"I remember it was the winter and the Boo Radleys were at Rockfield in the studio next to us recording C'mon Kids, and we had some great snowball fights in the courtyard. It was a pretty magical time. I was under a lot of pressure, but making that record was one of my favorite times ever in my whole life." – Tim Wheeler, Ash
November 1995 was a thrilling time to be in a British band. Led by Blur, Oasis, and Pulp, countless young indie bands were riding a movement that the press was calling Britpop. Hailing from Downpatrick, Northern Ireland, Ash were one of these young bands, although the noisy power pop Tim Wheeler, Mark Hamilton and Rick McMurray were making only qualified because of geography. Just months after they finished school and scored a Top 20 UK hit with "Girl From Mars," Ash had entered a studio to begin working on their debut album.
"Technically it was our first job out of school, but it didn't feel like a job at all," says singer/guitarist/songwriter Tim Wheeler. "It never really has. It felt more like all of our dreams coming true at once. It also didn't feel permanent like a job does. We just didn't know things were gonna go. We were having hits and stuff, but there was no guarantee as to how successful we would be."
Turns out, things went pretty well for them. Ash have spent the last two decades consistently touring and releasing new albums. Their last one, 2015's Kablammo!, proved just how formidable their music still is. But over those years, Ash have been cognizant of how much their fans treasure their debut album. With the album turning 20 this year, Ash will be performing 1977 in its entirety over the next few months. And of course, with that tour comes a lot of memories for Wheeler.
Before 1977, Ash released a mini-album of teenage punk songs—1994's Trailer. The following year they entered Loco Studios in Wales with Owen Morris, a producer who was experiencing phenomenal success at the time after producing the first two Oasis albums. There they recorded a string of singles— "Kung Fu," "Girl From Mars" and "Angel Interceptor"—that made them both critical and commercial darlings. It also established a relationship with Morris, who would also helm their debut album.
"I wasn't the world's biggest Oasis fan at the time we started working with him, but our label told us to check him out and we just really clicked," says Wheeler. "At the time he was recording A Northern Soul, so we actually recorded "Angel Interceptor" during that session using the Verve's gear. Owen was so sick because he'd really been caning it on drugs. But he gave up his Christmas to record with us because we were off on school break. It was pretty cool because the drum kit that [Peter Salisbury] owned used to belong to John Bonham. Rick just found that out the other day. So he played that kit on 'Kung Fu' and 'Angel Interceptor.'"
When they reconvened with Morris to begin working on 1977, they went back to Wales to record at Rockfield Studios, birthplace of legendary recordings like Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," the Stone Roses debut and Oasis' (What's the Story) Morning Glory?. Unfortunately for Wheeler, he didn't have much material to bring with him.
"We were doing some touring and finishing school was pretty intense, so I didn't have much time to write," Wheeler says. "But we felt quite good going into the album because we already had hits on it. Owen asked me to play some stuff and I didn't have many ideas. There was one I thought might be a weird B-side, and he loved it and said, 'This should be the next single.' And that was 'Goldfinger.' I wasn't even that sure about it, but he picked it and was right. I thought it was too different to everything we'd done before. It had a slow tempo and these weird key changes, but it took a few months to get it together. It didn't seem like a song that had any commercial potential to me, but I was wrong, which was great."
The actual recording of the album began just after Wheeler turned 19. He was still trying to write songs that measured up to the singles that had charted just months before, and the pressure was mounting. "We meant to finish it in six weeks but it ended up taking us about two and a half months," he says. "I wrote almost half of the album in the studio, which is why it took so long. I knew it was a really big opportunity to build our success so I wanted to get it right and the extra pressure was slowing me down. I was really just learning at the time. I was still a kid. I definitely wanted to prove myself. I also wasn't the most disciplined person too, because of my age."
Of course, it didn't help that Owen Morris had a reputation for partying hard in the studio. And coming off hedonistic experiences like recording Oasis' (What's the Story) Morning Glory? and The Verve's A Northern Soul, Morris was definitely looking to keep the party going.
"Owen was a big drinker and drug-taker," Wheeler explains. "For him that was part of the recording process. So we were getting introduced to that side of things. It was easier for the other guys because they didn't have to do quite as much writing as I did. I was trying to balance trying new drugs and getting hammered with trying to do some writing as well. It would always be early in the afternoon when Owen would be like, 'Right, time to go to the pub.' He needed a pint, so the drinking would start pretty early on. The nights got really long."
The nights also got really weird too. Morris was famous for eccentric behavior like "throwing fire extinguishers through the studio glass and dancing on top of this £500,000 console," Wheeler says. And so when it came to their time with him the guys were expected to experiment in more ways than one. Of course there were drugs and alcohol, but little did they expect to get dolled up like women in order to make an album.
"He was a real maniac," says Wheeler. "He thought it'd be really funny for us to a charity shop in this provincial town in Wales wearing eyeliner to buy women's dresses. He said to us that it'd get a real vibe on the record. We'd always dedicate one of the 24 tracks to being a vibe track, where we'd just stand around and point at the microphone and send vibes into it. We'd do dumb shit like that. [Laughs.] And here he was with these kids who thought he was hilarious and would do anything that he suggested because we were so young and impressionable."
Some of this dumb shit made its way onto 1977. Fast-forward past the end of closing track "Darkside Lightside" and eventually you'll stumble upon an infamous hidden track called "Sick Party." It is literally the sound of the band— Mark, in particular being physically sick for the fun of it. Another track, "The Scream," was originally cut from the album, but has since been released on the "collector's edition" reissue of the album.
"We were all taking acid one day and we started working on a track called 'The Scream,' recalls Wheeler. "We hooked up two tape machines so we had 48 tracks available and it was just this thing we built from quiet murmurs to cacophonous screaming. One of those tracks ended up being 'Sick Party.' Mark said he was going to add a track of him puking, so that's how that happened. He wasn't on acid himself, but he was like, 'I have an idea. I'm gonna be sick. Let's record this.' And we set up the microphone in the courtyard outside. You can hear Leif [Bodnarchuk, guitar tech / "studio amuser"] trying to be sick as well. It ended up being a cool talking point with the young fans at the time. Like, 'Have you heard this weird shit at the end of our record?'"
It wasn't all weird. Ash were also evolving beyond writing fast, guitar-driven pop songs. Although originally inspired by bands like Buzzcocks and Nirvana, Wheeler was now exploring new, broader influences for his songwriting. Thanks to his new American record label, he found what he needed.
"In the previous year I got into The Beach Boys big time, like Pet Sounds and the Good Vibrations box set," he says. "We had signed with Reprise in the States, and so they gave me this massive catalog to pick from, any CDs I wanted. So while I was studying for my exams, boxes and boxes of CDs were arriving from California. So my musical interest was broadening a lot from high tempo guitar rock."
This newfound inspiration led the band to incorporate slower tempos, softer guitar tones and string sections on tracks like "Oh Yeah" and "Gone the Dream." Album latecomer and near-single "Lost in You," was a direct result of The Beach Boys influence. The ballad only came to Wheeler just as they were wrapping up the sessions.
"During the final days at Rockfield we desperately needed one last song, and I wrote 'Lost in You,'" he says. "I was really happy with it. I didn't think I'd pull anything out of the bag like that at the last minute. It started off sounding like Frank Sinatra's 'Strangers in the Night,' but I went off in a different direction."
Once the album was in the can, there still was one order of business left to deal with: the album title. One of 1977's most endearing characteristics is its name, which is a tribute to not only the year Wheeler and Hamilton were born, but also the band's extreme obsession with the Star Wars franchise. That the album begins with the sample of a Tie Fighter and ends with a track called "Darkside Lightside" is no coincidence. Once the name popped up, there was an immediate consensus. But that didn't stop them from cooking up some ridiculous alternatives.
"We just came up with it at the very end. Owen asked us what the title was and we just said 1977," he admits. "But we spent like two months thinking up ridiculous titles. Quite a lot of them came from Leif. Most of them were not very cool at all."
One example of ridiculousness was the title Look Girls, Cut the Shit and Suck My Dick. The mere mention of it makes Wheeler laugh from embarrassment. "I think there was also one called Women & Tits," he adds, with a shameful tone. "But we were just joking. You can tell it's pretty juvenile, but I blame Leif for most of them."
When 1977 was released in May 1996, it went straight in at number one on the UK charts. Ash would feel that excitement again in 2001 when their third album, Free All Angels, went on to do the same. But for teenaged Tim Wheeler, it was a moment that validated all of the hard work he put into making the record.
"Alanis Morissette was number one for ages," he says, "But indie bands were starting to get to the top, so it was a very big statement. Our label and manager were definitely gunning for number one and I think we had enough big hits that it had a chance. It was actually pretty epic that we actually did it. It was such an amazing feeling. We were lucky to have a young fan base, mostly teenagers just like us."
Ash 1977 20th Anniversary Tour Dates:
9.21 Roxy - Los Angeles, CA
9.22 Independent - San Francisco, CA
9.23 Soda Bar - San Diego, CA
9.24 Rips - Phoenix, AZ
9.26 Stubb's Jr - Austin, TX
9.28 Lincoln Hall - Chicago, IL
9.30 Shelter - Detroit, MI
10.1 Mod Club - Toronto, ON
10.3 Middle East - Boston, MA
10.4 Rock n Roll Hotel - Washington, DC
10.5 Foundry - Philadelphia, PA
10.6 Music Hall of Williamsburg - New York, NY
11.11 Olympia – Dublin, Ireland
12.3 MOD - Hasselt, Belgium
12.4 Luxor - Cologne, Germany
12.5 Lido - Berlin, Germany
12.7 Knust - Hamburg, Germany
12.8 Paradiso Nord - Amsterdam, Netherlands
12.10 Roundhouse - London
12.11 Ritz - Manchester
12.12 Rock City - Nottingham
Ash are also releasing Live on Mars, a live album recorded over five consecutive nights at the London Astoria from the 28th February to the 4th March 1997. You can order it here.
Cam Lindsay lives in Canada but he knows SO MUCH about British music from the 90s cos he lives there at the time. Follow him on Twitter.