Q&A: Andy Powell (Wishbone Ash) Talks Twin Leads & XLIX

Wishbone Ash

Wishbone Ash. Formed in 1969 in Torquay, Devon. What the world wouldn’t know is that guitarists Andy Powell and Ted Turner would help define not just Wishbone Ash’s career but the entire genre of heavy metal and beyond. By employing a dual lead style — something of a novelty in the early ‘70s — Powell and Turner laid the groundwork for some of the group’s best tracks, such as “Errors of My Way,” “Warrior,” and “Phoenix,” including not just rhythm & blues but folk music as well into the equation on full-lengths such as the self-titled debut, Argus, Wishbone Four, There’s the Rub, and Locked In. The result was a twin-lead harmonization that helped define hard rock, progressive rock, and heavy metal for years after. Bands like Iron Maiden, Thin Lizzy, and Judas Priest were students of the mighty Ash, in fact.

While Wishbone Ash’s lineup changed over the years, their indelible mark remained, largely thanks to Powell staying on as one of the founding members. As new generations discovered pivotal albums like Pilgrimage, Argus, Wishbone Four, There’s the Rub, and Just Testing, they too heard the songcraft, the adept genre blend, and, yes, the veritable twin lead blazing between Powell and his sidemen. OK, there were others around the same time (or shortly thereafter) — like the Allman Brothers, the Yardbirds, and the Alice Cooper Band — as Wishbone Ash, but the direct influence on heavy metal lies with the Devonshire mates, who, after all these years, are approaching their 50th Anniversary.

So, sit down, blast some Argus (or Locked In or the self-titled), and read on with Powell as he connects the decades to the present day. Iron Maiden and Judas Priest may never sound the same again… Nah, they still rule!

I discovered Wishbone Ash around 1994. I was working at a record store and the manager there turned me on to Argus and Pilgrimage. Then, when corresponding with a band called Opeth and we were trading lists of ‘70s progressive music, he mentioned Wishbone Ash. This was also around the same time. I’ve been a fan ever since. Knowing the importance that Wishbone Ash’s twin leads had on heavy metal kind of sealed the deal for me.
Andy Powell: That’s interesting. I’m always interested in talking to people about how they came about Wishbone Ash. If you would’ve asked me in 1974 if I’d be here talking to you, I probably would’ve laughed. It’s great that Wishbone Ash’s music spans generations. It’s a reaffirmation that our music stands up.

It is. Like any music fan I went on to get Wishbone Four, Live Dates, and a compilation called Time Was. Time Was allowed me to hear the continuity of the music after the debut. The English folk embedded with British blues dynamic.
Andy Powell: There’s a thread there, for sure.

What’s amazing is this your 49th year. That’s five decades of music, touring, toiling, and making it all happen. What’s it like taking your music from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s into the current day?
Andy Powell: It’s been amazing, really. For the most part, except for a few weird ones [songs], they translate through the decades. If I feel a really serious cringe factor about a song that feels particularly close to an era, then I’ll steer clear of resurrecting it on stage. Ninety percent of the material though is probably perfect to bring on stage. Because a lot of bands in the ‘70s laid down such strong roots, new bands they look to those roots for inspiration. It’s evident. Look at Greta Van Fleet. They don’t have a new sound, but it comes from guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. Yes, I hear the Zeppelin in Greta Van Fleet, but I think we should all feel truly grateful for such emulation. If a band wants to emulate Wishbone Ash in part or full, well, thank you. But that being said, the other side of the coin is us being asked to play Argus in full. All the time. I know most bands would probably say no after two-three asks, but I think it’s great. We were in Japan recently and we were asked to play Argus front to back. I thought it was great, but sometimes it does require an attitude adjustment. I know most of our fans aren’t 22 but they act like they’re still 22 when they’re pushing 50 or older, so when they want to hear a song off Argus or Argus in its entirety, I guess we can’t complain too much. [Laughs] Musicians are like actors. They can adapt, if they want to.

Yeah, that makes sense. The music that came after Wishbone Ash is what got me into Wishbone Ash. What’s it like to see the invention of twin guitar harmonies live and grow through the years? Wishbone Ash to death metal is a pretty long line, if you hear me.
Andy Powell: I do. I’m familiar with Opeth, actually. Somebody just sent me recordings of metal bands in Sweden and Finland, where they featured speedier stuff, but it was twin lead all the way. I totally could see the link. I was watching Metallica play recently and I was like, “That’s straight out of the Wishbone Ash songbook!” [Laughs] I take all that as a compliment. It’s a thrill. That I’ve inspired people to create music is such a nice feeling.

That’s right. Bands are translating Wishbone Ash musical concepts. And it’s transcending time.
Andy Powell: You’re absolutely right. I’ve said this before, when we came of age, rock guitar players in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s started playing R&B, soul, and blues. All they did was rough it up, speed it up, put in a more aggressive attitude. In the case of the British bands like us, the stories we heard when we were younger, stories about mythology and local lore becoming something more grandiose. We were able to put our spin on it, actually. That’s how we evolved. If you listen to the first record and the second record, you can hear the British themes coming into the songwriting. We put that flavor in the music — the British themes and the twin leads — and all of a sudden we’re making an impact in places like America. I guess, they could hear something fantastical in the music. And see it in the artwork, as the case may be for Argus. We were able to put our church and choir backgrounds into the music too, use the minor key thing, which was different for the time when most bands were playing in major, and it all created a bit of a doomy vibe.

Most bands aren’t the product of their environment, but when bands are you can hear it and see it. A lot of the British metal bands have that.
Andy Powell: Totally. England is a bit gloomy. It’s melancholy. There’s a half-light in England that goes on for hours. The evenings are long. We were nothing if not the reflection of our environment.

That’s right. I think it’s really imbued into Pilgrimage and Argus, specifically Argus. There’s a medieval feel to the music and cover. Or, a Renaissance feel. Something from another age.
Andy Powell: Yes, you’re right. We were brave enough to put that into a rock context. If you grow up in Britain or even Europe you’re always dragging the past along with you. You’re surrounded by it. There’s no choice, really. You walk down a British High Street and you’re likely to see half-timbered houses. You might not realize it but you’re often daydreaming about Shakespeare, guys in leggings, knights, knaves, and whatever. [Laughs] It’s always with you, always there. Argus is interesting though. I see it as a two-part album. The first side is almost bright and sunny. It’s like America! Bright and technicolor. Then, you get to the doomier second side with “Warrior” and “Throw Down the Sword” and then throw in the cover, it’s powerful stuff.

The cover is a photograph, right? I still think it’s one of the more iconic covers in all of rock music. So simple yet so powerful.
Andy Powell: Yes, it’s a photograph done by the Hipgnosis guys. They were film students. They had the idea to go to a particular gorge in France. They wanted a mystical look. They got it. I think the warrior looks powerful and yet somehow of somewhere not in our time. The cover helped sell our albums that’s for sure, which I guess is the intent. But I always look at covers as part of the music not separate. The artwork is tied to the music, even if it’s not directly meant to. I mean, now that cover would be taken for granted. I don’t think people realize how much influence Hipgnosis had on future graphic artists — not only in Britain I think — in the music industry.

You’re in the midst of your 50th Anniversary tour. You’ve titled it XLIX. What do you have planned for it?
Andy Powell: We’ve pushed out the boat for the last two years. Fans have heard and will hear songs like “Lifeline,” “Warrior,” “Throw Down the Sword,” “Blowin’ Free,” “Jailbait,” and “Phoenix.” We’ll also play a few newer songs, ‘cause that’s the band at the moment, right? Songs like “Deep Blues” and “Way Down South” off Blue Horizon. We’ll also play a few instrumentals like “F.U.B.B.”

So, you have a new record in the works?
Andy Powell: We do. I know it’s been four or five years, but we have something in the works to follow-up Blue Horizon. We’ve been taking our time. In the interim period, we had the huge boxset, something like 30 CDs. It was called The Vintage Years. That thing took three years to put together. That’s a nice career cap, at least for the first 30 years. We have some material in the vaults that will see light of day. A new album is important. A band like us needs to show and be creative. To be a band. I never want Wishbone Ash just to pay lip service to the past. We have to be a band. I really need that. The guys in the band need that. We’re committed. We need to feel the ability to move forward. We enjoy touring, being together on stage. We’re not like Pink Floyd, who come around every 10 years. We have a very active fan community. They follow us around the globe. We have to feed the beast. [Laughs] That all started on the fan-funded Illuminations album. That was before there was a Crowdfunding concept. We did it in 1996. I would say our connection to our fans and our ability to continue on like we have started with Illuminations. I’m very thankful for that.

** Wishbone Ash are embarked on their 50th Anniversary tour. Check out their website for tour dates and new merchandise. Click HERE. Don’t miss ’em! ‘Cause as in the ’70s so as today. They’re ripping like never before.