The mid-nineties was a time of baggy jumpers, Britpop affectations and Nirvana fixations. Then along came a skinny teenage trio from Downpatrick in Northern Ireland, who looked like they’d just walked off stage at their school’s Battle of the Bands competition. Well, twenty-five years ago, those indie kids Ash were sitting pretty (well, Tim pretty and the other two adding context) at the top of the album charts in Britain. Revisiting 1977 in 1996, here’s a recap.
Writing an album as good as Ash’s still definitive full length debut from ’96 is no mean feat – but when you consider their age at the time it’s all the more impressive. At the time, the rough spontaneity of Tim Wheeler’s sweetly vulnerable vocals, Mark Hamilton’s kamikaze bass lines and Rick McMurray’s grungy drumming only added to the raw, youthful energy of the alternative punk-pop herberts who were barely out of school. As if to hammer the point home, 1977 was, famously, two-thirds of the boys’ year of birth.
With a bigger emphasis on guitars, catchy melodies, and bold instrumentation, Ash grew from an underground Ulster pop act into some kind of alternative Britpunk pioneer. Helmed by Oasis producer Owen Morris, 1977 bristles with lusty, adolescent angst and sun-kissed optimism, but they future-proofed it by entwining edgy, anthemic riffs between the power chords. Listening to the album now it immediately transports you back to back to an era of fast-paced ‘punk’, a despise of authority, and a message of peace, love and lo-fi rock ’n roll.
And while those pesky punk tunes ruin some of the fun, the more melodic offerings are where Ash excel, such as the shiny, hooky Goldfinger, a twisted tribute of sorts to the John Barry-orchestrated Bond theme for Shirley Bassey. The chiming, grungy intro lasting the best part of a minute, the guitars dropping out to allow for Wheeler’s voice, the key change from verse to chorus, the slowed down, laboured drumming that takes us back to the verse before ending on an inquisitive unresolved note. It’s a magical five minutes of music and as a No.5 45 in April of ’96 it remains the band’s biggest hit.
As far as 1977’s artwork is concerned, 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 you’d do better to forget by ogling Tim’s nips.
After just a week in the racks, 1977 skylarked to No 1 on the UK chart dated 18 May 1996, knocking Alanis Morissette’s long-time chart-topper Jagged Little Pill off its perch and going on to sell over a million copies. But if you’re spinning the LP for the first time, please pay attention to the very end, when you’ll discover a secret unlisted track originally recorded as a sample for The Scream, a bizarre recording “so fucked up” that lay in the vaults for years.
And what a baptism of fire it is. Put it this way, it’s called Sick Party for a reason, and features the band and their mates full of booze and acid, shouting, swearing, pissing and, yes, vomiting. It remains one of the most infamous examples of the CD era’s hidden track.
Ultimately, what Ash have really got out of their systems is what a consistently sublime singles band they are. I know the term “great singles band” is perceived as a bit of a backhanded compliment because it gives the impression that none of their actual albums are worth their salt. Make no mistake, though, the singles are where this album peaks. Forget all the negative implications because Ash were a great singles band, and nowhere does that motion ring truer than on 1977.
Five 45s were released in all, each one ample proof that Wheeler was an outrageously gifted songwriter. Ash were like a UFO darting over Britpop’s magic carpet with a tightly-wound run of melodic brilliance that channelled a jukebox’s worth of punchy three-minute pop panache in 45 form, from Girl From Mars to mid-period Burn Baby Burn and Shining Light, the latter’s delicately soft yearning impeccably covered by Annie Lennox.
Ash never really broke stateside, but to paraphrase fellow Irish-blooded rocker Morrissey, America isn’t the world. Their last studio album, 2018’s eclectic Islands, embodied the best of alternative rock and Beach Boys inspired power pop, but was perhaps a trifle under-appreciated. A bit like the band themselves. If you’re in investigative mode, the Bowie-referencing Teenage Wildlife: 25 Years Of Ash collection followed in 2020, and serves as the perfect introduction to Ulster’s unsung heroes.
Additionally, if you’re into curios, there are some interesting extras that were featured on a three-disc Collector’s Edition of 1977 in 2008, including a live EP recorded at Sydney’s Triple J. Studios, the Frank Sinatra-quoting flip side I Need Somebody, a reworking of the Star Wars’ Cantina Band theme, soundtrack single A Life Less Ordinary, KLF sendup 5am Eternal, and kitschy covers of Dusty Springfield’s I Only Want To Be With You and ABBA’s Does Your Mother Know to boot.
The latter pairing played up to their following as gay pop pin-ups. Well, what I mean is twinky Tim was for a good many years Britain’s No 1 indie-gay poster-boy, despite not being gay himself. Indeed, back in that nascent period the band were managed by a mystery homo, and were marketed with one eye on the pink pound, Tim told The Guardian:
“We were young jailbait. Our first manager was our gay svengali, and he used to market us as rent boys around Belfast. He was a genius. We’d have posters with our pictures on, actually advertising our demos for sale, but the posters were totally comprised of snippets from gay chatline ads. One even made it onto our first mini-album [1994’s Trailer] — “Guaranteed Real Teenagers”… And there were T-shirts.”
Oh yeah, there were. Promotional band apparel at the time bore the porn-inspired slogans “Three Boy Hardcore Action”, “Domination Teenage Bisexual”, and even “Too Young To Drink, Smoke And Marry – But Not Too Young To Sell Their Bodies For Sex.”
Getting into the spirit, Rick McMurray even took to wearing pink PVC bondage tape on-stage, purchased from Ann Summers. “We played [famed London gay club] GAY after boozing for three hours,” recalls Rick the drummer turned bummer for the night. “And we were terrible. We covered Does Your Mother Know with Bjorn Again, who were on too, standing at the side, pissed off.”
Aside from the occasional kink and quirk, however, it’s the 1977 album proper that stands the test of time. Who will deny, even now, that their heart swells when a sweeping orchestration ushers in the chorus of that story of adolescent summer romance, Oh Yeah? (“She was taking me ov-errr!).
Affirmative. The boys to men of Ash are only in their early to mid forties, and play like they never left their twenties. Guaranteed Teenagers forever, real or imagined.
Caught live: Somerset House Summer Series, London, 2003
On Saturday 5th June 2021 at 8pm BST, join Tim Wheeler, Mark Hamilton, and Rick McMurray as their play ‘1977’ from start to finish, in a global online concert, exclusively on stabal.com.