If you know me, you might have been surprised that I had to be talked into seeing Ride for the first time at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney early this month. The Oxford band are touring in (COVID-delayed) celebration of the 30th anniversary of Nowhere, their 1990 debut LP and their masterpiece; the first part of the show consists of the band playing the beloved album in full.
Nowhere is one of my favorite albums of all time. It’s one of a handful that spring to mind when I think of the very concept of a great album. When it was new, I was so into it that it was kind of embarrassing. Not only did I know it backwards and forwards, but I lived every shoegaze cliche. I got high to it, I made out for the first time to it, I used the title track as the soundtrack of my first student film. It defined a whole aesthetic for me: noisy and intense but achingly beautiful, vast and boundless but introspective and melancholy. In a word, oceanic. The album cover, a painting of a wave (forever) on the verge of breaking on some nameless sea (nowhere), with no text or any other graphic element at all, was not just a striking image; to me it was a message about what this music was supposed to mean, and what it was supposed to do. Your senses giving way to the pounding rhythm, noise, and beauty. Words and meaning and self lost in the transcendence. I cannot speak, my words are dead.
Maybe it was the depth of those feelings that made me think of shying away from the reunion tour, especially after all these years. It was hard to imagine these four fiftysomething English blokes (Ride have never changed their lineup in all that time) could stand on a stage in Sydney and play sounds that lived up to those precious, impossibly romantic memories of so long ago — memories that play like scenes in a corny movie when I think of them now. Lying on a beach in L.A. late at night with two friends of mine, both of whom I was in love with, and was too naive or too autistic to realize it at the time, while Nowhere played on my boom box. Lying in my bed, coming down after a rave, and letting its swirling feedback-drenched melodies wash over me like the waves.
With memories this piercing, I didn’t even want to listen to Nowhere for years and years. It represented such a specific time, with so much feeling and so much confusion, and I’ve always been careful about excavating it.
But also I’ve been burned by these kinds of legacy shows before. Nostalgia creeps me out in the first place, and sometimes older bands just embarrass themselves. I always think of the time I saw the Verve in New York in 2008. I love the Verve and I often revisit their 1993 debut LP A Storm in Heaven — a classic in its own right, and a landmark for the way it bridged shoegaze and Britpop. It had been in heavy rotation for me that year, and I wanted a lot from this show, but Richard Ashcroft and company simply couldn’t deliver. It was so depressing, starting with the setting, a half-empty Theater at Madison Square Garden, a tacky and generic venue despite the brand-name aura of the adjacent arena. The surprisingly sparse crowd was almost entirely made up of middle-aged English expats. Predictable setlist, no new material at all, no surprises, a rundown of their most well-known songs performed with so little urgency and so many tired rockstar poses on Ashcroft’s part it was exhausting to watch. I kid you not, they encored with “Bittersweet Symphony” — I left in the middle of it.
Everything about Ride’s performance at the Enmore was the opposite of all that. They were as blindingly good as I would have expected back in the day, and I can’t believe I almost talked myself out of going. The band members’ middle-aged appearance — charmingly like four normie dads at school pickup — was the only thing that belied how compelling and powerful this music seemed 32 years after it first dropped. Played in full, Nowhere sounded as gorgeous and massive and overwhelming as ever. The theatre itself looked great, sounded great, and was packed with eager, passionate fans old and young — way more young people than I was expecting; but I shouldn’t have been surprised given the genre’s resurgence in recent years.
No wonder kids love shoegaze so much if one of the flagship bands of the movement still kicks ass like this.
The term “shoegaze” was, of course, originally a dismissive one. It was propagated by the British music press in the early 90s as a way to clown the dreamy, noisy, introspective music made by bands like Ride, Lush and My Bloody Valentine — you know, because they were supposedly known for staring at their guitar pedals onstage instead of facing the audience.
Shoegaze may have been the coolest thing in the world for us fans back then, but it was never fully accepted by the cool kids in the press and the industry, especially compared to Britpop and grunge. I think this is in part because it was never really about personality or celebrity. Like electronic music, it was much more about making sounds than about being rockstars. Shoegaze bands’ faces were hidden by their messy hair; their album covers were abstract; their lyrics obscured by gauzy layers of feedback and distortion. For many years it was considered a footnote in music history, a quirky and kind of embarrassing thing that happened a long time ago — music made by and for art students (or in my case, film students), both inaccessible and immature, before it was overtaken by bigger, splashier, more media-friendly artists in the 90s.
With no support from the press and dwindling sales, many of these bands — also including A.R. Kane, Chapterhouse, Slowdive and Catherine Wheel, to name a few — struggled to stay relevant, and were subsequently dropped by their labels, or quit. MBV, probably the most highly regarded of the lot, took 22 long years to produce a new album. Lush did the best job of adapting to the new reality; their mid-to-late 90s work is uniformly excellent and transcends the shoegaze tag, but they too eventually hung it up after years of futile efforts to break into the American market and the tragic suicide of drummer Chris Acland.
I interviewed Ride bassist Steve Queralt for Music Feeds in 2011. The occasion was the 20th anniversary reissue of Nowhere; it was long before Ride considered reforming, and Queralt at that point considered himself a retired musician. It didn’t make the final edit, but I remember him telling me on the phone, “I have to do a job now. I have to go to an office.” It was so melancholy, the way he said it, like an anti-work meme long before those existed. Likewise, Lush’s Emma Anderson has spoken with blunt pragmatism about how reunion tours have to be weighed up against her job as bookkeeper and her life as a single mum. I don’t think any of these bands ever made much money, and they certainly don’t have any real celebrity status to trade on.
In the U.S., where shoegaze never so much as grazed the pop charts, it was even more marginal. In later years, whenever I met someone who’d even heard of Ride or Lush it was like meeting a fellow devotee of a forgotten religion. Then the passion would spill out as we excitedly discussed the finer points of Ride’s early EPs or Andy Weatherall’s remix of MBV’s “Soon.”
But mostly I think I felt that same sense of embarrassment at the music of my wayward youth, and figured I’d moved on. After 1991 I was more focused on house and techno anyway. As the decade wound on my love of guitar noise and droning melody was channelled into bands like Stereolab and Spiritualized, who seemed more “mature.”
It wasn’t until many years later, in the 2010s, that I started noticing a shoegaze influence on certain new artists: Sydney psych band the Laurels, for example (I discovered them when I interviewed bassist Conor Hannam for the Guardian in 2013); or ambient noisemeister Christian Fennesz; or even Frank Ocean. After a while I realized it wasn’t just me. New bands started to openly cite those formerly derided classic shoegazers, and they won over legions of new fans. Terms like “newgaze” and “Blackgaze” were coined. MBV finally released their follow-up to Loveless in 2013 (and it’s excellent if you ask me), Lush reformed to tour in 2015, and Ride followed soon after.
Maybe enough time had passed that a younger generation could see shoegaze in context of history: not a footnote but a logical progression of postpunk, alt-rock and psych-rock. Not hermetically confined to a handful of bands circa 1990, but part of a broader spectrum of diffuse, melodic noise ranging from the dream pop of the Cocteau Twins to the experimentalism of Sonic Youth to the post-rock of Mogwai. And not a past-tense thing but still very relevant — maybe more relevant than ever.
Looking at it holistically like this, you hear shoegaze in all kinds of places. For example, tell me the Cure’s Disintegration is not a proto-shoegaze album. I didn’t read until recently that Ride were a big influence on Interpol; and now I don’t know why it wasn’t always obvious, especially on feverishly floaty tracks like “Untitled” and “NYC.” I just wasn’t ready to admit it in 2004.
Some of the best “newgaze” bands are based here in Australia — Sydney band Lorelei (named after a Cocteau Twins song, naturally), Melbourne’s Lowtide, to name a couple. I’m especially fond of Melbourne’s Flyying Colours, who really have a knack for the great songwriting that marks the best of the form. What I love about all these artists, some of whom weren’t even born when Nowhere was released, is they prove there’s more vital work to do in this genre. Though they’re often uncannily good at recreating the rushing euphoria of 1991 (check out Flyying Colours’ 2016 album Mindfullness to hear what I mean), when it comes down to it their music is not pastiche so much as it is an expansion.
This Vice article about the resurgence of shoegaze makes a great case for why it appeals to Gen Z. It’s music whose melancholy, drifting, yearning mood suits a time of mass anxiety and isolation. Like electronic music, you can make it in your bedroom. (I will keep repeating that shoegaze and electronic have a lot in common. They’ve always gone together for me because I got into both in that same epochal year of 1991; but I think there are objective points of comparison too.)
The very fact that it was never commercially successful nor respected by the music establishment only adds to its appeal. Much like goth, it hasn’t lost its outsider mystique. There’s never been a Pearl Jam or an Oasis of shoegaze, and that’s a beautiful thing.
The Vice article also touches on something I was always aware of at some level but never fully grasped: shoegaze is an inclusive sound. A.R. Kane, one of the bands that pioneered the sound in the late 80s, was Black. There were always more women in the bands than in other forms of indie rock, and more women in the audience. Anecdotally, a large percentage of shoegaze fans I’ve known have been women. I think I understand why. Even when written and played by men, like Kevin Shields or the guys in Ride, it was always refreshingly devoid of the aggression and masculine tropes of other forms of rock.
And to reiterate something obvious: the kids like shoegaze because it’s just an awesome sound! With its tendency towards big soundscapes and euphoric melody, it makes other indie seem boring. It’s also a richer and more complex and diverse sound than it’s given credit for by its detractors (like Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail: “dumb guitar pedal bullshit” — ugh!). It’s about more than just muffled lyrics and shimmering guitar effects (as much as I love those things). Lush’s music was always quite substantial, and it grew even more sophisticated, darker, and more brittle in the Britpop era. Strip away the feedback and you realize Ride are great songwriters; you can hear how they evolved the 60s-influenced psych and jangle-pop of the Church and the Paisley Underground by wiring it to the expansive noise of the Jesus and Mary Chain and Dinosaur Jr.
Is shoegaze apolitical, like Tobi Vail suggests? I’ve thought about this a lot over the last thirty years (and maybe that’s why her comments stung). On the one hand, its opaqueness and themes of aimlessness, dissipation, and loss of sense and meaning seem to reinforce individualism and political demobilization. However hard I try, I crawl when I should fly / I wander through my days, pulled a million ways as Ride sing on “Paralysed,” which could be an anthem for Gen-X slackness (or a cry against it, maybe). If I ever embraced that mentality, I don’t anymore.
In my essay about my first rave in 1991, I wrote about how raves were a reaction to the alienation of the early neoliberal era. I think the same goes for other 90s music movements including grunge and shoegaze. To me it’s more interesting to look at the social reasons why young people might feel like they’re lost or adrift in this world, why their alienation or anger might lead them to do drugs or give up, rather than asserting that the music they listen to has some demobilizing influence on them. (In that Vice article, Lush’s Miki Berenyi points out that shoegaze was just as working-class as Britpop was, if not more. Side note: you gotta love Berenyi for being a perennial Britpop hater!)
Lush’s lyrics always had a feminist edge to them — such as “Ladykiller,” a cutting commentary on sexism (with Anthony Kiedis as its vain subject). Ride addressed Brexit on their 2017 comeback album Weather Diaries. Nobody’s going to mistake them for Sleaford Mods, but just saying, it’s never been the case that shoegaze is some kind of soporific monoculture.
On a simpler level, if shoegaze were really apolitical, it hasn’t worked on me because I’m a socialist! A socialist who happens to like a lot of music that’s abstract, diffuse, and trippy (as much as I also like the clarity and anger of Public Enemy or Yard Act). And the same generation of young people now reviving shoegaze are far more politically switched on than the ones that came before, including mine.
The renewed relevance of shoegaze was apparent that night at the Enmore before Ride even took the stage. The opening band, Melbourne-based four-piece Moaning Lisa, were a powerhouse in their own right, and ideally suited for the occasion. I wouldn’t call them shoegaze; their skewed, melodic yet abrasive indie reminded me more of Throwing Muses if anything. But the squalls of guitar noise bracketing their infectious choruses did not go astray for the crowd on hand — lead guitarist Ellen Chan was brilliant. And yes, they were sometimes reminiscent of Lush, and not just because they’re fronted by two women, Charlie Versagai and Hayley Manwaring. Their ironic, often bitter lyrics in contrast to the bright melodic sheen of the sound reminded me of Lush’s later work, and did again later when I checked out their debut LP, Something Like This But Not This. Their simultaneous distance from and compatibility with the headliner and with shoegaze in general only affirmed the genre’s expansiveness and adaptability.
When Ride ambled onstage almost bashfully, and started playing “Seagull” so casually at first it might have been a sound check, I spent about thirty seconds thinking, oh boy, here we go, another tired legacy act. But then when that oh-so-familiar ringing, crashing extended intro steadily built up into the soaring first verse (My eyes are sore, my body weak), and I looked around and saw the entire packed theatre bobbing their heads euphorically, I felt a feeling like when you’re standing in shallow surf and are suddenly knocked off your feet by a pounding set wave (sorry for hammering the nautical analogy) — and you jump up, delirious with joy and hoping for more.
“Seagull” is such a perfect opener; its whirling, circling riffs, pulsating beat and soaring refrains really do capture the feeling of floating above a stormy sea. It takes you on such a journey over six minutes that when the last crescendo is reached and Loz Colbert’s frenetic drumming finally stops and the ringing feedback swells up once more before dying, it’s as if you’ve already experienced an album’s worth of sound and feeling.
So it’s that much more thrilling when the opening chords of “Kaleidoscope” kick in almost immediately. Far more melodic than the droning of the opener, especially thanks to the lovely harmonies, but with none of the pummelling rhythm sacrificed — and you’re whooshing off into the heights again, remembering there’s an entire album’s worth of this intensity ahead of you.
Even sober, Nowhere is intoxicating, recreating the feeling of being high and overwhelmed by each passing moment. She felt so high, the dust made her cry. Which is exactly what psychedelic music is supposed to do, though I don’t hear Ride or other shoegaze bands mentioned in reference to psych often enough. Live it was even better; not so much like a retrospective as like being inside the album — with the added joy of sharing it with several hundred other fans.
A couple of things occurred to me during “In a Different Place,” the slower, dreamier third song on the album that functions as a breather between peakier numbers. First of all, Ride are tight as hell. I shouldn’t have found this surprising, but I did. I never thought of them as a band with chops as such; the playing on the 1990 recording is powerful and dramatic, but very loose and free-flowing. When I interviewed Queralt in 2011, he told me the reason his bass playing on the album is so melodic and Colbert’s drumming is so wild and full-on is that no one told them they couldn’t do that. They were all just plugging in and swinging for the fences every time, with the bass taking over the melody amidst the droning guitars, and crashing drum fills all over the place.
Well, it may have been a naive style of playing but it was exactly what was needed to communicate the feeling and intensity of those songs, and I’m glad no one, including producer Marc Waterman, told them to play differently. It would not be the watershed it is without that rawness and naivety.
But at the same time, the naivety of those sessions belies the huge talent these guys have. Of course they were, and are, ridiculously talented. And so were many of their peers. I’m irritated at myself for unconsciously aborbing rockist cliches about the disparity in skill between postpunk bands and bands with “chops” — cliches I don’t even believe in.
(I’m thinking of the passage in Flea’s 2019 autobiography Acid for the Children in which he talks about what sick players Echo and the Bunnymen were and how much they influenced him. It’s a nice corrective to those artificial boundaries we construct around music genres — and by the way, the book is filled with that kind of wholesomeness; I highly recommend it.)
So, at the Enmore I saw once and for all what great musicians these guys are. Colbert’s terrific drumming was the most visible and obvious example; but Queralt was great too with his wonderful melodic runs on bass; and so were Bell and Gardener with their twin guitar attack and spine-tingling harmonies. With more than thirty years behind them, their playing has tightened but hasn’t lost its power. If anything it gives them more control over the looseness, if that makes any sense.
It helped that the sound on the night was excellent: there was nice separation between the low and high end, and between the guitars and vocals. Shoegaze may be known for noise and distortion, but it’s much better to create that distortion on the canvas of a good sound mix than it is to have it imposed on you by a muddy one. This is obvious if you listen to MBV’s Loveless on a proper soundsystem — it’s an opaque sound but paradoxically it’s opaque in a very clear, precise way. The layers upon layers of sound are built like architecture — shimmering, fuzzy architecture. Something similar was true of this Ride show.
It also hit me what a great thing it is to play an album in full, provided it’s the right album. I’d only experienced it once before, watching a livestream of the Cure playing Disintegration in full at Sydney Opera House three years ago, and that was fantastic too. I didn’t mind knowing what song was coming next; if anything that added to the impact. And it’s nice that the deep cuts make the setlist by default. Like Disintegration, Nowhere is a perfect album for this format, with its generous length, its loud/quiet/loudness, and its feel of an epic journey.
I loved that Bell and Gardener were such unassuming, low-key frontmen. There was very little boilerplate chatter or rockstar business. Gardener — who now sports a shiny bald dome in place of the wavy moptop seen in many a moody, sensitive band photo back in the day — moved about the front of the stage with a sprightliness that belied his age, mostly averting his gaze in quintessential fashion as he lay into his guitar, but occasionally looking up for a quick, wry comment or a shy smile. You get the feeling these guys are really grateful that new generations keep embracing their music, and that they don’t take any of this for granted. I found myself wondering if Queralt would go back to his office job when the tour was over.
The fourth song, “Polar Bear,” reached absurd heights of euphoria, with its massive flanged guitar riffs, its druggy romanticism, and the entire theatre accompanying Bell’s and Gardener’s keening vocals, a mass celebration of everything both joyous and wistful about this music. She knew she could fly like a bird / But when she said please, raise the roof higher, nobody heard.
“Dreams Burn Down” kept the mood elevated, Colbert’s slow, stomping, John Bonham-like backbeat getting the whole crowd swaying as Bell’s and Gardener’s chiming guitars reached maximum fuzzed-out atmosphere. The explosive burst of noise that bracketed each chorus — on record, almost like a sonic image of the wave on the cover finally breaking as side one reaches its conclusion — inspired much ecstatic headbanging, almost like you would see at a grunge or a metal show.
The deep cuts on side two made for some of the night’s best moments. After “Decay,” the somber side-two opener whose chorus is like some sort of funeral chant (Now this feeling’s so alive / But, as you or anything, we die, we die), Bell told us, “When I was 22 that seemed nihilistic, but now it seems almost Buddhist.”
“Vapour Trail” was, of course, another high point, with hands and lighters raised and another mass singalong. When “Taste” kicked in, I had a sudden and vivid flashback to one of the first times I heard it — my best friend and I, listening to it on CD, very high, so overcome by the exuberance of the melody and the harmonies we burst out laughing in sheer delight. Hearing it live gave me that delighted rushing feeling again.
As they wound towards the end of the album, things got more adventurous. The band swapped out penultimate track “Here and Now” for “Unfamiliar,” a banger from their 1991 EP Today Forever. The album’s closer and title track was especially great, a droning swirl of noise stretched out over almost ten minutes and reaching a dark crescendo not unlike something Sonic Youth would have unleashed. That commitment to noise and experimentation even as they celebrated a thirty-year-old classic album was so satisfying, and just affirmed why Ride still matter.
Once the album concluded, Ride left the stage, and then came back for an extended encore. This second part of the set was split between new material from their 2017 album Weather Diaries and 2019’s This Is Not a Safe Place (which are both pretty good!) and several tracks from Going Blank Again, their 1992 full-length follow-up to Nowhere. The new stuff sounded great, especially the jangly “Future Love,” and for me it was nice to revisit Going Blank Again for the first time since it was new.
The final number, the epic “Leave Them All Behind,” may not be on Nowhere but it was possibly the highlight of the entire evening. The best track on Going Blank Again, if not their best overall, it sounded simply awesome capping the revivifying blast of euphoria of the previous hour and a half. For a retrospective, Ride’s set sure felt vital and alive and essential; and it left me feeling as good and refreshed as a day spent at the seaside.
Feature image photo credit: Berna Erkan