Founding member of the legendary British rock group Wishbone Ash tells the band’s whole story and all about life as pirate and rule breaker!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
August 1, 2011
A native of Torquay, England, Martin Turner is a bass player, vocalist and songwriter, best known as a founding member of the legendary British rock band Wishbone Ash.
FBPO: How would you describe your musical upbringing?
MT: My father constantly played all sorts of music at home – country, jazz, MOR, opera, classical, etc. I was very into the classical stuff, particularly Russian, even as a small boy. Both my grandmothers were piano players and that rubbed off on me. I would spend hours doodling on a piano, in a world of my own. I sang in a church choir and eventually became head choirboy.
FBPO: How did you become a bass player?
MT: I have always played guitar, but switched to bass for stage. My brother Glenn was – and still is – a really good guitar player, so I was happy to play bass in our three-piece band.
FBPO: How did Wishbone Ash come about?
MT: The band I mentioned, the Empty Vessels, is where I did my apprenticeship, playing covers throughout the ’60s. We were based in the West Country, Torquay/Exeter, and played mainly weekends. I had a bad smash in a van on the first of January 1969 as a direct result of having been up all night and then going straight into work. I narrowly missed wiping out a mother and baby! It was a disaster and did my head in somewhat. Eventually, the incident helped get my mind focused. After having accepted the fact that I could not be Superman, working all day and all night, I decided I would never be happy if I didn’t make for the big city and try to make a go of being a pro musician/entertainer.
The first few months in London were very tough. My brother quit and we tried to replace him, but we didn’t find any of the dudes we auditioned to be convincing. So we came up with the idea of maybe two people working tightly together and developing a “harmony guitar” sound. When we brought Ted (Turner) and Andy (Powell) back, it was obvious that the idea could work.
FBPO: How’d you come up with that name for the band? What does it mean?
MT: We had a manager in Miles Copeland who supported and helped Steve Upton and me get the band together. Pretty soon he came dashing into the rehearsal room and said he really needed a band name to start introducing us to the world. I was trying to get on with the music, so I grabbed the piece of paper we had written many names on and scanned down through them. “Wishbone” was a name I had written and I’m not sure if there was an “ash” on the page or if it was actual ash from a cigarette, but I told him, “Here you go: Wishbone … Ash. Yeah, Wishbone Ash. That’s the name.”
I like the “sh” match in both words and I also noted that “wish” is for the future and “ash” the dead remains of the past. That made me like the name even more! It fitted well because we were, at this stage, fairly unsure of which direction the musical style would develop, whether it would be blues, rock, jazz, folk… We ended up using all influences. Actually, the name was good in that it wasn’t immediately descriptive, so it didn’t restrict us.
The other guys in the band were not sure if they liked the name, but I told them that it now existed as the band’s name until someone came up with something better. I am still waiting! A couple of the other names on the list may be worthy of mention: Jesus Duck — a combination of Jesus Christ and Donald Duck — and Marty Mortician and the Coffinettes. Did we choose wisely, do you think?
FBPO: I’m not one to tamper with history! What gave you the idea for that trademark, up-front bass style for which you’re known? That style was pretty unique for a bass player, especially in those days.
MT: Being primarily a guitar player in the early days, I just continued to play bass with a pick. It did take quite a while, till around the time of Argus, before I found a guitar that suited my somewhat unorthodox, whacky style. I borrowed a Gibson Thunderbird from Pete “Overend” Watts of Mott the Hoople, whom we supported on their All the Young Dudes tour, because the neck on my Rickenbacker bass got broken. I bought the bass from Pete and still play it to this day, although I do use other instruments for recording. Strangely, whatever I use, I am told that it always comes out sounding like me!
FBPO: Initially, Wishbone Ash enjoyed quite a long run, lasting longer than most bands, for sure. What ultimately led to your departure?
MT: We were very much an album band. We never had hit singles or appearances on Top of the Pops, although I would have to say that the music is very melodic, generally, and people who discover and like the band tend to be quite passionate about it.
The band’s music has tended to age extremely well over the years. Very few other artists can perform songs from forty-odd years ago and have them sound as fresh as WA. I don’t normally review our music; my job is to make it. Someone once described the band as “the most famous unknown band in the world.”
My alleged “leaving” the band in 1980 was owing to the other guys’ thirst for commercial success. They hit on a brilliant plan to bring in a “front man” singer, which I disagreed with big time. Stupid idea! I could not understand their frustrations at the lack of success. Our band had just been advanced a quarter of a million dollars to make a record and one of the last gigs we played was for $12,000. WA arguably peaked in ’73-’74 and all those years later, in 1980, could you honestly say we had a “lack of success”? They conspired to oust me and my leadership in favor of some dumb concept that never got off the ground because they couldn’t recognize the talent in my replacement, John Wetton. Indeed, the band lost its way and got into financial problems during the ’80s as a result.
FBPO: In spite of all that, Martin, somehow I sense your relationship with the guys is still somewhat amicable, particularly given your having joined them in concert performances from time to time. Am I right?
MT: I see and speak with Ted Turner and Steve Upton from time to time. Laurie Wisefield also. I worked alongside Andy Powell for many years, putting together compilations and various releases of the original band’s material in order to support Andy’s touring schedule, but he proved to be a “fair weather friend.” The minute he figured I couldn’t do too much else for him, he set his lawyer on me to attempt a grab of my Wishbone Ash website. He’s been busy ever since, trying to block what I’m doing and sabotage my new version of the band. Like all bully boys, we will not allow him to stamp us into the floor.
I have had to gather a good team around me who are only too eager to give him as good as we get, with interest. I thought, given the amount of time we spent together in the ’70s, he would have known me better than to imagine that I would be intimidated, give up and fade away. I’m made of sturdier stuff than that! Mr. Powell’s “barrow boy” tactics have led to him grabbing whatever he can – the name, the reputation, the music, the money it generates – and in the process, rewrite the band’s history. Since he seems unwilling to negotiate or compromise on anything whatsoever, he leaves us in a position where we have no alternative but to fight him in the courts. There are principles involved here and this is the complete antithesis of everything that the original band stood for.
We have made offers and overtures, which could have led to an agreement for everyone to perform together again. Also, with the fantastic support from the fans, everyone could have moved on with their lives. Instead, we have seen the band’s reputation blighted by ugliness, the band’s status reduced to a club act and ongoing legal action, which usually benefits the lawyers mainly.
FBPO: Tell me about Walking The Reeperbahn, your solo release.
MT: Walking the Reeperbahn was mostly recorded during the ’80s, and then not proceeded with. The songs are all just things I wrote at the time, based on my life experiences. Later, in the ’90s, I did more work on the tunes, which resulted in the album going out as a “solo” project, although there are quite a few of the songs that work in a WA context.
FBPO: What’s keeping you busy these days?
MT: Right now I am in the USA getting some sun and seeing friends and relatives. My life is always busy by virtue of having six kids – four that I’m genetically responsible for and another two whom I have been a father to. I help my wife with her business on occasion, which has to do with alternative or complementary medicine. It’s helped me become very aware of the powerful pharmaceutical industry and the vast sums of money they make by brainwashing people into believing in their dubious chemical products, which usually address the symptom rather than the cause, and at some cost, I might add. Excuse the rant, but I feel strongly about this.
I like to spend time with my family, kids and grandkids, whom I relate to as the varying characters they all are. We all learn from each other!
My interests would be fairly boring: football [Editor’s note: We’re guessing he means soccer!], motor racing – bangers/stock cars, as well as circuit. I have also become completely fascinated with astronomy and the amazing discoveries being made in recent times. I enjoy history and politics and, therefore, tend to check in with Radio 4 fairly regularly. I still enjoy all kinds of music.
FBPO: What lies ahead for you and your career? What else can we look forward to hearing and seeing from Martin Turner in the future?
MT: We recently started work on some new studio material, but it’s early days, as yet. I am not the type who is happy to just slap it down and chuck it out, nor am I the perfectionist control freak some would have you believe. I just know when things sound right or not. I accept that sometimes I am slow, but I deal in quality not quantity.
We will be continuing with live work, both in the UK and Europe, although I understand there is interest from the USA for us to tour there, as well as other territories, such as South America, Australia, Japan and the Middle East. We have festivals in Germany, Austria and the UK coming up and we will almost certainly be making more of the acoustic appearances.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a musician/bass player?
MT: I really could not begin to guess. I am a creative. I’ve always been a bit of a free spirit, a bit of a gypsy, a bit of a pirate, a rule breaker, a baby maker. I tend to do things spontaneously, but then I do things in blocks, completely immersed, and then move on. I am only too aware that when I have veered off the path that was chosen for me, fate conspires to bring me back to what I do best.