A R T I C L E S
a n d I N T E R V I E W S
Beat Instrumental, October 1976 by Gary Cooper
Right, hands up all you who thought Wishbone Ash were finished as a major band? Hmm, - yes, seems like a lot of people held that point of view; have to admit that I was coming round to that way of thinking myself until recently. What changed your mind? Well, did you catch any dates on the recent tour? Have you heard their New England album? Have you noticed how gigs were selling out like hot cakes, and how the album is shifting in and out of record stores at a tidy rate of knots?
So, how come a band that virtually quit Britain several years ago, made a very duff last album (Locked In) and generally went as far out of the limelight as you can be, gets to have such a sudden new lease of life?
To get the answers I tracked down the newest member of the band, Laurie Wisefield, co-lead guitarist, and the inimitable Andy Powell. Ash fans will now be excused for a couple of paragraphs but, as the band’s history is somewhat confusing, all you who aren’t quite sure what’s been going on had better read on for a bit.
Shortly before the recording of the superb There’s The Rub, Ted Turner, co-founder of Ash, quit the band, having helped take it to the top in Britain and the States. In many outfits that might not have mattered over-much; in Ash, though, there were problems. The trouble was that the band had made their name on the fabulous harmony/interplay of the two guitarists: that was the band’s trade mark and it looked bad that Turner had left. How would they find another player who gelled so well with Mr.Powell?
Now enter Mr.Wisefield, one of Britain’s finest and most melodic guitar players and sometime leader of the ill-starred Home. To everyone’s surprise, There’s The Rub was the most lively of Ash’s albums in several years, the guitar playing sparkled and shone with a brightness that the Powell/Turner combination had long since lost. So, Mr. Wisefield, what happened?
“There’s The Rub was really weird. I’d only been in the band about a month. When Home split I went to the States for a short tour with Al Stewart and then Ash asked me to jam. From that they asked me to join, and when we got round to recording that album we were still very much getting to know each other. The main thing I wanted to get across on that album was that I was playing a positive role. I sort of had to ignore the fact that I was replacing Ted Turner. I had to look at it like I was trying to actually give something to the band, not just replace someone who’d left.”
Released in 1974, There’s The Rub is a brilliant album. The follow-up, produced by reputedly ace American producer Tom Dowd, Locked In was slammed by critics and sales were disappointing. Hesitatingly I confess to Laurie that I hated it. How does he feel?
“Looking back, although Locked In was very enjoyable to actually record, I have to admit that it really doesn’t make it. I’ll also admit that if we’d made another album like that we really could have blown it. That album was just a reflection of how we’d been feeling at the time. We’d been through such a lot of shit in the last two years with a management split, a split from our record company in the States and leaving all our friends over here to go and live in the States, it’s hardly surprising that the album wasn’t so good.”
The Ash saga, like that of many of our top bands, could provide a salutary lesson for many younger groups. Would Laurie expound on how the management situation had come about?
“All the experiences I’ve had with managements haven’t been all that wonderful. They’ve been the cause of bands splitting up and all the other shit that goes on. It’s never normally down to straight rip-offs though – these days everybody knows everybody else pretty well, and the word soon gets around about that sort of thing. The trouble is that managers have this thing where they want to take over the world, and so they try and manage about fifteen groups at one time. No one can handle that sort of thing, and eventually the band starts suffering.
“Luckily, we’ve come out of our problems really strong. We owe an awful lot of Steve (Upton, the drummer), who looks after the business side of things and keeps the whole lot of us together. Now we find that if we want a specific job done we arrange it ourselves instead of hiring a manager to do all our arranging for us. We take care of all our own finances.”
The Ash solution to management troubles is, in essence, similar to the Sabbath one as reported recently in Beat. Could this be a future trend for bands? We now have the Stones, Sabbath and Ash all looking after their own affairs, and in general, it seems to work well. The band is still in demand though, as Laurie explained.
“We’ve recently had an offer from one of the heaviest managers in the States, he really believes in the album, but he wants us to sign with them world-wide, but we’ve done most of the spade work everywhere else except the States on our own.”
One of the oddities in the Ash saga had been this question of America. When they left for the States the stories in the press of the time implied that the band was just about Zeppelin-sized. If that was the case, how come Laurie is still talking about needing help in that market?
“The States at the moment is really difficult. If you look at the biggest bands over there these days, it’s people like Aerosmith, Kiss and ZZ Top, with Ted Nugent coming up fast. I don’t even think that bands like the Stones did all that well last time round. In fact, most of the old guard have been having a bit of a hard time. I know that you’ve got to have a very planned operation in America now and that you really should have a big organisation behind you if you want to break that market.
“We did an eight week tour when Locked In came out, and agreed, the album wasn’t amazing, but we did a tour to promote it and go nothing happened. So, we’re not going back to the States now to do a ten week tour and flog ourselves to death for nothing. What it’s down to now is getting airplay on the new album and then playing selected areas.”
But just how big are Ash in America?
“Well, we’re not in the really big league like the Stones or Aerosmith. I mean, we can play just about anywhere and pull in a good crowd, but there’s still another stepping stone before we break into the really top part of the league. A hit album or single would do it.”
Wishbone Ash were, as I’ve said, one of the very first British bands to leave their homes for the greener pastures of America. Why was that?
“No-one was particularly into leaving Britain, we’re not American citizens or anything, but we simply wouldn’t still be together if we’d stayed over here. The country has forced us to leave simply to keep the band alive. It’s not that we’re into a millionaire trip or anything, but it costs so much to keep a band on the road that we need as much of what we earn as we can get just to make it work. The way things are organised in the States means that, if you want to get something done, you just pick up a ‘phone and arrange it. Over there everyone wants you to make it because they’ll all benefit from it as well – over here, it’s just got very negative.”
So, after a tour of Europe to help sell New England to the Common Market, Ash will return to America to carry out the threat of “conquering” it.
Meanwhile, how about this current tour of Britain? Book to appear, for example, for one night at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, the band found that tickets were selling so fast they had to add another night. With a tour like that, could they expect to make any bread?
“No, we won’t be making a lot of money on this tour. That’s what I was saying about this country, it’s costing us something like two thousand quid a week without hotels or anything. In one aspect, though, we know how to handle that sort of situation because of the way in which the band’s progressed so slowly towards the top. If we’ve ever wanted something, we’ve waited until we can afford it rather than rushing off and getting ourselves into all sorts of debt
“A lot of young bands so really silly things with money, especially when times are hard like they are now. They get a manager come along and offer to put them on a wage, and they jump at it. It’s hard to blame them, but what they don’t seem to realise is that they’ll have to say it back out of any money they earn in the long run. That’s the mistake I made with Home, we just couldn’t afford to run after the third album, despite the fact that we were beginning to break over here.
“The thing that bands should remember is that you must remain positive. You don’t need amazing lighting and effect to get across to an audience. If the magic’s there, the audience will pick up on it, whatever size amps you’re using.”
One of the really fresh things about the New England album is the superb feel captured on it by producers Ronnie and Howie Albert. The recordings have a warmth to them which is rare in these days of acoustically perfect studios. A quick check of the sleeve notes shows that it was largely recorded with the aid of a mobile. How, I asked, had that come about?
“When we went over to the States we wanted to hire a pretty big house, because we wanted to be able to rehearse there. What we did was just do a really funky job of converting the basement into a rehearsal room. Hobbit, our sound man, got most of it together with a couple of our roadies, we just went round and soundproofed the walls in a really simple way. It really isn’t your flashy studio sort of place.
“Anyway, we started recording there, and when it came to recording the new album, we just realised that we didn’t want to face traipsing over to New York every day like we had for Locked In. We really wanted to record our music in the sort of loose atmosphere that we’d written and rehearsed it in. Ronnie and Howie had suggested that we went down to Miami to record, but we really didn’t fancy that much either, and so we said to them, “how about using a mobile?”. They were due to come over and check out the sound of the basement out one night and, of course, the night they picked was the night we had a hurricane, so when they went down to the basement there were no lights, so they had to walk around with a torch, they really couldn’t tell anything. So, they made a few checks and said that they though it’d be o.k. and we went ahead and got in the mobile.
“The whole album was recorded in that one room with us all standing around in a circle, with just a few simple screens between us. I know the separation isn’t perfect but the spillover of sound probably actually helped us get a live feel to it. We wanted everyone to relax and enjoy what they were doing, and it really worked out well. We used to have these amazing meals and get really wrecked before someone would say “come on, let’s go and lay down another track.” That’s how we did it, just using a room which had a really good live sound. We wanted a straight four-piece band sound with no keyboards and no bullshit.”
The result, as can be heard on New England is a truly superb live feel. The track ‘Candlelight’ for example, was recorded with Andy and Laurie sitting round the dinner table. It sounds like it – the sort of mood music you use for pulling chicks!
So, with an album recorded using the bare minimum of studio gimmicks, a sell-out tour in a country they’ve hardly played in for the past two years, and a self-management situation that seems to be working firmly in their favour, Wishbone Ash are back on their way to the top. Where they go from here is anybody’s guess, although Laurie assured me that the next album would not be a return to the sterile feel of Locked In. It’d be a case of back to the basement.
The album has charted well in Britain and, with luck, should do the same in the USA, assuring Ash of a new lease of life. In fairness, it’s probably true to say that they couldn’t have cut it any finer, but, having scraped back to the top, they now seem firmly risen again from their own ashes – a nice trick if you can do it.