The music industry has begun to resemble an echo chamber fuelled purely by nostalgia. The announcement last week that, compared to a year ago, vinyl has outsold digital downloads for the first time since the two formats were set against each other, did not illicit the cries of joy you might expect. My social media feeds were not full of rejoicing praise for the return of physical formats – everyone seemed cynically and somewhat painfully, aware that the vinyl record sales were being driven by supermarkets like Sainsbury’s and Tesco beginning to stock huge pop acts and classic reissues. As a creator and supporter of new music the outlook isn't great, but there is one form the nostalgia circus takes which I have found hard to resist on a number of occasions: live anniversary renditions of albums I loved in my youth.
Ash were something of a revelation when they arrived with the album 1977 in 1996. Probably pitched as a British answer to American melodic punk rock of the era: Green Day had arrived with Dookie just a couple of years before. There were a bunch of other bands at the time attempting similar (Symposium and A spring to mind) but Ash's tunes were head and shoulders above the rest, who rapidly drifted into obscurity, a 90s footnote as soon as people caught whiff of Britpop, which tended to tone down the pace and distortion for a more whimsical, more quintessentially British sound.
Ash stood out on their own though, in part for their Northern Irish origins, in part for their extreme Star Wars geekery and, as I realised watching their show at the Roundhouse this weekend, mostly for their excellent songwriting, as lead singer and guitarist Tim Wheeler said halfway through the album performance, "It's great to play songs you wrote when you were 18-19 and not be totally embarrassed". In fact it's also great to hear songs you were totally in love with, aged 15, and still be blown away by them.
Ash are doing their bit for the next generation of bands too, inviting the excitable Moses from London and Brighton's own Black Honey to support them at this nostalgia show, giving the old sods who'd come to reminisce tonight a little pause for thought next time they're in the pub complaining that, "no one makes proper music like they used to any more!" Moses were an awful lot of fun, extremely pleased to have this chance, overwhelmed with gratitude to Ash for the invitation. They were loud, shouty and rocking the hell out! So much so that Black Honey’s too-cool-for-school set felt a little flat to begin with. It was my first time seeing them live, and, while they’re an undeniably great band, they seemed to lack the material to make a lasting impression at first. However, as they drew towards the end of the set, two or three numbers that had a bit of Tarantino-spirit to them captured the crowd’s imagination and they left the crowd perfectly warmed up, no doubt picking up a few new fans in the process.
Ash, the main event, carried the task of reproducing what is easily their best-loved work with ease. So much so that it seemed absurd that this album was 20-years-old. It sounded fresh as a daisy and Tim Wheeler and co hardly seem to have aged: if anything the rhythm section of Mark Hamilton and Rick McMurray looked cooler than they did back in the day. Tim Wheeler is a master on the guitar and vocals, I had forgotten how much of a guitar hero he is, and hearing them tonight performing as the original trio you find yourself wondering why they ever felt they needed a second guitar in the form of Charlotte Hatherley. No offence to Charlotte, but it’s worth noting how much noise Wheeler kicks out on his six-string. He’s able to do so much with slight frequency shifts from a slow moving wah pedal and his melodic solo work rises out gloriously over the drums and bass; the only guitarist I know since Jimi Hendrix who looks at home with a Gibson Flying V strapped around his neck.
Of course big singles like ‘Kung Fu’ and ‘Girl From Mars’, the songs that drew me to the show, came across beautifully – but one of the great things about these shows where bands play a classic album in its entirety is getting to hear the album tracks the band probably never played at the time, or have rarely played since. ‘Lost In You’ was a particular highlight, a mid-album ballad I’d almost forgotten that shows these guys were never one trick ponies. As a collection of songs 1977 flows extremely well, and the band had added appropriate little moments where they dragged out instrumental sections, intros and outros, all cleverly chosen and expertly delivered – no doubt helped by the rest of the dates on the tour Ash were in their comfort zone tonight and pleased to be in London: probably the place they played most regularly back in the day, although the Astoria had been their venue of choice, it’s dead now so Wheeler suggests the Roundhouse might have to take its place.
Having performed the album, which is actually quite a short set when you take off the secret track (effectively six minutes of the drunken trio throwing up: it’s disgusting), the band treated us to a set of mostly contemporary B-sides, earlier releases and a few singles from the follow up albums. It was a very well chosen selection again, it was very cool to hear early singles ‘Jack Names The Planets’ and ‘Uncle Pat’ get an airing. Also ‘A Life Less Ordinary’, ‘Burn Baby Burn’ and ‘Shining Light’ went a long way towards dispelling the usual narrative that the band had gone off the boil after their début. It’s certainly hard to argue against the prevailing theory they may have peaked too soon, but perhaps 1977 was just in the right place at the right time and the group unfortunately suffered as their audience drifted away through a combination of slight missteps on their part and a general shift in how people were listening to and discovering new music by the early 00s. Either way Ash were triumphant tonight, and a nostalgic show like this is a great opportunity for the band to reconnect with their original audience and, hopefully get us excited for what comes next. I was impressed they kept it classy and resisted the urge to bombard us with new stuff in the second half. It has actually had the effect of making me more intrigued about what they’re going to do next. I for one will certainly be on the look-out for the next Ash album – this is a band who have kept going despite odds being stacked against them at times and you can see why. When they play together something a little magic happens and you can’t fake that. Here’s to another 20 years guys!