Wishbone Ash: The making of the almighty Argus

Wishbone Ash circa 1972
(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives)

It’s unusual for a group that’s been around for almost 40 years and released a huge catalogue of live and studio recordings to be defined – some might even say overshadowed – by one album in particular. But that’s very much the case with Wishbone Ash and Argus.

Released on April 28, 1972 Argus transformed Wishbone Ash into international stars – at the third time of trying. Pooled from the London-based combo’s disparate backgrounds in hard rock, folk and crisp, electric blues, its soothingly evocative strains introduced a pioneering twin-guitar approach that was adopted by countless other bands. So extraordinary was Argus that its popularity became a bugbear for the band in the coming years.

Struggling to come to terms with the success it had brought them, Ted Turner, the younger half of their inspirational guitar team, elected to quit after one further album. And yet 42 years later, Argus remains so fresh, vibrant and enduringly popular that two different permutations of the group recently performed the record in its entirety on respective British tours.

Entwined business-wise with Miles Copeland, a brash, fast-talking American [who later emerged as manager of The Police], Ash signed a deal with MCA Records, after none other than Ritchie Blackmore recommended them to producer-cum-A&R man Derek Lawrence Ash’s Andy Powell had impressed Deep Purple’s Man In Black when the pair performed a bizarre, spontaneous guitar battle during a soundcheck at Dunstable Civic Hall in May 1970.

That same year’s Wishbone Ash and 1971’s Pilgrimage albums [both overseen by Lawrence] brought critical praise and respectable sales, but Wishbone – completed by bassist Martin Turner [no relation to Ted] and drummer Steve Upton – knew they could do better.

“In signing us to MCA, Derek wrote himself into the contract [as producer] for three albums,” Martin Turner explains now. “He was a great guy, but not a great producer in the modern sense; he didn’t want to twiddle buttons and mess around with faders. But Derek had a good feel for music, and was good at man-managing musicians and creative people when things got a bit bolshy. Which they sometimes did.”

Retaining a winning team, Lawrence kept on another Purple acolyte, Martin Birch, as engineer. That Birch went on to produce Iron Maiden, Rainbow, Black Sabbath, Blue Öyster Cult and many more confirms the wisdom of the arrangement. The quartet opted to remain at De Lane Lea studios in Wembley [North West London], on the grounds that it had just been fitted with what was then a state-of-the-art 16-track desk.

With their first two albums, Wishbone Ash adopted a democratic approach to making music. When it came to plotting out guitar solos, Powell says that he and Ted Turner decided “whoever felt they had the most important voice” for each particular song. But blessed with three singers in the band, everybody except Upton got an opportunity at the microphone. Sometimes they even doubled up, and in the unusual case of Blowin’ Free all three took turns.

“Deciding who sang what was sometimes a sticky one. Back then, Andy and Ted weren’t over-endowed with confidence or, for that matter, overly interested,” recollects Martin Turner, a former choirboy who displayed no such reticence. “They were more set on being guitar players. But I leant on them because Ted’s voice had a lovely croon to it.”

Though the others don’t recall things quite the same way, Martin contends that with Argus he felt the need to “become a little more forthright” and exert some authority. “If you’re the main guy that’s writing the stuff you’ve every right to say, ‘Shut up and listen to what I’m telling you – play that and nothing else and we’ll be home in time for dinner’, instead of entering into some mass debate,” the bassist says. “Everyone played their part in contributing and we were four very strong characters, but on this occasion I contributed more than most.”

“Martin and I were the strongest characters, and he certainly did the most talking,” Andy Powell agrees with a chuckle. “But I wouldn’t say he ‘cracked the whip’ to the rest of us. The vibe within the band was beautiful, which is why everybody received equal writing credits – even Steve, who was busy doing a lot of the backroom stuff.”

Much of the music for the album had been worked up in advance on the road, a prototype Blowin’ Free dating back to a soundcheck at the Whiskey a Go Go in Hollywood from the previous year. But even during the recording sessions for the album the gravitas of Argus’s significance was not lost on anyone.

“I knew it would be an important album because I’d spent a huge amount of energy and time on it,” says Martin Turner. “It was a bit like having a baby. I burst into tears the first time I listened to it.”

Steve Upton had the idea of naming the album after the one-eyed watchful guardian of Greek mythology. In the hands of Storm Thorgerson’s design company Hipgnosis, this concept came to breathtaking visual fulfilment. Hipgnosis used the band’s money to scour the French countryside for a location, eventually settling for the Gorge du Verdun in Provence. The image of a sentinel gazing patiently into the early morning mist perfectly suited the brooding drama of the band’s music. It’s since been revealed that the warrior’s costume was borrowed from the wardrobe of Ken Russell’s infamous 1971 movie The Devils [starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave]. although to this day the identity of the person wearing it remains unknown.

“Actually, it’s me,” pipes up Martin Turner, who fancies himself as a bit of a wag. “And if I turn around, under that red cape, I’m stark bollock naked. Ha-ha-ha, I’m kidding… nobody can say for sure whether it was Aubrey [Powell, Thorgerson’s partner] or a model.”

Adds Andy Powell: “I’ve been told that the Argus sleeve might have been an inspiration for the Darth Vader character in Star Wars, there are certainly similarities.”

In later years, Thorgerson commented that while “the client was very keen on the end result, it could’ve been shot [more cheaply] in the Cotswolds, or Hampstead Heath at a pinch. But we didn’t tell [them] that!”

Another mystery surrounding the artwork is the removal of a spaceship that appeared to be flying towards the sentinel. The craft is visible on the rear of the original vinyl edition, but seemed to have been airbrushed out when Argus was reissued in 2002. Stranger still, it’s back again on 2007’s Universal Records deluxe double-disc edition. But for all the effort that was expended upon the sleeve design, as with the first two records actual photographs of the musicians were conspicuous by their absence.

“As a very pretty chap in those days I personally wasn’t shy,” ventures Martin Turner, “but as a band Wishbone Ash were reluctant to show their faces – especially Andy and Steve. Having seen what sometimes happened to those that sought the limelight they wanted private lives.”

“We were happy in our anonymity,” concurs Powell. “As serious artists, we felt like performers and not pop stars.”

This reluctance to court fame would be a constant hindrance to the band’s aspirations, and can be re-traced as a reason for the fact that Wishbone Ash were unable to cement their place in the big time. Besides being greeted with all the critical praise they had dared to hope for – NME even called it “the clincher” – Argus entered the UK chart at No.8 and peaked five places higher, bringing them their first gold disc. Even more impressive, readers of Sounds placed it ahead of Machine Head by Deep Purple, Bowie’s The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, Thick As A Brick by Jethro Tull and Mott The Hoople’s All The Young Dudes.

When it came to 1973’s Wishbone Four, the band opted for drastic changes of scenery and personnel. Leaving Derek Lawrence and De Lane Lea Studios behind, they decamped to the Welsh countryside to write, something that was becoming de rigeur at the time, then self-produced the album.

“Everything sounded great in the studio, but I’ve never understood why the finished album lacked balls,” winces Martin Turner. “Maybe it had something to do with having been introduced to Bolivian marching powder.”

Argus was an incredibly difficult album to follow,” reflects Powell. “We should really have gone away for a while and taken our time, but we were flogged like dogs. By 1974 we’d done 18 American tours.”

Wishbone Four brought another silver disc but initiated a slow, steady erosion of their chart positions. However, Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden and various others went on to mine the Wishbone Ash twin-guitar sound, usually with far bigger sales.

“Scott Gorham once told me that when Thin Lizzy first moved to London, they came to see us at the Lyceum,” states Powell. “Afterwards Phil Lynott told them all [adopts Irish accent]: ‘That’s the focken’ sound we need!’. But I’m not bitter about it, all power to them.”

More intriguingly still, Steely Dan appropriated the riff to Blowin’ Free for their own 1972 hit Reeling In The Years.

“After I left the band, they worked with [Eagles producer] Bill Szymczyk [on 1974’s There’s The Rub],” points out Ted Turner, “and of course Hotel California came out to such incredible success. Until then, the Eagles had never done harmony guitar tracks.”

Miles Copeland’s management strategies, which included taking Wishbone Ash to America very early in their career [where they opened for the James Gang, Elton John, The Who and Black Sabbath], were mostly vindicated but he was a hard taskmaster who mapped out each day for the next 18 months at a time.

“Having joined us straight from school, Ted was the youngest guy in the band,” Martin Turner remembers. “He was thrown in at the deep end. Our schedule was so demanding; we worked for three years without a break.”

Despite the above statement, nobody saw it coming when in early 1974 the burnt-out Ted Turner announced he was quitting both band and the music industry. He disappeared to Peru, bought a donkey and set out to find the Lost City Of Mu.

Turner’s hastily appointed replacement, Laurie Wisefield, played on There’s The Rub and stayed for the following decade, though Andy Powell rues: “Ted wanted to spread his wings which was fair enough, but his timing was appalling.”

“I needed to discover life and broaden my horizons,” explains Ted Turner now. “It was the 1970s, I was chasing skirt – all the things you do as a young man.”

Beginning with the instrumental-only Nouveau Calls, the original line-up reunited for a three-album run between 1987 and 1990. Though other members voluntarily departed and a small army of musicians went on to traverse the group’s portals – very briefly during the early 1980s they even had a female co-vocalist called Claire Hamill – Andy Powell has remained Wishbone Ash’s fulcrum through his teenaged years to the present day.

“Wishbone never ceased to be – members left the band piecemeal, one by one,” points out the guitarist. Currently completed by ex-Gringos Locos guitarist Muddy Manninen, bassist Bob Skeat and drummer Joe Crabtree, this incarnation tours every nook and cranny of the UK twice each year, releasing such albums as Bona Fide [2002], Clan Destiny [2006] and The Power Of Eternity [2007] along the way.

“It’s been a long, hard slog to keep this band in the public eye,” admits Powell. “Nostalgia is a very powerful force, but you’ve got to make new music to stay creative.”

The aforementioned deluxe edition of Argus includes a Radio One In Concert recording, during which programme host ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris introduces The King Will Come by informing his listeners that Ash will soon be off on some American dates, though “hopefully they’ll still be doing this one” upon returning to Britain in November. It’s a beautifully naïve statement because even today the Argus songs are still being played night after night.

Indeed, during April 2008, two bands – Andy Powell’s long-running group and a more recent, rival incarnation fronted by Martin Turner – performed the record at the same time. Apart from insisting that he had the idea of touring Argus first, Powell takes the moral high ground regarding ownership of the name Wishbone Ash, claiming that he and Turner reached a gentleman’s agreement that Martin’s new band [who formed in 2005) could call themselves Martin Turner’s Wishbone – minus the ‘Ash’. But when the suffix started to be added, the situation got messy.

“The ‘Martin Turner’ part getting left off the adverts creates a big problem,” explains Powell. “It mistakenly causes people to think there are two versions of Wishbone Ash.” “For every tour that Andy did as Wishbone Ash, I was locked away in some dungeon putting together an album – we’ve both kept the name alive,” protests Turner.

From the outside, there would appear to be room for everyone. Besides the all-new studio output, a cottage industry of Ash catalogue has sprung up. Though he was out of the band at the time, Martin Turner remastered the 2004 re-release of Argus, then exhumed various missing tracks from the 70s for the Lost Pearls album. Also in 2004 there was an ill-fated attempt to perform Argus with an orchestra, from which a version of Warrior later surfaced on the Tracks 3 boxed set. Then last year the band’s early recordings emerged as First Light, having turned up in acetate form at Christie’s auction house.

“Some of the vocals were fractionally flat on Argus,” explains Martin Turner of his tweaking of the album’s original sound. “Years later when a piece of music becomes your band’s masterpiece, minor detail really starts to bug you. So I pitched the vocals up a quarter of a semi-tone. I was pleased that the new mix met with a good response.”

Martin Turner even plans to go one stage further still by releasing a re-recording of the Argus album.

“Why would we do something like that?” the bassist repeats Classic Rock’s challenge. “Why not? We’re doing an Argus tour, and the only way to find out whether we could make the songs work was to rehearse them. My manager’s studio is a recording studio, so it made sense to put them down and make them into an album.”

Perhaps more to the point, is it even ethical to endanger the legacy of a record that’s been part of the fans’ lives for the past 36 years? Turner takes gentle umbrage at the question.

“I’ve never thought of it like that,” he replies. “At the moment it’s unmixed and in its early stages. It might sound really good or it might make you think, ‘What was the point in doing that?’. If people end up thinking like that, maybe we shouldn’t put it out? I don’t know.”

A member of Wishbone in 1980, John Wetton is a guest on the ‘new’ version of Argus, his Asia partner Geoffrey Downes emulating John Tout of the band Renaissance, who performed keyboard parts on the original album’s Throw Down The Sword.

“I did ask Ted [Turner], who I have a good relationship with, to come and play some licks,” reveals Martin, “but he didn’t agree with the album’s concept. That’s okay, I respect his opinion.”

Martin also understands why Andy Powell might be up in arms. “He’s bashed away for 10 years [to keep Wishbone Ash going], and he’s an excellent guitar player. But loathe as I am to criticise Andy, as a vocalist I sometimes think he struggles. I’ve been to see his band, and they’re nice blokes, but [he falls momentarily silent]… maybe I’m just too emotionally attached, there doesn’t seem to be any spirit.”

Doubtless, Powell would echo the sentiment regarding a group called Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash?

“Oh, he’d have every right to,” acknowledges Turner. “But whenever I go to see Andy’s band I always end up in the bar.”

Despite these potentially foot-in-mouth statements, Martin Turner still believes that the original line-up could reconvene in 2009 for the group’s 40th anniversary [they didn’t]. The fact that Ted Turner played with Powell’s Ash in 2005 possibly shortens the odds a little.

“It would be nice to mark the occasion somehow, even if it was just going a pub for a few pints,” proposes Martin Turner. “Of course I’d invite Andy – life’s too short.”

“Getting the 1969-74 band back together is an interesting idea, but talking about it in an interview isn’t right,” hedges Powell. “The four of us would need to sit down and discuss it together.”

“I’m open-minded,” concludes Ted Turner. “The last reunion was a great era in our history, and everyone’s older and wiser. Only time will tell.”

This feature was first published in Classic Rock issue 119, in June 2008. A 50th anniversary edition of the album is out now.

Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.