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+ {Tim Wheeler}

Not since The UNDERTONES and STIFF LITTLE FINGERS has Northern Ireland seen a punk-pop group to take on the other big boys from Old Blighty. An uncomfortably hard-edged Britpop trio that channelled the spirit of ’77 nearly two decades on, ASH – all born in ’77! – had youth and enterprise on their side, while American cousins GREEN DAY, The LEMONHEADS and WEEZER were heading for the big arena. ASH never quite fitted the bill or thrash-y criteria for American audiences, but in Britain they had/have a loyal-and-trusted fanfase, tested thoroughly when the original trio delivered an A-Z series of 26 etched, 7” singles every fortnight for a year between October 2009 and 2010.
Formed 1989 in Downpatrick, County Down, singer/guitarist Tim Wheeler – then 12 years of age! – and bassist Mark Hamilton envisioned themselves as metal stars under the guise of Vietnam. With school life coming to a close, no jobs on the horizon and without a care in the world, they stubbed-out their “ember-yonic” moniker and adopted the name ASH; recruiting drummer Rick “Rock” McMurray, in the process.
After one buzzing, independent platter, `Jack Names The Planets’ (for La La Land Records), ASH’s precocious talents were duly spotted by American record moguls eager for more punk-centric guitar music that could easily cross over to the pop market. Though they subsequently opted to sign with Reprise (Stateside only), the trio had already released their debut mini-set, TRAILER (1994) {*7}, for Infectious Records. Bolstered by promotion courtesy of a Heinekin advert for attendant single, `Uncle Pat’, and a minor-hit preview (`Kung Fu’) from their forthcoming full-set, the NME were first to realise the group’s potential.
Their starry-eyed, bushy-tailed, but ultimately derivative blend of indie punk finally became a part of the pop vocabulary when the catchy, BUZZCOCKS-esque `Girl From Mars’ sky-rocketed into the Top 20 the following summer. This was pursued by another major hit later that year in `Angel Interceptor’. The hype machine going into overload, the group hit the Top 5 in spring ’96 with the dreamy `Goldfinger’, one of the many killer tracks on the chart-topping, 1977 (1996) {*9}. Apparently a reference to the year the Star Wars movie was released rather than any homage to safety-pins and spouting saliva, the record included all their hit singles to date (plus the delicious `Oh Yeah’), and confirmed their increasingly melodic approach.
Keeping their profile high with festival appearances, the band later added a second guitarist, Charlotte Hatherley, in summer ‘97. She made her debut on ASH’s theme tune for the much-lauded Ewan McGregor/Cameron Diaz film, `A Life Less Ordinary’, another Top 10 smash late in ‘97. While the indie scene continued to cry out for something innovative, it remained difficult to envisage any figureheads less ordinary than ASH (songs!). Surprisingly Kerrang!-friendly, the quartet lost a little of their indie cred with the release of their punningly-titled third album proper, NU-CLEAR SOUNDS (1998) {*7}, a record that quickly vacated the Top 10, with its attendant singles `Jesus Says’ and `Wild Surf’, only managing a Nos.15 and 31 placing respectively. With sex (group, that is), drugs (abuse) and rock’n’roll (Tim Wheeler in the buff!), all the ingredients were in the latest promo instalment for ASH’s subsequent single `Numbskull’. Unfortunately the viewing public, and for that matter the buying public, didn’t get much of a look-in, as the EP – like many others at the turn of the century – was ineligible for the charts via a new ruling by those pesky compilers; in the meantime, they’d briefly added (on tour only), turntablist DJ Dick Kurtaine.
Older and wiser, the ASH posse returned in 2001 with their first material of the new millennium, FREE ALL ANGELS {*8}. Previewed by the hits, `Shining Light’ and `Burn Baby Burn’, the record recaptured some of their mid-period spunk and used it to temper the aural hangover of its predecessor. With no less than five anthemic hits in total (including also `Sometimes’, `Candy’ and `There’s A Star’), the soaring No.1 set achieved synergy for the first time in years.
While there was plenty of Americanised muscle, MELTDOWN‘s flaming heavy-metal sleeve wasn’t the whole story. Released in May 2004, the {*7} record went Top 5, covering all the usual bases from post-grunge to power ballad on hits `Orpheus’, `Starcrossed’ and `Renegade Cavalcade’. The album was also the last to feature solo bound CHARLOTTE HATHERLEY, who’d released her own LP `Grey Will Fade’, that same year.
Thinking New York would be a good place to focus his songwriting prowess, Tim Wheeler and Co (on the cusp of 30!), the chirpy, pop-friendly TWILIGHT OF THE INNOCENTS {*7} finally emerged in 2007. Augmented by former ELTON JOHN arranger/orchestrator, Paul Buckmaster, Wheeler also revealed this would be their swansong set – despite the band not splitting. Described best as a delicious union of ELVIS COSTELLO and “Teenage Dirtbag”-ers, WHEATUS, relatively poor sales showed a band in commercial freefall, although many to-die-for fans would cite singles `You Can’t Have It All’, `Polaris’ and `End Of The World’ as minor classics.
Subsequently cast aside from their “Infectious” backers, the aforementioned promise of no further albums was all-but maintained when the trio split songs to be released as 7” singles in an A-Z format. Limited and collectable though they were, all of them hovered in and around the UK Top 100, and were cheekily split on to two “compilation-type” sets: A-Z, VOL.1 (2010) {*7} and A-Z, VOL.2 (2010) {*7}. If their brave 7”/download-only format was really the route to take was questionable, but ASH were again attacking the industry in their own inimitable aplomb. As for the singles, several of them might’ve been hits in times gone by, or even if they’d been procured by rival pop groups, but the meat ‘n’ tatties for many still partaking a wee puff were `Joy Kicks Darkness’, `Tracers’ and `The Dead Disciples’ from “Vol.1”, and `Dare To Dream’, `Spheres’ and the 10-minute `Sky Burial’ from “Vol.2”. Start the debate!
2012 saw a covers EP entitled `Little Infinity’, featuring the works of BOBBY FREEMAN (`Do You Wanna Dance’), CARLY SIMON (`Coming Around Again’), ABBA (`Lay All Your Love On Me’), The BEATLES (`Hello Goodbye’), Robey-Washington (`Pledging My Love’), The STROKES (`What Ever Happened’) and DAVID BOWIE (`Teenage Wildlife’).
Time indeed to mention their array of B-side covers over the years: namely `Punkboy’ (HELEN LOVE), `Get Ready’ (The TEMPTATIONS), `Does Your Mother Know’ (ABBA), `Lose Control’ (Backwater), `Blew’ (NIRVANA), `Who You Drivin’ Now?’ (MUDHONEY), Everybody’s Happy Nowadays’ (BUZZCOCKS) and `Only In Dreams’ (WEEZER).
Before there was any talk of an ASH reformation, TIM WHEELER wanted to dedicate a delicate solo album to his recently-deceased father, who died of dementia a few years back. As heartfelt and painstaking as it sounded, the orchestral-laden LOST DOMAIN (2014){*7}, was an inspiring concept for a singer in audible sorrow. Roping in friends Andy Burrows, Fred Aspelin, Ilan Eshkeri, Oliver Kraus and Leanne Macomber (of Ejecta) at its core, the maudlin subject matter turned deep sadness into a climactic rush of emotion; his father would surely be proud of songs such as `Medicine’ (a 10-minute tear-jerker), `Hospital’, the dramatic `Vigil’, the Paddy McAloon-esue `Hold’ and the far-away opener `Snow In Nara’. With all profits going to the Alzheimer’s charity fund, Tim served up closure, at least in musical terms.
While one would like to forget the theme to WHEELER’s sunny-day Shaun The Sheep Movie track, `Feels Like Summer’, ASH were back on the post-pop trail by way of “comeback” set KABLAMMO! (2015) {*7}. Opening with throwaway cassingle(!), `Cocoon’, Tim and Co played the nostalgia joker card and emblazon their heart on the sleeve for the anthemic and lamenting `Free’, `Machinery’ and `Moondust’. Proving surf-rock was not quite dead in the water, the instrumental `Evel Knievel’ was a master-stroke, while the dirty doo-wop beats of `Let’s Ride’ and the cheerleader-rock (featuring the chanting Leanne Macomber, Laura Mittendorfer and Danielle Johnson) on `Go! Fight! Win!’, take ASH to another level.
Tim Wheeler’s elixir-of-life ASH-tones of indie pop and soft-punk was thrust upon their fanbase for ISLANDS (2018) {*7}; an album of exceptional quality if one could only spin one’s head back to the late 90s. In the rambunctious and explicit `Buzzkill’ – but not so much the amiable `Confessions In The Pool’, `All That I Have Left’, and a raft of other melodious tunes – there was indeed a classic punk track, whilst nostalgia nuances from rock’n’roll times were drawn from `Did Our Love Burn Out?’, `Is It True?’ and the admission-price, `It’s A Trap’.
© MC Strong 1996-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Oct2013-Aug2018

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