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Ash On Delivery
Dateline: Chicago 1996. Downpatrick's finest make their first big pact with America. Olaf Tyaransen is there to see how the deal goes down.
Olaf Tyaransen, 02 Dec 1996
The pale, diminutive and somewhat scruffy figure of Ash's Tim Wheeler stands shivering in the mid-morning icy cold of a Chicago city street, hands bunched tightly into the pockets of his black PVC jacket as dark dampness visibly creeps up the legs of his tattered and unfashionably flared trousers at the slow but inexorable rate of the current Irish economy on a graph. A few steps behind him, fellow band members Mark Hamilton and Rick McMurray try to keep warm by jogging on the spot, clouds of freezing air billowing dragonlike from their mouths as they hop up and down, crunching the two inches of snow beneath their feet into a wet and messy pulp in their efforts not to die of hypothermia.
"Okay!" shouts the photographer. On cue, Tim leaps about a foot into the air, long hair and scarf flailing wildly as he bends his legs and claps his hands like a manic flamenco dancer, much to the amusement of the people passing by ("Is dat a model?" one of them asks).
"Was that okay?" he inquires in his soft Northern accent.
"No, let's try it again," says the photographer.
Ten seconds later he jumps again. And then again. And again. Eventually he stops. This isn't quite working. "Give us another look at that," he demands. The photographer hands him a crumpled photocopy of an old Hot Press cover featuring U2's Bono in roughly the same pose Tim's trying to approximate. "Okay," says the singer, "I think I've got it now." He goes back to where he was standing and tries it once more with feeling, leaping flamboyantly and trying not to laugh as an impatient Rick belches loudly behind him. "That was a little bit better," concurs the photographer, "but let's do a few more anyway." And on it goes . . .
It's been a long and strange trip for Ash, and that's not just to do with all the acid they're rumoured to have consumed in their relatively short time in the public gaze. Less than two years ago the Downpatrick trio were busily dividing their time between swotting for their O-Levels and plotting a career in the business known as pop, recording their Trailer EP over a series of long weekends and touring with the likes of Elastica during their school holidays. A lot's happened since then - most of it good - and today, with their schooldays finally behind them, they're several steps further up the ladder of global chart conquest, with a Number One album, numerous magazine covers and more gigs than you could shake an average-sized Britpop band at under their collective belt.
But chances are you already know all about that. After all, Ash's career to date has probably been better documented than Fergie's tabloid sexploits. So let's just cut to the chase and explain exactly what we're trying to achieve here, standing around freezing our skinny butts off on the snowy streets of the Windy City on this cold November morning when we really ought to be off getting shitfaced drunk in a house of ill repute somewhere (at the very least).
Fifteen years ago, a struggling Irish rock group by the name of U2 were standing in this very spot, at the corner of Randolph and Clark Street in downtown Chicago, posing for Adrian Boot's camera for pictures to accompany the late and great Bill Graham's Hot Press account of the band's gruelling 1981 tour of America. Seeing as Ash are currently in more or less the same position as U2 were then - trying to break America on the back of a reasonably successful album (albeit the former's debut to the latter's third) - we thought it appropriate that history should repeat itself and that we'd photograph them in exactly the same spot, now doubtlessly destined to become a mecca for all aspiring Irish musos.
Not that we're trying to lumber them with that old tag of "the next U2", mind. Ash may be at a similar age and level of success now as U2 were then, but there the similarities end. U2 had God on their side while Ash have (probably) sold their souls for rock & roll. The Fab Four pomped and prayed while the self- styled Terrible Three prefer to just party till they puke. Oh, and Bono had better footwear. The Cuban-heeled boots he was wearing in the 1981 shot probably did a much better job of keeping his feet warm than Tim's torn trainers are currently doing.
Fortunately, he eventually gets the jump right and photographer Brad Miller quickly moves the shoot on to the world famous Picasso sculpture just around the corner. High art and pop culture suddenly collide as the band members race each other up the sculpture's wet metal slope, holding yet another impromptu belching competition as they do so. You actually need a permit to take photos here and, seeing as we've neglected to obtain one, Miller rushes the session before the cops arrive. A few minutes later the shoot is thankfully over and we're off in a yellow cab in search of breakfast.
"I was never really all that into U2," Tim later confesses over a well-earned cup of steaming coffee in the diner by our hotel. "I remember The Joshua Tree coming out and all of that but really they were sorta before my time. But I don't mind them all that much and my family has a couple of odd U2 connections."
"Well, I think that Adam Clayton used to babysit my cousin in Dublin years ago," he smiles sheepishly. "And my aunt used to be the dinner lady in their old school. I think that they had a lot of time for her. She died about five years ago and they actually came to her funeral."
Further proof, if proof is needed, that Planet Pop is indeed a very small world.
A few hours later Wheeler is hanging out in my hotel room, eagerly picking through the wealth of European printed matter I've brought over with me. The band haven't got a gig tonight so we've both gotten quite stoned on homegrown American grass, and consequently it's taking a while to get an interview together. When a group's on tour their off-nights are just like big empty spaces, voids in the pop vortex, and tonight Tim doesn't really know what to do with himself. Normally the band would go out on one of their infamous drinking binges on occasions like this but tomorrow night's gig is a big one and so they're taking it easy for once. Which is a bit of a bummer for me - I didn't fly 4,000 miles to watch Ireland's most troublesome teenagers behaving themselves. Still, they've promised that the aftershow party tomorrow night will be worth waiting for so I'm living in hope.
"Can I take these?" he asks, holding up current issues of Hot Press and the NME. I tell him he can. "Brilliant," he enthuses like that guy on The Fast Show, "they're quite hard to find over here and it's good to keep in touch with what's going on." A moment later he finds a copy of Blah Blah Blah with a feature on Ash's recent Australian tour in it. "I haven't read this yet," he says distractedly, flicking through the pages.
Why not? Have you gone beyond keeping up with your press?
"Well, we just don't bother anymore really," he smiles. "We used to read everything but not so much anymore. It's fun checking the big pieces out but, to be honest, we just don't care anymore. The first few times were pretty cool but we didn't really get a serious buzz until we got our first covers. Now it's just not all that big a deal."
Certainly at this stage Ash can afford to be blase about their press. Although they've really only been in the public eye for about 20 months, they've already amassed enough cuttings to wallpaper the Albert Hall twice over. A lot's been written about them in a relatively short space of time and most of it's been rubbish. But we'll come to all of that later.
In the meantime, Tim's here to discuss the band's current American jaunt. This is their third time touring in rock & roll's spiritual home and although their debut album 1977 (the year of Tim's birth) has now shifted nearly three quarters of a million copies worldwide, they're still far from being household names over here at the moment. If their fame could be graded like their O-Levels then they'd probably get a D. Constant touring is the key to cracking the mainstream and Ash have been doing quite a lot of it in recent months. In fact, they've only managed to spend four days at home in Northern Ireland so far this year, having spent most of '96 living on a tourbus.
"We started touring last spring with a tour of the UK," he recounts wearily, "then we did Europe and then a few Irish dates. After that we spent almost all the summer in America. Then we came back and did a few European festivals like Reading and stuff. We got a few weeks off and then we started this big tour where we did Thailand, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Then we came straight out here again."
Ash are now five weeks into an exhaustive two-and-a-half month tour of the States. They're not actually playing many headline gigs themselves, sensibly choosing to ride the slipstream of more established bands instead. Next month they're playing a few dates with Weezer and a support slot with Bush is also on the cards for next year. At the moment, however, they're playing with Chicago techno-punksters Stabbing Westward, whose homecoming gig it is tomorrow night.
"They're really cool," says Tim. "They're a band that's really on the up over here. They're pretty big on MTV and stuff so it makes a big difference touring with someone who's really drawing in big crowds and stuff. Like, it's much better than playing our own little club shows.
"The last time we were here was good as well, but we were playing to much smaller audiences. We were sorta selling out really small clubs and getting a really good reaction from everybody who saw us but still it wasn't an awful lot of people, so I think it just takes a lot of time here, touring and building up a fanbase. Once this tour is over we probably won't come back until after the next album's released. And then we'll probably spend a lot of time here."
Have you begun working on the next album yet?
"No, I haven't done anything," he says, shaking his head ruefully. "I haven't written any new stuff because it's just been so hectic with all the touring we've done so far this year. I don't really wanna rush the next record because it's really important. So we'll just take it easy and wait till we've some time off before we start getting into it."
Any ideas about how it'll sound?
"I'd say the music will be pretty different," he avers. "It'll be better, stronger. I think the best thing we've ever done was the 'Goldfinger' song. It's quite different from all our other stuff and I think we'd like to go more in that direction. More dark and mysterious. Not so poppy but still very melodic. I've actually just been asked to write a song for the new film by the guys who made Trainspotting. It's gonna star Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz and I'd say it's gonna be huge in America. It's actually set here - it's a gangster movie, a kind of romantic comedy. But it's being made by British people so it'll probably take the piss a bit. It should be pretty cool. So we're gonna write a new song in January for it. We're gonna do a brilliant job on it as well."
Although Ash are a three-piece, Wheeler is still very much the band-leader and driving creative force behind them. "I wrote most of the last album myself but Mark sometimes writes new tunes as well. He's not as into it as me but he's got some good ideas. Rick doesn't bother too much really."
Despite the fact that he hasn't actually written any new material yet, Tim's already moved on from his earlier lyrical concerns. In theory at least.
"I look back on some of the lyrics from the album and they now just seem a little too sickly sweet for me," he admits. "You know, I won't do them like that again. But that was what I was into at the time, I was really into Phil Spector pop songs and Beach Boys kinda stuff. So yeah, it's very important to me that we move on and just get better. But I think that will come naturally anyway. My understanding of music has increased more. I should have kept writing though. I think I was getting really efficient at it by the time we finished the album. But I had to take a break. It was all getting too heavy.
"Songwriting is one thing that I know I can do a lot better than a lot of people. It is my skill really. I don't find anything more rewarding than just finishing a song. I'm so proud of 'Goldfinger', I think it's really good."
Seeing as you're from the North, would you ever think of writing a song about the political situation there?
"No, not really," he says. "None of us ever gave a shit about it while we were there. I mean, we were aware of it but we didn't really care about all of that shit. Really it's such a shame what's going on there because when you get out and see a bit of the world, you realise just how irrelevant it all is. And we've seen some really scummy places while we've been out on tour that just make you realise how much Northern Ireland has got going for it. It just needs people to wise up.
"Some of the things we've done have been pretty cool though. That show we did in Belfast - 2,500 people, kids of both religions and sides just out enjoying themselves together. I know I've said this before but that's more than a lot of politicians have done. At least we're bringing people together. And look at our road crew. We're a Proddy band and all of our crew are Fenians! So I reckon we do enough already without writing a song about the whole thing"
The songwriters Wheeler admires include Van Morrisson, Lennon, McCartney, Bowie and, of course, the late Kurt Cobain. In fact, he reckons that things just haven't been the same Stateside since Kurt killed himself.
"I think most American music these days is just really bland," he opines. "It's all very commercial. There hasn't really been anyone much good since Nirvana."
How about British bands? What do you think of Oasis?
"I think Oasis are amazing," he grins. "They're really entertaining. You know, they're proper rock stars - they get busted for drugs and stuff like that."
Speaking of proper rock stars and their lovable antics, over the last two years Ash have garnered a bit of a reputation for themselves as decadent, hotel trashing, full on rock & roll hooligans. It's not something that Wheeler denies (though I've yet to see any evidence of it with my own eyes).
"Well I suppose we are still quite reckless sometimes," he grins, "but really a lot of that stems from the excitement of being in all of these new places for the first time. Sometimes the urge just takes us."
And when was the last time you gave into these, em, urges?
"Nothing too serious has happened since Australia," he admits. "You know, the odd champagne bottle has been thrown across a hotel lobby and some furniture has gone out of hotel windows into swimming pools and that kind of thing."
Do you get billed for those kind of shenanigans?
"Yeah," he laughs. "The first time we were in Japan it cost a fortune. Whatever anything cost the hotel management multiplied it by 4 or 5 times when they were getting us to pay for it. One paper lampshade that we trashed cost about #200! At least that's what they charged us - it probably only actually cost about #40. They just rip you off all the time. So we don't trash things in Japan anymore."
Although Ash have a reputation for wanton destruction and excess, Tim insists that they're not really into drugs in a big way. They might smoke a bit of dope and Mark Hamilton's past problems with acid have been widely reported (he was hospitalised for a short period last year when he failed to come down from a particularly nasty trip), but at the end of the day, alcohol is what floats their collective boats.
"We're not really a big drugs band at all," he says. "We've never been into coke and stuff like that in the same way everybody else seems to be. Most of the stuff that's been written goes back to when we were younger and still in school and just generally dabbling with things. I think our reputation these days is more to do with serious alcohol binges. And even now I don't think we're drinking as much as we used to. But we have done some pretty mad things."
Do you ever worry about it getting out of hand?
"Well it's starting to get under control now," he says, "but it was totally out of control at one point - Mark was putting away a bottle of gin a night. That was pretty gruesome."
A knock comes at the door and, a moment later, Rick and Mark join us in the room. Mark's looking pretty dejected - he's enjoying touring America but the fact that he can't get served in bars over here is beginning to get to him.
"It really pisses me off," he rages. "They're so fucking strict over here. Like, we get booze on our riders in the venues so that's alright but we can't go drinking in bars. So it's fine if the aftershow parties are in the venues but if everybody starts moving to bars afterwards then we can't go. Or we can go but we can't drink which is a bit of a waste of time.
"I can't wait to get home at Christmas," he continues. "I'm going to meet up with all my old mates and go to our old drinking place in the graveyard. It'll be great, just like old times. Smoke some hash, get a carry-out and head to the graveyard! At least I won't have a problem getting served there."
For better or for worse, America's restrictive licensing laws have forced Ash to take things a little easier than normal on this tour. Mark's obviously not happy about it at all but, despite the thickness of his specs, Rick can still spot the silver lining.
"It was really mad at the start, particularly when the album went to Number One," he declares. "You know, there was loads of press and loads of gigs so we were out partying all the time. And there was a pretty hectic schedule in Europe as well, so when we got to America we just had to chill out a bit."
"Yeah, if you want to avoid being a casualty in years to come then you have to sort of watch yourself a bit," Mark agrees solemnly, much to his bandmates amusement. Like, let's face it, if Ash were the characters in Father Ted then Mark would have to be Father Jack!
What do your parents make of the whole thing?
"They love it," Tim laughs. "They think it's great. You know, they're even starting to hassle us. I was talking to my mum the other day and she was going 'You've got to write another song soon. You're not getting enough press at the moment! I really think you should get another single out'."
Aside from the musical aspect, what do they say when they see stories like "HEROIN HELL OF ASH STAR" in the tabloids?
"Well I think that at this stage they've caught on not to take those stories seriously 'cos they're usually not true," he answers. "I think it was a bit of a shock for them at first but now they've realised that we're not doing any of that."
"My mum said that if any reporters come near the house again then she'll fucking kill them," Mark says. "Anyway, she knows that it's mostly all bullshit. We just inject the odd bit of heroin into our eyes every now and again, that's all."
He's joking of course. Still, a lot of bands are only too willing to talk freely about their excesses in the press, usually exaggerating their drink and drug intakes to bolster a bad boy (or girl) image. But just in case there are any doubters out there who would question Ash's (piss) artistic integrity, they're soon going to release a warts-and-all tour film that really tells it like it is for a young band on the up and up.
"Yeah, we had an Irish film crew following us around for a couple of months," says Tim. "They went on the road with us for about six months and filmed about 200 hours of footage . The film's gonna be really full-on, they've recorded some pretty messy stuff. And we're gonna put it all in. It should shock a lot of people but we really just wanted to show how full on it really was. You know, there's lots of scenes of people falling around pissed and stuff like that. We didn't want to make something pretentious, we wanted to make something honest."
Is honesty important to the band?
"Yeah," he nods. "We're real about everything."
A rare breeze of cold sobriety passes through the room and the three old schoolmates look at each other seriously for a moment. "Christ, we've really been through a lot in the last two years," mutters Tim and the other two nod their heads smiling. They appreciate how lucky they've been. And still are. Flying nonstop around the world playing music. And getting very well paid for it as well.
Back when you were just a Downpatrick schoolkid, did you ever think you'd be sitting in an American hotel room midway through an extensive tour discussing your band and their antics with a music magazine?
"Yeah, I did," he affirms. "We kinda had this vision which we followed blindly for some reason and it has all gone pretty much according to plan. It feels like fate or something. We didn't know how to get a record deal, we didn't even know how we were ever gonna get out of Downpatrick. But somehow everything just fell into place."
"I think we're pretty realistic about what we have to do now anyway," adds Mark. "Particularly over here. We're starting to understand America a bit more now. Like, everybody's saying that Oasis are huge in America but they're not. They're pretty big but they're not gigantic. Bands like Bush are much bigger.
"So we're aware that we're probably gonna have to tour our asses off over here. If you look at the English bands that come over here, most of them play a couple of short tours and then realise how much hard work it's gonna take so they give up and come home. Suede, Blur, Manic Street Preachers, Pulp - none of them have really tried hard to establish themselves. The only British band really pushing themselves are Radiohead. They're getting pretty big over here as well. So our plan is to really tour our asses off next year when we've done the second album."
Of course, not everything always goes according to plan. One thing that isn't helping the band in their efforts to conquer America is MTV's reluctance to air any of their videos. Truth be told, though, they've really only got themselves to blame.
"I was meant to have dinner with one of the MTV programme directors in New York," Tim explains laughingly. "And Steve Lilywhite, the producer, was there as well. The only problem was that the dinner was after a gig so I was really drunk and it was just too much hassle to get out of the venue. So she was really insulted that I turned up so late. And then she got even more annoyed when I wound up spending most of the dinner chatting away to Steve Lilywhite about The La's and stuff and totally ignoring her when I guess I was really expected to kiss her ass. And it was in a Japanese restaurant so I was drinking even more and getting seriously pissed. So I was meant to be setting up a nice little deal for Ash on MTV and unfortunately it didn't really happen like that.
"And then the next day we had an interview planned with MTV. Mark couldn't go because he was so fucking hungover he couldn't manage to get up. And I'd gotten so drunk the night before I couldn't even remember getting back and I'd thrown up all over myself and stuff. So we were really late arriving for it and in a very messy state when we finally did get down there. And then I puked about one second before the actual interview. So they were really pissed off with us over that and I reckon that's why they're not playing our videos.
"But that's pretty good in a way," he continues defiantly. "It's good that MTV haven't really started to push us over here. It's cool that we're trying to get big without being hyped. Instead we're creating our own fanbase in a credible way. We'll get more respect for that than we'll get for kissing their arses."
Fortunately, the show Tim threw up on wasn't going out live. Talk of vomiting brings us around to 'Sick Party', the hidden track on 1977 that features band and crew pissing, puking and generally being totally disgusting over about five minutes of stereophonic sickness. Do they now regret putting that on the album?
"Well, sort of," says Tim with a grin. "I think we're gonna take it off any new pressings of the album, just to make it even more notorious. But the thing was, when we did it, we thought that only one in every 100 people would hear it. But now everybody who has the CD seems to have heard it. It'll be pretty funny in about 20 years time I think."
Will you put something similar on the next album?
"I dunno," says Rick, studiously examining his painted fingernails. "The first one was totally spontaneous. So if we do something like it again then I guess it'll just happen at the time. No promises, like."
Thank Christ for that!
"Hi! We're called Goldfinger, we're from LA and this is a song called 'Ash'."
Twenty four hours later Ash are onstage in the Metro, one of Chicago's most prestigious venues, rocking harder than Mount Rushmore in front of a capacity crowd of about 1100. The gig is a revelation. I first saw the band play in The Powerhouse in London in 1994 and the difference between them then and now is absolutely staggering. They showed a lot of promise at the London gig but still seemed a little unsure of themselves. They've matured a lot in those two years, however, and these days they're delivering on that promise bigtime. Within five minutes of taking the stage they have the entire audience surfing a wave of pure energy, despite the fact that most of them are here to see the headliners. They play a forty-minute set that takes in most of 1977 as well as a couple of earlier numbers like their debut single 'Jack Names The Planets'.
With Tim wearing a red and black striped top and letting his hair hang over his face he looks a lot like Kurt Cobain and at times tonight the band actually sound more like Nirvana than the lightweight poppy teenagers they've fooled everybody into believing they are. They don't break between songs, segueing them perfectly with menacingly raw feedback and never once letting the pace slow down. Certainly Ash sound a lot harder live then their recorded output would lead you to believe and tonight the adrenaline is flowing like beer at a free bar.
Mark stands to the left, his feet twisted at near impossible angles, with his bass slung low and, behind him, Rick looks like some strange alien creature sitting behind the drumkit with the strobe bouncing off his glasses every couple of seconds. 'Kung-Fu' gets a particularly good reaction as most of the crowd already know it from the soundtrack of the new Jackie Chan movie but 'Girl From Mars' and 'Oh Yeah' quickly have a number of punters attempting to mouth the words as well. When they finish with a scorching version of 'Darkside Lightside' the crowd's roars for more are a good indication of yet another job well done, another notch on the touring bedpost.
After their set myself and Ash's press officer Dan Oggly head backstage to find the band in the middle of a hectic ice fight, flinging dice sized cubes of the stuff at each other and anyone else who happens to be around. Well, it's one way to chill out, I suppose. Mark climbs on top of the door screaming "fuck off" as the other two band members and their green-haired roadie Leif (apparently the person mainly responsible for the whole 'Sick Party' concept) shower him with insults and handfuls of frozen water. A half-finished two-litre bottle of Bacardi on the dressing room table explains the exuberance.
Ash's rider is a large one (several bottles of wine, three cases of beer and a couple of bottles of spirits) but it still doesn't take them long to polish it off. They drink with the reckless abandon of teenagers at a house party, which I suppose isn't all that surprising given that they are teenagers and this dressing room's as much of a home to them as anywhere else at the moment. Rick's really going for it and, blatantly ignoring the sound advice given by tour manager Giggs, mixes so many drinks that within no time at all he's doing a superb imitation of Mr Bendy and finding it very difficult to stand up straight.
One of their American record company executives comes in to invite the band to a special screening of Star Wars (Ash's all-time favourite film) the next day, telling them to call him in the morning.
"I don't think I'll be up in the morning," Rick mutters.
"Hey, I won't either," beams the exec, "like, when I say 'morning' I really mean 10.30."
No matter how hard they try, some people just don't get it! To his credit, Rick just belches loudly at him and crashes hard onto the couch.
Tim, meanwhile, is getting changed into a shiny black costume for a brief onstage appearance with Stabbing Westward. "Do you think I look like Trent Reznor?" he asks, smoothing his hair back. He does, we assure him.
When he does go back on stage it actually proves to be the highpoint of the Chicago band's set. He's just miles ahead of their own guitarist and the raw energy of his playing serves only to highlight how crap the band really are. It's something that's noticed by the crowd as well. When he bows out with a final manic riff, Stabbing Westward's guitarist is left looking decidely Ashen-faced.
It's now 3 am. The venue's closed, the fans have dispersed and Rick and Mark have disappeared for a while, gone off on a drunken wander. The band actually have to drive to Milwaukee in half an hour for a gig tomorrow night but, despite this, Giggs isn't too worried about the missing bassist and drummer. No matter how drunk they get, they somehow always manage to make it back to the bus. Not always on time mind, but sometime at least.
Sitting in the back of the tourbus with just me and a near empty bottle of tequila for company, Tim starts talking about how much he's looking forward to the band's forthcoming Point headliner in December. "The Point show's gonna be sensational," he enthuses. "We haven't done many headline shows recently so we're really looking forward to Dublin. Basically the only headline show we've done over here was in Toronto a couple of weeks back and that was really mad - fans waiting for us at the venue and all that sorta stuff. We'd kinda forgotten all about that end of things so I'm sure Dublin's gonna be a bit of a fucking shock. 6,000 people will be a bit mad. I can't wait for it.
"We've got some great bands playing with us as well. It's gonna be a really good show. We're actually not making any money on it 'cos we're putting all the money into the production. There's gonna be a fucking massive light show and stuff.
"Actually that reminds me," he continues, taking another swig from the bottle, "my 20th birthday's in January so the Point will be my last ever teenage gig."
That'll be the beginning of the end I tell him. Soon you'll be as burnt out and grey as your band's name would suggest.
"Ah no," he laughs. "I think we'll be doing this for quite some time yet. We've a long way to go before we reach our peak because we're still developing all the time. We're getting better and better. That's one of the good things about the fact that we started so young - we've got a lot of time left."
With that, he handed me the bottle of tequila. A lot of time. And a lot to drink too. n
* Ash plus 60FT Dolls, China Drum, Kenickie play Dublin's Point Theatre on Friday, 27th December.