One of the greatest prog rock albums ever, Wishbone Ash’s 1972 epic Argus also remains the English band’s best known and definitive sonic statement.
And while other acts in the genre like Yes, Jethro Tull, ELP, and Genesis have wider name recognition, Wishbone Ash have cultivated a cult following by consistently touring and recording in some formation since their founding in 1969.
The current lineup, which features original co-vocalist/guitarist Andy Powell, along with Muddy Manninen (guitar), Bob Skeat (bass), and Joe Crabtree (drums), is performing Argus in its entirety on its current tour. Though there is still plenty of stage time to explore both the band’s rich history and its brand new record, Blue Horizon (Solid Rockhouse).
“It completely works, because when we put these albums together in the ‘70s, we structured it so that you could listen to them in their entirely” Powell says today. “But at 45 minutes or so, Argus only takes up a portion of our set. We’re about nostalgia, but it’s not the whole story. Wishbone Ash is still a work in progress, and I couldn’t be in a band that wasn’t still being creative.”
Indeed, while fans will undoubtedly cheer at the first notes of Argus tracks like “Sometime World,” “Blowin’ Free,” “The King Will Come,” and “Warrior,” Blue Horizon shows a classic rock band not treading water.
“We had some people outside the band contribute music and lyrics. And it’s an eclectic group of songs,” he offers. “It’s got some prog, some Celtic, and even a bit of California rock. It gave us musicians a chance to spread out.”
Lyrically, some songs address more mature topics. In “Take It Back,” Powell’s son Aynsley pens a tale of a man who had a lot of dreams and plans in his youth, only to find them curtailed by decisions of more staid career and family options. He finds himself reassessing everything once the kids are out of the house and the wife has left him, and to “take back” his life and potential.
“It’s that mid-life thing!” Powell laughs. “You get out there and sow your wild oats and then you settle down. But life is a circle. My son is only 31, but he’s seen my trials and tribulations. And I think that inspired him!”
The record also features Wishbone Ash’s signature twin guitar harmony. And while Thin Lizzy and – later – Iron Maiden would be most identified with the sound, Wishbone Ash was there first.
Powell says that he and Manninen still have to practice, though, to get the highly-synchronized style down just right. “One of us will start a line, and the other will join in,” he says. “At this point, it’s almost inherent, and we try to make a clean sound. It gives the music a richness, and the bass moves against it.”
Ah, the bass. For the first decade-plus of the band’s heyday, Powell was used to seeing his co-vocalist, Martin Turner, in the spot, along with Steve Upton on drums and Ted Turner on guitar (no relation to Martin, Ted Turner was replaced in 1974 by Laurie Wisefield).
And while Powell would be the only constant in a revolving door lineup that saw members come, go, and sometimes return. A conflict arose when Martin Turner began performing with a group as “Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash,” causing some confusion among fans and promoters.
After much legal wrangling, a judge found last year in favor of Powell’s exclusive right to use the band’s name. An appeal by Turner was dismissed in February (though he is allowed to reference himself as a founding member of the band and bill his shows as “Martin Turner plays the music of Wishbone Ash.”
“It’s a sad fact of life that sometimes bands of our longevity get into these lawsuits, but I needed to protect myself and protect our name. And I’ve never had any legal issue before in 44 years of being in and running this band,” Powell ponders.
“It wasn’t a pleasant thing to go through. But you can’t leave a band for 15 or 18 years or whatever and then come back and put your name on it. It could have been handled better, and there’s a lot of wound-licking going on now.”
Still, Powell likens bands to sports teams, where members come and go over the years. And he believes that rather than acting out of malice, Turner just got and acted on “some really bad advice from people with a vested interest in the name and its [financial] benefits.”
When discussing the band’s visits to Texas, Powell remembers one ugly occurrence at Wishbone Ash’s first show in Austin – which he pegs around 1973. That’s when a hot dog vendor at the venue was shot and killed by an audience member over a dispute involving food.
And while Powell ponders that “illicit substances may have been involved,” the band was not told about the tragedy until after the show. Though he does remember seeing the audience “scattering to the sides” at one point.
The incident inspired the song “Rock ‘n Roll Widow” about the vendor’s shell-shocked spouse, which they still perform onstage.
As for Houston, Powell thinks fondly on the band’s first tours which brought them to the city. “I remember the great hospitality there,” he says. “Growing up in Britain, things were very reserved and conservative. But Houston was different, and Texans in general were very open and friendly.”
He also notes that playing large stadiums in Texas with the likes of The Who and Three Dog Night encouraged Wishbone Ash to expand its musical into grander themes and ideas.
“It made us think bigger and had an impact on our music,” Powell sums up. “And Argus came out of playing those bigger venues. You had to communicate with the audience in a different way than the clubs.”
A version of this interview originally appeared in The Houston Press