I was inspired to write about the Northern Irish trio today because, (a) they are currently celebrating their 20th anniversary of existence, and (b) as part of such, my friend Suzi got to sing ‘Oh Yeah’ with them last weekend. Suzi is John’s wife. You know, John, who’s written about Symposium and Kenickie here before. Comedian Josie Long (perhaps you recently heard her on WTF or International Waters?) also sang with Ash, but she’s not (yet?) a friend of Youth Groups, so no embedded video for her. One day, I’ll get Suzi to write about Ash for this site, too, but for now, enjoy this clip of her proudest ever moment.
Even before the band’s album ‘1977’ shocked everyone by getting to number one, their single ‘Kung Fu’ had already made something of an impact on me. It began with sampled fighting noises, flew by at 100mph, had a gorgeous chorus, and was absolutely the sort of fuzzy, furious-but-tuneful song that a pre-teen like me lived for. And it namechecked Mr. Miyagi and Jackie Chan.
After that, it was ‘Girl From Mars’, another insanely catchy tune that began quietly and wistfully but took off after fifteen seconds. I hadn’t yet experienced the thrills of falling in love (with a girl from Earth), but the song explained wonderfully those giddy moments, plus the inevitable heartbreak that comes with it. I still don’t know what Henry Winterman cigars are, but I think that’s besides the point. To this day, ‘Girl From Mars’ is one of those perfect little songs that will always remind me of the mid-90s and make me smile.
A couple of other singles followed, including the aforementioned ‘Oh Yeah’, and the superior ‘Goldfinger’, both of which made the top ten, before ‘1977’ came out. The album was a hit with my circle of friends. Here was a group of dudes (I’m talking about Ash, not us) that were just a few years older than us, who’d put together a simple, uncomplicated, record of perfectly crafted songs that we immediately fell in love with. Nowadays, ‘1977’ feels a little too top-heavy, especially with a one-two-three punch that holds up next to any of my favourite albums. ‘Lose Control’, ‘Goldfinger’, ‘Girl From Mars’. Boom. But nonetheless, it’s a great listen all the way through and as an old and grumpy man, I love listening back to it and jumping up and down.
After that, the band got a high-profile spot recording the title track to Danny Boyle’s much-anticipated ‘Trainspotting’ follow-up, ‘A Life Less Ordinary’. A lot of people are down on that film, because it’s not as dark and gritty as ‘Trainspotting’ (or ‘Shallow Grave’), but I’ve got a real soft spot for it. Part of that is down to the Ash tune, which already sounds like a band more grown up than the one that made ‘1977’. When they sing “Take me in your arms again”, it’s pretty irresistible. It’s sort of an orphan, as it doesn’t appear on any of their studio albums, so I was always delighted to hear it live.
After touring their tails off, the band was feeling burned out by the time they came to write their next album. They also added a new band member, Charlotte Hatherley, to play second guitar. The album, ‘Nu-Clear Sounds’, is markedly darker and there’s definitely less of the pop-driven fun that powered ‘1977’. First single ‘Jesus Says’ was pretty good, second single ‘Wild Surf’ wasn’t.
The album had a very mixed reaction, which didn’t do the band dynamics any good. Here’s what Wikipedia says:
In 1999, Tim Wheeler disappeared for a short while following the commercial and critical failure of Nu-Clear Sounds. He eventually emerged in New York making the self-deprecating, blood, drug and sex fueled video for Numbskull. A note for [manager] Stephen Taverner attached to the video said, “I’ve killed Bambi”.
That controversial ‘Numbskull’ video is pretty hard to find on this internet, but you can watch it here. It won’t let me embed it. Sorry.
They took a little longer to regroup, clear the cobwebs and plan their next month. The next album was recorded in the garage where their earliest material had come from. In early 2001, we heard their big comeback single ‘Shining Light’. It was upbeat, anthemic, sweet, and indicated that maybe the darkness was behind them. It put Ash back in the top ten. The song is so great, even Annie Lennox has covered it.
After that came ‘Burn Baby Burn’, another addition to the ever-growing list of all-time classic Ash singles. Beginning with a wave of feedback, then a simple chiming riff, huge drum fill and then every instrument turned up to 12, it’s just perfect. The Ash of old. They’d begin live sets with this and everyone would be delighted.
The album ‘Free All Angels’ came out in the spring, and put Ash back to #1 on the album charts. There were plenty of great moments on the record - ‘Pacific Palisades’, ‘There’s A Star’, ‘Cherry Bomb’ - but nothing touched the majesty of the opener. I talked before of ‘Girl From Mars’ and its description of young love and all its highs and lows. ‘Walking Barefoot’ opens the album with just Tim Wheeler and a guitar and the sentence “your beauty took my breath away”. A few lines later, Charlotte adds some backing vocals, before the drums thunder in. A huge, huge chorus eventually shows up and this becomes one of the all-time greats. Even the (frankly, bananas) lyric “Anointed by Apollo and his chariot” cannot harm this song.
I saw the band a couple of times that year. Headlining the second stage at Reading, I found them lacking in personality. For all the great songs, it felt workmanlike and I wasn’t too impressed. Then, I saw them at the Brixton Academy in December 2001, and my review opened like this:
You know how some people have relatives who are really quite distant, so much so that they’re called “twice removed” or something, a term nobody really understands? And when you see them once every six years, you never recognise them because they’ve changed so much? Tonight, the Ash that play Brixton are so unrecognisable from the Ash that played at this year’s Reading, that you begin to wonder how many times they’ve been removed. Man, they were awesome.
Even though my glasses got trampled, I had a great time. Ash = The kings of 2001.
The next summer, somebody finally wised up to the fact that Ash are a peerless singles band and put out a Greatest Hits album. The artwork made it look like a comic book and I think it even came with a comic book. The compilation, ‘Intergalactic Sonic 7s’, came out just after I left for the U.S., but I was so eager to get a promo copy that I was checking with their press guy at least twice a day, the week before I left, to see if the promos were in yet. Thankfully, it arrived on literally the last day that we got post at our London address.
The album did come with one new song, which really didn’t do a whole lot for me, but it has a fun video. Andy Dick is in there apparently, as well as people dressed up as the Hives and the White Stripes.
Then I moved here, and Ash dropped off my radar a bit. Charlotte Hatherley went out with Edgar Wright for a while, so there are a couple of songs from the band’s next album ‘Meltdown’ featured in ‘Shaun of the Dead’. (Also, he directed the charming video for her solo single ‘Bastardo’). While the singles on ‘Meltdown’ were pretty good, especially ‘Orpheus’…
…the song I most latched onto was ‘Out of the Blue’, the greatest song Weezer never wrote. It’s like a European cousin to ‘Surfwax America’, and I put it on many a mixtape that summer.
I haven’t really kept up with Ash since then. They released another album called ‘Twilight of the Innocents’, and then said goodbye to the traditional distribution system. It was a ballsy move, to stop putting out formal albums anymore, but it seems to have paid off for them. They’ve put out a lot of standalone singles, and collected them onto full-length albums, but I confess I’ve not listened to their stuff in a long while.
As this ASH20 event affirms, though, there are still plenty of people who were teenagers in the late 90s for whom Ash will always be cool older brothers (and sister). Legends.