For a moment, it seemed like anything could happen.
Three teenagers from Downpatrick are staring blankly from the pages of Smash Hits magazine, fresh from appearing on Top of the Pops. And in 1996, this kind of thing just didn’t happen. Ash were breaking rules left right and centre, and it seemed like they could only go higher.
As Oasis and Blur duelled it out with each other in the charts, the Little Band from Northern Ireland that Could seemed hell bent on one thing: destruction.
I was 15 when 1977 came out, and it still seems as fresh now as it did then. Therapy? had already blazed a trail, proving that a band from our part of the world could make a big noise, and then all of a sudden, these three kids proved that it wasn’t a fluke: something was happening in Northern Ireland.
Tim Wheeler was a kind of anti-star, with a ‘rabbit in the headlights’ expression that contrasted with his good looks and the serrated edge of his guitar. Mark Hamilton pouted beneath his fringe, with his bass slung low, whilst Rick McMurray oozed a gawky charm, hammering the drums and wielding a pair of bulky specs. 1977 fizzed with energy, crammed with references to first loves, kung fu, illicit fun, and Star Wars. For a kid in that spring of ’96, it was tailor made to appeal.
It was a different country back then. The shadow of The Troubles was still cast long across the land. The second ceasefire had happened only a few months previously, and there was a palatable tension as to whether it would last. With the rest of the UK getting down to the sound of Britpop, and a newfound confidence in Britishness coming to the fore, kids in Northern Ireland were receiving mixed messages from all the Union Jack iconography that was being blasted into our homes every night.
1977 was the perfect album at the perfect time. Here were three kids who could have been anyone. Their preoccupations were similar to your own, and their outlook was refreshingly ordinary. They didn’t talk about The Troubles, because they didn’t need to; there was nothing left to say. And for a young band from Northern Ireland to be smashing into the charts, and having literally nothing to do with the heavy depressive atmosphere of The Troubles was refreshingly exciting and new.
Fittingly, for a land that has often seemed somewhat backward and out of step, and with the likes of Blur and Oasis resurrecting the kitchen sink dramas of the Kinks and the psychedelic swagger of the Beatles, Ash harked back to the heady days of grunge, Nirvana being a primary influence. There were traces of the Buzzcocks, sure, but American sounds were the order of the day, with Weezer lurking in the pop punk brevity of their songs, and Sonic Youth conducting the art-pop squall of noise that shrouded most of the album. But such was the explosive power of the record, that no-one seemed to mind that a grungy pop band became the hottest property at the peak of Brit-pop.
Anthems like ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘Angel Interceptor’ straddled that fine line between moody rock and effervescent pop, whilst ‘Kung Fu’ and ‘Lose Control’ were here to kick ass and chew bubblegum (pop), but were all out of bubblegum. There was more brooding, darker songs too, and hits of depth, but it was all caught up in the wash of noise that swept the record along. This was an album that was hurtling at lightspeed, all of its teenage life experience crammed into as short a space as possible.
It wasn’t all perfect. ‘I’d Give You Anything’ is a ponderous grunge throwback, dirgey and overlong that threatens to derail the album’s impressive momentum, whilst ‘Gone the Dream’ is a slightly mawkish ballad, weak where it means to be tender. But they were merely blips on a voyage that hurtled headlong into the world of adolescence. In time, they’d learn how to do the sensitive stuff. For now, all they needed was energy.
But one song proved that they were more than just attitude and a bunch of fuzz pedals. ‘Oh Yeah’ is one of the most perfect encapsulations of what it means to be young, and in love. I know, because I was there. The song feels like sunlight through leaves, like the feel of someone’s hair, or the electric shock of touching someone’s hand for the first time. Only a teenager could write a song like that, and only these teenagers could make it this good. If Ash only released this one song, their legacy would be secure.
Twenty years ago, that spring made way for summer, and Ash were all over the radio and the TV, oozing a geeky charm that made them darlings of the music press, and the pop magazines alike. They appealed to girls and boys, and owning 1977 was a badge of honour, a calling card to the wider world that it was possible to live and grow in a land blighted by division, and still have the same reference points as the rest of the world. Much like Therapy? did before them, Ash let the rest of the world know that we could be cool, and we were just the same as everyone else. It might not seem like much, but at the time it was everything.
Years later, and Ash continue to keep going, enduring the ebb and flow of fortune. They’ve made mistakes, but they’ve picked themselves up again, and proved they’re in it for the long run. Even if they call it a day as I write these words, they’ve more than justified their existence.
But back in 1996, they were a lifeline to the world, a beacon in a sea of darkness. The mood in Northern Ireland was on the turn. We didn’t know it then, but things were about to get better, at least on the surface, and a new era was dawning. Ash were a part of this, and thinking back, my 16 year old self was shaped by this album in ways that I’m still coming to terms with. And if I ever want to go back, and feel the way I did then, all I have to do is drop the needle on ‘Lose Control’, and brace myself for that exhilarating moment when an Imperial TIE fighter screams overhead.
What a time to be alive. Steven Rainey