These days, most teenagers leave school and sign on. But not ASH – they play loud punk rock, trash hotels and party till they puke. Oh my God! says STEVEN WELLS.
AT LEAST HALF the boggle-eyed rock scum splayed out – on the couches and chairs of the Swedish hotel lobby are – tripping out of their tiny skulls on LSD. A troll skips into the lobby; he sports a huge flaccid penis between his legs and an evil, shit-eating grin splits a face made of granite.
Reality kicks in hard. The troll is Bez from Black Grape. The giant penis is a powerful fire hose. He is pointing it straight at members of Ash and The Wildhearts. Mark, Ash’s bassist, and Rick, their drummer, are still bruised and battered from a plastic-chair fight earlier that day (“because it made a good noise”). Mark has been drinking while on medication. Nobody is capable of running away.
“Bez!” shouts someone. “Don’t you dare! I’m warning you! Don’t you dare!” This, of course, is like trying to douse a fire with aviation fuel and white phosphorus. But, despite the roar of the hose and the squeals of the victims, the hotel proprietor snores on behind the metal shutters on the reception desk. Bez and a friend rip open a corner of the metal shutters. Bez inserts the still-dripping hose nozzle. The hose is turned on…
You are 18, you have three A levels and you play in a suburban punk rock band. Welcome to heaven.
LATER THAT WEEK, the Ash posse, mush-headed and fur-mouthed, are lolling on the threadbare seats of a genteel Canterbury rock pub, staring wide-eyed at Alistair, the mild mannered Buddhist road manager. Alistair is shaking with anger, waving his finger and barking like a Sergeant Major. He is very frightening.
“Last night the hotel phoned the travel agent and we are going to be billed for the trashed hotel room. We cannot afford to pay for trashed hotel rooms.”
Everybody is now looking at the ground, chewing their lower lips and smirking – the classic stance adopted by the lectured schoolboy, half ashamed and half dead proud at being told off for doing something really, really cool.
“Now listen – if you trash hotel rooms in England, the least that will happen is you’ll have to pay for the damage; the worst is you’ll find yourselves facing charges of criminal damage. If you trash a hotel room in Japan, you will be extradited, and I can tell you now that you will never be allowed to play in Japan again. If you trash a hotel room in the States, you are quite likely to meet a crazed hotel clerk with a gun. So come on, get your act together and pull your socks up.”
Alistair throws one more unchallenged laser-beam stare around the room and stalks off. The Ash crew dissolve into a fit of spluttering giggles. This is proof, if it be needed, that they are not a bunch of swotty, spotty, grotty sixth-form nerd geekoids but a proper, huge-balled ROCK band. Teenage baadass kamikazes, carving a trail of terror, spilt beer and torn hotel-room wallpaper in a no-brakes deathbus, destination nowhere!
This is Ash’s first proper tour and, like starving puppies presented with a trough of Meaty Chunks In Jelly, they are pigging out. Getting bollocked by the hippy tour manager for wrecking a hotel room scores a massive 10 trillion points on the nuclear-powered pinball machine of rock! Readers of a sensitive disposition are warned to stop reading now.
Ash crashed into the Number 11 slot with the space ditty ‘Girl From Mars’ and everybody was shocked shitless. The band had already booked themselves on to the dinky punk-pub circuit and it was too late to trade up. So…
WE JOIN ASH in Derby, the city where, one burly local tells me, the term “shoegazing” was coined in tribute to the avoid-eye-contact-at-all-costs posture adopted by local indie fans as they ran the gauntlet of abuse, phlegm and half-empty lager cans hurled by members of a local sporting fraternity known as the Derby Lunatic Fringe. Last year, Ash played here to an audience of seven; tonight the place could have been sold out three times over.
Singer Tim is getting his hair cut by members of Scarfo – the brilliant, Fugazi-esque support band. This is watched by members of Ash-fan band Midget, whose greatest claim to fame is that they splattered Damon from Blur over the bonnet of their Ford Fiesta on Charing Cross Road while he blurted mock cockerneyishly: “It’s alright! I’m not drunk!”
Shaven-headed Bill, Ash’s T-shirt seller, is sat in one corner examining his knuckles, on which he has written “PUNK” and “ROCK” in black marker pen. I have told him that PUNK and ROCK are mortal enemies and he should make his hands fight each other but make sure PUNK always wins.
Meanwhile, Ash drummer Rick is concentrating on his new persona. He no longer looks like the kid at school who telepathically beamed “I’m a swot! Please beat the shit out of me!” straight into the brain of passing bullies. Now he is blond. And cool. And wears blue-tinted rock shades that do not suck. Now he looks like the organist out of The Doors.
You ask yourself how much cooler he could look and the answer is – none more cooler. Rick tries very hard to be rock’n’roll because he is the least rock’n’roll person in rock’n’roll. He’s the kid you never thought would be in a band, the sombre, serious, straight-As student cursed with a physique and a face closer to John Major’s than Johnny Rotten’s.
Rick is nicknamed “Rock” by the rest of the band. He has retaliated by reinventing himself as a cross between Andy Warhol and Oliver Reed. His favourite contribution to interviews is: “Shut up, Tim/Mark – you’re drunk, you’ll just talk shit!”
There are several versions of the how-Rick-got-cool story but the best is that Rick walked into a pub in drag and make-up and got battered by a moron, who broke his totally punk-rock milk-bottle-bottom geekspex, and that the rest of the band made him go and get new, cool ones. This version is emphatically denied by Rick.
FAN DIES AT ASH GIG!” I scream head-lineishly as Ash realise that they are going to have to play the Black Hole Of Calcutta without the aid of oxygen in the middle of the hottest summer since records began. The gig is a stinking, sweat-drenched, sticky, ughy, pop-punk-rock pissants’ paradise and witness to the most fearsome display of co-ordinated, teeth-gritted 1-2-3-4! pogoing since The Clash tour of early 1978, which hit northern England in the middle of a glut of strychnine-laced super-speed.
Back in the dressing room, a desiccated Ash are flopping and flapping and gasping for air like recently landed North Atlantic flounders while all around them the air buzzes with rumours about a new “legal high” – a sports vitamin drink that has an affect on the human nervous system not unlike that attained by snorting a whole briefcase of cocaine while being blasted in the chest by shotgun-wielding assassins.
Mark staggers to his feet, strips off his clammy T-shirt and wrings it out over the carpet. The carpet steams. The rain of fresh, young male sweat fills the air with a fine mist of pheromones. Groins tighten, nipples stiffen. A member of Scarfo is rabbiting on about how he accidentally ran over his girlfriend’s Yorkshire terrier, Walter, only a few hours after they’d split up. Walter has been renamed Woodbine, and every night he is taken into the park for a drag.
A micro-miniskirted and Einstein-brained Scarfo fan called Claire is proudly showing off page 37 of a book entitled A Practical Guide To Ecological Management Of The Golf Course by RS Taylor BSc (Hons), in which appears a photo of cagouled Claire above the caption: “Heather becomes increasingly woody with age.” No fun! The rock pinball machine splutters and sparks and screams: “TILT!”
The party hots back up in the back of the Ashmobile, which, with its fur-lined walls, resembles nothing so much as a mobile porn cinema. We play air guitar and table-drum furiously through some Sonic Youth punk-metal classics, pick up a couple of female country and western singers in the bar and head into the lift for a hotel-room-wrecking frenzy.
The carpet is the ashtray, the open fifth-floor window the empty-beer-can receptacle. The two C&W singers are working-class women with that hard, merciless look you see on the faces of convicts’ wives in ITV dramas, or those ringers who hover around street-sellers of “stolen” jewellery trying to pass themselves off as interested punters.
One of the women keeps on saying that she’s got to go home now and “get battered”. This shocks the Ash boys. She then points at Mark and says: “Hey! He’s really pretty! He’d look great in a dress and make-up. Wouldn’t he make a brilliant girl?”
Bill and Canadian-Irish roadie Leaf respond by screaming the lyrics to a death-metal song of their own creation that is all about Satan kicking a pregnant woman to death. This shocks the C&W women. I try to explain to one of them the theory of Gibbering Cultural Dissonance As An Ironic Distancing Tool. One of the women calls me a “fucking wanker”. The other attacks the satanic road crew for their abuse of the disabled.
“His mother’s in a wheelchair!” shouts Bill, pointing at Leaf.
“No she’s not!” says Leaf, embarrassed.
“She will be after I fuck her!” yells Bill.
“YOU DISGUSTING FUCKING BASTARDS!” scream the women.
It is at this moment that VOX photographer Roger Sargent chooses to hurl a heavy, metal door knob out of the window. When asked later why he did this, he replies: “The angle was so right.”
There is a startled yell from the street below. Bill rushes to the window and yells: “What do you want, you whining English bastard?”
We hear a squeaky: “That nearly hit me! That nearly hit my fucking head!”
“There ain’t no Irish up here, mate! Your mother’s having my baby!” shouts back Bill in a passable Dick Van Dyke cockernee accent while he hurls a can of beer at his tormentor. Suddenly he whirls around, his face ashen. “POLICE!” he yells.
We speedily retreat to another room. Mark is pogoing on the bed while reading us extracts from the Gideon Bible. One of the women shakes up a can of Pils and sprays Bill, who runs screaming into the bathroom from where he bursts three seconds later armed with not one but two spurting cans of Kestrel, screaming: “It’s Miss Wet T-shirt time!” Imagine a cross between a fox in a chicken run, a bad day at St Trinian’s and The Comic Strip’s Bad News heavy-metal parody. Suddenly Bill is hurling a laughing C&W lady on to the bed with the command “Eat pillow, bitch!”, while the other is trying to kick him in the nuts and Rick lectures her drunkenly about homophobia. I’m sitting there thinking: This is hell! Mark is pogoing his way through a very interesting verse from Genesis when the bed collapses with a loud crash…
It is only as we are mellowing out to a sweet (and noisily accompanied) version of ‘Blanket On The Ground’ that we hear the inevitable firm knock of grown-up authority. A huge, bleary-eyed bear of a middle-aged man storms into the room looking like he wants to kick all our heads in.
He doesn’t. He furiously informs us that everybody on the floor below is complaining and that if we don’t shut up now he’s going to call the police. We all (apart from Sargent, who is curled up on the carpet, giggling to himself like a foetal hyena) look ashamed and mumble: “Yeah, sorry, we’ll stop, sorry…” The big bloke harrumphs that we bloody well better be and stomps off.
We all breathe a sigh of relief but the big bloke is barely out of the door before Bill shouts: “Hey, mister! I fucked your wife! She’s having my baby!” The big bloke storms back into the room. “Right! That’s it! I’m calling the police!” Rampton, the “ageing punk” sound engineer, is telling me how he used to be in a Death Metal band called Satan’s Mates with comedian Ted Chippington. I’ve had one can of lager. The rest of the beer is dripping off the walls and soaking into the carpet. I’m not going to get drunk enough for this situation to become even remotely enjoyable. I go to bed.
I dream. I’m coming downstairs and I see a swan’s head and neck sticking through my letterbox. Nosy bastard. I am wearing a dressing gown and steel-toecapped DMs. I start trying to boot the swan’s head off. The swan fights back valiantly but my boots are doing severe damage. DUMF! DUMF! Suddenly I am awake in the hotel-room doorway, bollock-naked, facing a puce-faced Bill who is pointing at me and shouting “You… You… You’re shit!“
THE NEXT DAY I wander downstairs to ask the receptionist where I can get breakfast, but the hotel lobby is full of guests complaining about last night’s noise. This is so embarrassing. I mean, I’m the sort of bloke who tells schoolkids off for dropping crisp packets and spitting on buses.
Several hours later, the hungover-to-hell teenagers are sitting in the back of their mobile porn cinema eating crisps and drinking cola. Mark wants to watch Star Wars – again. He’s out-voted. We watch The Exorcist – again. Rick, Bill and Leaf chant along with Linda Blair’s demons – again. The line “Your mother sucks cocks in hell!” is rewound and replayed again and again while various individuals attempt to fellate various parts of the bus with their eyes rolled back into the tops of their heads.
There are preachers in America who crusade against rock music because it causes drug abuse, devil worship and disrespect for one’s elders, and opens the body up to possession by sick, sex-obsessed demonic inter-dimensional soul-squatters from hell. If those people – or any rational, thinking person, for that matter – could see what happened on a daily basis on the Ash tour bus, they would bum all your T-shirts, shave your head and never let you listen to a pop record again.
There are lapsed Catholics and lapsed Protestants on the bus. True to stereotype, the lapsed Protestants try hard but the lapsed Catholics piss all over them in the lagered-up-punks-go-rock’n’roll-mental-and-worship-the-devil stakes.
You’re thinking: How childish, how puerile, how dated, clichéd, passé, boring! And this will be because you, like me, are too old. Yes, rock piggery is creakingly clichéd behaviour. Yes, it’s been done before – but, like oral sex and frenzied guitar wanking, if it’s done with vim and vigour, it’s always a crowd-pleaser.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m with you; my sympathies are totally with the poor, underwaged bastard who’s got to clean up the mess in the morning. I feel like sternly asking them: “Would you behave like this in your own homes?” But that’d be a complete waste of time. Of course they wouldn’t. That’s the whole point. It’d be like some sad thirtysomething puggly telling them that sex with someone you love in a serious relationship is tons better than the cheap thrills of a casual shag. It would be a LIE!
The speeding van becomes a bubble of flickering hyper-reality. The normal rules of civilised conversation are abandoned. Instead, the images of Catholic priests being kicked out of third-storey windows by an eight-year-old demonically-possessed riot grrl are accompanied by a soundtrack comprised almost entirely of advertising jingles for imaginary 70s porn movies: “Let’s have some 250-guys-on-to-one-guy action!”; “Dial 1-900 FIST!”; “See Garry Bushell in Suck My Dick!; “See 300 real men soak a 17-year-old in jizz!”; “LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE BELFAST WHISTLE POSSE!”; “Buy! Buy! Buy! Top 20 Megastars will suck and fist!”…
Bill then explains to me the trade secrets of the rock T-shirt biz.
“You’ve got to learn three crucial phrases: “That’s ten pounds please’; ‘Thank you’; and ‘Steal that and I’ll break your fucking legs’. And, by the way, you’re shit!“
I HAVE BEEN with Ash less than 24 hours. I feel brutalised, like an ageing silverback gorilla stuck in a cage with a pack of insanely wanking young punk-rock chimps. Perhaps it is this atmosphere of extreme cultural dissonance and gibbering teenage naughtiness that inspires Tim’s strange lyrics. Tim writes the words to songs that would make superb theme music for the sort of B-movie that gets shown in drive-in theatres where rigidly grinning popcorn girls ask: “Salted, sugar or sulphate?” Also in the audience are Shonen Knife, The Ramones, X-Ray Spex, Buzzcocks, We’ve Got A Fuzzbox And We’re Gonna Use It, Betty Boo, The Undertones, John Cooper Clarke, Ozzy, Lemmy and Little Richard. It’s a pretty cool crowd.
Leaf is extolling the virtues of a “flailing, Satanic dickhead” band from Dublin who start their album by roaring: “Tomorrow we wipe out the Christians, but tonight – we feast!” Tim promises me that this is how he will start every Ash gig from now on. He lies. Betty Boo’s ‘Boomania’ video is put on. Again. And the whole bus sings along with every track. Ash are massive fans of Betty Boo. This is very cool. The nuclear-powered rock pinball machine shrieks and hollers and another billion points are notched up.
The Canterbury rock pub swarms with fanzine writers. There are millions of them. All female, all in gangs of three or four. All posh and pretty and dead cool. All of them with questions like “Who are you and what are you doing here?” (“Eh?”); “What was it like going on Top Of The Pops!” (“Crap”); and ‘Are you sick of people asking you questions about your exam results?” (“Yes”).
The venue feeds us in a genuine Olde Worlde Mrs Tiggywinkle-style rural restaurant on a 40-degree slope. We’re sitting around a long table. Inevitably the salt cellar is whizzed back and forth like a glass of whisky on a Western saloon bar. The words “fuck”, “wank” and “fist” pepper the conversation. The proprietor looks nervous. The other customers look like they have just shat themselves.
Rick nibbles at a slice of bread and then tosses it into an ashtray. I take the slice of bread, brush the fag ash and dog-ends off it and put it back on his plate. He starts on another piece; this time he’s picking bits out of the middle with his fingers. Suddenly I’m ranting at him about table manners and then it dawns on me that I’m acting like my mother. Fortunately, before I sprout breasts and flowing red hair, we are interrupted by The Stepford Children. The Stepfords are four disgustingly well-spoken, healthy, clean and wholesome-looking blonde children whose mummy has just dropped them off but they can’t get in to the gig because they’re not old enough and what are Ash blooming well going to do about it? I sneak out.
DAY THREE, Dublin. This gig has no bar, so the venue crawls with posses of too-cool-for-Take-That 14-year-old girls cupping spliffs and smashed out of their minds on cans of supermarket cider. The first 20 rows are packed with Ash fans; the rest have come to see Smashing Pumpkins (who are, of course, shit, but nobody cares – especially Mark, who pumps his hands in the air and sings along, waving his lighter, with the best of them).
We sit in the bar. Again. Everybody else is staring at us. Mark is poking me in the chest and telling me that no way am I more lightweight than he is. The words “fuck”, “wank” and “fist” once again flutter around us like evil little bad-breathed moths. A git with a military ‘tache and a white polyester shirt marches over and tells us we are “privileged” to be allowed to sit here and if we don’t “curb” our language he’s going to call the police.
Rampton tells me that on this tour he’s felt less like a sound engineer and more “like a fucking youth worker”. And I wonder how I could have ever thought that this lifestyle (£10 a day plus a fiver for food) was romantic and cool. The band all have 5am wake-up calls. Will this stop them partying till four? What do you think?
DAY FOUR, Brighton. While Scarfo are playing, I sneak off to a pub around the corner to see Gouge, who are snappy, funny and make a great noise but are not a band you are allowed to like. They play to maybe a dozen people and they play their guts out. There are dozens of bands like Ash and Gouge (and Green Day and Rancid and Manta Ray) using the word “punk” unashamedly. You ask yourself how much cooler this could be and the answer is: None more cooler.
Ash lead an audience more than 40 times the size through their rifferama, punky metal party music and afterwards the dressing room is swarming with skinny youths in tight T-shirts. A girl of 15 is holding up a stone pendant with Tim’s autograph on one side. She’s bragging that next week she’s going to get Lars Ulrich’s on the other. A blond boy who looks like a Hitler youth in bad need of a haircut grabs my arm and pulls me into a corner. He stares at me with vacant, insectoid eyes and whispers: “Do you want a mint?”
“What’s a mint?” I ask like a total fucking square dickhead, thinking “mint” must be really cool young person’s street slang for some drug or another.
“You don’t know what a mint is?” sneers the kid. He looks around nervously, then sticks his hand in his pocket. He brings out a packet of Polos.
“This,” he says, conspiratorially, “is a mint.”
What would Keith do in this situation? Forcefeed him drugs and fuck him? I don’t.
In the dressing room, Rick is slumped in a chair. He has a headache and a fever. I ask him if he’s been taking his vitamin pills. He tells me he hasn’t. He says he hasn’t got any vitamin pills.
I am shocked. I start to tell him that travelling rock musicians should always take multi-vitamins, eat sensibly and get plenty of sleep… But I stop. An old soldier once claimed that if young men knew how horrific combat actually was, there would never be any more wars. And who the fuck wants sensible rock bands? We want, and need, a thousand acne-encrusted Antichrists drinking and drugging and Transit-vanning themselves to death for our sins and, frankly, The Rembrandts just don’t cut it.
Mark enthusiastically invites me to an all-night young person’s sex-and-punk-rock-and-swearing-and-going-mental-and-nearly-getting-arrested paarteee on Brighton Beach.
I decline. I’d rather gnaw my own feet off.
I’m leaving now. I’m going home to my nice warm bed and my cats. I’m going to snuggle up with a nice hot Horlicks and Mike And The Mechanics on the CD headphones. Because I am way too old for this shit. Way too old.
© Steven Wells, Vox, December 1995