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.

1 comment:

Document and Eyewitness said...

Another fine post, Steve, bringing back a whole host of memories. The Wedding Present were a quintessential teenage band for me - late 1987, walking around with a tape of "George Best" on a Walkman, marvelling at how well David Gedge expressed what I was feeling. "A Million Miles" was the song that really did it for me. I lost them at "Seamonsters" as my listening veered off into bands like Earwig and Moonshake and much of the Warp Records roster. I vaguely remember some of these singles being performed on TOTP, but I didn't really take much more notice than that. I should probably belatedly visit their later material, so thanks for the heads-up.