Gary James' Interview With Andy Powell Of
Formed in 1969, no other Rock band has done more with the twin guitar concept than Wishbone Ash. They've influenced Lynyrd Skynyrd, Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden to name just a few. Wishbone Ash has just released a new CD titled "Blue Horizon". We spoke with guitarist and founding member Andy Powell.
Q - Andy, there's no such thing as a record company anymore and radio isn't the same as it used to be.
A - That's right.
Q - Is this new CD of yours on your own record label?
A - No. We're signed to a label in Germany actually, but the labels are not as global on this level as they used to be, so in the United States we have a distribution company that works with that label. But yeah, it's hard. We put some releases out through our own kind of efforts, but on this particular album, "Blue Horizon", we're with Solid Rockhouse Records in Germany and they oversee the whole distribution and do some of the P.R. work in conjunction with ourselves. That's fairly pro, but it is different for bands these days. It's become, how do you put it? More of a cottage industry and you depend very much on social media and you depend obviously on the internet and folks like yourself to spread the word. Actually it can be more effective. It's a real grass roots thing. We really do nurture the band's community. We depend on our foot soldiers, as we call 'em. People get out there in their local cities and towns and really do lobby promoters. They spread the word. They do an enormous amount actually to kind of support a show in a particular city for example. Or, sometimes we'll do in-store signings and they'll rally the troops and they'll come along and support us. All of that is hugely important.
Q - Where does a group like Wishbone Ash perform in the U.S.?
A - Well, we do a mixture of clubs and theatres. Mid-week we'll hit the clubs. Theatres we kind of book on the weekend. We're not weekend warriors. We have to produce an actual tour because we bring the band over from the U.K. We have to be working every night. We break it up into sections. Right now, it's Spring, we're touring the South and we go all the way through the South, Texas, across to the West Coast, up through the West Coast. Then in the Fall we'll go straight on the Northeast and Mid-West and work our way across that way. You can't really tour the United States in one sweep. You have to break it up into regions. Europe is a little easier because you can hit six countries in a week. There's a lot tighter, denser population. The United States is a challenge. It really is. But we enjoy it and the audiences are great.
Q - Does that mean you'll be here in the United States from April 2014 through December 2014 or do you fly back and forth?
A - We're flying back and forth. We have a duplicate set of equipment in the United States and another set of equipment in Europe. We just pick up where we left off. That's how it works. In the Summer we're generally doing festivals and that kind of thing.
Q - Is the market stronger in Europe for Wishbone Ash?
A - Yeah, I would say so. It's a European band, so that's where the focus of energy goes. Certainly America is very important to us as well.
Q - How long has it been since your toured America?
A - Oh, we tour every year. This will be two tours this year, but last year (2013) was only one 'cause we were working on a new album.
Q - Since the early 1970s you've been touring the world, haven't you?
A - Yeah, we have not stopped. Forty-four years this band has been in existence. Many different players have gone through the ranks. Many ups and downs. Many albums, about 24 studio releases.
Q - In America, when you don't hear about a band, you think they're not together. Up until I received this press release from your publicist, I thought that was the case with Wishbone Ash.
A - We do have a reputation as a touring act. We've built up a certain amount of faith on the road. For the people who are really tied in to our community, they kind of know where we're always going to be. We have a kind of tradition. We're always coming 'round in Germany in January and February. I understand for people like yourself who are dealing with a lot of different bands, that could be the case. It's just one of those things you have to deal with, unfortunately. It's just a fact of life. People have a short attention span these days. Bands turn over really quickly. But I think having been in a band for forty-four years, that kind of loyalty speaks a lot to our audience. They do rely on us. There's a lot of trust in our crowd.
Q - And then you have bands where there might be only one original member left in the band.
Little River Band is one group that comes to mind.
A - That's kind of the case with Wishbone Ash. There's been like 30 people through the band. Kind of like a sports team if you think about it. You can't hope to keep a band together for forty-four years. It's quite unusual. But the core spirit is there. The music is intact. We're always producing fresh albums. The fans are there. The guitars are there. The songs are there. The back catalog is still on release. We're producing new music. Wishbone Ash is very much a work in progress. It's always an ever evolving entity really.
Q - You said 30 people went through the band?
A - More like 22 I think. I've had co-guitar players from Ted Turner in the early days. There was Laurie Wisefield, Ben Granfelt, Roger Filgate and currently who has been in the band nine years, Muddy Manninen from Finland. Two Finnish guitar players, which started out as a British band. The journey we've been on is such an interesting one.
Q - When you were growing up, and I don't know how old you are, did you see any of the first wave of the British Invasion groups?
A - You mean like...
Q - Beatles, Stones, Animals.
A - Okay. I was a huge fan of all those bands. I played session work with a couple of The Beatles myself a little later on. When The Beatles hit in America, I was probably 16. I'm 64 now. When I was 14 I opened in a band for The Who on their "Tommy" tour. The first show we did in America was in front of 30,000 people in St. Louis. I opened for The Who when I was 14 in a band called The Dekois. They went at that time back and forth between being The High Numbers and The Who before they settled on that name for good. It was later around 1970, 1971 that Wishbone Ash opened for The Who on their Tommy Tour of the U.S. I certainly saw The Stones when they played in Hyde Park, but I didn't actually tour with any of those bands. I certainly was following it very, very closely. I've been in bands since I was about 11.
Q - What Beatles did you do session work for?
A - Ringo and George at Apple studios. We used to rehearse in a place right around the corner from where Paul McCartney lived in St. John's Wood in London. That's where Wishbone Ash actually formed. We certainly would see a lot of bands in the local clubs in London. It was a very active scene in London in the early '70s.
Q - Was Wishbone Ash your first band?
A - Well, it's my first serious band and I've stuck with it. I played all through my teens really as a semi-professional musician. I played in a lot of bands. We used to call 'em Soul bands in the U.K. back in those days, but I played in bands with horn sections, Hammond organ. That's where I got the idea really to develop a twin lead guitar sound, was really working with a horn section. We decided in our band, Wishbone Ash, which was formed in 1969, to really use the guitars somewhat as a horn section if you will. That was the plan. It stood us in good stead. One of the first songs we ever wrote was a song called "Blind Ego" and that song really used the guitars just like those horn bands did. We were playing Stax and Motown when I was in my teens. We had a new sound which later was emulated by other bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Thin Lizzy. They also used guitars in similar ways to us, but we were one of the first bands to do that.
Q - When Wishbone Ash was looking for guitarist, how did they hear about you? How did you get in the band?
A - We had a newspaper in the U.K. which really was a musical newspaper. It's called the Melody Maker. That's where bands in London would put ads in for their new personnel. If you were a musician living in and around London, you would scour that newspaper for classified ads. That's how I came to meet the other two guys in the band.
Q - In 1970, you got to open for Deep Purple. Was that just one gig or a tour with Deep Purple?
A - We just had a one-off show not too far from London. That was quite instrumental in catapulting us forward because I had a jam session sound check with Ritchie Blackmore. He and I traded guitar licks on stage. He liked what I was playing and after the show he watched us and said, "Hey you guys, do you have a record deal? You're really good." We said, "No, we don't. We can sure use one." He said, "I know a producer. I'm gonna recommend you to who produced our first couple of records." That was a gentleman by the name of Derek Lawrence. It was through Derek that we hooked up with eventually Decca / MCA out in L.A. We had an American manager at the time. Everybody worked together and they put us with Decca / MCA and we were on the road. We were all ready to go. We started to release records world-wide through Decca.
Q - So, that was a good fit for Wishbone Ash? You liked the job they did for you?
A - Yes, we did. The record business was a very different thing in those days. There was FM Radio. There was all of these promotional outlets. They were global, these labels. They weren't fragmenting. Yeah, it was a great time.
Q - In 1973 and 1974, Wishbone Ash was a headlining act in both America and Europe?
A - Yes.
Q - Playing similar venues in both America and Europe?
A - Well, we were doing arenas. We were going up to that kind of status in America. We were opening for bands like Aerosmith, and in turn they would open for us. Even ZZ Top opened for Wishbone Ash. Bruce Springsteen, believe it or not, opened for Wishbone Ash in the mid-West. We just thought he was a bar band at the time and a good one. So, it was an interesting period. There would be these festival tours we'd go out on in Europe. We'd headline tours where we had people like Lou Reed opening for us, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Bob Marley opened for Wishbone Ash. Stephen Stills. Many, many shows and tours and festivals. It was a crazy period of touring. I think we did 18 tours of America by 1974 alone. A massive touring period. A lot of energy. A lot of record output. And all of that is why I still do it today. I still retain the passion. I still kind of feed off that reputation. It was a lot of serious work that was done in those days, both by the label and the band itself.
Q - You're describing a different world that I'm not sure most people around today understand.
A - It is a different world. It really is. David Bowie for example hadn't released an album in ten years. Last year (2013) he released an album and everyone was very excited. But he made it to number one on the U.S. charts with only 84,000 actual CDs being sold. That's a tiny amount. Back in the day, The Eagles would have sold 18 million copies of "Hotel California" to get it to the top of the charts.
Q - Right.
A - And you know the way a Gold Record or Platinum Record is designated these days, much lower numbers 'cause it's all about downloading and online music. Rock music itself is not the vanguard of the culture as it was back in the '70s. Rock music ruled the waves. Now, Rock music is almost, in certain territories, a niche music. It doesn't hold the same relationship as it had in those days.
Q - Sometimes it's background music.
A - Yeah, that's right. All of this huge explosion of Rock went in tandem with the Baby Boomer generation, which was the post-war generation, my generation. We controlled the airwaves. There's still some fantastic Rock music being produced by these old bands like ourselves. They're producing some of the best work they've ever done. The music doesn't change. It's just the commercial exploitation of it that changes and the access that people have to it.
Q - And what you have to do to call attention to yourself has changed. Talent was the attention getter. Now you have to be in trouble with the law or have a drug problem to get publicity.
A - That's right, because what's happened is the culture itself has become kind of Rock 'n' Roll and it's become de-sensitized. Nothing is outrageous anymore really. One thing about Wishbone Ash that I really appreciate, that I'm really grateful for, is we did a fair share of rock and rolling, we did some crazy thing back in the day, but always, always the core to the whole thing was musicianship, the playability and delivering the goods to the fans, and we still do that today. We still are a band that relies most definitely on its musicianship. Some interesting things happen on the road. You can respect those as interesting, side stories. The key really is the music.
Q - That's what it should be about!
A - Yeah. Well, it's all about celebrity and personality. I'm not against that, but when it comes down to music, music is a precious thing. I don't like to see or hear music being compromised for other reasons.