In 1975, after releasing Wishbone Four and There's the Rub, the group moved to America for reasons both fiscal and artistic. They stayed Stateside until 1978, when the group moved back to England with guitarist Andy Powell retaining his residence in Connecticut.
Powell formed Wishbone Ash with bass player Martin Turner, drummer Steve Upton, and guitarist Ted Turner (no relation to Martin), who left in 1974, replaced by Laurie Wisefield. Martin Turner departed in 1980, leading to a series of member changes which by 1994 left Powell as the only original Ash. Martin has since formed Martin Turner's Wishbone Ash, while Andy tours and records with Muddy Manninen on guitar, Bob Skeat on bass, and Joe Crabtree on drums. Their 2011 album, with lyrics and production by Powell, is called Elegant Stealth.
The twin lead guitar sound remains a Wishbone Ash hallmark, but the songs have become more contemplative, with Powell drawing on his many travels for inspiration.
Andy Powell: Where do I live? I'm a Connecticut resident. I've been living in Connecticut for probably 20, almost 30 years, actually.
Songfacts: Oh. So you never moved back to England?
Powell: No, I didn't. There was a period where I was straddling the Atlantic, if you want to put it that way. But I've been based in US for many, many years.
Songfacts: When you came here back in the mid-'70s, what was the reasoning for that?
Powell: Well, we had an American manager, Miles Copeland. And we had a US record label, which was MCA Universal. We also were quite high earners at that time, briefly. And there were a lot of very high taxes in the UK. So for those three reasons, we decided we would take a gamble and try a year overseas. We also were recording in the area. The States kind of beckoned at that point, and I really fell in love with it. I was a child of the '50s, so I was indoctrinated with American culture in the UK as a kid. So for me it was coming to the promised land.
Songfacts: Well, one of the Yardbirds told me that they had a similar experience, but they chose California.
Powell: Right. Yeah. That might have been a bit warmer. But I like the proximity to New York. And New England felt like home to me. So it made a lot of sense, and it still does. I like it.
Songfacts: Can you explain exactly how bad the tax situation was in England at that time?
Powell: Well, at that time we were going through, not the similar period, but probably worse in some ways, of what we're going through now. I believe the tax situation in the UK was around 83%, and there were a lot of bands that left. The Rolling Stones, they got out of town for about a year, went to the South of France. So it was a feeling that, hey, us bands might not be around too much longer, we need to maximize on our income. It never works out that way, of course. Because when you go overseas, you end up spending tons more money than you would do anyway just on maintaining a lifestyle. But it was an adventure, and it was certainly the thing that prompted us taking a year out, which then mutated into two and three. And from my case, just ended up being a whole journey, a whole life, really.
Powell: It applied to anyone who was a high earner at the time. I don't remember the full specifics of it, but it was certainly something that we took under advice. And we thought, well, why not? We were doing two, three tours a year in the States. We were trying to break America, so it seemed to be perfect timing to do that.
Songfacts: And where were your strongholds within America?
Powell: Well, I would say the Midwest. We've always done well in the Midwest. Certainly in the Northeast we can play to major cities, and in California. Initially we used to do really well down South, because I think for a while they thought we were a Southern act. Bit of an Allman Brothers guitar thing, you know.
Songfacts: Yeah, you've had a lot of different sounds. You can be described in many different ways. Is there a specific era of the band that defined your sound?
Powell: Well, the great thing about our band is that having come up in the early part of the '70s, that was a very free time for music. So I would say that really formed the roots of the band. That's really enabled us to be somewhat eclectic. We can dip into blues, rock, folk, even jazz at times. I think that's true of a lot of bands from the so-called progressive era. So in general, the early '70s, that's where we're rooted, and I think that era is still with us in our music.
Songfacts: When you moved out here, you were living with your girlfriend, right?
Powell: I was living with my wife. We were married very young. So we started a family out here and the whole thing. It was quite unusual, actually. I've been married for many, many years to the same lady and that isn't always the case in the music business. Hard to maintain relationships when you're traveling the way we do. It worked out for me.
Songfacts: Yeah, that's really something else. So when you moved out here, you were already married to a woman who was from England?
Songfacts: And you've been married ever since?
Powell: I have, indeed.
Songfacts: That's amazing. Do you still live in the same place you moved to originally in Connecticut?
Powell: No. We moved initially, we found a little community in Westport, Connecticut. But we have always been in Connecticut. We moved around there - Westport, Weston, Redding.
Songfacts: About the music: when you're writing these guitar riffs, where do they come from?
Powell: Well, we've always been something of a jam band. Our soundchecks were always a place to experiment with ideas. If we were getting ready to record musically, we would jam on it together. That's where those ideas come from.
The lyrics, that's a different thing. That comes from life experience, and what better life experience is there than being on the road? I mean three or four days ago we were in Germany. We're all over the place, and you get to see an awful lot. It's quite a privileged lifestyle, really. And lyrically, that's huge inspiration.
And then obviously relationships, people, things you notice on the way. I've become much more interested in lyric writing in recent years than I ever was. For me the focus was always the guitar. But in reality, a lot of guitar players are frustrated vocalists and vice versa. So I think the road is one of the best inspirations for everything that would be in a band, really.
Songfacts: Can you talk about some of the lyrics to some of your more recent songs, perhaps "Searching for Satellites," how you came up with that?
Powell: Well, "Searching for Satellites" has to do with our musical community, our fan base. And I think that we're always looking for connections. I mean, the Internet is a great example of a tool that we use now to connect with people. And it became very, very apparent to me that our community was flung out across the world, and that people who grew up with our music, our music meant a lot to them. And you're often trying to reconnect, make connections with those people. So "Searching for Satellites" is a kind of euphemism for looking for your people that are like-minded people, really. And in our case, it's our fans, it's people that maybe they touched our music, they forgot about it, they lost it, and reconnecting with them. So that's the metaphor there.
Songfacts: What's one of the other songs on Elegant Stealth that you're particularly proud of lyrically?
Powell: Well, "Reason to Believe" is a fairly radio-friendly upbeat pop/rock song, but that really sums up the feeling of being in a band as long-in-the-tooth as ours. I think the sentiment in that is very obvious: the reason to believe is to believe in yourself and do what you do.
So that song touches on that. That's a broad sweep, that one.
Songfacts: As far as some of your older songs - what about "Lorelei"? Where did that come from?
Powell: Well, the legend of the Lorelei, the legend that comes from the Rhine, the River Rhine in Germany. The Lorelei was a mythical mermaid-type figure that would tempt sailors onto the rocks with the singing, which often could have been the wind in the rigging. So that was a metaphor for a temptress, really. It was a metaphor for being tempted astray, should we say.
Songfacts: What about the song "Jail Bait," was there an inspiration for that one?
Powell: Yeah. Florida. Our first tour of America and we weren't really accustomed to American girls. They were far more, should we say, mature, I suppose, in the way they looked. And you had to be careful, because these young girls would just throw themselves at bands, especially English bands. And if you were from a foreign country like England, you didn't really know the laws and you have to very careful. And this one particular girl that inspired that song, I didn't write the lyric on that one, but I think it was a surprise.
We learned that term over here. We learned those are terms when we came to America that we'd never heard before. "Redneck," never heard that word. "Jailbait," I never heard of that word. There's a phrase, "off the wall," all these American phrases, they just thrilled us, because we were finally getting to experience this culture, this pop culture, this American culture that we had really only got secondhand living in the UK.
Songfacts: That's interesting. Gives you a whole new outlook.
Powell: Oh, yeah. It was brilliant. We used those words, which wouldn't have been politically correct at the time, but we didn't have a thought about that. [Laughing]
Songfacts: Was there a girl named Persephone? Wondering where that one came from.
Powell: Well, that was written by our bass player at the time, Martin Turner. And like the Lorelei, it was really another metaphor - actually for our original guitar player, Ted Turner, who quit the band. The song was really written as an ode to a guy, actually. It was the Persephone of the Greek legend.
Songfacts: The Argus album has some medieval themes, which are kind of interesting. Songs like "Throw Down the Sword" and "Warrior." Can you talk about how you guys came up with those songs?
Powell: We realized, like with a lot of bands, you're at your third album, you're reaching your stride. We were playing in larger halls, larger venues. And so the club star music was really not coming over. So we just naturally started to write these bigger-themed songs. And one really ran into the next. A lot of people have called Argus a concept album, but it was really just us responding to the bigger venues that we were in.
And we were reading a lot at the time. All of us were reading Homer, The Bible, lots of different things. We were really self-educating ourselves on the road, and that came out in the lyrical scenes in the songs. And then the material started to tumble out very quickly.
And as I said, a lot of people call it a concept album. That wasn't a conscious attempt on our behalf to do that. But certainly the songs interlink and there are some medieval themes there - even the music has a very English somewhat folk-y vibe about it. It was just really a confluence of things that were coming to us. We needed simpler music, we needed bigger themes to really push our music across in these bigger venues that we were playing.
Songfacts: Are there any other examples of books or movies that inspired some of the songs that you wrote?
Powell: Well, we had a song called "Silver Shoes" back in the '70s, which was inspired by I guess you could say Marilyn Monroe, that type of a film star, somebody who met their demise earlier. Off the top of my head that would be such a song.
Songfacts: Why does "The King Will Come" make such a great opener for you guys?
Songfacts: Are there Christian themes throughout your music?
Powell: Well, on that particular album, Argus, there are Christian themes that do rise up. That song would be one of them. There's a song, "Throw Down the Sword," about turning the other cheek, you could say that's a Christian theme. But that theme probably comes in lots of religions. I'm not particularly a Christian myself, but I respect people that are.
Songfacts: And you can certainly draw from The Bible many lessons.
Powell: Of course you can. Yeah.
Songfacts: That was interesting how you were talking about playing these big venues. It's hard to think about the perspective now, but I was reading one of your old Melody Maker interviews where you guys were shipping something like 130,000 albums in America, and you thought that was underwhelming.
Powell: [Laughing] Yeah, it's funny now, when you think a platinum is like 200,000. But different times, really. Different times. Yeah, we had such grandiose ideas back then. And of course you could get away with so much. We were talking about that today. I mean, you took so much for granted.
And in those days, touring America, it was a golden age. All things were possible. How it's changed. Things have become much more road-based now and with records and CDs and so forth, everything's downloaded, and if you are selling CDs, you're selling far, far, far, smaller numbers.
Songfacts: And, of course, there are advantages to being on a smaller scale and being more intimate with your audience. Did you go through a transition where any of this was difficult for you going from being so huge to being on a more intimate level?
Powell: Yeah, I think so. I think that there was much more of an industry around a band like us in those days and you were very much at the whim of the record labels and the management and the PR people, and this collective would tell you when and how they wanted material, and there was always the constant pressure. And yeah, it took a long time, but I think at the end of the '70s I sat down and realized, you know, this is a good thing we've got going, we could do something amazing here.
But there's a feeling you want to be your own man and you want to really start listening to your heart, which is the reason you got into music in the first place. And so consequently, yeah, I do remember that being a watershed period. And I realized that instead of chasing these huge dreams, life needed to be lived much more on a daily basis and a good day was something to cherish. I started to get much more focused on the here and now. So I do remember a period of change, and it was good to do that. Many, many players and bands moved away from that grandiose idea and started to get back with the program, which was basically focusing back on the music, and that's what I certainly did.
Songfacts: You were talking earlier about how a lot of the music comes together during jam sessions. When that's going on, do you know right away if you hit on a riff that's a winner?
Powell: Yeah, you really do. You know when something locks and when it's got potential, and it can move people. Because it's got to move you first. And so you do have a sense of that.
Although I will say this: if you're recording stuff on the fly, sometimes you play stuff back and it slides right by you and you listen to it in hindsight, you go, wow, that actually had a lot more than I thought it had at the time. That can happen.
Songfacts: What are some of the songs that came really easily out of these sessions where it just clicked?
Powell: A song like "Jail Bait" would be one. I mean, some of the blues shuffles are easy. The song "Heavy Weather," "Searching for Satellites," what you mentioned earlier on the new album, those songs definitely came out of jams and they came quite easy.
Songfacts: Was there a specific way it would always form? Would it always start with you playing a riff?
Powell: No. The song "Heavy Weather," that came out of a bass groove, really. So it doesn't always come from the guitars. Sometimes the drums can set up a groove and then the guitars fall into place, fall into line with that groove. But obviously, in a band like us, which is specifically a guitar band, a lot of it does come from the guitars.
Songfacts: Would Wishbone Ash ever write separately?
Powell: We do. Yeah. I think the best stuff, the best way that we write is where you can put the collective stamp on a piece of music. But that's a luxury. And so whenever we get together, we're in a mode to write an album, for sure we're going to have to bring stuff individually to the table. It might just be a riff, it might be a vocal line, it might be a lyric, it can be anything. But you've got to bring something to the table first.
And there are some songs that have been completely written individually, and then there are others that have been very collectively written. There's no set formula.
Songfacts: What are some of the songs from the '70s to which you made your greatest contributions?
Powell: Me personally?
Powell: Well, the song "Blowin' Free." Most of the guitar work would have been from myself.
Songfacts: Tell me about coming up with that one.
Powell: Well, we were on tour with The Who, and I liked some of the chord progressions that Pete Townsend was doing, so all I did was take some of those ideas that he was coming up with and sped them up. [Laughing] And another person that influenced me quite a bit at the time, we went on tour with Steve Miller. And I liked the grooves that they produced, that band.
So we were influenced by our peers. We were playing with everyone at the time - Aerosmith were opening for us, ZZ Top were opening for us, we were playing with the Doobie Brothers, these American bands that we were experiencing first hand, it was cool.
Songfacts: What do you remember from some of those years touring with these bands that have so many touring legends behind them?
Powell: Touring with those bands, what do I remember? I would say just a different way that American bands played compared to English bands, really. I liked the easiness of American music, the swing that most American musicians naturally had, because they were rooted in blues and country and gospel. And that was thrilling for me to experience that first-hand on the road. Being English players, of course, we were always thrilled to hear an English band using suspended fourths and chord progressions that were based on English chorale music. But it would be a nice two way interaction to actually have that kind of a cross pollination going on.
Songfacts: Yeah, it's remarkable that you were thinking so musically forward at the time when a band like Aerosmith, for example, was clearly not thinking so much in terms of the music as much as the hedonism.
Powell: Yeah. The great thing about that is we were really, in some ways, musical ambassadors. And I think the British bands were far more proactive in this country than American bands. A lot of American bands don't need to travel outside of these shores, so this may be a little easier these days. But certainly the British bands were spearheading stadium rock at that time, no question about it. A lot of the advance in stadium rock came from that second British invasion: Ten Years After, The Who, Stones, a lot of the heavy bands that got into the stadiums were influencing American bands, that's for sure.
Songfacts: When you were talking about coming up with the music for a song like "Blowin' Free," would you then have a specific idea for what lyrics would be attached?
Songfacts: It sounds like they're very separate, the lyrics would be in one place, the music in another, and then it's a matter of putting them together.
Powell: Yeah, sometimes that creates a kind of synergy, something where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Songfacts: But do you remember an example of one where that did come together very well?
Powell: "Throw Down the Sword" I think is a very good example of that. That song on Argus. The mood that's set up by the instruments and the lyric, it just flowed so easy when we wrote it.
Songfacts: In terms of production, who were some of your favorite producers to work with?
Powell: Well, we worked with some of the best producers that ever were in rock. People like Tom Dowd, Bill Szymczyk. Bill, I really liked his production work, and then the work he did with us. Later he went on to work with the Eagles and people like that. I like the work that Glyn Johns has done with The Stones over the years. It's fabulous stuff. There was an era where these great producers definitely put their stamp on music.
Songfacts: What did Bill do that you liked?
Powell: He was open to allowing us to experiment in the studio. He wasn't so rigid, he allowed us to record the guitars in bathrooms if we wanted to, he allowed experimentation with solo work, he was not afraid to edit music, and the twin lead guitar thing, he was thrilled to be able to do that. I think he always wanted to work with a British band.
Our album There's the Rub was produced by Bill and the very day that we finished recording that album, the Eagles came in the same studio and they recorded One of These Nights, which is a fabulous album. And I think you can hear quite a bit of string guitar work on that album. I like to think there's a little bit of influence in there somewhere.
Songfacts: Wow. Absolutely. What a run that must have been for Bill Szymczyk. That's unbelievable.
Powell: Yeah. Unreal.
Songfacts: And then what is your production style?
Powell: Well, I'm much more involved in the recent productions. My style is basically to create a forum where everybody feels comfortable. On this last album we took over a country house in northern France, in Normandy, and really created an environment where everyone felt comfortable. They had to feel loose enough to put their ideas forward, and I always liked that. I love being in bands, I love the community of bands, I love the democracy of bands. So as a producer, that's what I'm going for.
And then my experience is so huge in terms of studio work that I'm able to get to a drum sound or a bass sound that I think is right for the band - I'll always be chipping in my two cents on that. And then the guitar sounds, well, that's a no-brainer. I've done every type of guitar recording that you can imagine, so I have a vast amount of knowledge on recording guitar and how we can get as many different textures as possible into that. We use guitar for everything: for texture, for padding, for rhythmic grooves, for riffs, for soloing. That's just endless.
Songfacts: Are there some Wishbone Ash songs that cannot be reproduced live?
Powell: Not too many. There are songs that we never played live at the time when we'd record them, that we subsequently performed live. There was a song called "Lady Jay" that we never used to play that much live. There's a song that we're currently playing in our live set called "Surface to Air" which we never reproduced live at the time, but we've gone back and we've looked at it and we've put it into the live arena.
March 1, 2013. Get more at wishboneash.com.
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