The stars are out for Martin Turner

Wishbone Ash founder talks new studio album, making of 'Argus'
By Peter Lindblad

Martin Turner
Feet still firmly planted in the rich, fertile ground of progressive-rock, Martin Turner also has his head in the stars these days.

A founding member of Wishbone Ash, one of the U.K.'s most internationally renown prog-rock acts of the '70s, Turner was the band's lead vocalist, bassist and songwriter. Instrumental to the band's success, Turner's seductively melodic bass lines and intelligent, deeply philosophical lyrics were just as distinctive as Wishbone Ash's innovative and beautifully sculpted twin-guitar leads and vocal harmonies.

Turner's artistry was a crucial factor in the success of such classic early '70s LPs as Wishbone Ash, Pilgrimage, Wishbone Four and There's The Rub – not to mention 1972's crowning achievement Argus, still considered one of the touchstones of Britain's progressive-rock movement. Experiments in musical direction and personnel changes occurred, stunting Wishbone Ash's momentum. Finally, things came to a head in 1980, when – under pressure from the record label to make more commercial music – three of the other members told Turner they wanted a new frontman, leading to a divorce between Turner and the group he'd started.

All these years later, Turner has released a new studio album entitled Written In The Stars, an album full of astronomical allusions and beguiling, shape-shifting melodies that he seems to have snatched from the heavens. Working off the templates he drew up for Wishbone Ash way back when, Turner and company have crafted an appealing set of diverse and engaging songs that merge elements of folk, classical and rock into a sound that's both fresh and familiar.

After spending so much of his time recently on the road performing the music of Wishbone Ash with his touring band, consisting of guitarists Danny Willson and Misha Nikolic and drummer Tim Brown, Turner seems reinvigorated on the Cherry Red Records release Written in the Stars, and he was eager to talk about his latest record and his days in Wishbone Ash in this interview.

I know you've been touring the classics of Wishbone Ash recently. How did that influence the making of this album?
Martin Turner: Well, really I’m just doing what I’ve always done. I mean, in the ‘70s, I was the main songwriter really and singer, so what I’m doing now really is just more of the same – especially, for instance, the harmony guitar thing, which was one of Wishbone Ash’s identifiable … well, they call it a signature sound, don’t they now? The sound you recognize immediately. Because I was brought up on classical music, it was very easy for me to sing what I call pseudo-classical melodies, which if you sang sounded good with harmonies. But if you transposed it onto guitar and then put together and sang harmonies to it, and then transposed that onto guitar, then you ended up with the harmony guitar that Wishbone Ash was known for, which was very distinct. It wasn’t what a guitar player would normally work out. And the reason for that was because it started out as a vocal melody. And you know, we still do that now really.

Martin Turner - Written in
the Stars 2015
Just listening to this album, and Wishbone Ash’s stuff was always this way, too, do you feel like this album has a real accessibility to it, along with some of the complexities you’re known for?
MT: What, the album? I don’t know. The press has been good. Everyone’s been making fairly positive comments. Some people love the album. What it is is another thing which is in the Wishbone Ash tradition as an album, where you’re not recording a couple of songs that are maybe singles and then you’ve got a bunch of filler. All the songs are decent songs. I’ll put it that way. You know, if people like it, great. Good for them. I can’t make that happen, but if they do, then I’ll be very happy.     

Did making this album remind you of making any of the Wishbone Ash albums?
MT: Well, they’re all different really. I mean, they were all made in different locations. We were all over the place, sometimes in America and sometimes in Britain. Yeah, if you remember back in the olden days, as my children call it (laughs), there was something called a record and actually a record is quite a good title for it because it’s a record of where you’re at at that time and what’s going on at that time and given place. With this album, because I’ve got a band and we’ve been for the last God knows how many years playing mainly the Wishbone Ash catalog and there’s a lot of songs to choose from, any song that we had a look at we seemed to be able to make it work. So, I kind of made the mistake of thinking of these guys as performers primarily – not so much as creative people. But when we got down to it, I was amazed that between my drummer (Tim Brown) and Danny Willson, one of the guitar players, they really surprised me with their creativity. And when you’ve got that going on as a band, it’s great because you’re feeding off each other and inspiring each other. And the process really worked well.

It sounds like a lot of these songs came together in the studio then?
MT: No, I think with Tony and with me and the other guys, too, we tend to make what we call sketches. It’s like a pre-drawing, and then when you go into the studio, you want to make it into a full Technicolor, stereophonic experience. So, yeah, you can do that on anything really. You can do that on your iPod, a cassette machine, a small, multi-track recorder – that’s the way I tend to work. The other guys they’ve got little 8-track recorders that will fit in your pocket just about. So everyone makes sketches, brings them into the studio, and then we take it from there really – see what everyone can contribute. And the process on this album was very raw, which is why we want to get back into the studio and do some more.

I wanted to ask you about some of the songs on the album, and one that I really liked a lot was “Lovers.” It’s really a nice folk-pop song. How did that one come about?
MT: Well, that one was written about my current wife (laughs), who at one stage … well, we kind of fell in love. The problem was I was already married to someone else. I asked her to leave me to sort my life out. And she got shacked up with another musician (laughs), quite a well-known one. I best not mention who. No, she’ll be angry with me, but I would still see her now and again – you know, check on her to see how she was doing. Make sure that this dude was looking after her. And basically, that’s what the song is about, while all the time, I had this feeling we were meant to be together, and that’s the way it turned out. She’s sitting in the next room right now. And we’ve been together a long time.

How about making “The Beauty of Chaos”? That has a real Western feel to it.
MT: Yes, really I wanted to try and imagine a kind of musical interpretation of the heavens, the stars. You see these phenomenal pictures that they come up with nowadays, astronomical arrays that are looking up at the heavens. I mean, when you look at some other galaxy where stars have exploded and there’s this huge wave of gas in the air and fragments … I mean, from where we’re looking at it, it looks absolutely beautiful. But if you were actually in there in the middle of it, it would be complete chaos. The juxtaposition of that really, how beautiful it looks from a distance and how crazy it must be if you’re in the middle of it. So, what I was trying to do was create a musical interpretation of that, as the kind of opening of the album.

I suppose the same could be said of “Vapor Trail” and “The Lonely Star,” these very celestial songs.
MT: Yes, this again. I mean, the thing with “The Beauty of Chaos,” a couple of people walked in the studio and one guy said to me, “The guy who’s playing that guitar sounds like he’s drunk,” which is exactly what I asked the guitar player to do. I went, “No, no, no … it’s all about chaos.” (laughs) Sorry, you asked about “Vapor Trail” and “The Lonely Star.”

MT: Well again … I mean, “The Lonely Star” is an instrumental, and it’s a song that mainly came from Danny. It’s a song but an instrumental, too. It’s a tie-in with the rest of the album, just on the star theme really. And the great thing about it was that as he was putting the thing together, and … because it was an instrumental and there were no vocals, he just wanted a little bit of speech in there somewhere saying, “The lonely star.” And he was at home actually, my guitar player Danny, trying to put it together and couldn’t get it to sound right, and then his little lad walked in. He’s 7 years old and asked him what he was doing. He said, “I’m saying, ‘The lonely star.’ I tell you what. Why don’t you have a go?’” And he did. The boy spoke it kind of low, he kind of whispered it. And we heard it, and we stuck it on the track. It sounded like it really fit it. And that’s the only vocal on it – three words (laughs).

Martin Turner was a founding member of
Wishbone Ash, serving as the lead
vocalist, bassist and songwriter
It sounds like the making of this was a real collaborative process.
MT: Yeah, yeah, yeah … it was a delight. You know, hard and long … I think getting all the songs together and the recording process, because I wanted to try a live room, and we did that, and it sounded okay. But we wanted to try another way to see if it would sound better, so we transferred to a radio stage studio room. And we changed the mic-ing of the drums, so that we recorded the drums as kind of one big piece, rather than trying to individually mic everything. And that changed the equation and made it sound good, but the whole thing was nine months. It’s a bit like having a baby, sort of like having a baby.

You mentioned your guitar players. In what way do they remember you of when you heard Andy (Powell) and Ted (Turner) for the first time play together?
MT: Well, you know the world is full of great guitar players. There’s so many of them around, and they have a little bit of a tendency to be technicians. They’re performers, but if you can find the guys who can get creative and have got the patience for it, the ability to do that, which the two guys who are with me now … Danny and Misha (Nikolic), they’re both what I call creative musicians. They can think in terms of the song and what’s right, rather than trying to play a bunch of licks. But, the world is full of good guitar players. There’s so many of them out there.
What was the most important factor in Wishbone Ash’s ascent in the early ‘70s?
MT: It was partly the time. We were all young lads. I think we were fairly unusual. We were signed to an American record label, Universal in Los Angeles. And, indeed, we had an American manager (Miles Copeland III). He lived in England, but he was very much an American. So from day one, we went backwards and forwards and worked our way up from ground zero to becoming successful in both the European market and also in the States. In fact, in the early days in America, I can remember a lot of people thinking we were an American band. And then with me talking to them, they realized we were English (laughs). But, it was the time. We were young guys. We didn’t have kids or mortgages and were free to work all hours of the day and night, which we did – we regularly did six-week tours in America.

And I think we accomplished a lot by playing live, really. I mean, I don’t know if you’ve ever been on a tour in the U.S., but you’re talking six weeks where you’re playing virtually every night. And, when you’re in a new city each day, you fly in and all you really see is the airport, the hotel and the gig. I mean, you end up not knowing where the hell you are (laughs). It’s quite … you know, you have to be the kind of person who can deal with that. Some people walk into a hotel room and they can’t figure out how the bloody tap works, and it freaks them out. Other people like me, I’m getting down on my knees and trying to figure out how is this designed? This is interesting (laughs). So, you know, it varies. We were very good at that, the original band with Ted Turner. I think we had – what would you call it? – a newness, a freshness about our approach to music. We dabbled a lot in folk music, especially jazz but mainly rock, and we had a great time doing it. And really, the Argus album that went out in 1972 was very popular. I think it got “Album of the Year” award in Britain. People loved that album, and they’ve bought it ever since then.

Was that the most fully realized version of what Wishbone Ash was all about?
MT:  Yeah, it’s probably the most loved album of ours, and the sales reflect that really.

A shot of Martin Turner
performing live
Was it an easy album to make? Did it come together smoothly?
MT: It was a strange one. I spent a lot of time working on it, and there were big, big themes – struggling with the concept of time. We live in a world that’s confined by time and space. "Sometime World," "Time Was" … these things. And then the idea of war – young men. Why is it that these old warmongers seem to be able to harness the energy – what I call “kill-f**k” energy – of young men and cause wars all over the place? I wrote the song “Warrior,” which was very much about that. And being a typical Libran, I thought, “Well, wait a minute. People will think I’m advocating it. I need to write another song to counter-balance it. So I got stuck into "Throw Down the Sword," which is kind of a peace song really, and the two of them fit together like a glove. And “The King Will Come,” that was another peace song which is basically pretty much straight out of the Bible and a Muslim book – not word for word, but the idea of a savior coming to rescue the world. So that was the idea.

Again, I’m not advocating it or saying it must be right. I’m just putting it out there as an idea, and then the song that probably was the most commercial-sounding tune was a song called “Blowin’ Free,” which I’d actually put together the lyric in the ‘60s, late ‘60s, about a Swedish girl I’d met. And we were kind of fascinated by each other, but it was like she’d come from another world to me. I mean, I was like a little rock ‘n’ roll rat, staying up half the night, diving in and out of clubs and bars. She was a healthy Swedish girl with beautiful hair and skin, who went riding, and her dad was a professor – you know, it was like, “How the hell did we ever get together?” (laughs) And I wrote this strange song about it called “Blowin’ Free,” but the thing of it, the mood of it, was celebratory, it was up … you know, it was a joyous little anthem. And that had quite an impact on everyone else. Incredibly, when we were in the studio and we were putting all this stuff together, we tried to record that song a couple of times before, and I couldn’t get it to sound right. And finally, we recorded it on the Argus sessions, and you can hear if you listen to the bass on it, it is so pushy. It’s like an engine. It’s kind of saying, “This song will bloody well work this time.” I’m really pushing the song along, and it sounded really good. And the producer said to me, “Martin, listen, we’ve been traveling about this tune, and it’s really good, but it doesn’t really belong on the album.” And I said, “What?! You’ve got to be joking.” And he said, “Well, the other stuff is serious … you know, ‘Warrior,’ ‘Throw Down the Sword,’ ‘The King Will Come’ and this one is a totally different mood.” And I said, “Yeah, well, that’s exactly why it needs to be on the album. It’s not all serious. It’s like a counter-balance. It’s a bit of a relief.” So I had to fight to get it on the album. I said, “It’s going on there.”   

How do you think the first two albums, Wishbone Ash and Pilgrimage, prepared you to make Argus? Was there a progression with those two?
MT: Yeah, I think we were working with a producer called Derek Lawrence, who – I don’t know if you remember a song from the ‘60s called “Hush”? That was a song by Deep Purple, it was a single, a pop song really. We did a gig in the very early days supporting Deep Purple in England, and I noticed Ritchie Blackmore was really checking us out. He was watching the band for a long time. Never said anything, but clearly, he liked the band because he rang up his producer, Derek Lawrence, and told him we were a really good band and to check us out, and he loved the band and said he knew a guy in L.A. who was looking to sign bands out of A&R for MCA/Universal, and that’s actually how we got our record deal. So Derek was written in on that, and he produced our first three albums. And we also used the same engineer, who went on to become a producer in his own right. That was Martin Birch. And they basically were a really, really good team. And we worked together great with them, and that team did the first three albums. And then we did everything differently on the fourth album, which sounds poor. Although it sounded great in the studio, when it finally came out on record, it lacked balls and sounded very small for some reason. I think the engineer made a mistake there somehow. But yeah, it was a good team in the early days.
With your bass playing you’ve always had a really melodic style. Do you think that’s a lost art among bass players these days?
MT: Yeah, I, as I said to you earlier, if you’ve been brought up on classical music and that sort of thing, and then singing in the choir as a lad, it gives you a very strong sense of melody. To me, music, if it’s going to last, if it’s going to have any longevity, any long-term appeal, it needs to contain memorable melodic content. I don’t know. I mean, I’m analyzing it, but when I write music, that sort of thing just seems to come naturally. It’s just something that I do, and with my bass playing, it’s the same way. I don’t know if it necessarily needs to be a melody on its own, if you know what I mean. But sometimes if I’m stuck for a bass line, I’ll resort to again singing it, working it out vocally and then figuring it out on the guitar. You know, everyone has their own way of doing things. That’s what I do.
The last question I have for you. What worlds are left for you to conquer in music or maybe outside of music?
MT: Well, one of the reasons I got into music in the very, very days is because I wanted to see the world, and I’ve certainly done that, because I’ve traveled the world and played North America, South America, Mexico, Japan, Australia, all the countries of Europe – except I’ve not been to Russia yet. I was in Moscow airport en route to somewhere, but I would like to see Russia. It’s such a huge country in the world and I particularly would like to shore up on Russian music – Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff. I’d love to go there one day and check them out. So that’s an important thing for me, and still today, I love traveling. We were just in Holland last week, and we had a great time out there, great to meet the local people, make contact. It was lovely. That’s the main thing, and then obviously, as much as I like getting out on the road, I’m also a big-time studio man. I love working in the studio. I did it for years and years when I was off the road, and that’ something that’s really important to me. But, away from music, I have other interests. I like car racing. I like reading books.

I’ve got a couple of fantastic old 17th century books that I bought years ago that were written in Old English about the history of the kings and queens and the courts in England ... they’re a heavy go. Love reading stuff like that. And other stuff, like I’ve become fascinated, and maybe this had an impact on me with this Written in the Stars album, [with] astronomy and all the incredible things they’re finding out with the advent of incredible telescopes and everything they can send up, this huge array of dishes … they found out a lot of stuff, and it’s really fascinating the way our universe works. When I say Written in the Stars, I think that everything in written in the stars – the fate of our planet, our solar system – well, we know that one day that the star that keeps us warm and gives us light and energy, that will one day grow huge and then collapse. So that’s going to be a big change, and on the same level, on an individual level, for our little life spans 70 years or more, there’s a blueprint that’s written in the stars. We have choices to make, as we go along our spiritual journey, physically. But also, it’s all written in the stars (laughs).      

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