The first time I saw Ash, I was in middle school. The band were a trio on a bizarrely packaged tour promoting their (arguably*) second and (inarguably) best record, 1977.
The second time I saw Ash, they were a quartet, and I was wandering around Irving Plaza under the directive to promote a tour-only EP they put out to help boost attention for their album Free All Angels. I was interning for their label at the time, and I was downright indignant that none of their singles had gotten any real attention in the US, especially “Burn Baby Burn,” a scorcher that had all the ingredients of pop chart success (including a couple of high-profile UK awards) but barely even scratched the United States.
Six years later, while record shopping in London, I found an original vinyl copy of 1977, lamenting to the clerks that Ash were one of my favorite bands, but no matter what they did, they could barely even get arrested in America. The clerk replied that they couldn’t get arrested there anymore, either, citing how they hadn’t really put out any great records in a while. In the interim, they had released Meltdown (2004) and Twilight of the Innocents (2007), neither of which, despite the gaudy cover art of the former and the title of the latter’s opening track, really caught fire.
I don’t remember if the band announced it before or after that London record shop conversation, but Ash had floated the idea of stopping making albums altogether to focus on singles. It seemed like a bizarre move at the time, though history has certainly not proven it misguided. Ash were within their right to do whatever the hell they wanted, but looking back now as an American fan of 25 years, I can sympathize with their frustration at the time.
I’ll never forget bumping into an old college radio friend (who ran WERW-AM from 2001-2002) at that Irving Plaza gig, watching his face light up when the band broke into their early single “Jack Names the Planets.” He repeatedly commented that he hadn’t heard, or even really thought about, that song in forever. Ash had spent their first decade (and four records) as a band being touted as “the next big thing,” and by 2003, even most music nerds in the states barely had any idea who the hell they were.
I think the importance of 1977 is self-evident in how the band have centrally the band have incorporated the year 1977 into their brand. I would argue that no record had a greater impact in simply helping remind Americans – who were, despite Weezer’s golden era and the ‘punk revival’ led by Green Day and Rancid, deluged with grunge’s watered-down cousin Modern Rock – that bands were still playing power-pop and garage-laden punk across the pond in 1996.
I’m going to assume I was watching MTV (or possibly M2 during a “free sample” weekend on my local cable provider) relatively late one night that year when the video for “Goldfinger” came on. I remember being intrigued. There weren’t a whole lot of other bands who sounded like that: sugary tenor vocals, grungy guitar that didn’t feel very “grunge” to me, and willing to take that commercial suicide-risk of resting their instruments almost completely several times per verse.
It took a sequence of life-changing events to arrive there, though. I had already seen the video for “Goldfinger” once, and likely heard it on the radio a couple of times, when I ran into a record shop in town adjacent to mine to see if they had a single for Stabbing Westward’s hit single “Shame” (an infectious bit of industrial-pop-metal with a music video so stupid I could write a separate essay on why). The clerk had no idea what I was talking about, but some dude in a leather jacket turned to me from down the counter and asked “Are you coming to the show tonight?” I had never had anybody ask me about coming to a show, much less a guy who looked like he could have been in a band as bad-ass (to 13 year old me, anyway) as Stabbing Westward. Stunned, I replied that I didn’t know. The labret-pierced Alt-Rock dude told me they had a bunch of copies of the single at Toad’s Place.
Intrigued, I convinced my Dad to take me to New Haven for the gig that night, a supportive gesture that has no doubt changed the path of my entire life. Stabbing Westward happened to be touring with Ash and I Mother Earth. Even at the time, that lineup seemed strange to me. If I ever meet Tim Wheeler, my first question would be how the hell that happened. I would assume some record company glad-handing, since a teenage Irish power-pop trio did not pair well with a brooding industrial quintet from Los Angeles (that weren’t even on the same label), but it may have just worked out that they played some festival together and Stabbing Westward invited them on board. If there weren’t just enough digital evidence to prove that the two bands played together in the Midwest that Fall, I would probably doubt my own memory. Brian Phelps’ new book about Toad’s place lists Stabbing Westward and I Mother Earth in their official band index, but not Ash. I don’t have any ticket stubs, photographs, or concrete third-party documentation that this show ever happened. I don’t have a copy of the “Shame” single, either, which makes me think labret-piercing dude was lying to me.
I’m certain that 1977 wasn’t the first album I evangelized to anyone who would listen, but boy did everybody I know get an earful about Ash around the time. I remember showing the CD insert to my friend Alison (no idea why I had it with me), who gave me a blank cassette to copy their music onto just because they looked like a cool band. My 8th grade art teacher, who played us Echo and the Bunnymen tapes while we drew, allowed me to put 1977 on in class. All I remember was my friend Jeff joking that the intro to “Kung Fu,” which sampled a fight scene from a Sammo Hung film, sounded like his house when he pissed of his parents. I even scanned the album cover (my first time I can ever remember using a scanner) for a class project explaining how Compact Disc technology worked.
I can’t quite compare 1977 to anything else I remember hearing as an adolescent. The naivete and strings on “Oh Yeah” and “Let It Flow” both felt equally sincere. “Girl from Mars” featured moments of the nastiest guitar distortion imaginable for a pop group, but was still somehow the most sugary punch on the album. Though it wasn’t my priority as a listener at the time, Rick McMurray’s drumming is incredible on this record (and, without combing through dozens of retrospective reviews, I’m unsure whether he got enough credit for such). The band tacked several minutes of drunken vomiting as a “hidden” track onto the fireworks-laden finale of “Darkside Lightside” – a bit of buffoonery that they probably laugh off/regret now, but still the edgiest shit in my whole music collection at the time (provided I hadn’t bought that One Fierce Beer Coaster cassette yet). It seemed punk as fuck, although the band’s connection to punk was about as specious as their connection to Britpop.
1977 would be a first-ballot record in the Power-Pop hall of fame no matter what year it had been released, but releasing it in 1996 doomed the band in several ways. A decade later, after the Libertines had revived the British garage movement, the Arctic Monkeys kicked up a (well deserved, now that we know about the staying power of Alex Turner and Company) shit-storm of hype on the heels of their first record – a storm that Ash may have gotten a solid chunk of had they been born a decade later.
Or not. It’s pretty clear that American music fans are fickle about which British artists to which they’ll lend a moment of their time. Considering how ginger and toothless so much British crossover success has been, it’s hard to imagine a moment in the post-punk era where Ash would have gotten as big as they seemed on the heels of even their best work. Even Two Door Cinema Club, whose Millennial fans nearly trampled me to death at Coachella in 2013, didn’t seem to lead a new crop of indie-dance-pop fans down that Irish rabbit hole.
I kept up with the band for the remainder of that decade, though I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t paid too much attention to their new singles-oriented output. Not that I had necessarily written them off (unlike another Irish band of note, they had put out some good material since 2000), but I couldn’t stop returning to 1977 whenever I did revisit Ash.
This changed, though, when I took my first trans-Pacific flight in 2019. On the way to Sydney from Los Angeles, somewhere over Oceania, I got restless and started browsing the airline’s music catalog to sample through the tinny, shitty proprietary headphones they passed out in their pre-COVID way. This was how I found out that Ash had, despite their promise not to^, released a new LP called Islands. I clicked play on the first track “True Story,” and enjoyed it quite a bit, but it didn’t strike me as a “return to form” where their teenage bursts of energy were concerned.
Then, “Annabel” started.
NOW THE PATH AHEAD IS GONE
NOW THE FIGHT IS REALLY ON
What a catchy opening! I felt my heart rate going up.
I CAN SEE REAL TROUBLE IF WE WAIT
My eyes were nearly welled up with tears even before the chorus hit. What a fucking amazing song.
HAVE NO FEAR
YOU CAN BE
Oh god yes! Tim Wheeler is still a master popsmith. I wanted to fight somebody over this.
IN THE STORM I WILL
DRAW YOU CLOSE
IN THE TEMPEST
IN THE SNOW
I hit “repeat” and listened to “Annabel” at least 10 times before moving onto the third track, the admittedly corny yet memorable “Buzzkill.” I felt like such an idiot for falling off with this band, especially since I’d been a fan since I was thirteen. Tim Wheeler hadn’t lost his ability to write an amazing song, and Ash hadn’t lost an ounce of relevance. I put “Annabel” firmly within my list of 10 favorite songs of the decade, and it felt great being able to do that nearly 25 years after Ash became one of my first favorite bands.
It was hard to compartmentalize in 1996, especially considering how young I was, but Ash were truly singular within the international pop-rock landscape. They were never meant to be clumped in with Britpop; they just happened to be British citizens putting out great pop music in the mid-Nineties. I misguidedly considered them punk because I didn’t have a much better frame of reference (having no idea who Teenage Fanclub were back then). Now that we’re not so shackled or silo-ed by calcified ideas of genre, it’s great to be able to enjoy the brilliant 1977 without scraping to figure out exactly where it fits. Ash still don’t, and one thing is for certain: they were always, and remain to this day, simply ASH. I’m so grateful they decided to be a band.
*I refer to 1977 as Ash’s second album, even though it was technically their first album recorded and released as a full-length LP. Their “first” album Trailer, which came out before 1977, was a compilation of singles, b-sides, and EP tracks to get fans excited for the band’s next LP, hence the title. For reasons of congruity, I’ll refer to 1977 as their second album, mainly because it’s always felt that way to me.
^ I was so out of touch with the band in 2015 that I had completely missed out on their return to the LP format, Kablammo! that year. I’m not proud of this.