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Wishbone Ash

Described in some quarters at the time as England’s answer to The ALLMAN BROTHERS, albeit with a mystical lyrical element, WISHBONE ASH fused heavy blues-rock with fine harmonies and jazz/prog-like self-indulgent solos. On the back of TEN YEARS AFTER and other “natural born boogie” merchants, HUMBLE PIE, the relatively faceless 4-piece peaked in ‘72 through the medieval imagery of UK Top 3 album, “Argus”. Twin guitarists Andy Powell and Ted Turner were popular with the college contingent, although the ‘Ash found it tougher than most to maintain an identity and aura needed to survive in the fickle world of rock music.
Formed in Torquay, Devon in the summer of ’69, one could trace their roots back three years, when Martin Turner (vocals/bass), Steve Upton (drums) and Glen Turner (guitar) led out the Empty Vessels, and, in turn, Tanglewood. A move to London and a chance meeting with former CIA agent, Miles Copeland (brother of STEWART COPELAND) at a Country Club gig in Hampstead, convinced them of their potential; he almost immediately became their manager. As Glen bailed out, in came the aforementioned axemen, David “Ted” Turner (no relation) and Andy Powell, while a new group name, WISHBONE ASH, was literally picked out of a hat.
At the turn of the decade, the quartet signed with M.C.A. (Decca Records in the US), having built up a reputation supporting the likes of Aynsley Dunbar’s Retaliation and DEEP PURPLE.
Starting to kick in with a growing fanbase, their eponymous debut, WISHBONE ASH (1970) {*6}, soon made inroads into the Top 30. Defined by jam-like pieces like the lengthy `Phoenix’ and the genre-busting `Handy’ (together, taking up a full side), plus the classy `Lady Whiskey’ and flop 45, `Blind Eye’, there was promise indeed for the band.
PILGRIMAGE (1971) {*7} cracked the Top 20, its opening `Vas Dis’ (penned by “Brother” Jack McDuff), with its scat-ish harmonies and bass-y jazz rhythm, marking the group to be more than just a boogie-ing blues act. The 8-minute follow-on prog-piece, `The Pilgrim’, confirmed this unanimously, while the riff-tastic `Jail Bait’ also went a long way in securing its place among the classic ASH repertoire. Flipped over, the instrumental `Lullaby’, showed a lighter, fluffier side to the outfit, while they showed off their live-to-audience prowess through epic finale, `Where Were You Tomorrow’.
Just about on a par with GENESIS’s “Foxtrot”, YES’s “Close To The Edge” and JETHRO TULL’s “Thick As A Brick” (all from 1972), WISHBONE ASH’s ARGUS {*9} revealed the band at their most imaginative and stylish. A compelling hybrid of arcane medieval themes and water-tight prog, this timepiece featured three milestones of classic rock, `Warrior’, `The King Will Come’ and `Throw Down The Sword’, alongside the folkier 45, `Blowin’ Free’ (surely a record that got away). But for weaker excursions into ALLMAN(s) territory (`Time Was’ and `Sometime World’), although only in comparison, the helmeted knight – as depicted on the cover shoot – might’ve speared several more listeners.
WISHBONE FOUR (1973) {*6} left their mystical prog-rock forays at the portcullis, an altogether mellower set with a rootsier country-rock feel, especially on the track, `Ballad Of The Beacon’. Straight-laced boogie had worked for STATUS QUO, and with this Top 20 album (their breakthrough Top 50 entry in the States), the ‘Ash bookended the soft-rock set with at least two further greats in `Rock’n’Roll Widow’ and `So Many Things To Say’. For many fans, they missed a beat here and an opportunity to solidify a lyrical identity.
Although it mysteriously missed out on a chart placing, the double-disc LIVE DATES (1973) {*9} made up for any shortcomings, showcasing as it did, a cluster of treasured works (including a mind-blowing 17-minute version of `Phoenix’) and an exclusive cover of Aillene Bullock & JIMMY REED’s `Baby, What You Want Me To Do’.
When Ted duly left, perturbed by the laid-back approach taken by the band (which now included Laurie Wisefield from soft-rockers, Home), WISHBONE ASH took a further step into the mainstream on the Bill Szymczyk-produced THERE’S THE RUB (1974) {*6}. Recorded in Miami but delivered with a non-conformist Anglo-fied cricketer cover shoot, the Top 20 set (No.88 in America) rubbed hard-rocker fans up the wrong way, although it did contain one highlight, the 9-minute instrumental `F*U*B*B*’ (Fucked Up Beyond Belief).
Although tax-exiles ‘Ash managed to retain some (very!) loyal fans after the rather lacklustre, Tom Dowd-produced LOCKED IN (1976) {*3}, they were treading a watery soup on other Top 40 sets, NEW ENGLAND (1976) {*5} and the folky FRONT PAGE NEWS (1977) {*5}; the predominantly Wisefield-scribed effort, NO SMOKE WITHOUT FIRE (1978) {*4} and Martin’s final push for superiority, JUST TESTING (1980) {*4}, battled against the tide of post-new wave/punks, although they were still a Top 50 act. Another to squeeze into the Top 40, the double-disc LIVE DATES II (1980) {*4}, updated their concert acumen by zero, and showed why many fans had burned their bridges with the once great WISHBONE ASH.
Veteran of numerous rock groups such as URIAH HEEP, FAMILY, KING CRIMSON, et al, John Wetton (bass and vocals) was installed on NUMBER THE BRAVE (1981) {*4} as Martin’s replacement (he was now on production), while the addition of new age solo songstress, CLAIRE HAMILL on backing vocals, was a tad baffling; a rare cover of The TEMPTATIONS hit, `Get Ready’, was unworthy of the band.
Upton, Powell, Wisefield and yet another seasoned campaigner, Trevor Bolder (ex-SPIDERS FROM MARS, ex-URIAH HEEP) replaced ASIA-bound Wetton for the slightly harder-edged, Top 30 set, TWIN BARRELS BURNING (1982) {*5}, but the momentum was lost some time ago.
It’s fair to say that the compensation of named talent over stalwart leadership was the band’s downfall, and while bassman Mervyn “Spam” Spencer (ex-TRAPEZE) superseded Bolder on the independently-issued, RAW TO THE BONE (1985) {*4} and Andy Pyle (ex-SAVOY BROWN, ex-BLODWYN PIG) was drafted in as a temp, the ‘Ash were virtually stubbed out.
Originals Andrew, Steve, Martin and Ted, lit up for another spree of mediocre turn-outs, through the unusually instrumental and dreamy NOUVEAU CALLS (1988) {*4} – their first for Copeland’s I.R.S. imprint – and HERE TO HEAR (1989) {*4}, while STRANGE AFFAIR (1991) {*4} plodded into nowhere land.
The group were still treading the boards with various line-ups, churning out new versions of their once classic songs; two concert albums of material old and new being recorded under the titles of THE ASH LIVE IN CHICAGO (1992) {*4} and LIVE IN GENEVA (1996) {*4}.
The latter set from the Heroes Of Rock Festival in ’95 was down to Powell and new recruits: Roger Filgate (guitar), Tony Kishman (bass) and Mike Sturgis (drums); 1996’s studio comeback, ILLUMINATIONS {*5} appealed to their most underlined fanbase.
And then TRANCE VISIONARY (1998) {*4}, a marked breakaway from the norm for Powell and Co, re-inventing themselves (alongside co-author Mike Bennett) as a techno combo!
PSYCHIC TERRORISM (2000) {*4} continued the pretence and almost alienated everyone who’d once loved the “real” WISHBONE ASH – okay, they did sample the odd Ash nuggets. Thankfully, LIVE DATES 3 (2001) {*5} put paid to all the trance-rock shenanigans and reverted to typeface for rockers, `F.U.B.B.’, `Phoenix’, `Throw Down The Sord’, etc.
Guitarist/co-composer Ben Granfelt was installed (alongside Bob Skeat and Ray Weston) to replace the outgoing Mark Birch, who’d been a member since 1998, and a new run of hard-rocking sets kicked off with BONA FIDE (2002) {*5}. CLAN DESTINY (2006) {*5} – their first with Jyrki “Muddy” Manninen – and THE POWER OF ETERNITY (2007) {*5}, kept the `Ash smouldering away, while it was oh so obvious and obligatory in today’s retro climate, that the best-period ARGUS “Then Again” Live (2008) {*6} would get the re-vamp treatment. The double-CD/DVD, 40th ANNIVERSARY – LIVE IN LONDON (2010) {*6}, celebrated an up and down career, recalling their “greatest hits” for a new generation ready and willing to sample their wares.
WISHBONE ASH (aka Powell, Manninen, Skeat and young drummer Joe Crabtree) produced their umpteenth studio effort courtesy of ELEGANT STEALTH (2011) {*5}, but once again the jury was out on some of the lighter, soft-rock cuts. However, all in all, there was merit in tracks `Warm Tears’, `Big Issues’ and the 11-minute finale, `Invisible Thread’.
Winning over a judge for the group name (Martin Turner had contested the court battle), Powell’s WISHBONE ASH picked up the proverbial pieces through 2014’s rockier BLUE HORIZON {*7}. Willing to expand their boundaries with boogie, funk, prog and blues, producer Tom Greenwood drained the best out of the quartet without exhausting them too much. Featuring guest fiddler Pat McManus on opener `Take It Back’, and breathing in hard rock as if transported back to the 70s, songs `Deep Blues’, `Tally Ho!’ and the title track stood out from the pack.
© MC Strong 1994-2004/GRD // rev-up MCS Nov2012-Mar2014

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