A R T I C L E S
a n d I N T E R V I E W S
Beat Instrumental, March 1973 by Simon Frith
Top Of The Polls With Twin Guitars
Rock writers have a thing about genealogy. I don’t know who’s fault it is but I’m always reading about second generation bands and third generation singer-songwriters. I don’t think rock’s history is neat enough for this sort of pedigree tracing and I’ve never liked the analogy, but talking to Wishbone Ash’s guitarists – Andy Powell and Ted Turner – I kept thinking about it. I mean, they aren’t just slight and fragile like other rock stars; they’re young. As they recounted their career they were like three or four years behind me.
So, they started off with the Shadows – no messing with rock ‘n’ roll or skiffle. Take Andy: “I’ve been playing in groups since I was about twelve – the usual things, you know, fetes and all that. I played Shadows kind of things – still do! It’s funny how suddenly it’s become acceptable to say, yeah, well Hank Marvin did influence me. Before it was BB King and the blues and all this crap but the only stuff I could get hold of, that was readily available, was people like Hank and when you’re twelve or thirteen you haven’t got a clue about what’s right and what’s wrong. The Shadows had the quality that I could play like them without expensive equipment and all that stuff. It was right there.”
British groups, blues and soul, were part of Andy and Ted’s early teenage experience, they grew up through psychedelia and progression. By the time they began (in 1969) to think of a future in rock it was as musicians not stars. There were no local groups (Ted in Birmingham, Andy is Hemel Hempstead) to be loyal to, rather they scanned MM, prepared for auditions, a special form of torment. “You do about three numbers, you just join in with the band, it isn’t very official at all.” Ted’s first go was with Colosseum; “They were looking for a guitarist in the early days and I went along to the auditions. It went really well. They were incredible guys, which was good for me because at the stage I was at if they’d said something horrible it would have cut like hell, but they encouraged me.”
Andy’s first attempt was Wishbone Ash itself: “I was so unsure, it was such a big step going into it full time that if I’d gone to an audition and someone had said you’re alright, we’ll give you a phone call, I would have been shattered and wouldn’t have had the nerve to try again.” But both he and Ted shone at the Wishbone auditions, the problems were for the group’s existing nucleus, Martin Turner and Steve Upton, bass and drums. They’d been a violent Hendrix/Zeppelin trio. Their guitarist had split and “they wanted a heavy, flash guitarist to front them. When we came they could see the qualities in both of us and it freaked them out – they couldn’t decide between us and we both ended up coming down to London for rehearsals. When we started to play together we fitted very well and they suddenly saw new possibilities. The four of us were doing some of the numbers that they had written, that they had played in their old group, but they were different with the two of us in. We stuck in stuff like harmony guitar and it altered the whole feel of the music.”
Wishbone Ash started exploring this new ‘feel’ in early 1970; in 1971 Melody Maker’s readers voted them Britain’s best new band. Andy and Ted’s experience of being professionals was as different from that of previous generations as their adolescence had been. No hustling around pubs and piers and talent contests, no catching the ear of some show-biz mogul. Not only did Wishbone Ash have a manager already, but he was young, independent and devoted solely to their career: “Steve and Martin had met a guy called Miles Copeland. They were doing a gig at the Country Club, as a three piece, and he’d just come over from Beirut. He was an American living there, and he’d decided he wanted to get into the pop music business, to be a manager. So he came up and said, “Hey guys, I’ll manage you.” He was already on the scene when Ted and I came down and from then on he was our manager. We fixed up a record deal about a year after that. We’d had about eight offers by then, CBS, Atlantic, Island I think, and we signed with MCA. We’ve had a fairly free hand. The only time Miles’ll come down on us is if we’re supposed to get an album out within a particular time. We’ve been behind on our contract for the last three years. We’ve done one album a year and we’re supposed to do two – so this year we’re planning three! Occasionally we write a song and Miles come up and says that’s not really right, that’s not Wishbone Ash and we just have to tell him we believe its right, we’ve got faith in it. We’ve got to be true to ourselves and he accepts that. Our only gripe is the lack of time. Because the band is doing well at the moment, so much is expected from us – live gigs, recording, more recording. There comes a time when you have to say, “Hold it!”. Otherwise we’re going to burn ourselves out.
Wishbone Ash made three albums before they made a single. The albums all sold well and Argus was voted LP of the year in MM. The single, ‘No Easy Road’, came out last autumn, sold no copies at all and was, in Andy’s words “fucked up”. It’s this reversal of the old way of doing things that I find most difficult to take. I got used to pop stars serving the disciplined apprenticeship of three minute singles and most English ‘progressive’ groups seem to lack a sense of form or structure, while having nothing to say anyway. How many ELP songs can you whistle? The point is that Wishbone Ash (whom I do like) don’t t5hink in these terms at all – they think in sounds, not songs. So their music is jointly written: “For instance, Ted and I might come along with a melody idea and we might think of a tempo for the number to be in and Steve’ll say, no that just wouldn’t sound right. So we draw on his experience as a drummer, as a rhythm player, to put us right.”
Lyrics are of secondary importance. Martin Turner writes most of them but his task is basically to create images to match the existing feel of the music. On Argus for example, “The music that was coming out was very English, very medieval, and the lyrics had to reflect that, to create the total mood.” For Ted and Andy, personal expression is a function of their guitar playing, not of any lyrics: “the expression comes out in the guitars. We wouldn’t play it if it didn’t express something – it would be superfluous. We really do battle it out before we play something. Don’t play it if you don’t mean it or it’s a waste of time.” I had this illusion that true instrumental self-expression had to be spontaneous, improvised, different every night. Ted disagreed: “You can go off on a rambling solo for twenty minutes with the group backing you and it may sound alright but you know that’s not proving anything. It’s better to have some form of formal structure. If the way the arrangement was done in the first place was really good then you get behind it every time, it’s more expressive than improvisation.”
The basis of Wishbone Ash’s music is the interplay of two controlled and sweet guitarists, their songs are built around this basic sound quality and, as a result, Martin Turner’s bass and Steve Upton’s drums have developed a fluidity that I haven’t heard in any guitar/organ based group. But because Wishbone’s concern is to create a sound, their problems are not over when a song has been written, arranged, mastered. For example one continuing concern is “to keep a lot of separation on stage and to be very careful about that. We have to have very sharp, sweet sounds so that when they blend together the total sound is nice. We had a clear concept of the sound we wanted from the beginning but it took well over a year of equipment hassles to put it all together. Now we can afford the right kind of speakers and that kind of thing but the next problem is to improve the PA systems there are in this country.”
To get the right sound in the studio requires equal care and although Wishbone are happy with their first three albums (produced by Derek Lawrence, engineered by Martin Birch) they’ve had their share of studio hassles: “We had a lot of trouble at De Lane Lea. When we were making the single we couldn’t have Martin and had to have this engineer who was used to classical music and couldn’t do rock bands. Half way through a take he’d suddenly say “oh, I’ve got to meet my girlfriend, I’ve got to go home,” and he had equally little interest in the sound we were trying to get. For their new album Wishbone decided to do their own production with a sympathetic engineer they found at Olympic Studios, Keith Hull. Their plan was to go into the studio with every number worked out, knowing exactly what they wanted. This meant they needed time and the place for rehearsal and I now know why groups “do the country cottage bit”. “We must have rehearsed about three places in London before we decided it was just a waste of time. We didn’t have the room and people kept running in and out. In the end we decided to rent this little hut in Anglesey. It was right away from everything. We slept on the floor, crammed the place with equipment and put the album together in three weeks, doing nothing but making music.”
The irony of Wishbone Ash’s career is that now, after three years as one of England’s most successful ‘progressive’ groups, they are beginning to have more old-fashioned yearnings. There are various symptoms – Ted is listening to black music, soul and r‘n’b; Andy is still keep for the group to make more singles; Martin (and this is the most significant development) is beginning to write his own, personal songs which place new requirements on the group: “For instance, on this last album Martin wrote a song called ‘Everybody Needs a Friend’ for which he did everything. All we did was play it, interpret it, as he wanted. We said to him, sing it as you want it to sound and if it’s out of tune fuck it, it doesn’t matter. That’s probably how it’ll go in the future – a proper lead singer – and we’re all trying desperately to get into song-writing.”
One result of this will be a new source of group tension, as it gets more and more difficult “to satisfy each member of the band”, to share song-writing, give equal attention to each person’s ideas. Relationships between the members of a rock group are odd enough under any circumstances. On the one hand, “I wouldn’t say all of us hate each others guts but I wouldn’t say we go out of our way to see each other when we’re not working. One of the things that’s kept us together is seeing so many groups breaking up and thinking what a waste, all that work gone…” But against this pragmatic attitude is Ted and Andy’s affirmation that Wishbone’s on-stage relationship is so close that “it goes further than that, further than the stage.” All the members of the group are devoted musicians, performing is their means of self-expression and sharing their performances with each other gives them a closeness that they can’t articulate but only hint at: “This last three months has been a real drag because we haven’t been working. It causes all sorts of tensions. When you’re working, when you’re on tour, playing for a month and coming off stage every night absolutely whacked out, flopping into bed, you really feel you’ve done a day’s work and it’s a nice feeling. Sitting around a flat writing, your energy is just not being burnt up. There’s nothing like it, gigging, the next day waking up, leaping out of bed, your fingers clicking – it’s just great and there’s nothing else to say.”