Among the most popular pop groups in the United Kingdom during the 1990s, Ireland's Ash scored hits with the singles "Oh Yeah," "Girl from Mars," and "Kung Fu." Bass guitarist Mark Hamilton, drummer Rick McMurray, and guitarist/lead vocalist Tim Wheeler differed college plans to pursue the success the young group experienced after the release of their debut album, 1977, in 1996. An edgier version of the bubblegum pop of American musical contemporaries Hanson, Ash took "cherry-syrup melodies and summer-lovin' couplets of adolescent pop and dunked them in a tart coating of punkish clangor" on the album, according to Jeff Gordinier of Fortune magazine. The group continued their success with the release of Nu-Clear Sounds in 1998 and Free All Angels in 2001.
Twelve-year-olds Wheeler and Hamilton formed the metal act Vietnam in 1989 after receiving guitars as gifts for Christmas. The duo quickly changed its sound, however, after seeing a neighborhood punk band cover The Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog." In June of 1992, schoolmate Rick McMurray joined the band as a drummer. With the addition of McMurray, the group soon produced their first demo tape at Cosmic Rayz Studio. The following September, Ash recorded its first single, "Jack Names the Planets," which was released on the indie label La La Land Records in February of 1994. New Musical Express (NME) praised the "teen punkers from Belfast with swell, bitty lead breaks like The Undertones and odd American accents like they've been hanging out with Evan Dando (formerly of the Lemonheads) and Pavement." To promote the single, Ash headed to England to perform a series of shows during their Easter high school break. The tour led to a deal with Infectious Records, which released the group's Trailer EP the following November. Ash's popularity grew, and in January of 1995 the band was nominated for Best New Band in NME's Brat Awards.
To keep its success growing, Ash released the single "Kung Fu" in March of 1995. It reached number 57 on the singles charts, the first chart placement for the group. Deciding to make a career of music, the trio dropped out of high school in August of 1995. Two days after leaving school, Ash played the prestigious Glastonbury Festival. Several singles followed, including "Girl from Mars," which hit number eleven on the charts, "Angel Interceptor," which moved into the number 14 spot in October of 1995, a cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' "Get Ready" in 1995, and "Goldfinger," a number five hit in April of 1996. Fame at an early age took its toll on Ash. Wheeler endured a drug-induced nervous breakdown, and Hamilton suffered from several bouts of alcohol poisoning.
In May of 1996, Ash released its debut full-length album, 1977, which topped the United Kingdom charts. Of the group and the album, NME said that "Ash's heads have been turned far more by an American alternative tradition than British indie of late." The English music magazine predicted that the band would overcome "the brief shelf-life and potential stigma of being an ooh-aren't-they-so-young teen phenomenon." Unlike Ash's previous releases, 1977amed for Wheeler and Hamilton's birth year and the year in which their favorite movie, Star Wars, was releasedouched on the trio's debaucherous ways. Drug and alcohol abuse did not hinder Ash's success, however. The album reached number one on the United Kingdom album charts and spawned five hit singles including "Oh Yeah," "Girl from Mars," and "Kung Fu."
Instead of returning to the studio, Ash released the live record Live at the Wireless in March of 1997 on its own Death Star Records. According to Ash's official website, the band needed a woman's touch and hired second guitarist Charlotte Hatherley. Following Hatherley's addition to the group, Ash scored the number ten hit "A Life Less Ordinary" from the Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz film of the same name. Comparing Ash to the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, Bono, the lead singer of fellow Irish rockers U2, invited the band to perform as part of a free peace rally in Belfast in May of 1998. More than 2,000 Catholic and Protestant school children attended the event designed to endorse a "Yes" vote for the Belfast Peace Agreement.
In October of 1998, Ash sent its second studio album, Nu-Clear Sounds, to stores. The album peaked at number seven on the charts. Despite the album's popular success, NME panned the single "Numbskull": "This is the sound of teeth-grinding, gray-misted premenstrual tension." The video, however, fueled the single's success. The controversial piece featured group sex, drug abuse, self-mutilation, and a naked Wheeler. Hatherley explained to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) online that Wheeler chose to do the video in part to contradict his image. "I think it goes against Tim's usual image in the pressetting away from that babyface indie kid," Hatherley said. "It starts off pretty tame and then it escalates, but I think they'll be able to show some clips somewhere."
In 1999, Ash shied away from the stage for the most part. Though the group wasn't playing regular shows, Ash stayed in the press. Hatherley and Wheeler were hired as models for designer Calvin Klein's Spring 2000 advertising campaign. Star Wars fans, Ash was thrilled when actor McGregor asked the group to entertain during a premiere party for Episode One: The Phantom Menace. To further promote its 2001 album, Free All Angels, Ash headlined the NME Brat Awards. In an interview with the music magazine, McMurray stated that Hatherley had written songs for the album, but he wasn't sure of the record's direction and seemed jaded by the commercial disappointment of Nu-Clear Sounds. "We're almost not mainstream anymore, rather strangely," McMurray said.
For Wheeler, the process of recording Free All Angels was much more "natural" than Nu-Clear Sounds, he told the BBC. "I think the last album, we were reacting to what people expected of us, so we did somethin completely different. With this album, we just didn't care and just wrote whatever came out. It was a much more natural process."
Reclaiming its penchant for controversy, Ash purchased 300 copies of a single by pop group Westlife and burned them in a city park during an autograph session in Leeds, England. "We were doing an in-store appearance and the manager gave them to us. Westlife epitomize everything that's mind-numbing and contrived about the music industry," Hatherley told Teletext about the incident.
Upon its release, Free All Angels debuted at number one. "Never underestimate the power of a great record. It got us back on the radio and seemed to be used as a backing track for a few sporting events. That certainly helped relaunch us as a band," Wheeler told the Glasgow Evening Times.
Trailer (EP; includes "Jack Names the Planets"), Infectious, 1994.
1977 (includes Oh Yeah," "Kung Fu," "Girl from Mars"), Infectious, 1996.
Live at the Wireless, Death Star, 1997.
Nu-Clear Sounds (includes "Numbskull"), Infectious, 1998; DreamWorks (U.S.), 1999.
Free All Angels, Infectious, 2001.
Birmingham Post (England), May 12, 2001.
Fortune, October 11, 1999.
Glasgow Evening Times (Scotland), May 21, 2001.
The People (London, England), April 18, 2001.
"Ash," New Musical Express, (July 25, 2001).
"Ash Get Their Kit Off," BBC Online, (September 22, 2001).
"Ash: Still Shining," BBC Online, http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/arts/highlights/010212_as... (September 23, 2001).
"People Vs Ash," BBC Online, (September 23, 2001).
Teletext, http://www.geocities.com/alternator_team/tel07apr01.html (July 25, 2001).
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