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Teenage Mutant Ninja Punks
Stuart Clark – himself a black belt in origami – discovers how The Ramones and kickboxing chinese detectives have helped Ash to overcome their sordid heavy metal past and become Top of the Chops.
Stuart Clark, 03 May 1995
IT’S A hard thing for an 18-year-old on the verge of international stardom to confess but Ash’s Tim Wheeler is determined to squeeze out of the closet, even if it means alienating the band’s less enlightened fans.
"I was 14, I suppose," he whispers nervously, "and I… I…" Wheeler’s voice seizes up altogether as he realises the full implication of what he’s about to say. These may be the liberated ’90s but some deeds are still considered so foul that to admit to them means taunts, intimidation and – worst of all – being ridiculed by smart-arse journalists.
Reassuring him that neither now nor at any time in the past have I worked for Rupert Murdoch, Tim regains his composure and utters the words that are destined to change people’s perceptions of him forever.
"I was 14 and myself and Mark (Hamilton) were in a heavy metal band called Vietnam. It was all original stuff – mainly because we weren’t good enough to work out any covers – and our heroes were Iron Maiden and David Lee Roth. Everyone else was into The Cure and Morrissey and we were playing these songs about hard loving women in the heart of the city. We’d go on a 1991 World Tour of Friends’ Parties and pretend that the garage or the bedroom or whatever was Madison Square Gardens. It was sad!"
Seeing as we’re cleansing ourselves of past musical sins, I ought to admit that I once tied a red handkerchief round my knee in homage to Saxon’s Biff Bifford and on another occasion modelled a W*A*S*P ‘I Fuck Like A Beast’ t-shirt when the nearest I’d come to penetrative sex was having the school nurse stick a suppository up my bum. Even worse, I still reckon that Venom’s Black Metal is one of the most riffabulous albums to have ever stalked the Planet Rock.
"Yeah," Tim admits, "there’s no way you can say ‘all heavy metal’s crap’ because it isn’t. OK, we were up our own arses in those days, but beneath the screaming guitars and wailing vocals, there was always some sort of melody. Anyway, one of our friends was in a band called Laser Gun Nun who were big into Iggy Pop-style punk and through them we discovered The Ramones. That ‘teenage lobotomy’ line on ‘Kung Fu’ was stolen from them and I suppose they’ve been our main role models."
What particular pearls of wisdom have Tim and his compatriots gleaned from da brudders?
"That you can be loud, melodic and funny all at the same time. heavy metal’s biggest failing is that it doesn’t have a sense of humour, whereas with The Ramones, they take what they do seriously but they don’t mind laughing at themselves. If you’re going to survive in the business, that’s the attitude you need to have."
Deciding mid-way through 1992 that they no longer wanted to be the Downpatrick Van Halen, Tim and Mark hung up their bullet-belts and pausing only to recruit drummer Rick McMurray, begun their mutation into the guitar-toting Ninja punks we now know and love as Ash.
"People keep saying, ‘God, you’re really young to have had the success you have’, but what they forget is that this line-up has been together for three years which is far longer than Menswear or even Elastica. And during that time we’ve constantly had to fight to be taken seriously. If you’re 15 and tell a career guidance officer that you want to be a musician, the attitude is, ‘oh, that’s jolly nice but shouldn’t you be thinking of something a little bit more practical?’ No-one believed in us which actually worked in our favour because we were so determined to prove them wrong."
With bands nowadays employing all sorts of devious tactics to further their careers, it’s refreshing to find that luck and the ability to write killer pop tunes are the main reasons why Ash are currently top of the UK indie charts and the latest addition to the Reprise roster in the States.
"We recorded some demos for our own interest," Tim explains, "and one of them got passed on by a friend of ours to Bad Moon in London which is the PR company that handles all the press for Nirvana and the Beastie Boys. It so happened that the guy in the next door office, Tav, was starting up a record label and while we were arranging for ‘Jack Names The Planets’ to be released, he also became our manager. Tav knows everyone there is to know in the industry and he helped us get signed to Infectious, which is the label run by Pop Will Eat Itself’s former A&R man at RCA."
In much the same way that The Undertones stuck it to Britain’s trendier-than-thou music press in the late seventies by breaking through without their prior approval, Ash’s ascent up the greasy pole known as indiepop has been almost entirely unaided by hype. They don’t have boyfriends/girlfriends/pet hamsters in groups more famous than them, aren’t being pursued by publishers for ripping off 15-year-old Wire and Stranglers songs.
"There are some bands who live for having their names in the music press and don’t even care if it’s thee for the wrong reasons," marvels the guitarist. "If I’d got shitfaced and started a fight in a club I’d want to keep it quiet but there are people who actually feed that stuff to journalists because they know it’s worth a couple of column inches. We’ve never got involved with that nonsense which is partly because we don’t want to and partly because we’ve always been studying for our A-levels when the decent parties have been on!"
Yup, while other musicianly types have been busy throwing bread-rolls at Prince and brawling outside Stringfellows, the most decadent Tim has been is handing in his Maths, English and French homework late. Still, he’s been able to come up with some far more imaginative excuses than his classmates.
"Yeah, they tend not to have heard, ‘Sorry, Sir, but I was supporting Elastica last night’, before. In the early days, we kept quiet about playing gigs because we knew it’d get us in trouble, but you can hardly appear on Top Of The Pops 2 and say, ‘no, that’s only someone who looks like us!’ I think we were right to stay on for our exams because in a couple of years we might need to fall back on them but, right now, I’m totally fucked off with school and can’t wait to leave."
Ash’s determination to come-what-may complete their education was put to its sternest test last October when they were more or less offered a support slot on Pearl Jam’s Asian tour. Most bands would have given their right arms – and other more tender parts of their anatomy – for the gig but Downpatrick’s finest merely thanked Eddie Vedder for his kind offer and got back to polishing up their syntax.
While it wasn’t exactly planned that way, the band’s school commitments have enabled them to develop at a far more natural pace than if they’d suddenly been plucked out of the rehearsal room and dumped in a huge great big stadium. For instance, what effect would that sort of scrutiny have had on the youthful exuberance which produced ‘Kung Fu’ – a song so unutterably wonderful it genuinely deserves to be described as "a ‘Teenage Kicks’ for the nineties"?
"Being in a position where we haven’t been able to do too much too soon has definitely helped us," agrees Wheeler. "We’ve been touring with Elastica and the pressure they’re under to be the best band in the world is ridiculous. I mean, there’s no way when you’re only one album old and are still learning your trade that you can live up to those sort of expectations. Menswear are another example – I don’t know whether they’ve been willing participants but unless they’re as good as The Smiths or The Jam, they’re no way they’re going to be able to justify the hype that’s preceded them."
Seeing as Ash have studied Elastica at close-quarters and even filled in for them when Justine lost her voice before a gig, where does Tim stand on the plagiarism issue?
"This is going to sound like a cop out," he apologises, "but I honestly haven’t listened to their album closely enough to know whether they’re guilty of what they’ve been accused of or not. In general, though, my attitude is that nicking a chord sequence or the feeling of a song is fine but the melody belongs to the person who wrote it. It’s like, I came up with ‘Kung Fu’ after I’d been listening non-stop to The Ramones for a couple of days but it’s not ‘Sheena Is Punk Rocker’ or ‘Rockaway Beech’. It’s more inspiration than actual stealing."
I remember Andy Cairns saying that he made ‘Screamager’ a minute too short on purpose because he wanted people to have to play it again. Berry Gordy subscribed to a similar ethos during the sixties at Motown, so was the brevity of ‘Kung Fu’ a case of Ash indulging in sixth-form pop psychology?
"As it says on the sleeve, ‘Kung Fu’ was written in five minutes and recorded less than a day later in two minutes 15 seconds. It just came out verse/chorus, verse/chorus and adding anything else would have ruined it. It’s only now that I’m a wee bit distanced from it that I realise it’s a pretty cool song. And of course, when Eric did his two-footed lunge into the crowd at Crystal Palace, we knew we had to have him on the sleeve!"
Kickboxing Chinese detectives – and blackbelt French footie players – may have a place in Ash’s manifesto but one thing you won’t find them embracing is politics. To use the vernacular that’ll be on Tim’s English A-level paper, discuss and explain.
"It’s just me being completely apathetic. I was born in 1977 – so I grew up with the Troubles – but I’ve no interest whatsoever in politics or religion. There have been a couple of times when my ignorance has nearly got me into trouble. I was driving around Belfast one day and, being a brilliant driver, got lost down a cul-de-sac in Sandy Row where there are all these famous Loyalist murals. It looked like a perfectly normal estate to me but if I’d asked for directions, I’d probably have been shot.
"There was another occasion," he continues, "when a bloke came into this dodgy bar we were playing in Belfast called The Penny Farthing and told us to turn it down. We asked him ‘why?’ and he pulled a load of bullets out of his pocket. Again, it was only afterwards that I realised how stupid we’d been."
Ash are adamant that no matter what the outcome of the current peace process, they have no plans to quite the North for London or, indeed, Los Angeles where they were recently given the full stretch-limo treatment by Reprise.
"There were actually a couple of companies interested in signing us when we went over," Tim reveals in suitably nonchalant fashion, "so I think they were trying to outdo each other a bit. We got taken to Johnny Depp’s club, The Viper Room, which was actually crap. We were expecting it to be wall-to-wall film stars and people snorting mile-long lines of coke in the toilets but there was no vibe at all.
"Actually, the LA music industry is a lot more down-to-earth than you’d expect. We met a few flash ‘rock biz’ types but basically everyone’s trying to do their job as honestly and efficiently as they can. There was certainly no bullshit from the A&R people we were dealing with and my advice to bands who don’t like Americans or the way they do business, is stay at home."
As Pop Will Eat Itself so eloquently – not to mention drunkenly – put it in the last issue of Hot Press, the days when the American charts were dominated by poodle-permed REO Speedforeigner types are now long gone. Pearl Jam, Offspring and Green Day are the daytime radio norm and for every Hootie & The Blowfish there are a dozen hot-to-trot guitar bands with loads of fresh ideas to storm their way up the Billboard chart.
"I get depressed listening to BBC Radio One during the daytime because most of the stuff they play is this teenybop trash which you know is only selling because of its image. In America, alternative music is the mainstream and it makes you realise that you don’t necessarily have to spend the rest of your life going round the same small indie circuit.
"Nirvana started it off and now you’ve got Green Day and Offspring who’ve started this feeding frenzy for anything even vaguely punk."
Contrary to what my cross-channel colleagues might have you believe, Tim saw no evidence during his stay of the ‘British Invasion’ having bitten yet.
"There was stuff in the magazines about Blur and Elastica," he reflects, "but you don’t really hear them much. somebody was telling me that Oasis were on American TV the other day going, ‘we are the greatest band in the world’, and making complete dicks of themselves. The way to break America is to go across, be unassuming and work your bollocks off. That’s why when they did that tour together it was the Cranberries and not Suede who made the breakthrough. Brett was too much into his superstar trip to realise that being on the front page of British magazines means fuck all on the other side of the Atlantic."
Ash will get their first chance to woo our colonial cousins during the summer when Trailer receives its Stateside release. The contractual small print hasn’t been finalised when I talk to him but Tim reveals there’s one demand they’re extra keen for Reprise to adhere to.
"We’re trying to get the money off them to make our own Manga-style video," he enthuses. "Fuck this rock star business, I want to be an animated martial-arts superhero."
Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy would be proud of him!