U.K. hype, the old-fashioned way: a killer John Peel show that sets the press scribbling, a buzzy new genre tag ("shoegaze"), some cool songs ("Like a Daydream," "Drive Blind") and some cooler friends (Jim Reid, Alan McGee). In the very late '80s, Ride had it all. They were four art-school kids from Oxford, buzzed on the swooning sounds coming out of London and anxious to leave their mark on the burgeoning scene. In 1990 they went into the studio and came out with Nowhere, the album that, next to My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, is most often cited as the best shoegaze album of all time.
With Nowhere -- which celebrated its 20th anniversary last November -- Ride met and exceeded the expectations of the press. And it wasn't for lack of trying. Mark Gardner, the band's bassist, remembers "smoking lots and becoming nocturnal as the sessions gradually grew later and later, until we were working through the nights. I remember going back to the place where we were sleeping, very spaced out, as everybody else in London seemed to be waking up and coming to work. I loved that feeling, when you knew that you had spent all night playing music until you were almost falling asleep on your feet. I loved those sessions." That youthful ambition, that midnight melancholy, that care and craft, all come through loud (very loud) and clear in the 11 tracks the comprise Nowhere. These were four teenagers ready to compete in the big leagues.
"It sounds very unique, in its own naive kind of way," Gardner said, about listening to Nowhere 20 years down the line. And he's right: what distinguished Ride from their arty, head-in-the-clouds contemporaries like Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine (and what helped them sell more records than any of them) was their basic, eternal teenageriness: Ride was saying the same stuff that teenagers had been saying for decades, except with way more noise.
Andy Bell, Ride's vocalist, was first inspired to start a band by a Smiths concert, and the mixtapes of time draw no distinction between Bell's and Morrisey's saddest songs. In Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower -- a novel that's quoted roughly every other minute on Tumblr -- the guileless teenaged protagonist places "Vapour Trail" right after "Asleep" on a mixtape for a friend. (A similar mixtape must have found its way to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart's Kip Berman at some impressionable point, because that band could not exist without that song.)
"Vapour Trail" is the one that Ride will be remembered for -- you can practically see a generation of indie kids crying into their cardigans when those trebly guitars kick in. But it would be wrong to label Ride as just another bunch of C86 wussies. For one thing, that's not the sort of music that they were necessarily listening to at the time. "I think it was undoubtedly a starting point, but we were also listening to a lot of heavier stuff, guitar-wise" said drummer Lawrence "Loz" Colbert. "Personally, I was listening to It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, so maybe that got in there somehow?" (It didn't.)
And would any band on Sarah Records begin their debut LP with a song as audacious as "Seagull"? Over a bass line nicked without apparent shame from The Beatles' "Taxman," frontman Andy Bell sings: "Now it's your turn to see me rise/ You burned your wings, no watch me fly." In the eternally modest realm of indie pop, this is some Kanye West-level egoism. To this day, that well-earned confidence persists -- albeit tempered by Ride's lackluster third and fourth LPs. "I think what makes a record timeless is the energy it's made with," said Bell. "And I do think the first two are timeless records, even if they sound 'of the era.'"
In fact, in 2011 -- when new "shoegaze" acts are cropping up every other week -- Nowhere sounds relatively contemporary (or, at least, contemporary in the sense that a lot of new indie is designed to sound like it was recorded in 1990). The only difference is that, in 1990, music like this (in fact, music in general) actually stood a chance of selling.
Well, maybe that's not the only difference between then and now. Bell said that the "endless cycle of ever more cynical co-opting of percieved edginess" has gotten "so quick that now you basically find out about new youth culture through McDonald's advertising." He's not all wrong -- The Shins' "New Slang" was, after all, used in a McDonald's ad in the mid-00s. But he'd be well-advised to check out an MP3 blog one of these days; he just might hear something very, very familiar.