by Penny Valentine, Sounds?, late 1972
Harlesden High street on a freezing Thursday night. Up an alleyway, stumbling in the inky blackness, fighting off the biting gales unsuccessfully, muttering things like goddamn the teacher that talked me into journalism.
A wooden garage door swings back, bright lights hit my watery ones; a band are to be heard hard at it and lo – all must be right with the world because there’s Tony Ashton living out his “image”.
As Rob Townsend and Jim Cregan thunder through a guitar/drum run Tony Ashton stands back in admiration. One foot on the ramp, his tartan “tammy” precariously angled on his head, an old sweater scarcely disguising a neglected stomach, Ashton – intent on the music – sips thoughtfully from a dark brown beer bottle which appears to be stuck to his lips.
Tony Ashton has been around for a long time. Possibly more familiar to the music press as a whole on social occasions than to the audiences who have born witness to his many brave attempts to get off the ground – the last as Ashton, Gardner and Dyke – no wonder he calls himself “Resurrection Ashton”.
In the course of advents he’s suffered more than most with this image. That of ace looner, constant drinker (you’re never alone with a pint of Red Barrel) and click-your-fingers, here-comes-that-comedian-gain.
Everyone’s laughed at/with old Ashton, but not many have taken his 12 years’ hard slog on the road seriously – or indeed looked under the extrovert to find out what’s underneath. Which is, as Family are first to admit, a very fine keyboard man and, as I will add, a very endearing personality, the softest looner I’ve ever known.
Anyway in the end it’s not surprising that Ashton decided to throw it all up and turn his hand to the comparative comforts of production and session work. Nor, indeed, that the only people in the world who could have inveighed him out of his “year off the road” turned out to be Family.
Back at Harlesden another rehearsal day draws to an end. Ashton has been with the band for only a few weeks – thrown in at the deep end a couple of days before the British tour started.
Now there’s a break before the Royal Festival Hall date because of Chapman’s ear operation and the band are making use of the time off to let Ashton settle in with the numbers. Roger has been down today – enveloped in bandages – but nobody’s too sure if he can keep going through a whole set. “Finger’s crossed” says Tony.
The equipment’s packed up and we repair to what is jokingly called as the local hostelry to unfreeze – crisps, beer and Townsend’s on sherry. Tony is still not sure how much he’s contributing to Family, how much he can contribute to the new album they’re about to cut next month, but Rob and Jim answer for him:
“He’s brought in a really happy feeling.” Then Townsend adds: “I’d only seen him play once. I was into the idea of him joining because I knew him as a guy. I knew nothing about his musical ability but Chapman is no slouch at picking musicians.”
“I think it’s probably still hard for Family people to accept an old resurrection shuffler like myself.”
Ashton looks suitably embarrassed at such praise, and between a crisp mutters about another “Burlesque” on the new album. “A damn fine bloody record that.”
Ashton’s obviously very enthusiastic about being part of Family. the whole personality of the band fits him so well it’s doubtful they could have picked anyone better.
After AG&D broke up he had a lot of offers – not the least to join Canned Heat on a permanent basis. But Ashton refused to budge. He got involved in producing Medecine Head and did the odd sessions (most recent being with Jerry Lee Lewis) and simply retired from “vans, hassles and little rotten hotels” that had formed so large a part of his life.
“I don’t really know why Ashton, Gardner and Dyke broke up – it’s just wasn’t right and that’s all I can say. I was fed up. The last gig we played was with Sha Na Na and we died a death.
“I thought that night ‘now that’s what a band should be like’ and decided to give up. There was too much energy going out for what was coming back.
“I was in the middle of a Medecine Head album when Roger phoned. I really didn’t hesitate – despite six months previously saying I’d never go on the road for at least a year – I’d always dug those buggers. I can’t think of another band I would have joined.”
The first gig?
“I was frightened to death and yet I really enjoyed it – to say nothing of the two bottles of Black Label I consumed.” A guffaw greets that one. “I think it’s probably still hard for Family people to accept an old resurrection shuffler like myself.”
“Oh,” chips in Townsend, “the same thing happened with Poli when he joined, happened with Jim, didn’t it?” Cregan nods assent and adds that the difference is that Family have always had this image of being very serious about their music and now there’s a whole different feel to the band on stage. They’re enjoying it more and they just hope audiences do too.
Certainly things are already changing for Ashton. Only a few weeks ago he was holidaying in Austria when three girls accosted him. “We saw you at Birmingham Town Hall with Family,” they said, and Tony winced at what he thought was to come. “Bloody great.”
“Do you know,” he says, “that’s the first time I’ve ever been recognised in my life?”
It’s nice to feel that finally Tony Ashton seems to have found a place to settle in.
“I don’t know what’s going to be required of me right now. I hope I’m going to bring something to the band. At the moment I’m just having a lovely time with no pressures. I’m just riding along.”
And so we leave beautiful downtown Harlesden with the conversation getting rather muddled. Apparently Family are scooting off to the countryside to work on the new album tracks when the British tour finishes.
Exactly whereabouts they’ll be is difficult to confirm. Nobody seems too sure. “Stones Mobile,” says Jim. “No, it’s not now, it’s somewhere else,” says Townsend. “Exmoor? No, Dartmoor – no that’s where the nick is,” says Ashton.
If you’re interested it’s going to be down in the depths of Cornwall.
“Oh,” says Ashton, clasping his head. “All that homemade cider.”