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‘Guaranteed real teenagers,’ boasted the artwork to the first few releases by Ash while the band were still in school. It was a dream come true; no signer were they signed to a label the Irish three-piece found themselves opening for Pearl Jam and appearing on the soundtrack to the Jackie Chan hit Rumble in the Bronx and in 1995, the year that Britpop dominated the United Kingdom, they were launched onto MTV with the punk pop classic Girl From Mars.
The following year saw the release of their full-length debut 1977 – an important year for the group as it marked the birth of two of the members, the arrival of Star Wars and the birth of British punk – and with their newfound success Ash began touring the world, leaving a path of chaos and destruction in their wake. ‘It was the first tie around, getting to that level of success and madness,’ recalled drummer Rick McMurray two years later in an interview with Kerrang! ‘People are wanting a piece of you all the time and there are parties everywhere…We’d spent too long partying and songwriting got neglected. We found it impossible to write on the road.’
The overnight success that had overcome Ash would almost be too much for the three to endure, with tales from their tour reaching the press that depicted a young group on the verge of self-destruction, fuelled by – as one later B-side would describe as – heroin, vodka and white noise. Even the back cover to their 1997 radio session release Live at the Wireless would include a passage from Hunter S. Thompson’s infamous memoir Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. ‘It was a big story at the time, everbody was like, ‘Teenage boys from Northern Ireland number one in the charts,” recalled frontman Tim Wheeler in an episode of Planet Rock Profiles. ‘Everybody just wanted a piece of us. At the same time we had all this free drink and everything and we were going mad. It was May when the album came out and we were on the road and I couldn’t handle it. I felt like giving up!’
By the time that 1977 had been released Ash had already been featured on the front page of music magazines NME, Melody Maker and Billboard, with the latter chronicling the band’s modest success with Kung Fu and Girl From Mars coinciding with their school and college studies. The album would spawn two Top Ten hits and their growing mixture of popularity and notoriety brought the band the once-in-a-lifetime chance of performing at the wrap-up party for the first Star Wars movie in over a decade, The Phantom Menace. On 29 June 1997, with the unexpected departure of Steve Winwood from the line-up of the legendary Glastonbury festival, Ash were recruited as last minute replacements to headline the Main Stage on the last night of the event and brought unanimous praise for their performance.
But the high of touring 1977 would be followed by the hangover that was its difficult follow-up Nu-Clear Sounds and the addition of guitarist Charlotte Hatherley. Despite enjoying critical acclaim with their contribution to the soundtrack of Danny Boyle’s fantasy A Life Less Ordinary, the band’s second album would receive mixed reviews and its New York punk influence would seem out-of-place to the naïve pop charms of its predecessor. ‘We always spend a long time writing, recording and producing new music and we never allow its release unless we ourselves are happy with it,’ explained bassist Mark Hamilton in a 2013 interview with Love-It-Loud.
With 2016 marking the twentieth anniversary since the release of 1977 Ash, now a three-piece once again following Hatherley parting ways after nine years, have toured in honour of the event, gaining positive reviews from critics who – much like the band themselves – are revelling in the nostalgia of the 1990s. ‘I’m really amazed that we’re playing a record twenty years later that we made as teenagers,’ admits Wheeler in a new interview with the Nottingham post. ‘At the time, we didn’t know what we’d be doing in five years’ time. I could never think that far ahead. Also, people didn’t go out and tour full albums back in the nineties. I feel like we’re playing the record better than we ever did at the time; we used to play everything really fast and crazily. Now we’re playing it closer to how it sounds on the album.’
From the opening sound of a TIE fighter bursting passed the speakers to the stomach-turning hidden track Sick Party, 1977 successfully walked a fine line between commercial appeal and three young men doing whatever they wanted, yet amid the self-indulgence, partying and pop culture references (the riff to I’d Give You Anything borrowed heavily from Black Sabbath‘s NIB while Kung Fu would reference both the X-Men and Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid) there was strong songwriting and musicianship, particularly on the summertime ballad Oh Yeah and the underrated Angel interceptor. During this era they were also renowned for their B-sides, featuring songs that were worthy of the album yet had been relegated to singles, such as 5am Eternal and the frantic Luther Ingo’s Star Cruiser.
‘We had quite an eventful time touring the 1977 album back in the day because we got banned from Rock City. We had a bit of a crazy party after the gig,’ recalls Wheeler of the band’s visit to the legendary Nottingham venture. ‘Backstage wasn’t in the best state when we left. We were banned for a while. But things got patched up and we returned at least two or three times. It’s a classic venue and I think we’ll be a bit more considerate this time. We were just nineteen at the time and things went a little bit nuts.’Much of the success for both 1977 and its singles could be given to Owen Morris, whose work as the mixer on Oasis‘ 1995 debut Definitely Maybe would lead to work with The Verve the following year. ‘He was brilliant, a very talented guy. He’s also quite a maniac,’ states the singer. ‘He’s an old-school producer who you can’t get anymore because there was a lot of money in making records back in the day. We were able to be pretty decadent. There was a lot of drinking and a lot of mischief. We were definitely encouraged to smash up the studio. There was a lot of bad behaviour. But somehow we got the music done and he made it work.’
1977 turned Ash into superstars before they had time to process their success and the constant touring and promotion that would follow almost tore the band apart yet they managed to survive. ‘It was very hard to do the next one: Nu-Clear Sounds was really tough,’ Wheeler admits. ‘One of the things 1977 brought was that it crossed over into a pop album. Some of that stuff was a bit confusing. We didn’t really love being in Smash Hits magazine, a kind of pop magazine. As Nirvana fans, we never expected to end up there.’