‘Teenage Wildlife: 25 years of Ash’ reviewed

Jay Bea laments letting the mighty Ash fall beyond her music radar – but their latest hits collection provides redemption.

As I explained in a previous We Are Cult post, it would take quite some doing to top 1994 as the best music year of my life – and I was just your average sixth-former bopping around the suburbs. But that got me thinking: what on earth must it have been like for the members of Ash that same year? Heads down at grammar school in Northern Ireland one minute, jetting off with the headmaster’s permission to support Elastica the next. How did it feel to be invited, age 17, by the hallowed John Peel, to play a Radio 1 session? A line from Ash’s first single, Jack Names the Planets, understatedly says: “We were walking, walking in two worlds.”

It was easy for me, a grammar school reject, to fall for the head boy beauty of a lead singer/guitarist like Tim Wheeler. Plus, drummer Rick McMurray and bassist Mark Hamilton looked like my friendship group – studious and a bit nerdy. In short, they were the kind of boys my mother would have been easily deceived by had I brought one home (their cover of ABBA’s Does Your Mother Know some years later seems entirely fitting). Ash peppered their lyrics and titles with knowing references to cult fiction, as well as flirtation. Girl From Mars teased, “I know that you’re almost in love with me, I can see it in your eyes”, which sounded like a semi-joke that stopped my heart once in a teenage cider haze.

Swooning epic Oh Yeah charted the end of innocence; I was one of thousands imagining myself “still in her school skirt and her summer blouse”, wishing it were my “eyes making silent demands, as her hair came undone” in that head boy’s hands. Ash managed to put the girl on a pedestal, admired and out of reach at the same time as being very intensely desired (just where we – no doubt several boys too – wanted to be). Meanwhile their punky, grungy edges remained intensely appealing – not everyone threw off their Seattle shackles when the Brit scene came calling.

But after initially finding joy in Ash’s success, rubbing shoulders with Britpop heavyweights in the pages of the music press, I began to tire of them. Their big hits ended up stuck on radio repeat: everywhere I went, Girl from Mars, Goldfinger, Oh Yeah. By this time, I was looking back cynically at my ‘youth’ from a distance of 150 miles (being of the same vintage as Ash, I went to university the year they hit the big time). On a limited budget, I couldn’t get all the music I wanted to hear in those pre-streaming days; and so Ash became a casualty of my student poverty.

Ash were in the background as I graduated, moved around the country, settled into my career. Girl from Mars, Goldfinger, Oh Yeah were joined on the radio by Shining Light and Burn Baby Burn, but I couldn’t pinpoint when. While the band never seemed to go away, they never really moved back into my musical foreground.

Shame on me then that it’s taken reviewing Teenage Wildlife: 25 years of Ash to make that happen…

Look back catalogue

The 25-year anniversary here is slightly loose. The bandmates were called Vietnam before officially becoming Ash in 1992, with first singles and albums released in 1994. But 2020 marks 25 years since the first golden period of songs mentioned above. Cynics might also note that this is not the first package of Ash hits – it’s the fourth in a line of collections which started with 2002’s 10th anniversary release, progressed to a typical ‘Best of’ in 2011 under Warner (the company that ended up with the back catalogue of indie label Infectious), and the release of a 7”singles box set under latest label BMG in 2019. Super-fans will likely own copies of every track bar the new release (Darkest Hour of the Night). It may be that the limited edition formats on offer will be a draw: 3 CD and double LP with lenticular artwork, and vinyl test pressings await for those who get in early.

In that quarter-century, Ash have racked up seven studio albums and 60-odd singles, which puts an interesting slant on a quote I found from Wheeler, who said the band could have been more prolific if they hadn’t toured so much. The new collection features up to 54 tracks (if you get the bonus third CD) with a healthy range of B-sides and rarities. Only 11 songs are recognisable as big hitters, and they’re the majority of the singles from 1996’s 1977 and 2001’s Free All Angels. It’s also great to see Ash continuing to issue solid LP formats after a period concentrating on singles and digital. In a nod to our present-day shuffle culture, the mix is non-chronological and nicely done in terms of tempo, varying between the upbeat and the melancholic. Another interesting touch is seeing that only a fraction of the 26 lead singles released fortnightly as the A-Z collection in 2009-10 under their own label, Atomic Heart, are included.

It would be remiss of me not to note the significance of this album’s name – Teenage Wildlife – both a metaphor and a direct reference to a musical hero, David Bowie, and his 1980 track from Scary Monsters. Ash’s superior cover is included here, recorded at a slightly faster tempo than the original – their upbeat style acting as camouflage for a more serious point reflected in the line: “Well, how come you only want tomorrow? With its promise of something hard to do.” This was interpreted as Bowie’s “early mid-life crisis song”, and as Ash had a precociously young start, you could imagine this resonating. Bowie, reflecting on its content 30 years after the fact, believed the song was “addressed to my latter-day adolescent self, trying to correct those things one thinks one’s done wrong”. Perhaps it’s that for Ash too.

Melody masking darkness

Listening to Ash ‘en block’ has given me the chance to really analyse their style, and there are common threads even when songs appear to be in stark contrast and recorded years apart (from the laidback-ness of Oh Yeah, to the joyously naughty trash-glam of Envy). I’m going to take a bet that Wheeler studied A Level English Literature and/or Classics. His work has referenced Greek mythology (Orpheus is transformed into a man not looking back heading for the open road) Arthurian legend (the romantic in Annabel invites her to become his Guinevere) and Dante. Death and loss are regularly recurring themes. 1998’s Nu-Clear Sounds had taken a nihilistic turn, reflected in Jesus Says: “All my honesty is true, but it’s gone to waste on a soulless superficial void called the human race.”  In the 1990s commercial landscape, where record companies were very much aboard the Britpop gravy train, perhaps the darker-sounding Ash was ‘too much’ for them – what were lads in their 20s doing thinking about this stuff?

As the principal lyricist, Wheeler relies heavily on rhyming couplets and repetition; literary devices that in clumsier hands have caused many a pop song to tank. He has used them variously to convey anger, frustration and yearning, but with most striking effect on the Ivor Novello-winning Shining Light, which pairs religious motifs with sexual attraction over an uplifting melody. It broke my heart to read that they had to pay to record Shining Light; almost bankrupt after the relative commercial failure of Nu-Clear Sounds, it could have been the last roll of Ash’s dice. In retrospect, I can’t begrudge the OTT airplay because it paved the way for the band to continue through the 2000s – and it’s the brilliance of their mid-period that this compilation totally solidifies.

While Wheeler has been the lyrical force, the song choices on Teenage Wildlife really bring the work of Hamilton and McMurray to the fore. The bass and drums provide the bedrock and consistency on almost every track, allowing Wheeler’s (and Hatherley’s) guitars to slide off in different emotional directions. Hamilton’s bass is always hard-working and able to cut through the noise. The A-Z period really allowed him to show his skill on the electronica-influenced True Love 1980 (even Wheeler’s vocal sounds like Bernard Sumner). I really love this experimental period of Ash, and it is the A-Z I now want to investigate more closely.

One of my favourite discoveries on this album is Return of White Rabbit. Its dirty opening bass riff continues to roll throughout over a melody recalling the brilliance of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook’s Squeeze. I can’t recall ever seeing McMurray’s name on lists of influential drummers, but he belongs right up there. The drums on White Rabbit are a driving force, but he deploys his skins with sensitivity on the likes of Twilight of the Innocents, the hauntingly beautiful eponymous album track from 2007. The string section gives it a David Arnold-esque production quality, with Wheeler’s mournful lyrical repetition evoking shades of Jeff Buckley.

It’s also interesting to listen out for Charlotte Hatherley, the fourth band member during Ash’s commercially fertile 2001 period and the crushing lows either side. Hatherley’s light, cooing backing vocals amplified Wheeler’s ability to deliver a devastating lyric in disguise; the punch masquerading as a kiss. Sometimes is illustrative: “Sometimes it happens feelings die, whole years are lost in the blink of an eye.” To my mind, Ash’s commercial success relied somewhat on lazy listeners only taking in the soaring melodies and ignoring any challenging lyrics. But the darkness was always in there.

A mea culpa

Ash were cautious around the Britpop scene – politics meant they would tread sensitively even when the media machine and fans lumped them all-in. But standing apart allowed their long-term survival as the fickle scene imploded. Ash always looked in the direction of the Atlantic anyway, and they found a natural festival home alongside heavier acts at Reading. During the eight-year gap between albums up to 2015, they were still working, but mainly on tour with the likes of Weezer, Smashing Pumpkins, Pixies and Foo Fighters. They’ve remained friends, they’ve remained working, and they’ve retained a loyal global following throughout the ups and downs. I hear their sound replicated by other acts, including Killers and Royal Blood.

Teenage Wildlife has been on repeat since I started working on this review. I am quite ashamed that I allowed this band to fall beyond my music radar amid the noise made by other acts. The sad thing is that I would have loved everything Ash did if only I’d sought it out. But the way the music industry machine has worked, coupled with my limited purse, conspired to stop that from happening. At a time when the band despaired at a lack of  record industry support, their instinct for exploring varied creative avenues was correct. I can’t be the only person who missed them. Perhaps this collection isn’t really for the super-fans who’ve always known what they know. Maybe it’s for people like me.

So, if you’re ever reading this Mark, Rick and Tim, I’m sorry. But I’m back.

Teenage Wildlife: 25 years of Ash is released 14 February 2020  through BMG. Available as limited edition in lenticular vinyl on double LP and as a 3-CD set, which includes 18 track rarities CD. There are standard/non-lenticular versions, including signed copies, plus limited edition test pressings on vinyl through their official site.

Ash embark on a spring European tour, starting on 15 February in Belfast and finishing in April. They plan Ireland, Belgium, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Poland, plus 12 UK dates. See availability at https://ash-official.com/

❉ Jay Bea is a social historian and writer, blogging and (still) gigging around the outer edges of London. Her novel set during the Britpop era may see the light of day in 2021. Her social and cultural history website and podcast, 1,000 Londons, is in development. Twitter:  @London_and_East Instagram: @eeastlondonista. © Jay Bea

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