GRTR!’s melodic rock maestro Andy Nathan charts the progress of Wishbone Ash, currently celebrating their 50th anniversary
Wishbone Ash may have a criminally low profile in the wider world, but there aren’t many bands that can boast both a history of 50 years continuous service and an innovative and lasting musical legacy.
For most of the sixties, the pioneers of rock separated the roles of lead and rhythm guitarist. Yet as the decade turned, this young band, who had relocated from Torquay to London and recruited a pair of new guitarists in Andy Powell and Ted Turner, were the first in the UK to explore the sonic possibilities of two lead guitarists playing not only individually, but in harmony lead.
The Allman Brothers were blazing a similar trail across the pond, but without Wishbone Ash there would quite simply be no Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden or Judas Priest as we know and love their signature twin guitar sounds.
Their first two albums (‘Wishbone Ash’ from 1970 and the following year’s ‘Pilgrimage’) are a feast of dual guitar work, but more than that, with vocal harmonies too and both bassist Martin Turner and drummer Steve Upton making a huge contribution with their original and subtle work.
It was their third album, 1972′s ‘Argus’, that is acclaimed as their masterpiece and rightly so. The harmony guitar sound is actually used more sparingly, yet the songwriting took a huge leap forward. Its mixture of rock, blues and English folk influences was an inspiration on many musicians that followed and even the helmeted mythical character looking out from the cover is thought by some to have been a template for Darth Vader!
The album has a magical sense of light and shade as quiet passages and lyrical meditations on themes such as the passage of time and war intertwine with soaring, lengthy yet always melodic solos. That year they beat the likes of Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull and Deep Purple as ‘Argus’ was voted ‘Melody Maker’ album of the year.
Wishbone Ash pictured on the cover of Wishbone Four (1973)
(left to right, Andy Powell, Steve Upton, Ted Turner, Martin Turner
Sadly they never matched the worldwide fame of such contemporaries, partly through a rather nondescript public image and partly with a hit single never coming their way (though the jaunty ‘Blowin’ Free’ is their closest to a signature song).
Neither could they ever quite repeat that musical magic, but as the second half of the seventies wore on, and with Laurie Wisefield replacing Ted Turner, they relocated to the States for a few years and their sound evolved as American soft rock influences were added to the blend (just like fellow limeys Fleetwood Mac and Peter Frampton) and Martin Turner emerged as the undisputed lead vocalist after duties had been shared more equally in earlier days.
The eighties began with a parting of the ways with Martin Turner and a loss of identity as they chased a more conventional heavy rock sound, but their profile rather dipped off the radar (as I can vouch, this being the period when I discovered them as a teenager). Fortunately original manager Miles Copeland reunited the original line up for an instrumental album ‘Nouveau Calls’ in 1988 and for a while a whole new generation could enjoy their craftsmanship, always best appreciated in concert.
Sadly the members dropped out one by one, leaving Andy Powell the last man standing by the mid-1990′s. Playing as well as ever on his trademark Flying V, while also becoming lead vocalist, to this day he has kept up a punishing live schedule, supported by a relatively stable line-up, though a number of guitar twins have come and gone including a pair of Finns in Ben Granfelt and Muddy Manninen; most recently Yorkshireman Mark Abrahams has injected some fresh fire. Not just a nostalgia act, they regularly release new music from time to time though this year’s ‘Coat of Arms’ fell short of the legacy statement I hoped they might make.
By the mid 2000′s Martin Turner was also back in the game, assembling a band himself to play the band’s classics, though losing a rather bitter court case over the band’s trademarks. They have only released one album of original material to date but also regularly tour and have recently been playing classic albums in their entirety.
Wishbone’s loyal fanbase are also divided over the relative merits of the two, but the more rational of us see the opportunity to hear double the amount of Wishbone music in concert as ample consolation for the fact there appears no chance of the original quartet reforming. The nearest was a memorable invitation-only ‘garden party’ in 2012 when Ted Turner and Laurie Wisefield jammed with Martin Turner’s band and even a long-retired Steve Upton looked on from the wings.
Their back catalogue always had a patchy CD reissue coverage in comparison to some of their seventies contemporaries like Uriah Heep, but this was rectified in 2018 when the Vintage Years was released, with a mammoth 30 CDs comprising their complete work through to 1991 and unreleased live sets. As well as cementing their legacy and giving them a well deserved increase in profile, the packaging set a new standard for Box Sets. If that is beyond your price range, here are a few highlights to pick out:
Wishbone Ash (1970) – where it all started. Imagine how exciting this must have sounded at the time, notably the ten minute epic ‘Phoenix’;
Argus (1972) – quite rightly the jewel in the Wishbone crown;
There’s The Rub (1974) – the first of the ‘Mark 2′ albums with magic in each of the six songs covering a variety of styles from Southern rock to English folk to dreamy ballads;
Live Dates, Volume 2 (1980) – Wishbone have always been best appreciated in the live arena: both ‘Live Dates’ albums capture the duelling guitarists at their peak with this one edging it for quality;
Bona Fide (2002) – their post-’classic years’ output has been variable with the pick this album from the period when Finnish guitarist Ben Granfelt gave them a revitalising shot.
(i)(iii) David Randall
(iv) Noel Buckley
© 2020 Andy Nathan/GRTR! All rights reserved.
Album review (Coat Of Arms)
David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 30 August 2020.
UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 ( BST, GMT+1) as part of a five hour blues rock marathon “Tuesday is Bluesday at GRTR!”. The show is repeated on Wednesdays at 22:00, Fridays at 20:00). This show was first broadcast 8 September 2020.
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