Architecture and Morality: The Wedding Present Revisited

[30 May 2007]

By Roger Holland

It’s really impossible to say which is my favourite. Perhaps Culture—I wish they’d done more. The Slits was something of a classic, and I liked several by The Wedding Present.
—John Peel speaks to Interzone magazine about the Peel Sessions.

The BBC says that more than 4,000 John Peel Sessions were recorded, and that they featured more than over 2,000 different artists. Of course, some bands clocked up more Peel Sessions than a trainee statistician might expect. The biggest hitters were The Fall who recorded 32, and Ivor Cutler who laid down 20. But The Wedding Present are third on that all-time list. Despite taking the best part of a decade off to make room for David Gedge’s reduced-guitar lush pop offering, Cinerama, The Wedding Present still managed to record 16 sessions for Peel between 1986 and 2004. And since The Fall recorded their first session in 1978, and Ivor Cutler in 1969, that’s an achievement that might make The Wedding Present the most Peel band of them all. Cinerama, incidentally, recorded 10 Peel Sessions during The Wedding Present’s extended sabbatical.

Nonetheless, The Complete Peel Sessions is hardly an essential purchase. A six-CD box set, the only material here that isn’t already officially available elsewhere is the sequence of warts’n'all live performances that constitute the final three disks, and the bulk of these all date from the same 18 month period in the band’s career. All the studio session material as already been released on Peel Session EPs or albums. And three of these feature The Wedding Present in full-on Ukrainian folk song mode.

This Ukrainian concept was the brain child of guitarist Pete Solowka, himself of that ilk. It saw David Gedge relegated to rhythm guitar and backing vocals while friend-of-the-band Len Liggins took centre-stage. Fans of this sort of nonsens will already own the Ukraonski Vistupi v Johna Peela CD that brings together all The Wedding Present’s Ukrainian material, but all the discerning consumer really needs is the Pisni Iz The Smiths EP that was recorded by Solowka, Liggins and friends after Solowka left The Wedding Present.

Despite its excess baggage, The Complete Peel Sessions neatly underlines the history of The Wedding Present and David Gedge’s relationship with John Peel. According to Ken Garner’s lengthy and entertaining essay, Gedge had already been afforded the titles of “Occasional Correspondent” and “Regular Listener” by Peel long before he formed The Wedding Present. You probably had to be there, listening in your bedroom and pretending to do your homework while Peel expanded your horizons on a nightly basis, to understand just what that means, so let’s just say that The Wedding Present’s first BBC session (not included here) was actually recorded for Andy Kershaw because, says Gedge, “I think Peel didn’t want to be looked at as being nepotistic in booking acts”.

Pop scholars frequently undervalue The Wedding Present. If the Smiths were the undeniable figurehead for the UK’s thriving independent pop scene of the 1980s, then Gedge’s little-band-that-could certainly inherited that mantle and quickly became the most successful indie band in Britain with landmark records such as George Best(1987) and Seamonsters(1991). Remaining distinct from any of the movements that emerged from the exploding British scene, The Wedding Present provided a touchstone for them all. Something bands like the Jesus And Mary Chain or Housemartins never could.

The Wedding Present recorded their first Peel session in February 1986. The band’s debut single, “Go Out and Get ‘Em Boy” had already featured in Peel’s Festive 50 for 1985, so nepotism was probably off the menu. Purposely extreme and paced just the far side of flat-out, the self-financed “Go Out and Get ‘Em, Boy!” had been the perfect introduction to The Wedding Present. It opened with a pure indie pop feel. Then thumping drums kicked in and a faint squeal of feedback appeared in the mix. And then a combination of Joy Division bass and slashed Gang of Four chords intervened. Slowly, out of all this confusion, the intermeshed guitars of David Gedge and Peter Solowka emerged to establish the initial musical blueprint for The Wedding Present.

It may be easy and convenient to assume that Gedge’s lyrical blueprint derived from the circumstances in which The Wedding Present was formed, but I’m going to do it anyway. An earlier band, the Lost Pandas had imploded in 1984 when Gedge’s long-term girlfriend Janet Rigby, drummer in the Lost Pandas, left him and ran away with the band’s guitarist. The first song The Wedding Present recorded for John Peel spoke directly to the break-up with Rigby.

“I don’t have to tell you
I’m sure you understand
The first who lay beside me
Made me what I am
And no matter how it ends
You should always keep in touch with your friends”
—“You Should Always Keep in Touch with Your Friends”

“You Should Always Keep in Touch with Your Friends” took the frantic guitar poppery of the debut single and ran with it. The endlessly churning and chiming guitars together with Gedge’s gruffly breathless vocals shaped a unique sound with an endless appeal. Thousands of pale, shrinking indie violets danced like loons and thrased madcap air guitar—if only in the sanctuary of their bedrooms—as they empathised with David Gedge’s lovelorn, bitter lyricism.

The Wedding Present - You Should Always Keep in Touch with Your Friends

“When you pull the strings, I don’t think you feel a thing.” Listed here as “It’s What You Want That Matters”, the second song in The Wedding Present’s first Peel session was actually called “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?”—the name was changed by the time the band released their first album. It’s a revealing indictment of the way the singer has felt himself to be manipulated by heartless women, underpinned by yet more of those distinctive guitars. Talking of which, “This Boy Can Wait” is a headlong rush towards the loss of the singer’s virginity that tramples all over the memory of “Go Out and Get ‘Em Boy”, recycles some of its lyrics, and renders it practically pedestrian by comparison.

The last song in the first Peel Session is introduced as a “William Shatner number”. It’s actually a pedal-to-the-metal cover of Orange Juice’s “Felicity”, which was written by James Kirk.

Do you see what The Wedding Present did there? They made a little joke about Kirk’s name, and they set about establishing themselves as one of the best cover bands of all time.

The band’s next BBC session was recorded for Janice Long and included a compelling demolition of the Gang of Four’s “I Found That Essence Rare”. Most of the band’s subsequent Peel Sessions also included top notch covers. However, if you want the supreme The Wedding Present cover versions, you’ll need to track down “Getting Better” and “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)”. The former was originally released on the Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now? EP and has been included on re-releases of George Best. The latter was The Wedding Present’s contribution to the marvellous Alvin Lives (In Leeds), a benefit for a political coalition allied against Margaret Thatcher’s insidious Poll Tax; it can now be found on The Wedding Present compilation Singles 1989-1991.

To become a great covers band, like The Wedding Present, Motorhead, the Manic Street Preachers or Placebo, you first have to establish a voice of your own. Listen to Lemmy or Brian Molko sing, for example, and you immediately, instinctively know it’s them. So it is with The Wedding Present. A critic might say that all their songs sound the same, but I’d say, No. not really. It’s just that David Gedge’s personality and distinctive voice dominate in precisely the same way Lemmy does.

The second Peel Session was broadcast in October 1986. It opened with “All About Eve”, a substandard off-cut that reflects upon the childhood year Gedge spent living in Apartheid-era South Africa. The next three songs, “A Room With a View”, “Never Said”, and “Don’t Be So Hard” were classic The Wedding Present moments.

“When we moved in here the dog was still a pup
Do you remember the time he chewed those curtains that we found?
I laughed the day you put them up
The day you left I tore them down”
—“Room With a View”/“Don’t Laugh”

On the Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm EP, “A Room With a View” was retitled “Don’t Laugh” and it’s listed as such on this box set. A rose by any other name, it’s a perfect example of the marvellous domestic poetry in David Gedge’s lyrics. This was something he shared with Morrissey. But where Steven P harboured illusions of grandeur and Sheilagh Delaney, Gedge embraced the splendidly earthed mundanity of Coronation Street.

At the end of 1986, the Smiths occupied six of the top twelve slots in John Peel’s Festive 50, and the Fall had seven tracks in the 50. The Wedding Present were the next highest scorers with four. With three singles and two Peel sessions under their belt, David Gedge and his band-mates were clearly beginning to make their mark.

“I must have walked past this doorway thirty times
Just trying to catch your eye
You made it all worthwhile when you returned my smile”
—“A Million Miles”

The third session was first broadcast in March 1987 and set the scene for debut album, George Best. The writing and playing were now tighter and more polished, and the best of three excellent new originals was “A Million Miles”, a song swollen with the joys of new love that skillfully contrived to end upon an unremittingly cynical note: “You’re not like anyone I’ve ever met ... Well, at least not yet.”

The fourth track was a kick-ass cover of Girls At Our Best’s “Getting Nowhere Fast”.

1987 was a pivotal year for independent pop music in the UK. In August, the Smiths split up. In September, Rough Trade released the final Smiths album. And in November, The Wedding Present released George Best. At the end of year, The Wedding Present had four songs in the top ten of the Festive 50 including the classics “My Favourite Dress” and “Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft”. The Smiths had just one.
I’ve heard George Best was the first CD John Peel ever played on air, and I can well believe it. Amelia Fletcher who sang backing vocals on the album offered me one of her free CD copies because she didn’t have a CD player at that time. Sadly neither did I.

“I’m so ashamed.
I had my ear pressed up to your bedroom door
Oh, you never change.
If you want anything you just take it all
I suppose you’d like me to go back home and wait
For the usual telephone call”
—“Unfaithful”

The fourth Peel Session was recorded in May 1988 and revealed a band in transition. Following the success of George Best and the singles “Anyone Can Make a Mistake” and “Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm”, The Wedding Present were beginning to adopt a new direction. You couldn’t tell it from the first song here, the next single “Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now?”, or from the last, a rambunctious reworking of Altered Images’ “Happy Birthday”, but both “Unfaithful” and “Take Me!” showed that while Gedge’s lyrical obsessions remained the same, his band was beginning to build bigger, more powerful rock constructions. “Take Me!”, in particular, exposed Gedge’s burgeoning interest in extended guitar work-outs. Here and on The Wedding Present’s second album proper, the deeply under-rated Bizarro, it became clear that Gedge was taking an almost architectural approach to his song writing. Built from the ground up with layer upon layer of relentless guitar work, these new songs understood the beauty of repetition but were never less than utterly fresh and vibrant.

The Wedding Present recorded their fifth Peel Session in late 1990. Two and a half years is a long time in indie-guitar-pop. In the gap since session four, they’d released Bizarro, scored their first proper grown-up hit single, “Kennedy”, and begun to make the acquaintance of Big Black’s Steve Albini. Albini produced both the re-recorded version of Bizarro‘s “Brassneck” that became the band’s second grown-up hit single and “Corduroy”—the lead track from the Three Songs EP that became their third G-U H S.

Oh, the band had also played a six song set at John Peel’s 50th Birthday Party at London’s Subterrania in August 1989. This short set is the first live performance included in this box set and consists exclusively of material from Bizarro. The fifth studio session, however, was all about the next album, Seamonsters.

With no room for covers, The Wedding Present presented Peel and listeners with four hugely impressive new songs: “Dalliance”, “Heather”, “Blonde”, and “Niagara”. Where George Best was full of pop quirks, and Bizarro had charm, this new material took the breath away. While Gedge’s lyrics had previously read like letters written to the perpetual You in his life, they now seemed like concise, cryptic snippets of conversation overheard from a distance. Beautiful pop heard through walls of sound, darkly, these four songs swell with bitter-sweet emotional pain and enchanting musical dissonance.

After the exhilarating experience of the Albini-produced Seamonsters, it was hard to see where The Wedding Present could go next. So these early indie adopters of the CD format went back to vinyl. In each and every month of 1992, The Wedding Present released a limited edition seven inch single—the A-sides were brand new Weddoes songs, the B-sides (inevitably) were covers.

As a result they equalled Elvis Presley’s record for the most Top 30 hits in one year and inadvertently exposed the sorry state of the British pop chart. The pressing for each of these singles was limited to just 10,000 copies, and so the success of singles such as “Come Play With Me” (UK #10), “Three” (#14), and “California” (#16) made it abundantly clear how few copies a band had to sell to score an apparently respectable chart hit.

Overall the quality of the Hit Parade singles was variable, and Gedge’s frequently clench-toothed singing style verged sometimes towards lockjaw. The next Peel Session was recorded in early 1992 and reflected these problems, presenting three of the singles plus “Softly Softly”, a song that was eventually discarded on quality grounds, although its chorus was subsequently recycled in “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”, a standout track on the next album, Watusi.

“I knew it was you from the minute
You strolled into the gazebo like you’d never been gone”
—“Gazebo”

The seventh session was recorded in 1994, and showcased Watusi, TWP’s most good-humoured and immediately accessible record. From the moment Gedge’s guitar opened up “Gazebo”, it was clear TWP had discovered real pop music two critical years after their extended flirtation with the charts. Beneath the simple pop patterns, however, that same timeless and unmistakable rhythmic pulse still lurked. The automobile-themed Mini followed swiftly. Two parts Watusi to one of Seamonsters, four of its six songs were recorded in late 1995 for the band’s last session of the old millennium. Following the release of the non-themed but similarly powerful Saturnalia in 1996, David Gedge put The Wedding Present on hiatus while he and girlfriend Sally Murrell went off to form Cinerama and play pop.

Plus ca change. Et cetera.

When Sally Murrell threw a Rigby and left Cinerama in 2003 (I have no idea if she took a guitarist with her), David Gedge succumbed to the inevitable and reverted to TWP. We’d all seen it coming, even if he hadn’t. Cinerama’s music had been getting progressively closer to the original marque, and their latter-day concerts often included as many as half a dozen TWP songs.

Recorded in the Summer of 2004, the reconstituted TWP’s final John Peel Session lurched from leftover Cinerama arrangements to reinvented guitar constructions, and included a reprise of the best of the Hit Parade singles, “Blue Eyes”. Best summed up by a restrained and tasteful cover of “White Horses” that continually refused to do the decent thing and punk it up like an oedipal mother-fucking pronoun, it was a confused and ultimately unsatisfying affair. Fortunately, the subsequent “comeback” album, the exceptional Take Fountain was neither.

In 1987, speaking shortly after the release of George Best, David Gedge told the lovely Dave Henderson, editor of the short-lived indie magazine Underground, that he sincerely doubted that The Wedding Present would still be together in ten years, let alone deep into the next century: “Pop music has such a limited appeal, and I’ve got a short concentration span. I’ll probably get so bored, I’ll just give it up eventually.” Thankfully, the boy’s stuck at it.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/architecture-and-morality-the-wedding-present-revisited/