The LONG tale of one American’s journey to see some British men sing the word “ah” a lot.
Ride’s reunion was not revealed subtly. Last November, a huge black banner with the band’s name appeared, covering a building in Barcelona, Spain. Worldwide, people stared at their computer screens and knew EXACTLY what it meant. After 20 years, Oxford’s kings of noise would ride again.
I first became aware of the band in 1990 when my girlfriend heard them as guests on KROQ’s popular Los Angeles call-in show Loveline. All she told me was that they were British and that their music was terrible. I was intrigued. After all, this was the girl who refused to sit in the car with me after pulling into a parking space at our college dormitory while I finished listening to the Stone Roses’ eight-minute album closer “I Am The Resurrection”. Sure enough, I heard the glorious “Vapour Trail” and was instantly sold. I made myself deaf walking to class listening to a cassette of their painfully trebly sonic masterpiece Nowhere on headphones all year long.
Their 1992 follow-up, Going Blank Again, gave the band a cleaner studio sound, big anthems and more pop hooks without losing a lick of power. Now that I was converted, it meant I’d finally catch them when they came through town. I’d missed them on their first trip to America, where a friend of mine saw them soundcheck with the Roses’ “I Wanna Be Adored”(!). Sure enough, they announced a Los Angeles show but then a high school friend attending college in Santa Barbara told me that they were playing the tiny Anaconda club there. It was only a 90 mile drive away, so I went there twice that month: first to see a very bored Bluh with a redhot Senseless Things and then two weeks later (on a Tuesday?!) to see Ride with Slowdive. Not surprisingly, I saw the tiny town’s same 50 Anglophiles at both shows. After waves of shimmering Slowdive noise washed over us, it felt like nothing could follow such beauty. Then the “bokka bokka bokka” intro of Ride’s “Leave Them All Behind” played for a full five minutes before the band finally came out to turn us into a bunch of pogoing crazies, wishing the American Revolution had never happened so that we could have cool accents and not have to call it “soccer”. A SCORCHER of a gig for a small gathering of faithfuls.
Fans and band members agree that it was mostly downhill from there. Their next album, Carnival of Light, had a few great instant classic rock moments but they weren’t going to win any awards with lines like “Blackbird flying in the sky/please don’t look me in the eye.” It probably would’ve been best to just stick to their finest go-to lyric: “AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH”. By the time they split in 1996 after one more album, it felt like no one wanted them to make new music, which didn’t make a reunion desirable for a very long time. It didn’t help when I started to dig up live tracks and videos that soured my memory of seeing them.*** Had I imagined on-key harmonies or did the welcomed volume bluh things a bit? I love it raw and they always looked great but I couldn’t unhear all the mistakes and lazy lead guitaring or lack thereof. After the breakup, guitar god Andy Bell took all of his talent and put it into the plodding basslines of Oasis. I didn’t want them back. I wanted my perfect memory of that Santa Barbara night back.
***UPDATE: listening to this amazing 1991 recording of them in Los Angeles while I finally finish writing. Apparently there were some really good nights too!
That is until 2003 when Bell joined Mark Gardener for an acoustic set of Ride songs in Bell’s adopted home of Sweden. When video showed up on Youtube in 2007, it was stunning. Simple, forceful strummed guitars and SPOT ON heavenly harmonies. They COULD sing together. It was only a matter of time before they brought the band back, even for old time’s sake. When Oasis split in 2009, Ride fans all gasped and waited until Bell did the unthinkable, sticking with Liam Gallagher in the thankfully short-lived Beady Eye. Within weeks of the band’s official split last year, there was a huge dark beacon of hope on display in Spain. We all exhaled and sang “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh” in harmony.
The inevitable European festival dates were announced but it seemed unlikely that the band would add America’s Coachella to the list that spring and make their big pitch debut in a country where fame had eluded them, especially when they’d already announced they were playing East Coast US dates in the summertime. OBVIOUSLY, they’d either wait until later this year to play Los Angeles’ FYF Festival or play Coachella next year, like the Stone Roses did. WRONG. There they were when Coachella’s 2015 lineup was announced, leaving most longtime California fans to wait patiently for festival organizers, Goldenvoice, to announce where else the band would be playing.
The reunion phenomenon associated with the festival has changed over the years. As fewer and fewer people attend Coachella for the music and the average age keeps dropping, veteran bands reunite to play for small crowds in Indio for a huge paycheck. Where bands used to be restricted from playing any connecting shows, the festival has become so huge, selling out two weekends regardless of who’s playing, that Goldenvoice can now put on other shows statewide with longer sets for their aging fans who don’t have the patience for the heat and the crowds.
Ah but where to go? When the first North American dates were announced for Toronto and New York, some megafanfriends of mine bought tickets. When Coachella was confirmed, other sunshine state shows were expected but no one thought they would play San Francisco, LA, San Diego AND Pomona. SF’s Warfield Theater was the first to be announced and sounded better than any other possibilities so I bought two tickets the day they went on sale. The Bay Area always had better crowds and a huge Brit-loving scene. I hadn’t been to the beautiful theater since 1994, where I saw James, Crowded House and the Go-Go’s that year. Plus, it would be justice for when the band was supposed to come to town that year. Sorted.
When they announced a show right here in San Diego at the beautiful but noise-restricted Humphrey’s By The Bay (I once saw Spinal Tap hilariously proclaim their show there the quietest they’d ever played), a lot of locals opted to go drive a couple of hours to Pomona or, surprisingly, sit the tour out completely. I wanted to make seeing them after so long a special one-time thing, so even I stayed away, taking a much needed night off during a busy week of shows. Four in six days ain’t so easy anymore. The show ended up being sparsely attended but apparently great, opening with an epic 16 minute jam incorporating “Nowhere” and other songs they didn’t do anywhere else in America. No regrets!
With my tickets bought, I just needed to stay away from spoilers and make some travel arrangements. Andy and Mark played a charity acoustic duo show two months before any full band gigs and while I shielded my eyes from setlists, I watched a video or two. Not surprisingly, they sounded as good as they had in Sweden ten years ago. But how would they sound with the roar of one of the best rhythm sections of their time behind them? Maybe, unlike the Stone Roses, they wouldn’t be too proud to sing as good as they were once capable of. I prayed for inner-ear monitors and quickly looked away when reports of a warm-up gig in Oxford, a last minute club show in LA, a radio gig at KCRW and video streams from Coachella flashed on my Facebook feed. LA LA LA LA I’M NOT LISTENING!
Per usual, I made all of my travel plans at the last second and printed up my tickets the night before, which fittingly happened to be the 50th anniversary of the Beatles releasing “Ticket To Ride”. Of course, my plane from San Diego ended up being overbooked. I had to turn down a $200 voucher I was offered to take an earlier flight that I couldn’t make and was then told at the counter that there were no other spots available for the entire rest of the day. As I took out my phone to get a ride home, my name was called and I was handed an aisle seat, obviously kept from me so that I’d REALLY appreciate it. My first attempt at using AirBnB didn’t exactly work out as planned either. Even though I couldn’t find what I wanted in the Oakland suburbs recommended to me, I figured that something nearby couldn’t be too bad. I ended up in a neighborhood that my uncle told me most people refer to as Ghost Town. I thought he was kidding until we drove by a six foot high sign that, as a Specials fan, made me smile but I made sure I wouldn’t have to walk the long four blocks from the BART train at midnight…..again.
After a day and a half of East Bay living, I returned to San Francisco for the show. As I walked by the Warfield and saw the marquee, I was reminded of the first time that I went there. I was in town visiting a friend in 1991 and we went to see the Replacements with the Posies opening. I knew next to nothing about either of them but they became two of my favorite bands of all-time. Afterwards, we couldn’t find where we’d parked the car and spent a long hour walking up and down hills being offered every kind of drug and prostitute imaginable. Even walking through the Tenderloin to my hotel during they day, I could see not much had changed. By some strange coincidence, the Replacements were also playing just a few blocks away. At the least, I figured I should try to hoof it, catch their encore and see some friends there. The pessimist in me considered ditching the Ride show altogether and seeing the reunited ‘Mats out-of-town for the third consecutive calendar year.
After TOTALLY not forgetting my ticket at the hotel (only an amateur would pull such a move), I rounded the corner to hear the faint strains of a Cure tribute band coming from within the Warfield’s walls. No, it was the amazingly named Eagulls, who I couldn’t be bothered with. The people watching was just too good in the lobby. Besides a leggy friend who was working there and a brief Flaming Groovies’ drummer sighting, I was rolling solo until my date Alex Green from StereoEmbersMagazine.com showed up. I’d read his 33 1/3 book on the Stones Roses’ first album a few years ago and was shocked that instead of letting a British journalist handle such a task, they’d let some Jewish Californian with my initials write it. We’ve been friends ever since, though I hadn’t actually met him until this trip. Our long talk about love, life and all kinds of UK tunes was a good primer for the Ride show. DJ Jamie Jams helped too, preaching to the choir with Chapterhouse and My Bloody Valentine songs.
All of my fears washed away as soon as Ride strode out and started into “Polar Bear” from Nowhere. With all of its references to flying, I’d had the song on the brain the entire time I’d been in airports that week. Backed by a HUGE simple backdrop that faintly smelled of Barcelona bearing the band’s name, lights caromed around the hall and I took the brunt of the volume down front. When they stepped to their microphones, Bell and Gardener were pitch perfect. Bell hunkered down to nail as many guitar parts as he could with the help of a half-stage full of effects pedals. By the end of the song, I realized how much I was grinning. Completely mesmerized.
It was all even enough to completely distract from Fedoragate 2015. The band is as strikingly handsome as ever but since one of them was blessed with a receding hairline, he has recently decided to cover it with Sinatra headwear. Not since Aretha Franklin at Obama’s inaguration has so much attention been paid to a hat in social media. You almost can’t blame him when Andy Bell still looks dead cool rocking the haircut musician Eric Shea has coined “The Joyce Dewitt”. Though the floppy cabbie-style hat Gardener wore at LA’s KCRW (see below) seems more fitting, I was too distracted by their song spectacle to worry if a wide-brimmed lid worked with a plain black t-shirt. Gardener is still the smiliest of the bunch and has even replaced his traditional post-song “K’you” with a full on “Thank you.” Class.
Opening with a slow-burner was a cool move but then they TORE into “Seagull” and the whole place lit up. Drummer Loz Colbert and bassist Steve Queralt were off and running and Bell’s GRINDING wah-wah cut through an already fierce storm of sound for at least nine minutes. It might’ve been the highlight of the night and we were only two songs in. From then on, it was a fan’s dream setlist culled from the band’s early singles, EPs and first two albums. Sure, a fave here or there could’ve been substituted but just about anything would’ve been amazing. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a band ignore their later albums so much. They knew what we wanted and delivered for 105 glorious minutes.
They only played one song from their last two albums: a fierce “Black Night Crash”, which had never been played live until this year. I was a jumping mess and as much as I love Tarantula more every time I listen to it, I blurted out “NOW DON’T PLAY ANYTHING ELSE FROM THAT ALBUM!” to the amusement of my new friends surrounding me. This included two British air guitarists I tried to coach into also biting their lower lip. They looked at me like I was the crazy one. A girl in front of me laughed, turned around and said, “Maybe they should bring out the children’s choir?” referring to Carnival of Light‘s Stones homage. Ha! NO.
Song after song started and I found myself yelling “YEAH!” after every single one. Feedback and nostalgia poured over us, their biggest ever American crowd. The band took so much care to get it right, even using backing tracks for New Order-styled synths, Withnail & I quotes and cellos. Joel from Brian Jonestown Massacre came out to shake a tambourine during the “Leave Them All Behind” first encore. Funny enough, BJM opened Oasis’ very first SF show, long before Bell was in the band. They argued for 20 minutes when their guitarist couldn’t get his amp to work and then finally played one AMAZING song.
For their last encore, Ride returned to two of their earliest tunes, “Like A Daydream” and “Chelsea Girl”. With a recent Facebook argument about how no one should ever cover the Stooges still fresh on my brain, I rolled my eyes as they went into a slower version of Iggy’s most overly borrowed song, “I Wanna Be Your Dog”. Ah well. Maybe someday they’ll make good on their threat to cover Sonic Youth’s “Schitzophrenia”, the Beat’s “Best Friend” and the Mamas and Papas. Before I could be too disappointed, I got a text from a friend at the Replacements show. They’d started at 9:15 just like Ride and had just finished their 30th and last song while Oxford’s finest had epic’d out seventeen tunes and were still at it. Hell, they did one note during “Drive Blind” for THREE AND A HALF MINUTES.
My friends and I have been talking about starting a band called Ticket To Ride for fifteen years now. We’d play “Leave Them All Behind” for 30 minutes with “Ticket To Ride” stuck in the middle. Now we don’t have to because nothing could top this. All expectations exceeded. Thanks, gents. If you come back and need an opener. Let me know.