"I want nothing to do with Andy Powell": Rock legend and Wishbone Ash founder Martin Turner on his bitter split with the band
Talking about the legacy of his former band Wishbone Ash and the controversy of its legacy, Martin Turner opens up in this exclusive interview.
"I'm a little hard of hearing so I might ask you to repeat some things."
That was the first thing the seventy-year-old original founding member of Wishbone Ash, Martin Turner told Meaww during our telephonic interview. It didn't come across as a surprise. Other rock stars who've been in the business for just as long - including Eric Clapton and The Who's Roger Daltrey - have also recently confessed the same, which I pointed out to Martin. "It is an occupational hazard, yes," Martin noted. "In fact, my ears got damaged in a specific incident in 1976 and I've had tinnitus since then."
Before I get a chance to ask him about the details, which I ultimately never got to, Martin shrugged the whole thing off with a laugh, saying "Yep, well you learn to live with it!"
Martin is best known for his time as the bass guitarist, lead vocalist and a founding member of one of the most enduring rock bands in history - Wishbone Ash. Noted for their extensive use of the harmony twin lead guitar format which had been attracting electric blues bands since Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page had played together in the Yardbirds in 1966, the band has been cited as an influence by Iron Maiden founder and bassist Steve Harris, as well as Thin Lizzy and other dual guitar bands.
"The guys from Thin Lizzy actually told me that they used to come to our gigs and they'd be in the front row. They used to come by quite regularly. And one day they were walking away from one of our shows and Phil Lynott (founder of the band) turned around and said 'That is the sound we've gotta get'. They certainly did a very good job of it. They're fantastically successful."
Recently, Wishbone Ash released 'The Vintage Years' - a deluxe 30 CD box set loaded with rarities, memorabilia, individually signed photos of each band member from the original line-up and a lavish 156-page hardback book. The limited edition box set is strictly limited to 2,500 copies and includes all 16 studio albums between 1970-1991, three original live albums ('Live Dates', 'Live Dates Volume Two' & 'Live in Tokyo') and eight previously unreleased live albums recorded between 1973 & 1980.
As I told Martin, that's more than an average band can produce in its entire active career, and The Vintage Years does not even cover Wishbone's entire career. "Obviously, I don't think anyone expected to be doing it for this long," Martin said when I asked him how it feels to be a part of a legacy that sprawls over half a century.
"It's certainly a good-looking package," he added talking about the brand new cover artwork designed by Colin Elgie, the original designer behind the award-winning 'Live Dates' sleeve artwork. "They had a lot of good material to work with. It even includes the original Live Dates live album from 1974 and a whole lot of stuff from my personal tape collection."
I asked Martin to pick his single favorite album, live or otherwise from the box-set. Martin skirted the question saying: "Well, that's a bit like saying which is your favorite child. I don't really have favorites." He said.
But after a little coaxing, he opened up. "In the olden days as my children call it," he started. "They used to call them records. That's quite an accurate description in the sense that they are a literal record of what was going on at the time as well as the music that went down on the tape. I think obviously, the third album - 'Argus' - traditionally, is a much-loved album and has probably sold as many copies as the whole of the rest of the Wishbone catalog put together. So yeah, I do have a particular fondness for it."
Martin's metaphoric use of the word 'record' brought me to one of my favorite questions to ask artists old and young alike. "it's interesting the way you perceive 'records'. In that context, what do you have to say about the modern streaming era and the digital age?" I asked him.
"There are good and bad aspects to it. Obviously, the good aspect is that more music is available to more people very easily. You don't have to schlep down to the record store to try and find the album you're after. Everything is available electronically. But having said that, if you are an artist, and you're writing and performing songs, then the royalties are minuscule. They are very very clearly in favor of the company that's supplying the service and not in favor of the artist. So it's a plus and minus situation."
Although Wishbone Ash has been one of the most enduring rock acts, the journey for the band has - like the title of one of their most famous hits - been 'No Easy Road' (which interestingly is the title of Martin's autobiography as well). Following the band's heydays throughout the 70's, Wishbone Ash's legacy has been marred with a constantly revolving line-up, sporadic reunions and departures, bitter splits between band members and lawsuits.
Wishbone Ash was formed in Devon, England in 1969, out of the ashes of the trio The Empty Vessels (originally known as The Torinoes, later briefly being renamed Tanglewood in 1969), which had been formed by Martin in 1963 and complemented by Steve Upton on drums. The line-up was completed by guitarists/vocalists Andy Powell and Ted Turner, both guitar legends that feature on Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitarists list.
In 1974, Ted Turner left the band and was replaced by Laurie Wisefield. In 1980, Martin had a reported fallout with the band over creative differences and left the band. Wisefield followed in '85. Then in 1987, the original line-up reunited for several albums – 'Nouveau Calls', 'Here to Hear' and 'Strange Affair' – until 1990, when Upton quit the band. The next year, Martin separated from the band for the second time and apparently, things have been shaky ever since. When I discussed the band's history with Martin, that bitterness was evident in his voice as well as his words.
"They put out these press releases you know. In 1980 it was announced that I had left the band and again in '91. I didn't leave. I'd like to call it 'the band left me'. They wanted to make changes that I did not agree with so they decided to split up and started working with other people."
"I've never been happy about that situation. My whole life really has been about Wishbone Ash and it's music," he added.
In 2005, Martin formed Martin Turner's Wishbone Ash, a separate band to perform music from the definitive era of the band. But as Martin points out, guitarist Andy Powell (who is now Wishbone Ash's longest standing member) was not too pleased with it. In 2013, the issue went to court, which ruled in favor of Powell. Martin attempted to appeal the decision but the courts refused him the right of appeal.
It was accepted by the court that Martin is not a current member of Wishbone Ash and that he is no longer allowed to use the name in a band title, although he is allowed to reference himself as one of the four founding original members of Wishbone Ash and to use the name as a description of the contents of his live show. He now performs as 'Martin Turner' and his live performances are billed as 'Martin Turner Ex Wishbone Ash', something that Martin is still clearly bitter about.
"That was particularly bad," Martin said talking about the lawsuit. "It was something that should have been sorted out face to face. But stupidly it ended up going to court. It was very damaging for me, my family and for Andy Powell as well."
"We did try and warn him that this was a really stupid way to deal with this problem, but he went ahead and I do think at the time that he was trying to put me out of business because I had started appearing again in live performances playing Wishbone Ash music from 2005 onwards. I don't think he was happy about that."
"Mainly for financial reasons I think, he was running the 'official Wishbone Ash' as he calls it and he wanted all the money and he wasn't willing to share any of it with me because I was out there gigging as well and I don't think he was happy about that. Especially not that I was using the name Martin Turner's Wishbone Ash as opposed to his 'offical' version. Actually, that was a name that should be considered my intellectual property because I was the author of the band’s name in the early days when we put the band together. It was a bit of an injustice I felt.”
Indeed, the story goes that after the band members wrote several suggested band names on two sheets of paper, Martin Turner picked one word from each list – 'Wishbone' and 'Ash', thus giving rise to the name of the band. But that didn't stop the courts from ruling against him.
"That was five years ago now," I chimed in trying to weigh this tense situation. "Are the bridges burnt now?" I asked.
"Not really. No. I want nothing whatsoever to do with Andy Powell," Martin said crisply. "The guy is a charlatan. He may have won the court case but it was a travesty of justice and as far as I'm concerned, he's a money grabber and I don't care for him at all. To me, he's out there playing 'fake blues' as I call it," Martin concluded with a big chuckle.
We've reached out to Andy Powell's representatives for a comment on this, and we're yet to hear from him.
Apart from this highly controversial claim, Martin and I also discussed some other relatively light-hearted stuff. When I asked him what kind of music he listens to, Martin revealed his eclectic taste to me, which would explain a lot of Wishbone Ash's early music. "I listen to all kinds of music. I listen to classical music quite a lot. Mainly Russian music - Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov. I also listen to modern bands. I'm quite a fan of Muse. They're a bit intense, but I like them. And of course all the music from the 70's that was happening when I was out there gigging a lot in America in particular. Joe Walsh, ZZ Top, Aerosmith - you name it. All sorts of stuff."
Rightly assuming that I must be an "Indian gentleman," Martin also told me that he listens to Deva Premal, a German singer known for her meditative spiritual new-age music, which puts ancient Buddhist and Sanskrit mantras—as well as chants in other languages—into atmospheric contemporary settings. Specifically, he recommends her 2005 album 'Dakshina'. "I listen to that music when I want to chill out... when I want to relax and I swear that it has a very positive effect on me. Her recordings are beautiful."
We also discussed his autobiography 'No Easy Road – My Life and Times With Wishbone Ash and Beyond' which he released in 2012. Talking about the aptness of the title, Martin said: "Life on the road can be quite hard. To me, I take to it like a duck to the water. It's very natural for me to live like a gypsy, wandering around the world. But, it does put a strain on your relationships, your family et cetera. It's not a very natural way to live if you know what I mean. Constantly getting on and off a plane and never being in the same place for very long. Occasionally, in the 70's there were times where I was a bit washed out - too much rock and roll, too many drugs, too much alcohol. I really needed to go on a holiday for a couple of weeks. It was very difficult to find that kind of time because life was mapped out for the next year. So it is tough to be in a successful band! Hence the expression No Easy Road," he explains.
I also asked Martin what he feels about the whole "Rock is dead" mantra that keeps finding new chanters every few years or so. "Rock is dead? Nah that's just a cliche," says Martin defiantly. "You can relate to it one way or the other. Rock's lasted for a very long time since Bill Haley came up with 'Rock Around The Clock', I look around me and as each year goes by, it seems to me that there's more and more rock music out there. There's certainly more and more new guitars and equipment and foot pedals and keyboards - so I don't see any sign of rock being dead."
"The younger generation, including my children, do not seem to want to go down the same road that we did, which is to join a band and schlep around the world with a lot of equipment. They're a little impatient when it comes to making music. They tend to make it on computers. Maybe, in the long run, that will have a negative impact on musicians making live appearances, but you know what? I don't think so. Rock's not going anywhere!"
Martin is also going to be on tour this autumn, but as he told me, the dates are yet to be finalized. When I asked him if he plans to hit the studio and make music after that, he told me that he'd love to do just that. "Since about 1972, I have had a studio usually in my home and for the first time since then, for the last two-to-three years, I've not really had a satisfactory studio," Martin confessed.
"That's been an inhibiting factor for me. But, I'm gonna be moving out in a couple of months and I will then have a big shed down underground in which I can make music and be creative," the seventy-year-old exclaims with almost child-like enthusiasm. "Maybe my creative output will improve then because it hasn't been very good for the last two or three years," Martin added.