Although Wishbone Ash always acknowledge the groundwork laid by Blossom Toes and Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac, many fans experienced their first taste of twin-guitar rock via 70s Ash albums such as Wishbone Ash, Pilgrimage and, the daddy of them all, Argus.
In the year of its release, readers of Sounds magazine voted Argus (now just a year short of 50), the band’s career-defining third, the best album of 1972, beating such as Machine Head by Deep Purple, David Bowie’s The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars and Mott The Hoople’s All The Young Dudes.
In terms of its lyrics, the seeds of the song that helped to put Argus there had been sown by bassist/vocalist Martin Turner’s memories of a teenage summer romance in his home town of Torquay. Turner had briefly become entwined with Swedish exchange student Annalena Nordstrom, whose hair was ‘golden brown, blowin’ free like a cornfield’. Neither spoke the other’s language, and when Turner asked whether he could give her a kiss, she told him falteringly: “You can try.”
“Those words are in the song,” he says with a smile. Although the romance fizzled out after Nordstrom returned home, the experience ignited what Turner calls “a glorious anthem to the spirit of love”.
Guitarists Ted Turner and Andy Powell both lay a claim to Blowin’ Free’s signature opening riff, albeit via a doff of the cap to Children Of The Future by the Steve Miller Band. “Our song was a blues shuffle, basically, to which I came up with the opening riff,” says Ted Turner (who is not related to Martin). “Musically it was influenced by Steve Miller.”
With more good cheer than you might reasonably imagine, given the acrimonious court case that eventually awarded him ownership of the Wishbone Ash name, Powell considers Ted’s claim “fascinating”.
“I recall working on it with a guy called Micky Groome, who was in Duck’s Deluxe, and I always had it in my mind that [the idea] was mine,” Powell says cheerily. “Maybe we came up with it together?”
“Neither of them wrote it – I did!” Martin Turner says with a chuckle. “I told Ted and Andy about an old hippie anthem by Steve Miller with an interesting hammer-on technique. I sang to them how I envisaged it, and they got it. It became the intro to Blowin’ Free.”
“Let’s not forget, it was a great song for the four of us,” Powell insists. “Steve Upton’s drumming – that very English take on a shuffle – is so charming. The song lopes along, full of hope and promise. It summed up a generation trying to find its feet.”
Blowin’ Free’s origins date back to the sessions for Pilgrimage, the album before Argus, but Martin recalls that “it just didn’t work”. Powell remembers “bashing the song into some sort of shape during a sound-check at the Whisky A Go Go in Hollywood” during the tour for Pilgrimage. Martin says that “when it came to Argus, I was determined to get it right”.
For their third album in succession, Argus saw the band retain the production team of producer Derek Lawrence and engineer Martin Birch. And, sure enough, the track fell into place. Ted Turner’s solo, an integral component of its success, was something of an experiment.
“I was listening to Ry Cooder a lot in those days, and Blowin’ Free was the first song I had played slide guitar on,” Ted explains. “I didn’t even own a lap steel at the time, so had to modify my black Les Paul Custom by putting an extension nut on to raise the action.”
After Wishbone used De Lane Lea for their first two records, the studio moved across London from Kingsway to Wembley, and updated their facilities from eight-track recording to 16 tracks.
“That made a massive difference,” Powell says. “It opened up a whole new range of possibilities. We could doubletrack the guitars and add shadow harmonies to the vocals. Those things really made the sound pop.”
In an amazing twist, Blowin’ Free almost didn’t make final cut for Argus. Martin marvels: “Derek [Lawrence] came to me on behalf of the band saying it was such a poppy flavoured song, maybe it belonged on another album. My reaction was: ‘No fucking way. It’s going on to Argus to counterbalance the rest of the album.’ And they backed right off.”
Martin’s stand would prove to be justified. Blowin’ Free would not only be the crowning glory of a record that Wishbone Ash fans consider completely flawless from the first note to the last, it also became a perennial live favourite.
“It was a crucial part of this band’s story,” Powell says. “We’d been conscious that our shows needed to end in a more uplifting manner. Blowin’ Free was either the last song or an encore, though sometimes we used it as an opening number. People loved that opening riff. Around that time, if you went into a music shop, then chances are you’d hear someone trying to play Stairway To Heaven or Blowin’ Free.”
Steve Harris has said Argus had a huge impact on his early songwriting with Iron Maiden. More specifically, Powell believes that the stirring outro to Blowin’ Free was a direct influence on two of rock music’s classic songs: “It was among the most borrowed ideas of the era; I can hear [the twin-guitar finale] in Steely Dan’s Reelin’ In The Years, and also, of course, in The Boys Are Back In Town by Thin Lizzy – that was definitely influenced by Blowin’ Free.”
Which is plausible. Argus came out in April ’72, Reelin’ (as a single) the following March, and The Boys four years later. Not that Wishbone Ash, who’d borrowed heavily from Steve Miller for Blowin’ Free, are complaining.
“Nothing is truly original,” Martin says with a smile. “All music is recycled.”