, 2000’s ‘Ready To Receive’, failed to take off. “Me and Loz saw quite a lot of each other for a while,” says Gardener. “We both did taekwondo so we had these weekly fight sessions where we would regularly beat the crap out of each other.” Colbert went on to drum for The Jesus And Mary Chain and Supergrass’ Gaz Coombes while Gardener turned to production work, acoustic shows, guest spots and collaborations with the likes of Oxford band Goldrush and Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie.
But while his bandmates moved on in music, Steve Queralt was left behind. “I did nothing,” he shrugs. “I did a real job. Actually I didn’t know we’d split up. I stayed in Ride for 20 years.”
“He’s like one of those Japanese soldiers still fighting the war,” jokes Colbert.
“Wondering why there haven’t been any rehearsals,” adds Bell.
“It has been a bit quiet,” Queralt muses.
None of Ride are dwelling on their split today and that’s partly because, as Gardener points out, “We would have finished anyway. Personally, I had to put Ride out of my mind for a while.” What everyone agrees on, however, is that their friendship was repaired quickly.
“It never really went away,” Colbert explains. “I think initially we did feel a bit weird about contacting each other but that didn’t last long. Everyone got on with what they wanted to do and over those 20 years we’ve always met up.”
“It was just easier to get on,” confirms Bell. “It was all cool.”
News of the reunion broke when Spanish festival Primavera Sound tweeted photos of a huge Ride banner wrapped around a Barcelona building last November (Ride play Primavera later this month). “We announced it, then got ourselves off to a house in the country in the middle of nowhere,” Bell says. “We just wanted to make sure that there was something there to reunite.”
“I remember having a sneaky smoke with you outside,” Gardener says, “and these two were practising their rhythm rehearsal together. Me and Andy had a big grin and thought, we just need to show up.”
“It was like, ‘Yeah, that really sounds like Ride’,” adds Bell. “Phew!”
Onstage later, Ride’s set builds to a roaring finale with early anthem ‘Drive Blind’, its feedback climax drawn out to ecstatic lengths. Summoned back for two encores, it’s clear that, for the 500 fans here tonight, and the hundreds more who ensured their UK shows this month sold out within minutes, the chance to see these songs in their full live glory once again has been eagerly seized.
“The last 20 years just seemed to melt away,” says Simone afterwards, clutching a wedding card signed by the band. “I was sobbing before they got to the third song.”
“Personally, I’m playing catch-up with the emotional love out there,” says Bell, when pressed on Ride’s future plans. ”My big priority is to satisfy people’s nostalgia, give them what they want and make it as good as possible. We’ll give ourselves time to develop later.”
If they can match their blistering live form, Ride have it in them to create timeless music once more.