Looking back at the auspicious debut from the (former) teen babes of Northern Ireland
A year ago, on this site, I celebrated the 25th anniversary of Supergrass’ I Should Coco, so it feels fitting to also fete Ash’s 1977 for its silver celebration.
Both are fiery full-length indie rock debuts from UK bands of young men who were as notorious for their heavy drinking proclivities as for their music. Ash’s early press often read a bit like that for the Beastie Boys, with tales of the hijinks and drunken debauchery of the young trio.
While the legend may be exaggerated, Tim Wheeler did cop to the band’s alcohol excess in a 2016 Belfast Times profile written as the frontman for the band known for its teenage kicks was about to turn 40. To drive the point home with a little basic math, he turned 40 less than five years ago. He, and the other two members of the band were just 19 when 1977 blew up in the UK. However, despite how young the band was at the time of recording this album, it’s almost stunning how well its jagged hooks and relatable stories of urges and longing and love and a certain brand of truth holds up a quarter century later.
Part of it might have had to do with the fact despite their age, all this was already old hat for them at this point. Wheeler, Mark Hamilton and Rick McMurray began performing together when they were 12. Their first single (“Jack Names the Planets”) and EP earned some national attention (and a decent amount of college radio play in the states) when they were roughly 16. By the time 1996 rolled around, they had a deceivingly complex sound good to go.
VIDEO: Ash “Jack Names the Planets”
As with Supergrass, Ash learned more than a little from Buzzcocks, maybe sprinkle in some Teenage Fanclub guitar-based power pop along with the reckless punk energy of Bleach-era Nirvana. The international success of Oasis and Blur inevitably lumped them in with the Britpop sound. Being from North Ireland, that could always be a sore subject with the band. However, if the genre fits…!
Spiritually, the album has a kin in early-’60s Beach Boys records with its unbridled energy and odes to young love. The difference is instead of being filtered through beach bound days, Ash’s music revels in whiskey soaked nights. The Beach Boys metaphor rings especially true on opening single “Kung Fu” where the band leans into its obsessions the way Brian Wilson and Mike Love might have talked about surfing or cars.
Even if the band in ways betrayed their excitement about growing up and the late nights of a rock star, more often there’s a feel right out of the teen idol playbook. Their biggest UK hit, “Oh Yeah” is a simple, occasionally Beatle-esque reflection on one summer’s puppy love. “Angel Interceptor” takes Bowie chords and his space themes (including a crafty cosmonaut reference) for what is ultimately a simple poem written by a chaste lover waiting for his intended to return from away. The ultra-’90s alternative “Goldfinger” sets up a love story spanning parents houses and basements, of suburban relationships just before the innocence of mid-teen romance fades away–and tacks on a name out of the secretly geeky James Bond universe.
The album’s title itself, according to band members, takes its name from the release year of perhaps the greatest child-to-adult obsessed upon movie of all time, Star Wars. And as is the way with that movie, they took that love into at least their 30s the band got the chance to create music for a spin-off video game called Star Wars: Republic Commando. Seriously, I love Star Wars as much as your average 40-something, but that universe is just ridiculous. Still, gotta respect the passion.
Yes, 1977 is also the year of the birth of the three members of Ash, but that’s probably a coincidence, right?
We’ve touched on four of the impressive five U.K. top 40 hits from the record. The fifth, “Girl From Mars” is the gem of the record–an absolute earworm that ranks with tracks like “Alone Again Or,” “Common People” and “Drinking in L.A.” among my personal list of songs whose failure to make a dent on the American pop charts disturbs me to the very core (we all have those lists, right?). The insanely catchy love song to a person whose name the singer never learned (and may not have even existed) starts with an instantly compelling wistful tone that holds through two rough two pure Knack-style power pop verses. And when a guitar solo that would not be out of place on an ‘80s glam metal single kicks in, there’s a secret whole nother gear hidden within the song.
The “non-hits” are hardly filler either. “Innocent Smile” charms with a Jesus & Mary Chain melody peeking through distortion and chaos. “Gone The Dream” defuses hints of pretension with a feel of genuine disorientation echoing the titular dream’s haze, paired with a lightly delirious orchestral just on the edge of drowning out Wheeler’s vocals. Throughout, Wheeler gets the most out of his vocal chords. Not really a natural singer, Wheeler’s falsetto is so endearing, leaning into its somewhat off-tune lilt while conjuring up the late teenage spirit where all things seem possible.
Unfortunately, in the U.S., 1977 was their one real moment and barely registered a blip, missing the album chart entirely. A few of the singles got 120 Minutes airplay, but Ash is much less remembered stateside than their infectious rock deserves. That’s not the case nearer to home as the band is practically Northern Irish royalty at this point and this album was a success across the UK and they remain at least somewhat relevant.
VIDEO: Ash “Angel Interceptor”
Their albums since have been solid, adventurous, even experimental at times and have contained some terrific pop singles. 2001’s measured anthem “Shining Light” is a particular standout. However, 1996’s 1977 is clearly their moment. How could it not be? They were just at a perfect moment of time, looking forward to a boozy transition to adulthood while still close enough to their childhood to be borne back into that transitional period when the quest for love’s whirlwind was still wholesome and real. It was also unleashed at the heart of post grunge, but pre-post-grunge alternative radio when songs like “Goldfinger” and “Girl From Mars” fit at the perfect center of what fellow 19-year-olds flocked to hear.
That it didn’t catch on nearly as much as it should have still baffles me after listening to it the whole way through for the first time since 1996.