Monday, 9 March 2015

You Should Always Keep In Touch With Your Friends


Back in 1992, the Wedding Present embarked on the ambitious venture of releasing a 7" single each month for the whole year. They were already hated by the music press and this project, deemed self-indulgent by many, did nothing to help their cause. But journalists' opinions have never mattered and the singles became very collectable. You might expect me to have been among those who collected them, but this was during the brief period when I only had a cassette player and my vinyl buying was minimal. The 24 tracks from the singles have now been compiled on a CD with all kinds of bonus material so it seems that a bit of re-evaluation is due.

In my late teens, the songs of the Wedding Present described my life more accurately than anyone apart from the Smiths. On the albums "George Best" and "Bizarro", David Gedge's words were full of anger and bitterness. His frantic guitar mirrored the speed of a typical relationship. Nought to break-up in three minutes. On the following album, the Steve Albini-produced "Seamonsters", the mood shifted from bitterness to resignation and this was reflected in the one-word song titles, in contrast to the lengthy names given to earlier tracks. "The Hit Parade" sees Gedge moving on with his life. There is more variety in the lyrics, although the general theme of relationships is continued. This was the point when my own relationship with the Wedding Present started to fall apart, and in the years that followed, Gedge's life moved on further and he began to seem like one of those friends whom you lose touch with after they get married and start a family. You feel pleased for their happiness but you no longer have anything to talk about. The late '90s albums sit in my collection like a number in an address book that I'm not even sure is up to date. Maybe I should rekindle my friendship rather than scribbling David Gedge's details out of my book.

The accusation "all the songs sound the same" was often levelled at the band, to the extent that they adopted it as a battle cry and I even had a t-shirt bearing the slogan. But these singles didn't all sound the same and looking back, it was the shock of this unfamiliarity, the variation from what I had come to trust, that disenchanted me. Older and wiser, I can see that this variety was essential or they would have stagnated. Having said that, listening to the tracks for what is probably the first time this century, I'm surprised to find that some are not as different from the earlier albums as I thought at the time. The vocal delivery is not as intense and although the guitar is toned down, much of the abrasiveness is still there. "Come Play With Me" and "Silver Shorts" in particular do sound comfortingly familiar. To a certain extent I must still be set in my ways because the peak for me comes halfway through the year with the most Wedding Present-like song. July's single, "Flying Saucer", eclipses everything on "Seamonsters" and finishes with an extended guitar workout reminiscent of the epic "Take Me" from "Bizarro". "Flying Saucer" is possibly the last classic Wedding Present song, but I've always said that about "Dalliance" from the previous album so maybe there is something of value to be found in the even later works.

Each new song was backed with a cover version and there are some inspired choices that in many cases outshine the song on the A-side. There are cult favourites from the likes of the Go-Betweens and the Close Lobsters, and a surprising take on the Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday" that comes closer to the magic of the original than I would ever have thought possible. The less predictable covers are film and TV themes ("UFO", "Shaft") and the standout of these, in fact probably the best of any of the 24 songs apart from "Flying Saucer", is "Falling". You would be forgiven for thinking that it is the version used in "Twin Peaks" until the vocals come in. Then the sound becomes so different from Julee Cruise's original that the effect is startling. This, combined with lyrics ("Don't let yourself be hurt this time") that could have been penned by Gedge himself, makes for a surreal experience and you wonder if you have woken up in David Lynch's nightmare world.

As with most "expanded" reissues, some of the extras are not strictly necessary. The 80-minute live set is worth hearing but do we really need 20 alternate takes and radio session tracks that barely differ from the 7" versions? The sequencing of disc 2 even means that we get two similar versions of "Silver Shorts" in succession. Obviously someone thinks this is a good marketing idea but despite my reputation as a collector, I rarely buy reissues just for different versions of songs I already have.

As if recording two songs a month wasn't keeping them busy enough, the lads also made a video for each new song and these are included, under the collective name of "Dick York's Wardrobe". These are proof, if you needed it, that indie bands should not make pop videos. They were obviously having a laugh but these are uniformly dreadful. In particular, I would advise against watching "Loveslave", as the image of the band in nappies and glittery wigs is not something that you will ever be able to erase from your mind.

When the singles came out I was such a staunch indie kid that I had sworn off all mainstream media and had no idea what was in the charts. They must have done pretty well though as there are no fewer than four "Top Of The Pops" performances included here. These are followed by a recent interview with David Gedge where he reflects on the recording sessions. I can't help but notice that he's starting to resemble Tony Blackburn and I wonder if this is what becomes of us all when we move on in life. Maybe I'll stick to anger and bitterness.

If you're not familiar with the Wedding Present at all, you should start with the albums "George Best" and "Bizarro" then work your way through the others until you get to the point where David Gedge's life seems to be taking a different path from your own. For those of you who are old friends but found your paths diverging 20 years ago, this would be a good time to reacquaint yourselves.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Noise Annoys

THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN - Manchester Academy / Birmingham Institute

The choice of venue can often make the world of difference to the success of a gig, even with the performers giving it all they've got. This is painfully apparent when I compare these gigs that I saw a few months apart, with exactly the same set being played in two different locations. When the Jesus And Mary Chain announced three dates at the end of last year where they would be playing their 1985 debut in full, there was much excitement and a group of my friends immediately snapped up the maximum number of tickets for one of the shows, even before we'd worked out if there were enough of us to use all of them. With tours such as this, with only a handful of dates, it's likely that a longer tour will be scheduled soon afterwards and usually with a show closer to home, but if this means I get to see the band twice then so be it.

I'll start by reflecting on the Manchester show back in November, as I didn't write about it at the time. When a favourite band returns from a long break, particularly when playing a classic album that I was too young to hear played live the first time around, there's always the fear that it won't live up to expectations. In this case there was no need to worry. Before the full run-through of the album, we're treated to seven other songs from various points of their career - playing the encore first, as frontman Jim Reid puts it. They kick off with the jangly "April Skies", perhaps the song that most appeals to those who can't quite decide if they like the band or are put off due to their noisy reputation. Then there are a couple more almost-hits - "Head On" and "Reverence", plus the single "Some Candy Talking" from the same time as the album and the song "Psychocandy" itself, which confusingly didn't appear on the album. An unexpected and welcome inclusion is "Up Too High", an early song that was never released until it appeared on a collection of b-sides and demos in 2008. The first part of the show ends with the debut single "Upside Down", to prepare us for the discordant glory that's coming soon.

Then the volume is cranked up to 11 and even beyond, and we're reminded why "Psychocandy" was such a groundbreaking album. There are melodies here that are easily discernible alongside the wall of fuzz and some great singalong moments, including the gruesome motorbike crash of "The Living End", and "The Hardest Walk" - quite possibly the best break-up song ever. Jim is still a compelling performer, while his brother William stays in the shadows. Some have cruelly said that he's chosen to stay out of the limelight because he knows that he no longer looks as young as he used to, but he's retained his mountain of curly hair and seeing this silhouetted through the smoke, we could easily be back at one of their classic '80s shows where they never looked at the audience. William's guitar is very precise in its distortion and the trademark sharp feedback comes at exactly the right moments. Ex-Lush man Phil King adds an extra layer, not present on the original record but this only serves to make things more cohesive. This is one of the loudest gigs I've seen for a while but despite the volume there is clarity and we're left in no doubt as to what's going on behind the strobe lights.

If I have one quibble, it's the inclusion of a full drum kit. I'm very aware that the Mary Chain used "proper" drums in the final years of their original incarnation, but one of the key elements of "Psychocandy" is Bobby Gillespie's sparse drumming. Obviously Bobby has other things to be getting on with now, but I'm sure if they'd advertised then they would have found someone who couldn't play any more than two drums. I could easily get sidetracked into listing the host of great bands using this style of percussion, but let's just say that pretty much anything - doing the washing up, watching Jeremy Kyle - can be rendered life-changing by the addition of a stand-up drummer.

But I can't really complain about the absence of Bobby as the gig is still more exciting than most young bands I've seen over the past year. We leave the show feeling electrified that something 30 years old still sounds so fresh.

Three months later and I'm excited about seeing the same thing all over again, although I am a little cautious as the Institute has never been one of my favourite venues. I have attended gigs there where everything has sounded spot-on, but an equal number where the sound has left a lot to be desired. I've never been sure if this is because the shape of the room leads to poor acoustics, they've skimped on the sound system or maybe even the sound engineer himself isn't up to scratch.
Things don't seem too bad at first as the band blast through the same seven songs as at the Manchester show. The sound quality isn't perfect but at least things are reasonably clear and it's better than some gigs I've seen in this venue. But once the "encore" is over and we get to the album, things start to go wrong.
My best guess is that the soundman has never actually heard "Psychocandy" but is aware that it's full of distortion so decides that the best option is to push every one of his sliders to the top. This means that it's difficult to discern the separate elements of the music. William's shrill feedback is barely noticeable, all we get is a muddy pool of gloop. It becomes so murky that at one point I lose track of the songs. Despite the album being played in order and the fact that I can recite the tracklisting in my sleep, we're halfway into "Never Understand" before I realise which song it is.

The evening isn't a total loss and I do enjoy hearing the songs again, when I can work out what they are, but I get the feeling that if I had just seen this show and not the previous one then I would think that the band had lost their edge. Indeed, this is the opinion of a friend who is seeing them for the first time in 20 years.

I'm not sure if there are any long-term plans for this reunion, either new songs or more gigs, but I'm glad I got to see one more fantastic show from them and I'll try to forget about the second one. As with many things in life, great moments seem even better when you've got something rubbish to compare them with.