The early greatness of Leeds’ the Wedding Present surely must be put down to the magical alchemy that occurs between the witty, contemporary, and yet somehow plainly colloquial songwriting of David Gedge and the blitzoid guitar attack of one Pete Solowka, who appears to be strumming a banjo on speed when he straps on his Fender SG. Unlike contemporaries the Smiths, this chemical interaction—Gedge is to Morrissey as Solowka is to Marr—is not quite so clear cut as Gedge also plays rhythm guitar. Formed as a serious band from the remains of the Lost Pandas, the Weddoes toured local clubs and pubs and issued several singles on their own record label, Reception, before hitting it big with notices and airplay from John Peel and critical acclaim for their debut, George Best.
The Reception Era
Their second Reception single “Once More” demonstrates the “shambling” C86 speedy guitar half of the Weddoes’ formula quite nicely.
Here’s a classic track from the debut George Best, which highlights Gedge’s obsession with the quotidian and his deployment of Northern colloquialisms. This fine performance is taken from a home city performance: “Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft” (Live at Leeds Colosseum, 1990).
Despite the delicious sound of the blitzoid guitars, what made the Wedding Present great from day one was Gedge’s gift at lyricizing the obsessive angst of love, the pitfalls of lust, the stuff of relationships and the inevitable bust-ups. Yup, he beat Stephen Merritt to the punch by a decade. Often topping fan polls of favorite Weddoes songs, “I’m Not Always So Stupid” began life rather as the fourth and last track on the 1988 EP Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm. Now kids, you can best find it as an extra to the 1997 reissue of the Wedding Present’s debut album, George Best. The first time I heard the first verse of the song…
Every time a car drives past I think it’s you
Every time somebody laughs I think it’s you
You changed your number and my phonebook’s such a mess
But I can’t bear to cross your name out yet
Each time the doorbell rings it might be you
Each letter the postman brings might be from you
I said to myself by gosh that’s me. Her name was… well none of your business really.
Shaking myself out of a nostalgic reverie and getting back to the song, “I’m Not Always So Stupid” represents the quintessence of what made the original C-86 Pete Solowka-driven Wedding Present the classic lineup. Hard driving guitars madly strummed as if it were a banjo breakdown and Gedge’s plaintive almost in tune warble. Sure it was a simple and repetitive sound featured on those great Reception records “Once More”, “My Favourite Dress”, “Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft”, Shatner”, “The Boy Can Wait”, “Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now”, but what a sound.
The song starts with several bars of guitar work by Gedge, a quick drum arpeggio, and then Solowka comes in maniacally strumming. The tension of the song’s lyric is mimicked in the battle between Solowka trying to speed things up and Gedge leisurely reminiscing about a long lost love: “Somebody told me you went to work down South / as far away as you can from my big mouth.” Then it’s another epochal guitar workout that sounds like a history of rock 101 riffs and a fast close with the first two lines of the song doubled and repeated as a kind of refrain. If this music doesn’t move you emotionally, get off the Xanax and live a little. The Weddoes at their absolute zenith!
The RCA Era
As late as the “difficult” second album and major label debut, 1989’s Bizarro, The Wedding Present still very much present themselves as a duo publicly, albeit with Solowka much the junior partner. Here’s an interview from Canadian TV during this era (1990 precisely after the Albini EP had “fixed” Bizarro) that also features the brilliant single “Kennedy” and some other live clips including an early workout of what would become Seamonsters’ “Corduroy”.
For another take on the band’s guitar brilliance listen to the short history of rock and roll riffing provided in the extended instrumental conclusion to “Take Me!” also from Bizarro from 3:40 or so to the end at 9:18! But especially from 5:00 to 5:51.
I saw the Wedding Present at the DNA Lounge in San Francisco during this era. And the inevitable decline’s presence was palpable. It’s name was the dread influence of Mr. Steve Albini. No longer driven by the folk-like breakdowns of Solowka, the guitar noise came through pedal effects, like the one Gedge continuouslystomped off and on throughout the re-“invigorated” Albini-version of “Brassneck.” Thankfully I was on the balcony above and behind the band, where I could here the music properly through their monitors and also espy the setlist!
In fairness, Albini’s influence wasn’t all malign. He helped them produce their masterpiece a year later in Seamonsters, one of those albums whose coherent whole is so much more than the sum of its parts, especially the latter tracks which seem to run along without any real destination in mind. And yet in many ways it seems not to be the same band anymore; the original formula no longer apparent in the complexer mix of instruments and guitar effects. Ironically, from this apex, Solowka was almost immediately fired, as sales failed to live up to RCA’s hopes and expectations. Somebody had to be the scapegoat. Here’s his take on the whole affair from an interview with the something and nothing website:
I was kicked out! Officially this was for not being a good enough guitar player and not contributing enough to the song-writing… Reasons for actions such as this are complex but I am sure that it had a lot to do with the following. We had just recorded ‘Seamonsters’—our (in RCA’s opinion) ‘very difficult’ third album. RCA needed something that would increase sales beyond our fanbase and although we were really happy with the album, it was clear to us that there was no ‘mega hit’ there. We knew we’d have to face their disapproval. Also, the Ukrainian music was still generating interest, at times deflecting interviewers from the current records we were trying to promote. As I was the Ukrainian link, they thought this problem would go away when I did. I feel I was made a bit of a scapegoat for the bands failings. (Something and Nothing)
Here’s Seamonstres‘s central track, “Suck”.
And then it was over. Sure the band made the occasional decent track in the next five years, but notice how 1992’s Hit Parade experiment (or “scam” in Solowka’s telling) while providing the band with a record 12 chart singles in a year produced far better results from the covers: be they Angelo Badamenti (“Falling”), The Go-Betweens (“Cattle and Cane”) or The Close Lobsters (“Let’s Make Some Plans”). Sure they also returned after the nine-year intercession of Cinerama-years in 2005, newly relocated to Seattle with Take Fountain. But really that band was Cinerama in everything but name, and “I’m From Farther North Than You” pales in comparison to “I’m Not Always So Stupid.” Alas, the original essential genius of the band’s tense interplay between Gedge and Solowka was long gone.