Friday, November 7, 2008

Review: ASH - 1977 (Re-issue) original release : 1996

When you look at the position Ash currently occupy - on the fringes of the mainstream, with good-but-not-great reviews in the press being the order of the day - it's easy to forget just how big a deal they used to be and how phenomenal their initial rise to prominence was. Attracting media and record company interest with their debut single 'Jack Names The Planets' in February 1994, they followed up with the mini-album Trailer and a trio of superb singles - 'Petrol', 'Uncle Pat' and 'Kung Fu'. Their moment truly arrived when 'Girl From Mars' landed at no.11 in the UK top 40 in July 1995, and this was followed by a Glastonbury slot which took place just two days after lead singer/guitarist Tim Wheeler and bassist Mark Hamilton finished their A-levels. The debut album, 1977, released in May 1996, followed hot on the heels of Top 5 single 'Goldfinger', and shot straight in at number 1 on the UK album chart, dislodging Alanis Morrisette. It was an astonishing couple of years, not only in terms of commercial success but also in terms of the staggering quality of output from a group of young men still in their late teens.

Recently the band performed 1977 in its entirety in London's Roundhouse, and demand for tickets was so great that they've now released the album in a deluxe edition, along with Trailer , the Live at the Wireless radio session, a live set from Reading 1996, and a disc of 22 rarities and B-sides. Value for money? You bet. Having long since misplaced my copy of the album (one of the first I ever bought), it's given me the perfect opportunity to re-purchase, and of course get all nostalgic about those times when you'd spend all day writing the names of your favourite bands on your pencil case or school books. Which was doubtlessly one of the things that appealed about Ash: they were exactly the kind of rabid fanboys that you were, their obsessions - Star Wars, Jackie Chan, Hulk Hogan, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Thin Lizzy - all mixed into a compelling brew of breakneck riffs, pop-punk hooks and teenage kicks.

1977 still has a slightly disjointed feel - a third of the tracks had already been released as singles by the time the album came out, and some of the album tracks ('Lost in You', 'Let it Flow') don't quite match up - but it's excellence remains undimmed after 12 years: 'Girl From Mars', still arguably their best song, crackles along with youthful exuberance and a killer chorus; the riotous 'Kung Fu' is a 100mph tribute to Jackie Chan, while 'Oh Yeah' successfully captures the rush of teenage infatuation with a wistfulness beyond their years. Wheeler's remarkable songwriting talent comes to the fore on the grinding 'Goldfinger', where the narrator waits for a girl to 'set the score' ('I got some records on / Some bottles of wine / On this stormy night / The rain is lashing down / And I'm waiting for her'), while Hamilton threatens to upstage him with the distortion-fuelled vortex of 'Innocent Smile', a song that wouldn't sound out of place on Daydream Nation. It mightn't be Ash's best album - that honour goes to Free All Angels (9) in my book - but its got their most definitive songs.

Trailer, the EP that preceded 1977, is by no means a preliminary sketch, standing up as a very good record in its own right: heavier, harder-edged and with more of an obvious debt to grunge than their debut proper, it veers between the Ramones-esque punk-pop of 'Jack Names the Planets', the torrid riffing and morbid lyrics of 'Season', and the apocalyptic 'Petrol', one of those songs whose mysteriousness ('The cars stop outside, they all stay inside / The house is drenched in light, but what have I done wrong?') only adds to its emotional power.

Of the live sets, Live at the Wireless is the real keeper, a positively blistering performance recorded at the Triple J Studios in Australia in 1996. The version of 'Goldfinger' recorded here, shorn of Owen Morris' wall-of-sound production, is even better than on record, there's a terrific version of Ween's 'What Deaner Was Talking About', and 'Girl From Mars' and 'Petrol' are torn through with the energy and conviction of a band seizing their moment. Live at Reading 96 is less essential: while the energy levels are as high as ever, the set feels a bit flat at times on record, and the weaknesses of the three-piece set-up are more in evidence, a situation which would eventually lead to the recruitment of Charlotte Hatherley as second guitarist. Still, it's notable for the frenetic 'Kung Fu' finale - which seems to leave Wheeler breathless and speechless - and the reaction of a clearly adoring crowd.

There's a bit of overlap between the rarities disc included here and the one included with the impeccable singles collection Intergalactic Sonic 7's (10), but only five tracks in all. Unsurprisingly, it's a mixed bag, ranging from the playful to the heavy, but there's plenty of gold to be found. A four-track demo of 'Girl From Mars' brings its classic melody into even sharper relief, 'Don't Know' - one of their earliest tracks - has an endearingly amateurish-but-tuneful quality, while they also try their hand at some interesting covers (a bizarre vocoder-led electro version of 'Gimmie Some Truth', Smokey Robinson's 'Get Ready', 'Does Your Mother Know'). The prize, however, goes to '5am Eternal', a superlative, sinister slice of post-hardcore that sounds like it's been recorded in an echo chamber. And let's not forget the legendary Sick Party: the sound of Mark Hamilton intentionally regurgitating the contents of his stomach to howls of laughter from bandmates and crew, it was originally a hidden track at the end of 1977 and is included here in all its glory. And it's still hilarious.

I remember the thrill me and my best mate felt when Ash first hit the Top 20: it felt like a victory in a way, that this was our band rubbing shoulders with the vacuous mainstream heavyweights. Overly simplistic of course, but when you're that young you tend to romanticise these things, and that's why albums like 1977 hold such nostalgic value for us mid-twenties folk: they represent that sense of conviction and exhilaration that seems to dim with every passing year. Good to see it getting the comprehensive re-issue treatment it deserves.


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