There was a period of just six years between the twelve year old Tim Wheeler, Rick McMurray and Mark Hamilton breathlessly unwrapping musical instruments one Christmas without a clue how to play them and their 1996 single “Girl From Mars” appearing in the Top Twenty.
If you have had a guitar sitting unplayed in a room for six years, take a long hard look at yourself.
Their first band, when they were still twelve years old, was called Vietnam, and was an Iron Maiden tribute band, not necessarily a hot property for Northern Ireland’s A&R fraternity at the time.
Vietnam’s lead singer and guitarist Tim took a demo to a local market dealer who sold tapes of heavy metal bands. He asked for advice.
‘It’s pretty decent,” said the trader, “but you’ve got to sack the singer.”
In 1991 a band called Nirvana showed them a way to play songs without traditional metal histrionics, and their style developed.
Said Tim, “We realised we didn’t have to be overly competent show off musicians…it was like: ‘We can do this, we can be good at this.’”
Should you ever find yourself at a loose end and you decide to trawl through oceans of old magazine articles looking for snippets of gossip or funny stories about Northern Ireland’s favourite power-pop group, Ash, you will find the pile is heavy on stories of drunken antics by a band in their teens, their being reprimanded by their tour manager for damaging hotel rooms, getting into fights with nightclub bouncers, causing minor mayhem with other bands on the road, and generally doing the things bands do to relieve the apparent tedium of touring and having US record companies feting, fawning and fighting over their signatures.
There’s frequent mention of their passing their A levels in these early articles (lead singer Tim read out his results live on Radio 1’s Evening Session the day he got them) so we all understood just how young they were when they first hit the charts. There’s the story of how they took two weeks off school to go on tour with Elastica, all except the drummer Rick, who was a little older and continued to attend lectures at university, something that was, no doubt, tremendously useful in his subsequent career as a drummer in a rock band. There were four top twenty hit singles from the debut album “1977” – a reference to the year the band were born.
There is also this interesting clip of a horror film they made when they toured with Coldplay. Watch out for the risible acting of Chris Martin as a Sherlock Holmesian figure making terrible jokes:
In 1997, Ash created a little piece of history by headlining the same Glastonbury festival twice. On the Friday, they headlined the Other Stage. Then on Sunday, after Steve Winwood had to cancel at the last minute due to (apparently) his truck getting stuck in weather affected muddy conditions, they stepped in and headlined the Pyramid Stage.
Their ranks were boosted by guitarist Charlotte Hatherley that year, but even with Hatherley’s presence, follow up album Nu-Clear Sounds suffered from a tired, tour fatigued band and a lack of any hit singles as Wheeler steered away from hits and towards being an “album band”. The lack of success apparently brought Ash close to bankruptcy.
Being taken seriously was one thing, but being a musician for a living was more important.
“We thought our dream was over,” said Wheeler, “so I took a year out and spent a lot of time at my folks’ house writing songs. We knew we needed to write a couple of hits to come back.“
The real story of Ash is what happened on their third album, Free All Angels, which remains an under-rated gem, despite its success.
So determined was Tim to write a hit album, he shut himself away, even turning down the chance to play “I Fought The Law” in Belfast with and at Joe Strummer’s request.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. Having written what he believed to be some great songs, the record company then threw up objections: “We had to pay to record ‘Shining Light’ as the record company didn’t think it was a comeback single.” reflected Tim.
“Shining Light” ended up being their second top ten hit, won an Ivor Novello songwriting award and was later covered by Annie Lennox. Which just goes to show that record companies don’t always get things right.
Free All Angels’ best moments were those that had a happy/sad element. “Walking Barefoot” instantly conjures a feeling of nostalgia for your youth, “It’ll be sad my friend /
To see it come to an end“, reflecting on how time has passed and friendships can be but fleeting, yet Wheeler was still only 23 when it was released.
“Sometimes” is exceptional. It reflects upon a broken relationship, but also expresses resignation that such things are inevitable, at least sometimes. These are hitherto relatively unexplored and complex emotions for a pop song. Even the rip-snorting up-tempo “Burn Baby Burn” looks sadly upon a failing relationship. Bringing balance, “Shining Light” is a yearning love song for the ages. These bitter sweet moments are what makes the album special and unique.
Since 2001 the members of Ash have balanced touring and recording numerous albums and singles with raising their families. They are, inevitably, an older and wiser band. And now we have a new Greatest Hits compilation, celebrating Ash’s twenty fifth anniversary. New single “Darkest Hour of the Night” is a jaunty, catchy song with Penny Lane trumpets and piano.
There’s also an upcoming tour to go with the album, although given Wheeler, Hamilton and McMurray are now (just) in their forties, perhaps on this tour we won’t be hearing so much about their being reprimanded by their tour manager for damaging hotel rooms…