Entertainment Music

Saturday 16 December 2017

Why Ash still burn, baby

Aidan Coughlan

When Ash announc-ed four years ago that their up coming album would be their last, it sounded like the writing was on the wall for the Downpatrick trio.

The band, who have a greatest hits collection coming out next month, had flagged since the highs they reached between the mid-'90s and early Noughties so a dignified bow-out was hardly surprising.

But it turned out we had misread frontman Tim Wheeler -- Ash, it seemed, were going nowhere. So without any new albums, we wondered, what could be the point of carrying on?

The answer was simple, if somewhat unusual for a rock band: they would abandon the album format and release only singles from that point onwards.

Wheeler told NME at the time: "The way people listen to music has changed. With the advent of the download, the emphasis has reverted to single tracks. It hasn't helped that most people have forgotten how to make a decent album. I'm constantly disappointed with records I buy.

"When you're tied to the album format, you find yourself waiting six months between finishing a record and releasing it. By leaving this behind, we can enter a new phase of spontaneity and creativity.

"We have our own studio in New York; we can record a track and release it the next day if we feel like it; give it to people while it's fresh. We're the first band to do this, but I very much doubt we'll be the last."

Following the announcement, the group undertook the A-Z Series, for which they released a new single every fortnight, each coded with its own letter of the alphabet.

Logically enough, there were 26 such songs -- and while they were later released as two 13-track compilations, the emphasis was very much on the singles that hit the market between October 2009 to September 2010.

It might not have panned out into the revolution hoped for by some fans, and dreaded by others -- the album is still the defining format in rock music, and the single's slide into irrelevance has not weathered the downloading storm -- and sales were a bit disappointing, too, with no single reaching higher than 65 in the UK charts.

But Ash were once again an artistic force to be reckoned with. Critics -- who tellingly reviewed the material only when it was released in compilation form -- agreed the band had rediscovered their musical mojo, crediting the frenetic pace of production with the newfound energy.

So the format experiment may have failed, but if anyone was well placed to give it a fair go, it was Ash. A quick look through the tracklist on their upcoming best hits collection shows they have been among the greatest Irish custodians of the three-minute slice of pop.

'Kung Fu' was the band's breakthrough, written in five minutes and recorded in one take before its release in March of 1995, but it was 'Girl From Mars' that really propelled Ash into national consciousness.

The fact that the band members were 18 years of age and had left school in June of that year helped them to seal their associations with youthful vigour and fresh-faced optimism -- a pleasant contrast from the often-cynical tones of Britpop.

Nowhere did Ash encapsulate this image better than in 'Oh Yeah', the irresistibly exciting single released in the summer of 1996, after Ash's debut album 1977.

The song, which featured wonderfully bittersweet allusions to "the start of the summer", and a girl "still in her school skirt and her summer blouse", marked itself as a sunshine classic straight away.

I recall an occasion during last year's 'Big Freeze' as I trudged home through the ice and snow, that song presented itself to me as I took a nostalgic listen back to 1977.

Despite my enduring adoration for the track, I quickly skipped past it -- thinking at the time that listening to 'Oh Yeah' in the snow was like listening to 'White Christmas' on a sunny day in July.

Ash's second wave of excellence came in 2001, with the release of Free All Angels. The standout single from that album was 'Burn Baby Burn', a radio hit at the time, which was later immortalised for Irish TV viewers in the opening and closing scenes of Pure Mule.

The album also spawned 'Shining Light' and 'Candy', songs that proved immensely enjoyable even if they didn't break any new ground.

And while the band's infectious appeal may have waned since the departure of guitarist and riff queen Charlotte Hatherley -- who returns for their upcoming tour -- the band had done all they needed to do to ensure a legacy as pop gods of this island.

Greatest hits collections are more suited to some bands than others -- album maestros Pink Floyd, for instance, could never produce one worth buying.

For bands like Ash, however, they're meant to be.

It might be too early to mention stocking fillers, but there will be few releases in 2011 more worthy of your cash than this one.

The Best of Ash is released on October 14, and Ash will play The Academy, Dublin, on October 18 with special guest Charlotte Hatherley


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