During the same time period Wishbone Ash have seen more than 20 band members go through the exit door (among them founder member Martin Turner, John Wetton, Laurie Wisefield and Trevor Bolder), leaving guitarist/vocalist Andy Powell the only original member across half a century filled with many highs (1972’s Argus was voted album of the year by readers of both Sounds and Melody Maker) and lows (four years later, Locked In was a nadir, dismissed by Martin Turner, bassist/ vocalist on it, as “a crock of shit”).
Bands are like marriages and businesses – making them last requires a lot of and constant effort. For Powell, who became one half of the band’s pioneering twin-guitar team when Turner and drummer Steve Upton couldn’t decide whether to bring in Powell or Ted Turner (no relation) and decided on both, Wishbone Ash has spanned his entire adult life.
“It’s been very eventful, a real rock star life, though sometimes a little under the radar,” Powell says with a smile, a couple of days before his seventieth birthday. “Keeping the band going has been a personal quest. For me it’s almost become a religion.”
For Powell, whose wife and life partner Pauline accompanies him on the road, taking care of merchandise and all-round troubleshooting, Wishbone Ash is a real family affair. The pair’s 36-year-old son Aynsley played a big part in the music, lyrics and arrangement of Coat Of Arms, the band’s latest, twenty-third, studio album and their first new music in six years.
“In the past Aynsley has sat in with us when drummers couldn’t make certain shows. He grew up with this music and can do it at the drop of a hat,” Powell says proudly. “Aynsley also co-produced some of the album. My family lives, breathes and eats Wishbone Ash – sometimes to their disgust, other times pleasure.”
Coat Of Arms introduces Mark Abrahams, who joined the band almost three years ago, replacing Finnish guitarist ‘Muddy’ Manninen.
“Muddy had put in twelve years, an incredible stint. But I’d noticed he was getting itchy feet, and that’s understandable,” Powell explains. “One day I asked him: ‘Are you still loving this?’ He was a bit shocked, but after a few days he realised that his heart and mind was elsewhere.”
Having known Abrahams as a musician and friend for many years, Powell offered him the gig following a few drinks after an Ash gig in Sheffield. “He loves whisky and guitars, what’s not to like?” Powell says, laughing.
“My dad was a Wishbone fan. He taught me the catalogue,” says 41-year-old Yorkshireman Abrahams. “Dad told me: ‘If you want to learn guitar, this is the band to listen to.’”
“Mark knows some Wishbone Ash songs better than I do,” says Powell. “It’s working out brilliantly.”
In this age of casual music piracy, many of Wishbone Ash’s contemporaries have stopped making new records. Powell considers this failure “embarrassing”, and says he won’t be following their example. “I need to flex the old creative muscle,” he emphasises.
“As much as we acknowledge our past, to be a band you must have new music,” Abrahams adds.
As suggested by a video showing placard-carrying activists, burning forests and chimneys belching smoke, the album’s first single, We Stand As One, is a protest song.
As a self-declared “news freak”, Powell feels that there should be many more. “Those fires in the Amazon and more recently in Australia left me gobsmacked as to why more musicians don’t make their views known,” he says. “I came up through the sixties with John Lennon and Bob Dylan. Why the fuck is Bruce Springsteen staying silent? Where is Neil Young? That guy’s got so much to say, but the last thing of note was Farm Aid.”
Empty Man from the new album, with its opening line: ‘You think that the way to move up in this town is to bring everyone else around you down’, is also based on current affairs. Given that Powell has been a US resident for decades, there are no prizes for guessing its subject.
“That song began life about someone else, I won’t tell you who, but yeah, it went on to be inspired by the person you think it is,” he says, adding: “The song Coat Of Arms is also political; things really must change in our system. I have two passports, and Brexit appalled me. On a practical level, for touring bands like us it’s going to be cataclysmic.”
The album’s song Back In The Day, with its lyric of: ‘Fifty years and counting, we’re still going strong/Back out on the road again, that’s where we belong’, is a love letter to both the fans that still turn out to see the band and the life of a troubadour.
"You can’t be in a band like this for year after year without buying into that ethos on a daily basis,” Powell offers. “Any doubts and it’ll feel like you’re pushing a ball up a hill."
After so many years of playing the same towns and cities many times, Powell now knows many of the audience members personally, and talks with deep satisfaction of having cultivated “a fan community”.
So why does much animosity exist between followers of the current Wishbone Ash and the rival band – billed as ‘Martin Turner Ex Wishbone Ash’ – fronted by one of the band’s founder members? A couple of years ago, when Classic Rock reported on London gigs by each of the two bands, the level of resentment from supporters on both sides was quite surprising.
“That’s a great question,” Powell muses. “I’d say that the court case [over ownership of the band’s name, won by Powell] rankled with those that felt Martin was done a disservice. Likewise, our crowd felt the same. But a goodly number of people talk to me about Martin’s shows, insisting that they’re in neither camp.
"Look, there was some dickishness on both sides, I admit that. But the hatred and tribalism is just a product of internet forums. If you ask me, such negativity is a bit sad."
This feature was originally published in Classic Rock 276. Coat Of Arms is out now via SPV Records.