Ash at House of Blues: Last Night I Was a Wayward Kid in Rural England Again
This image, an amazing testament to how I never learned to take photographs, appropriately depicts Tim Wheeler as some sort of indefinable spirit, trapped outside of time, endlessly exhorting a crowd to greater rapture.
The last time I told you all a story about my teenage years, Billy Corgan got really angry. So I tell you this story in the hope that it will, for no apparent reason, anger Billy Corgan again.
I was either 14 or 15, and I was living in a tiny village somewhere in the English Cotswolds called Hook Norton. Bear with me, because this story gets better. I was slowly but surely discovering rock music, and I had maybe two or three friends, thanks to my inability to socialize with anything other than my Amiga 500.
We spent one glorious summer permanently round each other's houses, playing Micro Machines and Smash Court Tennis, and the whole time we only listened to three albums. Those albums were Nine Inch Nail's Downward Spiral, Green Day's Dookie, and Ash's 1977. I didn't say we were cool kids. We were not. We spent some time dabbling in the Games Workshop.
I told you this story gets better -- that was actually a lie to hold your attention through the previous two paragraphs of exposition before I finally arrive at a point of some sort. Which is, if I wanted to relive that summer now, in my adult years with a wife and a son, two out of the three times I would have to step into an arena and cope with ten thousand other people I didn't like then and don't like now having the same teenage nostalgia trip as me. Reliving Ash's 1977, though? That requires the least fuss you can get from a gig.
Have you ever seen House of Blues when it's really empty? That cramped smoking section out the front, the bottleneck stairs, the overly-attentive security guards frisking everyone oblivious to the long lines. Well, last night HOB was essentially a ghost town, a vacant lot in the middle of the West End that was seemingly open to the public as some sort of relic from a bygone era, when Ticketmaster ruled the earth, sofas were purple, and doors were frankly unwieldy. Somehow, Ash found themselves playing the small room at the top of House of Blues, which I had previously only heard of being utilized for a bar mitzvah, and they used it to transport me back to an endless summer when I was 14 and terrified of girls, and Britpop was at its height.
Ash were the sort of alternative Britpop band -- the band you could say you liked because everyone else liked Oasis or Blur. 1977 had the melodies that were popular in that age, but combined with far harder-edged guitars and a wistful teenage lust that was missing from Blur or Oasis plodding through a series of attempts to outdo each other. Furthermore, it had two almost torturously catchy songs that explicitly mentioned it being some sort of idyllic summertime that was the best of your young, inexperienced life, and it struck a chord with me that resonated for the next fifteen years, despite Ash being a deliriously uncool thing for a 29-year-old half-assed music critic to listen to.
Inside the little Cambridge Room, with sixty or seventy other people that I assume must have really been there by mistake (or just vaguely remembered "Lose Control" from the first Gran Turismo game soundtrack) I tapped my feet and nodded while Ash played a few songs. I was biding my time. As the first few lines of "Oh Yeah," which is not exactly a high point in the history of lyrics set to music, rang out --
"Oh yeah/she was taking me over/and oh yeah/it was the start of the summer"
I was transported back to Hook Norton with an almost brutal force. I felt a cloying nostalgia for that summer, when only six straight hours of four-player tennis games on my friend's first generation PlayStation really seemed to matter, when I was kind of terrified of girls, and when it was the summer I spent riding my rusted old bike round an obscure village listening to an endlessly buffering DiscMan. I shouted every word back at them. I think the American I had dragged along to the gig, who spent his teenage years listening to far cooler albums, was a little concerned for my health. It was an almost brutal nostalgia, on a level I could never have got by paying $100 to watch Trent Reznor play an awful new song from about a kilometer away.
Then there was another song, and I snapped out of it. I was back in a normal gig, somewhere in Texas, five thousand miles from Hook Norton, and I didn't know this song. Two songs later, "Kung Fu," also off 1977, made me remember kicking a football into a tree and getting shouted at by one of the local elementary school teachers, who seemed unaware that these trees had naturally grown into the shape of a goal.
"Girl From Mars," at the end of the set, Ash's mega-hit in the UK, is a song written by guitarist Tim Wheeler when he was sixteen. It describes a perfect summer, but with a coda of overwhelming sadness about the end of the summer, and the end of knowing a person, and the regret inherent within. Again, it's not lyrically the best thing ever.
It was, however, a gut punch that, rather than taking me back to either the summer of 1998 or 1999 took me back to the time I realized we all had to go to school now, and the British autumn was coming. No more short-sleeved cycling or video games. Instead I would be walking around inside a massive coat, braced against the wind, and not able to spend ten hours a day with the group of friends that I had done everything with. I'd relived an entire summer, from the infinite possibilities of the beginning to the inevitable, crushing end of fun, in the space of three songs.
None of these are real regrets, obviously. I'd never swap where I am now for where I was then, no matter how much unhealthy food there was or how many games of NHL '96 you offered me, but it was terrifying to realize that one single summer I'd barely thought about in ten years could suddenly hove into view in a tiny dark room in North Texas.
There was an encore too, started with 1977's opener, "Lose Control." Later the same year, I went on a German exchange trip. The German family I stayed with were remarkably kind and friendly, but everyone in the family only really listened to the music of David Hasselhoff. That's a real thing. It's not a stereotype. It's a little something called true facts.
One memorable evening, they invited me to put on the music I was listening to, which I decided, for reasons that only a 14-year-old boy could explain, should be 1977. The insane rising wail of a guitar being thrashed, and the drums kicking in, and the family couldn't reach for the volume control fast enough. Alternative Britpop never made it to Germany, or really the United States either, although you are certainly receptive to more things than whatever ballad David Hasselhoff just released. So, suddenly I remembered all of that exchange trip as well. The adolescent struggles of staying with a girl, the friendliness of a family that insisted on shaking my hand every morning because they'd heard that's what British people do, and the first time I ever got drunk, in a dingy club in Germany listening to a terrible band cover "Smoke On The Water" in thick German accents.
Ash closed with "Burn Baby Burn." I remember that song coming out in 2001, checking it out because it was Ash, and realizing that it sounded too much like "Debaser" for me to take it seriously, because I was 17, liked the Pixies now, and had the makings of a beard that has stayed with me to this day. The set ended, thus, with a reminder that we all move on, and that while cloying, overwhelming nostalgia is definitely a real thing and you can definitely experience it and that it's only right you remind yourself where you came from now and again, there are worse things than growing up. No matter how danceable a chorus is.
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