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The Great Northern Songbook - 10. Shining Light

Stuart Bailie | 10:10 UK time, Thursday, 21 June 2012

According to you, kind voters, 'Shining Light' by Ash is the greatest song in the Northern Songbook. Now I might take issue with some of the other top ten selections, but I'm happy to see Tim Wheeler getting his plaudits. This tune in particular might never grace an average songwriter. Small wonder that the guy was reading 'The White Goddess' at the time - Robert Graves' meditation on poets and deep mythology. Good work, Wheeler. His song was performed at the Ulster Hall gig by The Answer, another loud product of County Down. Cormac started in an unfeasibly high pitch and you worried how he might negotiate the key change later in the song. But he did, and it sounded fine.

We became aware of the Downpatrick band Ash in the mid Nineties. They were still at high school, their faces were fresh but even at this stage, they knew what a timeless pop song needed to sound like. Early tunes such as 'Jack Names the Planets' and 'Uncle Pat' signaled their promise while their debut album, '1977' featured four top 20 hits. Almost everybody loved Ash, and the excitement of Britpop raised their popularity even further.
But on the follow-up, 'Nu Clear Sounds', the focus started to dissipate and the pop instinct was misplaced. The band members were weary, their confidence was being tested and a few financial worries set in. This was a significant test for their character, and it was Tim Wheeler's time to write some more astonishing songs.

He flew home and determined to work steadily on new ideas. He took to writing in quiet places such as the Linen Hall Library in Belfast. The idea was to keep grafting, not to put too much pressure on any song that emerged. That was the level-headed approach, but when the chorus of 'Shining Light' appeared in the summer of 1999, it was difficult not to get thrilled.

The lyric may have alluded to an old romance, but Tim was digging into something more universal. The song expressed the most sublime emotions and the chorus made those feelings resound. In one sense it was a gospel tune, and the mention of the magical star over Royal David's City helped increased that feeling of awe. The band members were instant fans and when the Ash manager played the demo in his car, he punched the air during the guitar solo. The resurgence of Ash was looking likely.

That didn't mean that everyone in the record company would agree, and as a mark of faith, Ash paid for the recordings themselves. They booked in some time at Van Morrison's studio in Bath. As 'Shining Light' started to take shape, Van himself turned to Charlotte in the band and reassured her that it had a "nice riff".

The band were working with producer Owen Morris, mainstay of the Oasis sound and an ally of Ash on their first album. And so the emotional value of the song was layered and the key change was encouraged to soar.

When the band played some Irish dates in December 2000, the reputation of this new track was already rising. The band's support act was Snow Patrol, and during an aftershow session at Auntie Annie's, Gary Lightbody played the song on an acoustic guitar, the very first cover.

'Shining Light' was released on 29 January, 2001. This perfect radio song lit up the airwaves as expected, even though some observers feared that their career night not have recovered from the decline of that second record. But the Ash resolve had been steady, even though they were only a few weeks away from bankruptcy. They were rewarded with another top ten hit, arguably their most important record.

The single primed them for another chart-topping album, 'Free All Angels' and a clutch of successful releases such as 'Burn Baby Burn'. The latter was Q magazine's single of the year for 2001. However, it was 'Shining Light' that won Tim Wheeler and Ivor Novello Award for Best Contemporary Song of 20012011. It has also been recorded by several artists, including Duke Special and Annie Lennox, who also had a chart hit with it in 2009.
Already, the song has been established as a standard. It's one of those rare pieces of work that makes a connection, a full-on chemical reaction.

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