The Northern Irish frontman recalls how a song he wrote as a 16-year-old schoolboy became the rock band’s breakthrough hit
There’s still something fresh and vital about Ash. Their early songs, in particular, have stood the test of time well, a remarkable feat considering they were written by a trio of schoolboys from a small town in Northern Ireland. Along with Charlotte Hatherley, who joined the band in 1997 before leaving after almost a decade with the group, Tim Wheeler, Mark Hamilton and Rick McMurray have created seven stonking albums’ worth of energetic pop-punk.
Girl From Mars, though, remains the band’s defining moment. The 1995 hit is the perfect distillation of the group’s influences and energy and remains a firm favourite in the band’s hair-raising live set. A demo of the song appears on the 1977 collector’s edition reissue and reveals its original slow tempo, before it got the real Ash treatment.
Here, Tim Wheeler talks of cigar smoking on French holidays, his love of UFOs and the impact his little brother had on the song’s final sound…
“The year before I’d been on a really fun family holiday to France. We were staying at a caravan site and hanging out on the beach at night with some other kids that we’d befriended. For some reason, we stole their parents’ Henri Winterman cigars and all smoked them together. I had lots of good memories of that beachy summertime, it seemed very far away and romantic compared to rainy Northern Ireland, and that was a little part of the song too. There was also the sci-fi influence. We were big Star Wars fans and I always dreamed of outer space and always found it romantic. I was also really into the Pixies album Trompe Le Monde, which is about UFOs and Roswell.
“Girl From Mars mostly revolves around the verse and chorus. I wrote them as a slow little strummy thing and then when we worked on it as a band we rocked it out quite a lot. My little brother Pat was always my first port of call of seeing if a song was good, and then I’d bring it to Mark and Rick. I used to love going and knocking on his bedroom door and playing him ideas and I remember that he flipped out about the song and loved it. He had the idea for the quiet verse after the guitar solo and it was great. I think some of the melodicism of Teenage Fanclub is in there. When we put it out, it got compared to the Buzzcocks a lot but I’d never actually listened to them. But it’s true – it does sound like them! I do know Nirvana were big Buzzcocks fans, so maybe it came to us secondhand.
“As soon as we started playing it we got a really good reaction from our friends. I used to play stuff before I’d even fully written the lyrics, we’d play stuff at shows and I’d mumble my way through it. I don’t think I wrote the second verse until we actually recorded it two years later. I wasn’t too worried about lyrics back then, maybe because I listened to Nirvana so much and could never really understand them! Our manager and the record label were sure it was going to be a hit, so we put it aside until we’d be able to promote it. We put it out as a single two weeks after leaving school and it just blew up.
“There’s a place in Northern Ireland called Ards and there’s been a story that’s gone around for years that originally the song was called ‘Girl From Ards’. I find that annoying because the whole point of the song is that it’s about someone from outer space, a faraway love. Ards is very different from Mars, so I’d like to dispel that myth!
“I still love it, it’s great to play live and a real ace to throw down at the end of the set. I love playing the intro: when people hear the first notes they get really excited. It starts with just me and the guitar and then it kicks in really hard and beer goes flying and the crowd go crazy. That energy takes me back to being 16 – it’s awesome.”