In which we meet the first modern dance record…?
Ride on Time, by Black Box (their 1st and only #1)
6 weeks, from 3rd September – 15th October 1989
I’m a child of the nineties, the decade in which the music we recognise today as ‘dance’ really came into being. There have been dance #1s popping up regularly throughout the second half of the 1980s but, as good as many of them have been (‘Theme from S-Express’ says ‘hello’), they have sounded quite dated – often chaotic mish-mashes of samples and sound effects.
‘Ride on Time’, however, is much less cluttered – just a beat, a few synth hooks, a classic piano riff – but all the more weighty for it. One of the song’s creators mentioned wanting to create a dance track with the power of a rock song. And then there are the vocals. Though I think describing them as just ‘vocals’ isn’t quite doing them justice. They are colossal, momentous… add whatever synonym for ‘very big’ you want. There aren’t many lines, and half of them are just woah-wa-wa-wa-oh, but not for nothing is this record classed under the sub-heading ‘diva house’. The singer does a great job. I hesitate in naming this ‘singer’, as there was a lot of controversy over who they actually were. The record originally used the vocals of a 1980 hit by Loleatta Holloway, called ‘Love Sensation’, which Black Box didn’t have the rights to. They then re-recorded the track with Heather Small, soon to become a star in her own right with M People.
To confuse matters further, the woman in the video and the record sleeve below is model Katrin Quinol, who had been brought in to mime on TV performances and the like. I’m not 100% sure which version I’ve been listening to – a search for ‘Ride on Time Heather Small’ on YouTube throws up nothing – but since Black Box finally bought the rights to ‘Love Sensation’ in 2018 I assume it’s Loleatta Holloway’s big lungs that are blasting my cobwebs away. Sadly she died in 2011, though she did eventually receive enough royalties from the song to, as she put it, buy herself a fur coat.
Every time an electronic dance number one comes along, I feel contractually obliged to mention that it isn’t my favourite genre. I’m guitars and drums all day long. But good dance, just like good rap and good reggae, can transcend my fussy tastes. Good is good, and ‘Ride on Time’ is pretty darn good. (I said a lot of the same stuff about Soul II Soul’s ‘Back to Life’ and, although the two songs have very different vibes, they are two sides of the same futuristic dance coin.) I’d go as far as to say that, in the right nightclub, in the right mood, ‘Ride on Time’ could be euphoric. And it also feels like a direct riposte to the cheap ‘n’ cheesy tat that it replaced at #1…
And as I said above, ‘Ride on Time’ feels much more streamlined and precise after previous years’ big dance hits. But that’s not the only reason, I don’t think, for it being a huge, game-changing hit. It also, cleverly, harks back to disco, with its big-voiced diva on lead vocals, giving a timeless sheen to its very modern sound. And also, we have to nod our heads to acts like Pet Shop Boys, and even Stock Aitken Waterman, for making pop music much more dance-oriented over the past couple of years. In the ‘60s and ‘70s ‘pop’ usually equalled ‘rock’ (think Merseybeat, and glam), while in the 80s ‘pop’ has shifted in a dancier direction. The 90s will see pop shift back to guitars, and then towards an R&B/hip-hop future.
Black Box were an Italian act, kicking off a trend for European DJs and dance acts scoring big hits across the Channel, often in the autumn after Brits had spent the summer on Mediterranean beaches. The Euro-house influences are clear, and very different from the American house we’ve met up to now. Clearer, classier… dare we give into stereotypes and say ‘chic’? My favourite aspect of the song is that the lyrics are clearly Because you’re right on time… But the Italian DJs’ English wasn’t great, and they misheard it as ‘Ride’. Which I think is cute (and much more memorable than the correct phrase).
And yet, for all my talk of game-changing modernity, the charts will do what they always do and completely disprove all my blethering with the next number one. Yes, that damn rabbit is back, next.