There are bands that manage to carve out a place for themselves in the music world that lasts for decades; there are others who, while having created a name for themselves during their peak years and, while they continue to tour and, even, make the occasional studio album, are invariably best remembered for their seminal early years.
Wishbone Ash first emerged on the cusp of the 1970s, a time when it seemed anything and everything was possible. While not exactly a new concept, few bands so relentlessly explored the conceptually simple yet potential-filled lineup of bass, drums, and two guitarists who were capable of assuming both rhythm and lead roles, the two six-stringers working tirelessly to create rich, appealing and distinctive harmony lines.
The Allman Brothers Band
were already exploring twin-guitar harmonies by the time Wishbone Ash emerged with its first, self-titled 1970 album, the British band's first of twelve albums released by MCA Records between 1970 and 1981. But Wishbone Ash was strictly a four-piece (with very occasional guests on its studio recordings but rarely, if ever, in performance), as opposed to the Allman Brothers' larger configuration, which also included a second drummer and, most importantly, a keyboardist who could layer accompanying chordal support.
Geography also came into play. Imbued by everything from blues and soul to rock 'n' roll, the Allman Brothers was a decidedly American
band, while Wishbone Ash, despite sharing some of the same roots, was unabashedly British. And if the group emerged out of the gate as a more blues and boogie-styled band, it didn't take long for Wishbone Ash to find their way into the progressive rock arena (at least, for a time), which placed considerably more emphasis, at the time, on the "progressive" side of the equation before the genre began cementing itself into rather specific stylistic and sonic definers just a few years later.
In 1970, as much as Yes
, King Crimson
, Soft Machine
, Emerson, Lake & Palmer
and Pink Floyd
were considered on the vanguard of progressive rock, so, too, were similarly eclectic/eccentric bands like Procol Harum
, alongside American artists including Captain Beyond and Chicago
. All very different bands, and yet all lumped into this expansive and yet, at the time, less clearly defined genre beyond the concept of making music that brought together a variety of touchstones and sounded, somehow, different than "conventional" pop and rock music (itself, in a similar period of expansion and definition).
Despite their differences, however, both Wishbone Ash and the Allmans were largely defined by their innovative use of twin lead guitaristsnot just as impressive soloists (and they were), but as melodic foils capable of constructing harmony lines that sometimes moved along in a linear fashion intervals apart, but other times orbited in, out and around each other. Still, Wishbone Ash was more fully and completely invested in the concept than the Allmans, as the British group was required to somehow create a larger collective sound with just bass and drums in support of the two guitarists.
The good news was that Wishbone Ash's bassist, the particularly capable Martin Turner, was able to (sometimes, seemingly simultaneously) lock into grooves with drummer Steve Upton while, at the same time, acting as another melodic foil for guitarists Andy Powell and Dave "Ted" Turner (no relation to Martin), creating three-way harmonies that lent the band considerably more heft.
While progressive rock was a logical extension of the psychedelia that defined the mid-to-late '60s, including proto-progressive artists like The Beatles
, The Beach Boys
and Frank Zappa
, it was best defined as a musical potpourri
, where musicians, often schooled in more "serious" musics like jazz and classical, looked to marry their more sophisticated backgrounds with the energy, groove, edge and, in many cases, volume
of rock. While Wishbone Ash
(MCA, 1970) was, indeed, more rock than progressive, by the time of the more jazzified Pilgrimage
(MCA, 1971), the band was already exploring more sophisticated environs. And with its third, Argus
(MCA, 1972)the band's most successful to date and, for many, its early apexthe group was indisputably progressive in nature, even if it didn't feature the mellotrons, synthesizers and, for the most part, bevy of complex time signatures that were already beginning to emerge as some of the genre's key definers.
While some groups have reformed after years (sometimes decades) of inactivity to take advantage of a resurgent interest in progressive music that has rendered it less of a dirty word since the late 1990s, and despite experience some personnel changes over the years, Wishbone Ash never really went away, the current, Andy Powell-led incarnation even releasing nine studio albums and a series of live recordings since the early 1990s. Still, Wishbone Ash's banner years, and the timeframe when there were always three (if not four) key members in the group, remain the period of 1970 through 1991, with sixteen studio and three (including 1979's originally Japan-only Live in Tokyo
) live albums forming the foundation of Madfish Records' beautifully packaged, definitive and truly mammoth thirty-CD box set, The Vintage Years 1970-1991
With a wealth of bonus material, including the First Light
sessions that were, in fact, the group's first recordings ultimately re-recorded for Wishbone Ash
, The Vintage Years 1970-1991
is, for the committed Ash fan, (almost) the final word on this band that has veered from top tier to mid-tier (and sometimes back) over the years. In addition to all the original commercial releases, all beautifully remastered, an additional eleven CDs contain a total of eight additional concerts, recorded between 1973 and 1980, expand upon the live music included on Live in Tokyo
, 1973's Live Dates
and 1980's Live Dates Volume Two
Why is The Vintage Years 1970-1991
not the absolute last word on Wishbone Ash? Well, double-disc reissues of 1982's Twin Barrels Burning
and '85's Raw to the Bone
(the band's first studio albums after being dropped by MCA) were released almost concurrently with The Vintage Years
, and include bonus material not found in the box set, most notably a second, different "American" mix of Twin Barrels
. Still, the word "complete" is nowhere to be found in the Vintage Years
title, so there's no mandate for the band to include absolutely everything it recorded and released during that 21-year time period, in addition to the eight live shows that cover music from Wishbone Ash
through Just Testing
There may be those wondering: "Do we really need as many as ten versions of Argus
' "The King Will Come"; eight versions of Pilgrimage
's epic "Phoenix" or Argus
' "Warrior"; seven versions of "Runaway," from New England
(MCA, 1976); or four versions of "F.U.B.B.," from There's the Rub
The answer, in a nutshell? A most definitive Yes
. True, Wishbone Ash was a group that wrote form-driven music and, unlike improv-heavy bands like the Grateful Dead
, even when the tunes allowed everyone to stretch out significantly as they did, in particular, with "Phoenix" and the more sophisticated, episodic "F.U.B.B." (the band's acronym for "fucked up beyond belief"), the group still adhered relatively firmly to those forms. And while the length of some of the material varied significantly in performancethe original ten-minute studio version of "Phoenix" extending to as much as seventeen minutes in the version included as a bonus track on Argus
, from a promtional LP provided to radio stations in 1972, Live from Memphis
much of it was still kept relatively close to original studio version lengths.
Still, amidst the strictly limited to 2,500 copies of The Vintage Years 1970-1991
's 28.8 hours of music, there's almost four-and-a-half hours of outtakes, alternate takes, single edits, alternate versions with different vocalists and live takes (many, previously unreleased on CD, if ever at all), along with eleven-and-a-half hours of music from the additional eight live shows from 1973-'80 being released in commercial form for the first time.
The entire box, including the thirteen hours of music from Wishbone Ash's original commercial studio and live releases, has been remastered by Pete Reynolds, whose credentials range from Family, Manfred Mann's Earth Band and the The Rolling Stones
' Bill Wyman to Terry Reid, Albert Lee, Peter Frampton and the King's Singers. While the sound of individual albums variesdepending, to no small extent, on the technology available at the time and the engineer(s) and/or producer(s) responsible for committing the music to tape/hard driveReynolds' remastering is precisely what keen ears want to hear: no brickwalling or excessive compression, which means that the original masters' dynamics are retained while, at the same time, adding more punch, crispness and clarity.
In addition to the CDs, which are all housed in gatefold mini-LP reproductions of (where applicable) the original LP sleevesand, a nice touch, all CDs housed in their own protective paper sleeves inside the coversThe Vintage Years
also includes: an informative 158-page hardcover book that, in addition to a wealth of photos, full-size album cover reproductions, reviews and advertisements, features a lengthy band history, largely told through Dave Ling's extensive interviews with band members past and present; a 36-page softcover booklet with reproductions of a variety of concert posters and ads; an originally Japanese-only single of 1970's "Blind Eye" and "Queen of Torture," on the kind of floppy plastic often used in music magazines at the time; four wall-size reproductions of concert and album release posters; a file folder containing a press kit with publicity stills, a group bio and reviews; and individually signed photos of each primary band member.
A Brief Band Member Chronology
Primary band member? While Wishbone Ash did, indeed, experience some personnel shifts during their Vintage Years
, they experienced far fewer than many other groups. The original lineup of guitarists/vocalists Andy Powell and Ted Turner, bassist/vocalist Martin Turner and drummer Steve Upton remained intact throughout the group's first four studio albums and first live album, from 1970-1973.
Ted Turner left the band after Live Dates
, replaced by Laurie Wisefield, who remained with Wishbone Ash from 1974's There's the Rub
through to 1985's Raw to the Bone
, after which Turner rejoined the group, remaining through to The Vintage Years
' final studio album, 1991's Strange Affair
Gradually emerging as the group's primary lead singer, Martin Turner left the group after 1980's Just Testing
, when the label was pushing the group to become more commercially accessible and to recruit a dedicated lead singer. Though the band would enlist a revolving door of bassists/singers (none of whom remained for more than one album), Turner ultimately returned for 1987's all-instrumental Nouveau Calls
(a pun on "no vocals"), staying with the group through to Strange Affair
Second only to Powell, who has assumed sole leadership of Wishbone Ash post-1991, Steve Upton remained with the band from inception through 1989's Here to Hear
, with Ray Weston and Robbie France splitting drum duties on Strange Affair
Since 1991, however, Wishbone Ash has effectively split into two versions: the Powell-led Wishbone Ash, which has released nine studio albums that have, beyond Weston's participation on five albums and drummer Joe Crabtree on three, featured four different guitarists and, with the exception of 1996's Illuminations
(Self Produced, 1996), just one bassist: Bob Skeat. The second edition of the group, led by and under the moniker Martin Turner's Wishbone Ash, was formed in 2004 with as many as three guitarists (though usually just two) and has, since that time, released four live albums, as well as a reinvention of Argus
: Argus Through the Looking Glass
But for the period 1970-1991, Wishbone Ash's line-up remained remarkably stable, with only one shift in the guitar chair, a relatively brief period without founding bassist Martin Turner, and just one album without founding drummer Steve Upton. Looking at more successful progressive bands, Wishbone Ash's relative stability for just over two decades was, truly, a feat in and of itself.
And if real chemistry is something only rarely to be found, it's also remarkable that Powell jibed so beautifully with both Ted Turner and
Laurie Wisefield: two very different guitarists that, nevertheless, meshed on a mitochondrial level, with Powell's singing tone and, for the most part, approach that placed a vividly lyrical bent over overt virtuosity.
It was this quality that, in many ways, defined Wishbone Ash from the very start. This was not a group with two shredding guitarists, though all three guitarists during its first two decades were more than capable. Instead, there was a decidedly melodic intent, even during solos where many other guitarists would gymnastically show off chops and pyrotechnics.
Early Days: The Moment When IT Happened
Wishbone Ash emerged, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of Tanglewood, featuring Steve Upton and Martin Turner, after the trio relocated from Torquay to London in 1969. Turner and Upton actually auditioned Colosseum guitarist Clem Clempsoneven considering, at one point, Van der Graaf Generator keyboardist Hugh Bantonsuggesting just how different the band might have been, had the bassist not come up with the concept of "two guitarists who could mesh their playing together," and the ultimate recruitment of Andy Powell and the younger Ted Turner.
That this nascent group managed to secure a record contract with MCA/Decca with a sizeable $250,000 advance was, in no small part, thanks to 26 year-old Miles Copeland, an aggressive American manager who would go on to even greater fame and fortune representing (and, in some cases producing) artists including Renaissance, The Police (and that band's bassist/vocalist, Sting
, Jan Akkerman and Allanah Myles.
It's rare that an artist can look back and identify the one, singular moment where everything changed, but it was the ever-confident Powell who, with Wishbone Ash opening for Deep Purple in Dunstable on May 18, 1970, decided to engage the then-more successful group's already renowned guitarist, Ritchie Blackmore, in a bit of call and-response during the sound check. As Powell says in The Vintage Year
's liners: "That moment was to prove huge on many levels. Ritchie, who was known to be quite standoffish, was up there and riffing away. My gear was already set up, and cheekily I started playing along with him. He played a lick, I played along with him, we started jamming and grinning to each other. He watched our show and asked whether we had a record deal. When we replied in the negative, he said, 'I might know someone you should talk to.' And that was Derek Laurence, who became our first producer. So Miles called Derek and set the whole thing [signing to MCA Records] up."
That Wishbone Ash was signing with MCA/Decca in the United States was a major coup, as it meant that the group would receive international distribution and promotion from the get-go. The band had already recorded what would have been its debut, First Light
, co-produced by Phil Dunne, Wishbone Ash and rising star engineer/producer Eddy Offord, but it was rejected by the label (though the the sessions were finally released by Talking Elephant Records in 2007). And so, thanks to Blackmore, Powell's confidence and an impossible to predict occurrence, Wishbone Ash went back into the studio with Laurence, re-recording five of First Light
's eight tracks for Wishbone Ash
and, most importantly, adding the song that would become a live performance fan favorite, "Phoenix," which appears no less than seven times on The Vintage Year
's commercial and first-time live releases. Wishbone Ash
was largely a blues, boogie and rock 'n' roll record, with songs like the boogie woogie "Blind Eye" (which nevertheless introduced the band's twin-guitar focus from the first second), the funkier "Lady Whiskey," balladic "Errors of My Way" and riff-driven "Queen of Torture" nevertheless demonstrating that there was more to this group than might have met the eye. The two lengthy tracks occupying the original vinyl's LP's second side were what suggested that, even this early on, Wishbone Ash was a group that commanded attention.
The eleven-minute instrumental, "Handy," begins with a ninety-second, melody-centered bass solo before moving into a relatively slow, ambling tempo that, supported by both Martin Turner's firm anchor and Upton's strong groove and great time, gives both guitarists the chance to shine as they trade off, slowly moving towards the occasional doubled harmony lines and a mid-song return to solo bass that's notable for Martin Turner's chordal injections. As with the intro, bassist Turner sets the pace for the next section, as Upton turns to a more fiery, jazz-infused 6/8 pulse, with guitar solos finally leading to a drum solo that was, ultimately, inevitable...but no less impressive for it.
Based on this solo alone, Upton proved himself a drummer who could haveshould havegarnered the same attention as some of his contemporaries. "Handy" finally evolves into a swinging, singing blues that, again, features an impressive solo from the bassist before Powell takes over, his tasteful tone as important as the notes he plays, before the song ends with a surprising section of scat singing. It's an impressive song that suggests Wishbone Ash was a band with far more to it than "just" rock and blues. That it appears not to have been a concert choice, with not a single live performance in the box, is, to say the least, surprising.
It's easy, however, to see why the ten-minute, more eminently progressive "Phoenix" would, on the other hand, become a fan favorite. Equally episodic, ranging from dark-hued balladry to incendiary instrumental sections, it's still more intrinsically song-based, despite providing plenty of room for searing solos from both guitarists, along with some visceral, scored single-note phrases bolstered by chunky rhythm guitar and, of course, no shortage of the twin-guitar harmonies that so defined the group. Both songs, more than any found on the album's first side, made Wishbone Ash's progressive and jam band leanings crystal clear.
While far from making the group and overnight success, Wishbone Ash
fared fairly well, barely cracking the US charts but garnering a respectable 29 in the UK. Pilgrimage
, released the following year, fared even better, managing 14 in the UK and cracking the American top 200 at #174. While Wishbone Ash's vocals were fair enough, neither Powell, Ted or Martin Turner were, it seemed, singers destined for greatness. And so Powell admits, in the liners, that the group's vocals were something of a weak spot, driving them to focus more on guitar harmonies instead.
It certainly was a ballsy move to open Pilgrimage
with Jack McDuff
's "Vas Dis," another swinging 6/8 piece whose only vocals were the main theme's scatting. And, while only a little less than six minutes, it was also a commercially destructive choice to include a closing drum solo. But these were different times, and what might be a commercial buzz-kill today was far more acceptable, even in the context of a rock band, in 1971.
In many ways, that decision only typified Wishbone Ash's desire to chart its own path and hope its gradually building cadre of fans would follow. Following "Vas Dis" with the atmospheric "The Pilgrim" was another choice that demonstrates just how differently bands could function back in the day. With guitar and bass repeating a simple melody bolstered by Upton's subtle cymbal work, this is another fooler of a song as, over its spare melody and reverb-drenched, buried in the weeds guitar solo, a percussive, hand-muted guitar pattern emerges, leading to a brisk 7/8 section that provides the grist for an impressive solo from Powell, with Upton's stop/start kit work supported some exhilarating dual guitar lines, harmonized wordless vocals and an equally impressive feature for guitarist Turner as the song ultimately leads to its three-way harmonized (two guitars and bass) yet somewhat oblique theme and an ending that ties everything back together.
Hardly the stuff of a successful pop record (though the band would return to more decided song form on the four-on-the-floor "Jail Bait"), but Pilgrimage
's even greater emphasis on instrumental music not only managed to do better for the band than its debut, but three of its songs ("The Pilgrim," "Jail Bait" and the ten-minute album closer taken from a June, 1971 live recording, the aggressive blues "Where Were You Tomorrow") all ended up as regulars in performance, though "Where Were You Tomorrow" only appears once more, on the Portsmouth 1973
live set included in the box.
Argus: The Breakthrough
In some ways Wishbone Ash's next album, 1972's Argus
, made total sense while, at the same time, coming as something of a surprise to the group's fans. With its largely vocal-driven set of seven songs still allowing for plenty of instrumental excursions, the album would become Wishbone Ash's most successful album yet in the UK, making it all the way into the top 10 at #3. While representing a slight rise in the US charts, it was, in fact, the group's next album, Wishbone Four
, that made it to the band's highest US chart position at #44, despite only making it to #12 in the UK.
But back to Argus
For the first time, guitarists Powell and Turner render an appealing balance of fingerpicked acoustic and electric guitars dominant. Still, Argus
is nevertheless loaded with plenty of the pair's tasty dual guitar harmonies and lots of solo space. And with soloists finally explicitly credited in the liners for the first time, Argus
is Wishbone Ash's first album where the two guitarists' musical personalities are clearly defined, as Turner contributes clean, reverb-drenched lines during the quiet passage early on the album's popular, penultimate track "Warrior," while Powell's tarter-toned work during the song's more powerful segments are definitive of a player placing tone and melodic ideation over more virtuosic concernseven resorting, at times, to picked chordal passages. And while both guitarists would employ a number of instruments, Powell's thicker, hum Bucher-driven Gibson Flying V was a dominant signature, contrasting with Turner's use of the more crystalline single-coil pickups largely employed with Fender guitars.
Its even more episodic writing, with defined musical movements, made Argus
the band's most eminently progressive album to date, and if there were progressive elements on its first two albums, they were more jazz-centric in contrast to Argus
' more pastoral leanings. Argus
' subject matter also represents a step forward, as the group tackles less, if not exactly misogynistic, then certainly male-oriented and less female-appealing subject matter, such as Wishbone Ash
's "Blind Eye," "Lady Whiskey" and "Queen of Torture." Instead, songs like "Warrior" and "Throw Down the Sword" are based on mediaveal themes, while ballads like "Leaf and Stream" and the opening, episodic "Time Was" reflect the record's more folkloric bent. If the band's vocal work had, up until this time, often left something to be desired, here the three singers finally find a place where their unmistakably Britishisms are entirely credible, synching more clearly with the music and often dominated by strong two-and three-part harmonies. Like the guitarists, the singers are finally listed in the credits on a track-by-track basis, with Martin Turner clearly emerging as the band's primary lead vocalist.
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
After such a successful album, it's unfortunate that Wishbone Four
did not continue the forward motion. The well-considered blend of acoustic and electric guitars continue, with Turner (who'd contributed some slide guitar to Argus
' most straightforward rocker, "Blowin' Free") adding lap steel here, in particular on the opening "So Many Things to Say." There are, again, plenty of dual guitar harmonies to keep fans of Wishbone Ash's most definitive touchstone happy, but the band moved away from Argus
' more progressive leanings towards a leaner, rock 'n' roll complexion.
That's not to say the group's writing had entirely deserted the lessons learned with Argus
. But one of the "proofs in the pudding" with Wishbone Ash is how much material from its albums made it into regular live performance. Just looking at the live shows in The Vintage Years
box, a full six of Argus
seven tunes would become regulars in concert, with three of its songs showing up between seven and eleven times in the box set's live shows, and a further three appearing between two and six times. While charting well enough in the UK (hitting #12), Wishbone Four
would, on the other hand, become the band's highest-charting album in the USA, making a respectable if not totally impressive 44.
Despite its greater American success, the six Wishbone Four
tunes that made it into live performance show up far less often, with "Doctor" appearing the most (still in just five concerts), and most songs appearing just a couple of times. Still, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Martin Turner had emerged as the group's primary lyricist, and if tracks like the four-on-the-opener "So Many Things to Say," rocking and rolling "No Easy Road" and lengthy ballad, "Everybody Needs a Friend" posit Turner as a decent if not particularly distinctive wordsmith, songs like the waltz time, acoustic guitar-driven "Ballad of the Beacon" and The Who
-like "Doctor" come close to actually being cringeworthy.
That's not to suggest Wishbone Four
is a bad record, and the group certainly cannot be accused of trying to follow up its biggest album to date with a rerun. But with only "Everybody Needs a Friend" passing the eight-minute mark and most songs coming in between four and five minutes, there's less stretching out, a sign of change that was, for the most part, to continue with successive studio albums even as the group continued to allow itself more room to move on the concert stage.
In retrospect, Powell has this to say about Wishbone Four
: "We were not prepared for that album. To me, there were two periods in our history when we should have backed off and given ourselves time and this was one of those examples. Post-Argus, the thing to do would have been to take a breath of air, to consider what we'd done. I realize now that we were moving into becoming a stadium rock band. Had we refined the sound towards that, our longterm trajectory might have been somewhat different."
Still, if the group was moving towards being a stadium rock band, it was still proving itself well-suited to smaller venues, as the band's next (and first live) album, Live Dates
demonstrates. Originally a two-LP release that fits comfortably here on a single CD, despite being no longer than their studio counterparts, the three back-to-back songs from Argus
that open the record ("The King Will Come," "Warrior" and "Throw Down the Sword") and a full-on seventeen-minute closing look at Wishbone Ash
's greatest jam song, "Phoenix," demonstrate Wishbone Ash as a band capable of delivering the goods in concert.
Along with a briefer (but still plenty long) version of Pilgrimage
's "The Pilgrim" and a fiery version of "Jail Bait," Live Dates
also includes, in addition to a fourth track from Argus
(a potent "Blowin' Free"), two tunes from Wishbone Four
("Rock 'n' Roll Widow" and "Ballad of the Beacon," which definitely works better in concert) and another track from the group's debut, "Lady Whiskey."
Despite diverging from its typical set list sequence during the June, 1973 tour from which Live Dates
' material was culled, following those opening Argus
tunes, it's an album that's well-paced overall, and demonstrates the full power, sophistication and, even, subtlety endemic of early Wishbone Ash.
The only misstep is the band's take on Jimmy Reed's 1959 blues hit, "Baby What You Want Me To Do." While contemporary British bands like Led Zeppelin
could take an American blues standard and make it their own, comparing Wishbone Ash's version to, say. the Grateful Dead
's 1982 New Year's Eve show in Oakland, where the band delivered a staggering version sung by guest Etta James
and with support from the Tower of Power
horns, makes clear just how anemic Wishbone Ash's version is. Recorded at the June 21st Portsmouth Guildhall show that's also included, in its entirety, in The Vintage Years
(as is another version from the Southampton University concert the next evening)the song features some fine enough slide playing from Turner and a gritty solo from Powell, but the rhythm section feels tired, and the vocals (always a weak spot for the band) just plain lack soul. That said, the newly mixed version from the compete Portsmouth show does
feel somewhat stronger.
A Live Album. A Departure.
All was not well, however. Returning from an American tour in early May, 1974, Ted Turner informed the group that he was leaving, ostensibly to leave the music business entirely, though history shows he ultimately spent time moving back and forth between the USA and UK, working as producer/engineer for artists ranging from Al Stewart to George Harrison
(despite there not appearing to be any actual documentation of such collaborations) before ultimately rejoining Wishbone Ash in 1987. That said, Turner indicates, in the box set liners, that musical differences were his main reason for leaving, with the guitarist becoming increasingly disinterested in the progressive aspects of the band and leaning more towards danceable, groove-heavy music.
Still, with the chemistry of the original lineup at considerable risk with Turner's departure, it didn't take long for the group to not only recruit a new guitarist in Laurie Wisefield (who'd garnered some attention for his early '70s group Home and, in particular, its well-regarded 1973 album, Alchemist
), but to discover there was still plenty of chemistry to be had, albeit somewhat different to that shared by Powell and Turner. Wisefield was equally capable of carrying on the group's dual guitar signature and was, like the departing Turner, also interested in bringing other stringed instruments to the band's studio efforts.
But there was more change in the air. While Wishbone Ash had signed with MCA/Decca in the United States, it was still a band with greater success and visibility in its home country of Great Britain, where it has also recorded all of its first five albums (six, if counting First Light
, which is spread across The Vintage Years
' versions of Wishbone Ash
as bonus tracks). For the group's first album with Wisefield, 1974's There's the Rub
, it was set to fly to Miami, FL, where the album was to be recorded and produced by Michigan native Bill Szymczyk, who, in addition to producing B.B. King
, James Gang and Joe K Walsh
, was already making an even bigger name for himself as engineer/producer for the Eagles
, for whom he'd produce every studio (and one live) album beginning with 1973's Desperado
, through to 2007's Long Road Out of Eden
From the opening seconds of There's the Rub
's buoyant opener, "Silver Shoes," it's clear that significant change is in the air. Sonically, it's certainly the best-sounding Wishbone Ash album to date and, if it lacked the specific personality that defined the group with Argus
, its bigger, more high octane sound was no less compelling. And with both Powell and Wisefield bringing, in addition to acoustic and electric guitars, a variety of other stringed instruments to the session (Powell on mandolin, with Wisefield contributing banjo and steel guitar), the album is an even more multilayered affair than what came before.
The group had occasionally used other players to flesh out its sound in the studio, with John Tout adding organ to Argus
' "Throw Down the Sword" and a number of guests adding keyboards and brass to three tracks on Wishbone Four
. So it was no particular surprise to hear some added keys to the reggae-tinged power ballad "Persephone," and additional percussion to the album's longest track, "F.U.B.B.," both tunes representing the only ones to end up in the band's live set lists, but understandably so. "Persephone," with its blend of acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin and compelling two guitar harmonies, was one of two There's the Rub
tracks to approach Argus
' progressive leanings, in addition to featuring strong solos from both Powell and Wisefield. Like Ted Turner, Wisefield often differentiated himself from Powell's predilection for thicker-toned Gibson guitars by being more disposed (though not entirely) towards Fender guitars and their tendency towards both a bit of "twang" and greater chordal clarity and delineation. He was also more of a rock guitarist, albeit one capable of some serious country-informed chicken-picking, as opposed to Turner's bluesier leanings.
The other track to make it into live sets was the album-closing instrumental "F.U.B.B.," also There's the Rub
's longest track at nearly ten minutes (with "Persephone" coming in second at just over seven). A surprisingly funky track driven by Upton's firm groove and Martin Turner's bright-toned Rickenbacker bass lines, this was Wishbone Ash in modal jam mode, as Powell and Wisefield move from sophisticated chord voicings to attention-grabbing linear harmonies, whammy bar injections and tones ranging from clean to gritty and, ultimately, heavily overdriven.
Despite this being largely a jam turned into song, "F.U.B.B." Isn't just aimless meandering. Instead there's plenty of form in both the guitar parts and the song's gradual addition of unexpected changes. The tune even turns to double time in its final three minutes, referencing the opening chords, but over a more energetic groove, before a series of rapid-fire guitar harmonies lead to a particularly impressive (and uncommonly virtuosic) solo spot for Wisefield. Clearly, if there's any single track on There's the Rub
that proves Wisefield's mettle as the band's new guitarist, it's "F.U.B.B."
If Wishbone Four
was a misstep, There's the Rub
was something of a return to form, even if, indeed, the group was moving increasingly in a hard rock direction. Even the vocals sound good on the record, rather than simply adequate. It may not have hit the charts as well as Four
, but it still managed a respectable #16 on the UK charts and, for a band whose American presence was still yet to be fully felt, a decent enough #88 in the US. And the band clearly gives serious credit to Szymczykwho, according to Upton, heard Wishbone Ash's guitar harmonies and said, of the Eagles, "We've got to make these L.A. cowboys a little more rock 'n' roll."
Martin Turner is even cited, in the liners, as saying: "He [Szymczyk] told us, 'If I had the guitars of Wishbone Ash and the vocals of the Eagles, I could make the greatest hit record ever.' And that's what he did with Hotel California. He couldn't believe that we would spend so much time tracking the guitar parts; that we would play one half of a solo on one guitar and then swap over for another. We learned a lot from Bill and he took in a lot from us, too."
Move to America: Now Assume the Foetal Position!
Having spent more time touring in America, and with the band still intent on building a stronger fan base there, it was not a big surprise when the group decided to relocate in the spring of 1975, though it was also a function of Britain's punishing income tax on entertainers (as high as 83%), which caused a significant number of the country's biggest rock stars to desert its shores. Still, relocating to the USA had the potential for being a bad idea, and certainly Martin Turner's stated concerns about the band losing "its musical identity" were not only valid, but would prove to be absolutely true with some of the albums that followed. From 1975 forward, Wishbone Ash would continue to make some great albums...but it would also make some less creatively successful ones as well, making the commercial album remasters in The Vintage Years
a rather mixed bag that is only balanced out by the consistently terrific live recordings (both commercially released and heard here for the first time) that account for nearly half of the box's CDs.
The liners include a quote from Powell's 2015 autobiography, Eyes Wide Open: True Tales Of A Wishbone Ash Warrior
, with liner note scribe Dave Ling saying to Powell: "Andy, in your autobiography you paint a graphic picture of being driven in a car and listening to a cassette of Locked In
, shrunk into a foetal position on the back seat and pretty much thinking, 'That's it, we've blown it.'"
A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but there's no doubt that the magic Bill Szymczyk brought to the There's the Rub
sessions was surprisingly absent with Tom Dowd, a renowned producer who had, even by this time, built a truly massive C.V. beginning in the mid-'50s, as engineer and/or producer for artists ranging from the Modern Jazz Quartet
, Charles Mingus
, John Coltrane
and Ornette Coleman
to Aretha Franklin
, Derek & the Dominoes, the Allman Brothers Band
, Willie Nelson
and Rod Stewart
Why this pairing did not work is hard to understand, but an equal challenge was that Miles Copeland, the band's aggressive manager from the very start, was no longer working with the band due to a large-scale, multi-group tour called Startruckin'
that almost bankrupt him. Before he left, however, he helped negotiate the move to Atlantic Records, which was based in New York, the band's new home.
That said, Wishbone Ash's two albums recorded for Atlantic were co-released with MCA, which still remained the group's primary label for another few years. Perhaps it was because Locked In
was such an understandable failure, dropping to 36 in the UK charts and an especially weak 136 in the USA, that Atlantic was quickly out of the picture. As ever, the group's decision to use, or not use, material from its albums in performance is a good reflection of its own opinion about a record. Not one song from Locked In
appears in performance in The Vintage Years
box; it remains, at best, a forgettable album where any vocal gains made on There's the Rub
have now disappeared, with the writing about as generic as a hard rock album could be.
Rebound and Reunion
Still, the band rebounded in a significant way with its second album of 1976, New England
. This time, Ron and Howard Albert, whose engineering/producing credits ranged from Aretha Franklin and the Average White Band to Stephen Stills
and Curved Air
, seemed a better fit, but it was also the group's approach to making what was no less a hard rock record than Locked In
, but was better on almost every front, from the writing to the playing and the vocals. Recorded "live off the floor" in the basement of Martin Turner's home, with only overdubs added later in the same Miami studio where There's the Rub
was recorded, it fully captures Wishbone Ash's potential for energy, spontaneity and immediacy in performance. As Wisefield's third album with Wishbone Ash, it also displays an increased chemistry with the band in general and Powell in particular. It's a shame, in fact, that the group didn't take this sizeable hint and continue making records in a similar fashion.
A full five of its nine tracks would enter the band's live set lists, including the near-southern rock of "Lorelei," the hard-rocking "Mother of Pearl" and dark-hued ballad "(In All of My Dreams) You Rescue Me," to the pedal-to-the-metal of "Runaway" and, with Wisefield's overdriven picking a perfect foil for Powell's sweet-toned lines and stratospheric dual-guitar harmonies, the similarly southern-tinged "Outward Bound." Vocally, Turner was in particularly fine form, and while the group was, indeed, moving towards more concise writing and less jammy songs (though there's still pretty of strong soloing to be found), he even got a brief chance to demonstrate his own tasteful ability as a soloist on the instrumental "Outward Bound," which somehow feels (in a good way) much longer than it's just-under-five-minute runtime. New England
may have fared even more poorly than Locked In
on the American charts, managing only #154, but it did
do better in the UK, reaching a far healthier 22. There wasn't a weak song to be found either, with non-live tracks like "When You Know Love" featuring strong vocal harmonies and some particularly fine soloing from Wisefield.
Once again produced by the Albert brothers (i.e. Fat Albert Productions), 1977's Front Page News
is another post-Argus
success (at least, artistically speaking), with a set of ten new Wishbone Ash tunes that continue the band's ongoing growth as a stadium-oriented band, with an emphasis on more straightforward song form and, with only the title track crossing the five-minute mark, greater attention to brevity.
Recorded at Miami's Criteria Studios, where There's the Rub
was also made, Front Page News
definitely lacked the in-the-moment energy and spontaneity of New England
, being a more laidback collection of tunes that nevertheless featured solid vocal harmonies and, beyond Martin Turner's steadily improving vocals, a surprising lead vocal from Wisefield on the guitarist's soft-rock "Goodbye Baby, Hello Friend," which was released as the b-side to the title track single, with both tracks making it into Wishbone Ash live sets along with Turner's rocking "Come in From the Rain."
Sadly, Front Page News
fared even less successfully than its predecessor, managing just #31 in the UK and #166 in the US charts. Reflecting an increasingly American complexion, it also featured fewer compositional collaborations than ever before, with only four songs co-credited to the group, two contributed by Wisefield alone (including the string-heavy instrumental ballad, "714") and a full four from Turner.
It was a trend and direction that continued with the band's next two studio albums, 1978's No Smoke Without Fire
and 1980's Just Testing
the former representing the group's first time not
charting in the USA and only #43 in the UK, and the latter making #179 and #41, respectively. They were the final two albums to include songs that appeared on Wishbone Ash commercial live recordings or in the eight additional shows included in The Vintage Years 1970-1991
That said, change also defined these albums as the entire group, with the exception of Powell, returned to the UK, where they reunited with Derek Lawrence, who'd last produced the band's career high point, Argus
and was suggested by the group's new manager John Sherry, who'd assumed representation after Miles Copeland. The group even went back to the same De Lane Lea Studios (since renamed The Music Centre). But if the intention was to try and recapture some of that old magic, nobody took into the account the experiences of the years in between. Powell recounts, in the liners: "Derek [Lawrence] was more than happy to do it, but it's the same for everyone; a lot of water had gone under the bridge for us all. He wasn't the same guy and the same applied to the bandof course, we also had a different guitarist in Laurie. Being back at De Lane Lea was one of several familiarities, and Wishbone Ash needed that. There were a lot of factorsincluding the choice of producerthat required stability."
Still, Turner makes the astute observation that "Reuniting the old team was a nice idea, but sonically speaking, [that place] was an extremely dead room." A characteristic heard throughout No Smoke Without Fire
, an album that should
have been good (if not, even, great) but was, instead, an uneven album that ranged from solid to mediocre.
Still, there were some high points as well. For the first time in years, despite an ongoing attention to writing more concise, radio-friendly tunes, Wishbone Ash returned to a slightly more progressive disposition, in particular on the two-part, ten-minute album closer, "The Way of the World," which joined earlier largely (or entirely) instrumental excursions like "Phoenix," "The Pilgrim," "Time Was" and "F.U.B.B." as another fan favorite. The second part of "The Way of the World" begins, in fact, with some of Powell and Wisefield's most oblique harmony guitar lines, and is all the better for it. There are even some hints of Gentle Giant in the instrumental passages, making at least some of No Smoke Without Fire
Wishbone Ash's most progressive and, yes, British
album in some years.
That the majority of No Smoke Without Fire
(five of its eight tracks) was written solely by Wisefield also defines the album's character. Powell writes, at one point in the liners, about Wisefield never really "getting" the band's direction with Argus
and, with the guitarist as the album's dominant writing force, it could not have been clearer. Still, plenty of tasteful guitar harmonies abound, as do some great guitar trade-offs, like Wisefield and Powell's work toward the end of "Anger in Harmony," driven by Wisefield's more countrified rhythm guitar and the only song co-written by Powell, Turner and Wisefield. Turner contributes two fine tunes in the mid-tempo rocker, "Baby the Angels are Here," and ambling "Like a Child." Far from a classic, No Smoke Without Fire
is a mixed bag, with the strong work still tending to outweigh its weaker material.
Something in the Air
Still, with No Smoke Without Fire
's relatively poor chart showing, change was clearly required. And so, Just Testing
was Wishbone Ash's most radio-ready record yet, with most songs in the three to-five-minute range barring the sole group compositional collaboration: the mid-tempo "Lifeline," which stretched towards the seven-minute mark and was defined by the group's signature layered guitars and singable six-string harmonies, not to mention some particularly fine kit work from Upton and plenty of solo space for both Powell and Wisefield.
Contrasting with No Smoke
, half of Just Testing
was written by Turner, with the opening "Living Proof" a surprisingly hard-rocking collaboration between Laurie Wisefield and (briefly) future Wishbone Ash member Claire Hammill. The up-and-coming British singer/songwriter provides some added vocal assistance on three tracks, with her lead vocal version of "Halfway House" one of a number of session outtakes included here as a bonus track (and first heard on the 2004 Lost Pearls
compilation). The initially bluesy, acoustic guitar-driven "Master of Disguise," from Powell's pen, turns into something far greater as the song harkens back, despite its short length, to the band's past episodic writing. Tucky Buzzard guitarist/vocalist Paul Kendrick contributes the album's hardest-rocking track, "Helpless."
Another mixed bag, to be sure, but Just Testing
still stands, with its diverse musical approaches, as a solid entry in the group's discography, and is one of its very best-sounding studio records, in particular with Pete Reynolds' remastering work on it for The Vintage Years
. Largely recorded at Surrey Sound Studios (clearly a much better room than De Lane Lea) and production credits shared by Turner, John Sherry and the rest of the band, it also possesses significantly more live energy...an intentional, artificially constructed vibe described by Turner: "In the surroundings of the studio we had stopped generating the energy that we had onstage. I had suggested getting a huge photograph of the front row of an audience and placing it at the end of the room. John [Sherry] brought her [Claire Hammill] along one day and she was in the control room hopping around, and immediately this huge grunt of sound started coming out of the guitarists [guffaws]. All of a sudden they were playing like they were at Madison Square Garden. So John brought her down again the following day, and the next day..."
While he contributes plenty to the end result, Just Testing
was also recorded with Powell largely absent, the function of living the farthest from the studio and having, as Wisefield says, "two young children at the time and maybe he was struggling a little to balance his home life with his work."
Still, charting slightly better in the UK and placing the band back on the American charts (albeit at a relatively low #179, Just Testing
not only helped grab some additional attention for the band, but its live performances continued to draw. And so, with six studio albums released since Live Dates
, it was time for a second live record, Live Dates Volume Two
. While initially released with a bonus second LP of live material including "Lorelei," "Persephone," "You Rescue Me," "Time Was," "Goodbye Baby, Hello Friend" and "No Easy Road," subsequent pressings were a single LP only, though this box set including the two full LPs, again on a single CD.
Twin Guitars, Twin Live Albums
If there was any doubt that, as good as some of its studio albums undeniably were, Wishbone Ash was always a far better live act, while Live Dates Volume Two
only managed to hit #40 in the UK charts, it managed, at #82, the band's best US showing since Wishbone Four
And for good reason.
With a song list that largely covers the material from There's the Rub
forward, it dovetails nicely with Live in Tokyo
, originally released only in Japan (until Enigmatic Records issued it elsewhere in 2010). Released in 1979, Live in Tokyo
was recorded during the band's No Smoke Without Fire
tour, though it only includes one song from that album, a slightly harder-edged version of its opening track, "You See Red," along with a version of "F.U.B.B." that builds even more gradually than its studio counterpart on There's the Rub
. A reading of "The Way of the World" also demonstrates that, stadium act Wishbone Ash may now have been, but its control over dynamics had, in fact, improved over time.
1980's Live Dates Volume Two
is culled from shows dating as far back as 1976, and straight through to its year of release, with two songs from Just Testing
, a hard-rocking version of "Living Proof" that has the Bristol Colson Hall audience clapping along. An even grittier "Helpless" not only demonstrates the band's attention to dynamics, even with more aggressive songs, but that vocally, as is also true of Live in Tokyo
, the group has, indeed, come a long way, with Turner sounding more committed and potent than on the corresponding studio versions, with the two-and three-part harmonies also as close to impeccable as the band ever was. The live version of Wisefield's "Goodbye Baby, Hello Friend" on the bonus LP also finds the guitarist in good vocal form.
But, most importantly, whether it's on "The Way of the World," a slightly shorter version of "F.U.B.B.," the album's only throwback to Argus
with a slightly faster "Time Was" or particular fine back-to-back looks at "Lorelei" and "Persephone," the Turner/Upton team has clearly evolved into a well-oiled rhythm machine, while the band's two guitarists (clearly defined here, with Powell in the left channel and Wisefield on the right) are in stellar form here, managing to imply the studio recordings' multifarious layers despite being limited to just two instruments. And if the group was heading in a different direction that would soon become clear, these two live sets (with Live in Tokyo
also including three bonus tracks that stretch it from forty minutes to nearly an hour) are fine, well-recorded and remastered encapsulations of mid-to-late '70s Wishbone Ash.
Another Live Album, Another Departure
Sadly, however, just as was the case with Live Dates
, Live Dates Volume Two
also announced another departure, this time an even more significant one than the not insignificant loss of Ted Turner in 1974. From Ling's liners: "With MCA Records exerting pressure on the band to pursue a more commercial direction, it was no secret that Wishbone Ash has spent quite a while considering the addition of a full-time lead singer to the lineup. Equally documented was Martin Turner's view that he himself was quite capable of said task. And so it came to pass that in 1980 two unmovable forces clashed, with regrettable consequences.
Martin: There had been an air of disappointment that
Just Testing didn't do any better, but it [the hiring of a specialist lead singer] had been hanging around for years, and it allegedly caused me to leave the bandor the way I view it, for the band to leave me. That's when the shit hit the fan."
Of course, every member of the band has, after nearly forty years, a different recollection. Did Turner's role as Just Testing
's primary producer have anything to do with it? Was Turner and manager John Sherry's role in relocating the group back to England a contributing factor, especially for Powell, who'd remained in the USAand who even suggests, in the liners, that Turner was looking to position himself not just as Wishbone Ash's lead singer but that the rest of the group would be relegated to "backing band" status? Would cooler heads have prevailed, resulting in a different outcome had, as Wisefield suggests, everyone just taken a breath?
We'll never really know.
All we do
know is that Turner was out and, for Wishbone Ash's first album without the bassist/lead singer, 1981's Number the Brave
, the group did not recruit a dedicated lead singer. Instead, since a new bassist was also in demand, the group enlisted bassist/vocalist John Wetton
, who'd made an increasingly significant name for himself throughout the '70s for his work with Family, King Crimson
, Uriah Heap and one of the last progressive rock supergroups of the decade, U.K.
But as immediately identifiable a force as the singer, bassist and
songwriter had increasingly become as the '70s progressed, Wetton's role on Number the Brave
seems intentionally minimized. Eight out of ten of the albums brief tracks (most in the three-to-four minute range, with just one track barely cracking five) were co-credited to Powell, Wisefield and Upton, with just one song, "That's That," contributed by the bassist.
The band also made a major mistake in including a cover of Smokey Robinson's hit, "Get Ready," a plodding version that does nothing but demonstrate just how far the group was prepared to go to accommodate MCA's demand for a more commercial approach. Had the band included Wetton's "Now or Never," written and sung by the bassist (and included here as a bonus track), it might have made the album slightly less the failure it is. Wetton, after all, was, himself, looking for greater commercial success, which would come shortly with the AOR-oriented, mega-successful Asia.
It's not that Number the Brave
is all bad; it's that the group's commercial aspirations (and how many rock bands can not
admit to having aspirations of commercial success, albeit usually on their own terms?) completely overtake any artistic concerns. Sure, there's some great guitar work, in particular from Wisefield, who shines with some serious chicken-picking and slide guitar work on the opening "Loaded," while Powell positively soars on the power ballad "Underground." But, while John Sherry remained as the group's manager, there were also unmistakable hints of influence from former manager Miles Copeland's super-successful band, The Police.
And if recruiting Wetton as a bassist was a very good thing, his sound nowhere near the massive force of nature that it was with Crimson and U.K., though it was still a force with which to be reckoned, making him a strong and suitable replacement for the irrepressible Turner. But if he'd been led to believe he'd be the band's lead singer, circumstances proved otherwise, and so his one album with Wishbone Ash was not only a commercial failure, hitting only #61 in the UK and barely scraping into the US charts at #202, but an artistic failure as well. It was the beginning, in fact, of a losing streak that the group would not find its way out of until its reunion with Copeland on his nascent I.R.S. label with Nouveau Calls
a full seven years later.
Wishbone Ash's Dark Period: Chain...Chain...Change
In the meantime, it wasn't long before Wetton was gone, replaced by bassist/vocalist Trevor Bolder, best known as a member of David Bowie's Spiders from Mars band and, perhaps even more so, hard/heavy rock band Uriah Heep. His one album with Wishbone Ash, 1982's Twin Barrels Burning
, represented a number of changes: first, MCA had finally dropped the group, and so the album was released by the group on its own AVM imprint; second, the singing was pretty evenly distributed amongst the band members with the underlying philosophy: You wrote it? You sing it.
But, perhaps most importantly, the band changed gears once again, this time responding to two (seemingly conflicting) factors. First, there was the emergence of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), spearheaded by Motörhead (who'd been around, in fact, since 1975) but also including groups like Iron Maiden, Venom and Def Leppard. Second, was the impact of the more simplistic writing of the initially blues/rock-based but, by this time, harder-edged, technology driven power trio, ZZ Top. Wishbone Ash had been touring, first as headliners with ZZ Top opening but, by the time of the '80s and ZZ Top's ascension to mega-stardom, flipping the script and finding themselves
opening for the Texas trio.
These two factors resulted in one of Wishbone Ash's absolute heaviest
and simplest albums. It's not that Twin Barrels Burning
is intrinsically bad; none of he albums that Wishbone Ash released could be considered so, as no matter what the direction, they were generally well-crafted and well-played. It's just that Twin Barrels Burning
which, along with the 1985 follow-up, Raw to the Bone
, featured the band's worst album covers everfinds the group completely deserting everything that made it unique. Largely gone were the twin-guitar harmonies, replaced by crunchy power chords and, replacing their sweet tones, Powell and Wisefield leaned more towards the kind of heavily overdriven shredding guitar tone endemic of so many bands at the time.
So, not a bad album for those whose tastes lean towards the heavier, more metal side of hard rock, but an album that sounds almost entirely not
like Wishbone Ash, with little in the way of extended songs and none of the episodic writing that defined even their less creatively successful albums of the past decade. That said, with NWOBHM on the rise, Twin Barrels Burning
co-produced by the band alongside engineers/producers Ashley Howe (Uriah Heep, Yes, Hawkwind) and Stuart Epps (Chris Rea, Elton John)charted better than any Wishbone Ash album since New England
in 1976, reaching #22 in the UK charts...though it didn't chart at all in the USA.
With Uriah Heep calling Bolder once again, Wishbone Ash was back on the lookout for a bassist/singer, this time recruiting Irish bassist/lead vocalist Mervyn Spence, of Trapeze. If Twin Barrels Burning
's cover, featuring the back end of a high octane car firing, well, twin barrels of fire as it drives over the band name, Raw fo the Bone
's fantasy covera long haired, tattoo'd and pelt-laden warrior (?), teeth gritted and, yes, with a raw bone wielded firmly in handwas the closest Wishbone Ash came to being a real life Spinal Tap.
The music wasn't much better. With Spence providing most of the lead vocals (some from Powell, none from Wisefield), this was another album of generic '80s hard rock with metal leanings that, once again, completely deserts Wishbone Ash's identity. It's true that most successful bands are in a precarious "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation: stay to close to what made you popular in the first place and get accused of not evolving; change too much and run the risk of losing the fan base you'd built in the first place.
But both Twin Barrels Burning
and To the Bone
strayed far too far from what defined Wishbone Ash in the first place: next to no harmony leads, solos that, rather than being somehow lyrical even when on the heavy side, were largely indistinguishable from most other hard rock guitarists of the time. To be clear: there's absolutely nothing
wrong with simplification, especially if the objective is to attract a larger audience at a time when the complexities of progressive rock and even the hard rock of the early '70s held little appeal to a demographic of testosterone-fueled youth between the ages of 15 and 25.
But if, as Powell suggests in the liners, the two bands Wishbone Ash was listening to at the time were ZZ Top and Little Feat, Raw to the Bone
's cover of guitarist/vocalist Lowell George's "Rocket in My Pocket," from Little Feat's Time Loves a Hero
(Warner Bros., 1977), was a flat-out embarrassment. Upton, a terrific drummer in his own space, was no Richie Hayward; Spence's Glenn Hughes-like wailing may have had range, but it had none of George's grit, grease and soul; and if Powell and, in this case Wisefield on slide guitar, were both undeniably accomplished, they didn't have the kind of feel required to take on a band with such a distinctive vibe as Little Feat.
There has to be something
to delineate a band from the others around it and, just as with Twin Barrels Burning
, Raw to the Bone
has absolutely nothing to make it stand out. And with Spence's wailing vibrato virtually indistinguishable from the other heavy hair band singers of the time, when it comes to the history of Wishbone Ash, the less said about these two albums the better. Charting in neither the USA nor the UK, if Wishbone Ash was looking to grab some of what was popular at the time, Raw to the Bone
failed utterly and completely.
It was also the final straw for Wisefield, who says, in the liners, that he was: ..."exhausted, physically and creatively....There was a moment of clarity. It was New Years Eve 1985 and I realised I couldn't do another year of what I'd been doing."
And so, Wisefield left to become the touring guitarist for Tina Turner, whose solo career hit the stratosphere with her 1984 mega-hit, Private Dancer
The bonus tracks included on To the Bone
are of some interest, featuring on-the-rise British session guitarist Phil Palmer, who would subsequently tour the world with Dire Straits and Eric Clapton, and had already made a name for his work with artists including Joan Armatrading, Claire Hammill, Steve Harley and Murray Head. The five tracks, four recorded in 1986, also feature bassist Brad Lang of ABC, Jade Warrior and Wham, and are also notable in that they all feature Powell as the band's sole singer. Never the strongest singer he was, nevertheless, a comparative relief compared to Spence's caterwauling. But they were still relatively indistinguishable '80s hard rock songs that almost entirely deserted any of the personality that may still have remained within Wishbone Ash.
But it was at this low point that two things happened, indeed most serendipitously. First, the band reconnected with Miles Copeland, who'd achieved the success to which he'd always aspired with The Police, success that facilitated his creating his own label, I.R.S. Records, which would have some significant success with R.E.M. and Fine Young Cannibals, amongst others. Copeland was thinking of starting a series of all-instrumental records on the label, under the sub-label No Speak. Climax Blues Band guitarist Pete Haycock was the first to make a No Speak album, 1988's Guitar & Son
, and when Copeland approached Wishbone Ash (then, really just Powell and Upton), the idea of reforming the original lineup seemed to virtually scream out to them.
And so, Martin and Ted Turner returned for 1988's entirely instrumental record, Nouveau Calls
, produced by William Orbit, a relatively young and new musician, songwriter, electronics whiz and producer whose only big credit at the time was as a remixer for singer Belinda Carlisle but who would go on to greater fame and fortune producing (and, sometimes, remixing, writing for and playing with) everyone from Madonna, Peter Gabriel and Blur to Beth Orton, U2 and, yes, Britney Spears.
If anyone was expecting the Wishbone Ash of Argus
with Nouveau Calls
, they'd have had to look elsewhere. Orbit's electronic tendencies loom large over the album, which is filled with drum machines, and synthesizers courtesy of Martin Turner, who is also listed as album co-producer. That said, if the twin guitars of Powell and Ted Turner are less definitive, and Nouveau Calls
is absolutely an album of its time, it's still the best album from the group in many a year. Wishbone Ash always excelled in its instrumental excursions, even from the very start, and if Nouveau Calls
's eleven songs are all in the three-to-four minute-range, with none breaking the five-minute mark, they're still far more enticing and possessed of the group's personality than anything it had released in the '80s, with the possible exception of Just Testing
Both guitarists brought small instrumental arsenals to the table: Powell added acoustic guitar and mandolin to his electric work, which also signalled a returned to more tasteful tone and playing. Ted Turner brought back his lap steel and banjo, lending the album greater sonic diversity that does particularly well with Pete Reynolds' remastering. And if there's little in the way of group co-composing, it's great to see Powell and Martin Turner collaborating together again as songwriters, with the pair collaborating on the opening, initially sequencer-driven "Tangible Evidence," as Powell's crystalline, whammy bar-inflected melody alternates with Ted Turner's similarly clean chordal injections. The pair also contribute the medium-tempo'd but wonderfully in-the-pocket, reggae-informed "Clouseau," where clean tones are, again, largely the order of the day, though there's still some room for some of Powell's sweet-toned Gibson, alternating with Turner's clear-as-a-bell Fender, the two occasionally coming together for twin harmonies before the song turns more riff-driven for some brief but eminently tasty guitar trade offs.
Beyond the two collaborating compositionally, Powell also contributes three sole-penned compositions including "The Spirit Flies Free," which comes closest to sounding like vintage Wishbone Ash, as his fast-strummed mandolin blends with Ted Turner's banjo, even as both guitarists harmonize with sweetly singing, overdriven electric guitar phrases. Still, as much as the song looks back the ensuing years render it more modern...but, this time, less of its time and more timeless. Elsewhere, Powell's metrically knotty but somehow folk-informed "A Rose is a Rose" demonstrates he's still capable of turning in more complex material, and the newly reunited group is more than up to the challenge.
Turner delivers two songs penned without any collaborators, including the four-on-the-floor "Something's Happening in Room 602," with its layered guitars, heavy (but not plodding) riffs, and "Flags of Convenience," which shines a light on some thumb-popping and finger-slapped bass work that Martin Turner has clearly picked up since this lineup was last together (though his layered synth colors absolutely date the piece).
Upton collaborates with Turner on the middle east-informed "Arabesque," while everyone but Ted Turner contributing to the curious but compelling surf guitar-meets-reggae of "From Soho To Sunset."
Powell and Turner's signature singing guitar tones are there, but Nouveau Calls
places considerably greater emphasis on clean guitar tones, albeit often expanded with chorus, compression, flange and other effects. Upton's playing may be simplified compared to some of his earlier work, but it's absolutely what the songs need, as is Martin Turner's more groove-laden bass work. Overall, Nouveau Calls
is a successful return to creative form for this reunited original Wishbone Ash lineup. It may have failed to chart (not really a surprise, given the time and it being all-instrumental), but in many ways Nouveau Calls
, with its reunited original lineup, announced that, different though it may be, Wishbone Ash was back
. Nouveau Calls
stands as more than just a return to form; it stands as one of the group's best albums, one where the group's deference to more succinct writing is, this time, a distinct advantage.
A quality that may not necessarily hold as true with the band's follow-up, 1989's Here to Hear
. True, the reunited lineup was looking to make a vocal album; true, it was absolutely not looking to make Argus, Part Two
; and also true, this was a far
better effort as it deserts Twin Barrels Burning
and Raw to the Bone
's metallic edge.
Again, concision was the order of the day, though Ted Turner's "Why Don't We," with its comfortable groove, and a brief middle section where Upton channels his inner Stewart Copeland and Martin Turner his inner Chris Squire
, cracks six minutes, while the two-part "Hole in My Heart" (the first part penned by Ted Turner, with the second instrumental part representing the first group collaboration since Front Page News
, Raw to the Bone
most intentionally excluded) approaches the eight minute mark.
It is most definitely an improvement over the group's last few vocal records though, with three quarters of the band in the UK (where it was recorded) and Powell still residing in the USA, he contributes some fine guitar work but little morebarring "Hole in My Heart (Part Two)," he's not involved in any of the writing and all the singing is handled by the two Turners. Ted Turner's twangier Fender work is more definitive to the album, with his playing on the album outtake "Heaven Is," included here as one of three bonus tracks, particularly sweet, especially when he's trading off with Powell.
But even the group considers this Martin Turner productionintended, as Turner says in the liners, to be a modern record with all its potentially positives and negativesto be somewhat "polite." Still, Here to Hear
was Wishbone Ash's best vocal album since the turn of the decade and has more than enough moments to recommend it, despite its poor chart showing (appearing on neither US nor UK charts).
The Vintage Years End...With a Surprising Departure
Which brings the box to a conclusion, chronologically speaking, and referring to Wishbone Ash's original commercial releases. Despite its poor commercial showing, Capitol Records (who'd signed the group for Here to Hear
) kept the band for '91's Strange Affair
, the record where, after over two decades together, the two band members who had remained constant throughout parted ways, though not with any animus.
There were a number of factors at play, however, including the set up of a group-owned studio. Likely more significant, at least to Upton, was the inherent fracturing of the group, partly due to Powell residing in the USA and the rest of the group in the UK. But it was much deeper than that. Upton is cited, in the liners: ..."it felt to me that self-interests were driving the band agenda. So far as I could see, group unity was a spent force. I wasn't in a great place at the time, and the rest of the band didn't feel that I was fit to play on the record. A certain proposal was put to me that, from my standpoint, I couldn't agree upon, so I made the decision to leave very quickly. I reached it in a couple of hours.
However, I would like to add that Andy Powell invited me to stay at his house during my separation, for which I am truly grateful. I've spoken of self-interest, but that was an act of real kindness."
And so, with Upton gone, Strange Affair
is, indeed, an apt title: two different drummers (Ray Weston and Robbie France); tracks where Ted Turner, in addition to playing guitar and singing, also plays bass while Martin Turner contributes keyboards; additional keyboards from Rod Lynton; programmed drums from one or both of the Turners; some brass that, while only making it onto the album-opening title track, co-written by Powell and bassist Andy Pyle (Blodwyn Pig, The Kinks, Gary Moore), appears on three bonus tracks; and background vocals, on one track, from Lise Porter.
Despite being produced, once again, by Martin Turner (whose vocals on this album and Here to Hear
are particularly strong), it's no surprise that Wishbone Ash's final studio album during The Vintage Years
is something of a fractured affair: an album looking for an identity. Still, this collection of ten new songs isn't without merit. Twin guitar harmonies abound; Ted Turner's lap steel is particularly sweet (and especially on the rocking title track); and Powell is not only in good form on guitar, but the four songs on which he is lead singer are some of his best vocal performances in the set, encouraging him to reflect, in the liners, that "it made me realise that it [being a lead singer] was something that I really could do. So, from my perspective, Strange Affair
was the end of something due to the exit of Steve, and the beginning of something else."
The band's final record for Capitol, Strange Affair
, when coupled with Here to Hear
, suggest a band that may have lost its edge, its hunger, its need
, but after the serious missteps from 1981-1985, both albums have perhaps been unfairly overlooked. Not classics by a long shot, and with little of Wishbone Ash's original defining personality, they still possess plenty of catchy pop hooks and some great guitar work that suggests plenty of effort, as ever, going into the layering of Powell and Turner's guitars to shape tracks with specific complexions and, always, a clear sense of inner purpose.
Eight Live Shows, Eight Terrific Performances
The final eleven CDs of The Vintage Years
expand upon Wishbone Ash's three commercial live releases up until 1980, with two shows from 1973, one from 1976, two from 1977, another from 1978 and two from 1980.
Sonically, these live recordingsall mixed by Nigel Palmer in 2017, with the exception of Edinburgh 1976
, mixed the same year by Pete Reynoldssound great. They are most definitely unaltered, warts and all recordings, but for a band that was far superior live, that's as it should be, even if there are, not unlike many outstanding Grateful Dead
live releases, some definitely "iffy" vocals.
There's the chance to hear a number of different live versions of fan favorites, though for the most part none of them overstay their welcome, with only key tracks from Argus
showing up more than a few timesand when they do, they're well worth it. Whether it's the Andy Powell/Ted Turner lineup or the Powell/Laurie Wisefield incarnation, the two guitarists push each other to some terrific heights, while Martin Turner and Steve Upton remain the definitive Wishbone Ash rhythm section.
It's a shame, in fact, that the Powell and Martin Turner have not been able to patch up whatever differences have divided them into touring two different versions of the group, with Powell retaining use of the Wishbone Ash name and Turner touring as Martin Turner's Wishbone Ash. Equally unfortunate is that, even with two different versions of the group touringand still making the occasional studio recordingneither of them has any other original members involved. Ted Turner, Steve Upton and Laurie Wisefield have clearly moved on, which explains why this box set only covers the years where there were at least three key members (including Wisefield, of course) on every album.
Every one of the live recordings is recommended. Taken together, they also paint a portrait of an evolving band whose chemistry was absolutely best felt in concert performance. While the energy and sonics of all eight shows are wonderful, from a time when the group was tending to play 800-1,000 seat venues in the U.K., where all of these shows were recorded, one show stands up for being recorded in a small club venue, where the band originally cut its teeth. Returning to its roots with an October, 1977 gig at London's Marquee club in Soho, where countless British groups first got their start, including The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Faces and Queen, Wishbone Ash seem particularly energized, playing closer together on a small stage versus the larger stages to which they were, by then, accustomed.
One other show, from Portsmouth, 1973, as memorable as it is for the music, is also notable as a show where one of the band members (likely Andy Powell or Martin Turner), after trying to encourage some people in the front of the stage to sit down so those who were seated around them could see/hear, lost his temper, and chastized the audience in a most British way, raising his voice (but only a bit) and saying: "Hey, listen!! We're not gonna play anymore if you don't just be quiet and listen because we're trying to put on a show and you're being very boring."
After some applause, he continues, saying: "I must apologize to everyone else because we seem to have a bunch of idiots in front. If you've got such a problem with your egos, just buy an electric guitar and come up here and...right...[as what exactly is happening starts to become less clear]...that's the way to get rid of it...
It may have been a moment that was retrospectively embarrassing (or, perhaps, maybe not), but it's an entertaining bit of history to hear someone from the band, amidst all the great performances, lose his cool with the audience...well, sort of.
Thirty CDs of Wishbone Ash may not be for everyone. And there's no denying a couple of albums could have been left out of the box without being missed. Still, The Vintage Years 1970-1991
is intended to be a full document of Wishbone Ash's commercial releases, lovingly remastered, and so there has to be a little of the bad with a lot more good to great. Add eight live performances where almost all the music has been sitting in the vaults just waiting to be heard, a feature-filled box with extensive liners, photos, adverts, posters and more, and the strictly limited to 2,500 copies The Vintage Years
represents another in Madfish's outstanding series of career-spanning box sets.
For the committed Wishbone Ash fan, this is as good as it gets, with the remasters outperforming any prior remasters. For those who only paid attention to the group during its emergence in the early-to-mid-'70s, there's far more gold to be found here than those who deserted the band may know. Inconsistent? Yes. But with far more gems than faux
jewels, The Vintage Years 1970-1991
is also important because, in many ways, it sets the record straight on a group that has largely been, beyond its '70s successes, unfairly overlooked and misjudged.