Everyone my age who grew up in Britain has an opinion about Britpop and the era around it. It might be that Blur were better than Oasis, or that Pulp and Suede were better than either of them. Some might throw another name in there, like the Longpigs, Gene or Cast, and query why they went under the radar.
My Britpop band, or at least the first one I got into, was Ash. Now, I know I might have already irked some people by referring to a Northern Irish band as ‘Britpop’, but I’m talking about the sound and era more than the location. In the same way that krautrock isn’t necessarily German and Americana can exist outside of the U.S., what passed as Britpop was not confined to England, Scotland and Wales, hence the likes of the American/European Placebo and Swedish band The Wannadies often being lumped into the genre as well.
Whatever you want to call them, Ash’s debut album 1977 was released a full 20 years ago, in May 1996, when I was just 12 years old. Later that year, it became the first album I ever bought. Well, maybe not the first one, but you can’t expect me to write a nostalgic review of Chartbusters 1992.
To people who were too old or too young to have fully experienced Britpop and mid-90s music, a gutsy guitar rock debut from an Irish indie band may seem an unlikely album for a 12-year-old to start his collection with, but it was a strange era the likes of which had never been seen before and hasn’t since. The alternative was mingling with the mainstream to such an extent that it was barely the alternative at all. Bands like Pulp and the Manics were making appearances on Saturday morning television, and there would always be at least one guitar band on Top of the Pops. The popularity of this sort of material, much of which it still enjoys today, kind of reinforces my view that chart pop is only the best-selling type of music because it’s what people are subjected to the most. Later in 1996, Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’ – a track consisting of shouted stream of consciousness lyrics about booze, lust and general hedonism – would reach #2 in the singles charts, just because people had heard it on Trainspotting.
But, back to Ash and an album that, though rarely cited as a classic of the ’90s, was a staple of CD players at the time and entered the UK charts at #1 in its first week, surprisingly knocking Alanis Morisette’s long-time chart-topper Jagged Little Pill off its perch. The album’s green-tinged rotationally symmetrical cover gives a stark impression of a band influenced by the rough and ready of American grunge and punk, yet growing up in Northern Ireland at a time when it was very much mired in sectarianism, with the IRA still a year away from declaring a ceasefire. The run-down street, the dilapidated buildings, the knocked or kicked over dustbin in the centre, spilling its contents onto the tarmac. It’s a harsh, knee-scarring image.
The artwork inside of the cover, however, offers a collage of youth, pleasure-seeking and sexuality, as the band members and their friends are shown smiling, drinking and sharing hugs. The phrase ‘Domination. Teenage. Bisexual.’ appears, and featured on much of their merchandise at the time. The contrast between the outer and inner artwork of the record immediately let you know what you’re in for – a compromise of abrasion and high spirits, often fused together in a not unpleasantly gawky manner.
The year the album took its name from is most heavily associated with the birth of UK punk, and the band did credit this as part of the inspiration, but also cited it as the year of Star Wars’ release. Again, there’s this juxtaposition of grit and geekiness, and it’s firmly in place right from frenetic opener ‘Lose Control’. The intergalactic whooshing at the start is that of a TIE fighter from the popular franchise, and it gives way to furious and growling guitars setting the tone for a wild ride of a record.
Then follows ‘Goldfinger’, which remains a brilliant, brilliant song. The chiming, grungy intro lasting the best part of a minute, the guitars dropping out to allow for Tim Wheeler’s voice, the key change from verse to chorus, the slowed down, laboured drumming that takes us back to the verse. It’s a magical five minutes of music.
I’ve always found the ending of this song weirdly intriguing too. It doesn’t fade out, wind down or stop suddenly – it ends on an inquisitive note. The last four reworded choruses that close the song all simply describe waiting. Wheeler’s telling us what the weather’s like, how he’s feeling and what he’s doing to pass the time. It’s like forced, awkward conversation being committed to music as he concludes “and I’m waiting for her”. It’s open to interpretation, but I’ve always suspected she never turned up.
‘Girl From Mars’ is the other fondly remembered song from the record and, along with lightning bolt ‘Kung Fu’, gained the band a reputation for fast-paced, clap-along indie ‘choons’. Meanwhile, the crunching guitars and feedback drizzle of ‘I’d Give You Anything’ and ‘Innocent Smile’ hint at the more all-out rockiness to come on the follow-up album Nu-Clear Sounds. Tender ballads feature in the form of ‘Gone The Dream’ and ‘Lost In You’, while mid-album tracks ‘Oh Yeah’ and ‘Let It Flow’ perfected Ash’s style of wistful, infectious guitar pop.
‘Angel Interceptor’ is the single nobody remembers from this album, and I’m not sure why because it was a belter. It was also the first Ash song I heard, and immediately had a combination of drive and catchiness that resonated with me as a clumsy pre-teen trying to find a compromise between what I liked and what it was cool to like. This ticked both boxes.
The album was also my first experience of a hidden track, and what a baptism of fire. ‘Sick Party’ featured the band and their mates full of booze and acid, shouting, swearing, pissing and vomiting. It remains one of the most famous or infamous examples of the hidden track and, to a 12-year-old, it offered that thrill of access to something not suitable to you, much like watching TV long after the watershed or reading dirty magazines.
It’s a buzz that wears off as we get older though, and this all leads to the question of what we should make of Ash, and this particular album, 20 years on. Indeed, it’s worth noting that 1977 the album is now older than 1977 the year was when the album was released – a fact that will no doubt make your head ache and your heart yearn.
Despite a knack for great guitar pop tunes and an ability to rough things up with a harder edge, Ash largely became an also-ran of that era. When Nu-Clear Sounds came out two years later, it wasn’t widely appreciated. To be fair, it was a decent album, but it didn’t really have a market, being too niche for those who had picked up on the band from their chart appearances, and too late to the party for those with a grungier outlook. It was one of those albums that seemed to spend the next few years permanently in the ‘2 for £10’ section of record stores, alongside the likes of Sleeper’s Pleased to Meet You and the self-titled debut from Bentley Rhythm Ace. Spend an afternoon browsing your local charity shops and I guarantee you’ll see at least one copy.
Free All Angels was a solid if unspectacular third album, but was followed a couple of years later by the turgid single ‘Envy’, at which point I lost interest in the band. In fact, I didn’t even know they had an album out last year after an eight-year absence. I doubt my story is unique – with Britpop kids now well into their 30s and 40s, they continue to pine for a return of the scene, yet they haven’t kept track of the bands they used to love.
Perhaps 1977 came at just the wrong time – a little earlier and it would’ve been a fine European riposte to the big and boisterous U.S. grunge scene, a bit later and it may have stood out a tad more amid the a dull UK indie market that saw out the millennium on its arse. It also probably came a bit too early for me – I knew I liked it, but couldn’t fully appreciate or assess it in a wider context. Nonetheless, it’s an album that opened doors for me, perhaps acting as a more child-friendly prelude to the likes of Nevermind and Surfer Rosa, and is one of a handful I have to thank (or blame) for the direction I took in life.
Follow Ash on Facebook.