When the Wedding Present chose iconoclastic soccer superstar George Best as the cover boy and namesake of its first album, the Leeds group wasn’t just honoring a universal pop icon or a local childhood hero. (Singer Dave Gedge and guitarist Pete Solowka were raised near Manchester, the team for which Best played.) The British love their football in ways that go beyond fandom; only the most hopeless Red Sox or Cubs diehard could truly grasp the desperate post-conscious love/hate dedication detailed in Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. Whatever idealism has not yet been sucked dry from the youth of this fallen empire, its tattered and jaundiced remains have been invested heavily (if not equally) in pop and soccer. As a result, the campaigns that take place on their respective fields can become a lot more personal and close to home for adherents than an impartial observer might be able to gauge from the cheap seats.
Like the Smiths, the Jam, Slade and the Beatles before them, the Wedding Present came to have much greater resonance than a mere bunch of tunes with madly strummed guitars, ordinary faces elevated by television, might suggest. With Mittyesque aplomb, the quartet quickly became a part of England, musical evidence that dedication and imagination were still sewn into the nation’s fiber, and that — like the possibility held out by the World Cup every four years — a brighter future just might lie one stealthy hit away.
When the Smiths stepped down from their perch in 1987, the Wedding Present — led by singer/songwriter/guitarist Gedge, the foursome’s only start-to-finish member — was conveniently poised to fill the cultural void thus created. He came armed with a deft balance of arrogance and insouciance, archness and populism, art and artlessness. His catchy, rushed, offhand singles could not have been better suited to win the hearts and minds of self-obsessed sensitivos. If the band’s voluminous output hasn’t been distinguished by memorable melodic exposition, the saminess of its work actually contributes to its no-frills familiarity, as does the group’s avoidance of stardom’s trappings in its generally anonymous and uninformative record packaging.
The group’s first release was a John Peel radio session; they returned to play for him so many times over the course of a career that there are two separate era-specific compilations devoted to the results — and together they’re still an incomplete document! The twelve Peel tracks collected on album in 1993 derive from ’87, ’88 and ’90 and contain alternate versions of songs from George Best and Seamonsters, as well as such typically eclectic covers as Altered Images’ “Happy Birthday.” The eight-track BBC Sessions combines the earliest Peel session (which is not on either full-length Peel disc) and another 1986 date for a different radio program.) For the diehard collector, there are other radio session releases, singles compilations and a discombobulated four-disc box set (Registry) of George Best, Tommy, Saturnalia and the Mini EP.
Back to the beginning. Solowka strums as if his hand were on fire throughout George Best; the unfussy rhythm section races to keep pace as Gedge delivers his offbeat flurries of small-scale perception (“Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft,” “It’s What You Want That Matters,” “Shatner,” “My Favourite Dress”) in a gruff, semi-singing non-style that certainly owes a debt to some of Morrissey’s idiosyncrasies. (The decade-later American edition, dubbed George Best Plus, appends nine tracks from the first two EPs released after the album — Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm and Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now?, which contains a French variation on the title track, an acoustic version of George Best’s “Give My Love to Kevin,” the group’s contribution (“Getting Better”) to Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father and another non-LP track.
After a lone album, several radio sessions and a stack of singles, the Wedding Present was already due for a leftovers collection, Tommy, which summarizes the prolific band’s first two years, a crucial era for independent music in Britain. But the volume of material emanating from the group left it in danger of succumbing to an already tired stylistic formula. Which may explain the odd endeavor that followed. And the hail mary move that followed that.
Inspired by Solowka’s father and employing a guest vocalist/balalaika player and a mandolinist, the group then took a detour into traditional Ukrainian folk music (including “Those Were the Days,” a 1968 hit for Mary Hopkin) on the Ukrainski Vistupi v Johna Peela LP. It’s fun in a let’s-go-exploring sense, but the augmentation, as well as the material, makes it difficult to consider as part of the band’s oeuvre, and the intent — genuine or simply willful — is equally hard to pin down. (That particular ethnic impulse was shunted off into the Ukrainians, a band formed by Solowka as a side project. After he left the Wedding Present at the turn of the decade, it became his main musical pursuit, releasing several more albums and a hysterical EP of translated Smiths covers.)
Previewed by the Madchester-influenced Kennedy, issued on a 12-inch with three non-LP cuts, Bizarro is an uneventfully mature effort that sorely lacks George Best‘s breathless rush. Then came radical American producer Steve Albini to push the British pop sensation off its increasingly precious perch and apply a recharge. For his first trick, Albini worked on four tracks, issued in the UK in 1990 as the Brassneck EP and added to the American issue of Bizarro. While Gedge’s offhand ruminations are still delivered in something of an Ian Curtis-fan-next-door voice, the sound of Solowka burning out amplifiers is far more distracting than his usual cloying jangle.
Evidently satisfied with that test run, the Wedding Present engaged Albini for an entire album. A tangle of crossed relationship wires, Seamonsters is a stirring mixture that adds bruising instrumental aggression — seemingly at random — to the simple folk-rock and pop structures. Until the production idea turns into a gimmick halfway, uncertainty makes Seamonsters an exciting, multi-dimensional contradiction. When the faders suddenly burn out in the middle of “Dalliance,” Gedge has to struggle to be heard in the exciting din; when all hell breaks loose in “Lovenest” and “Corduroy,” he just stands aside. Unlike most of the bands who choose to express themselves with paint-stripping intensity, the Wedding Present is a pop group through and through; what’s left when the fuzzboxes get switched off here is pretty, sweet even. The provocative song titles — “Dalliance,” “Suck,” “Octopussy” — suggest a stronger drive behind the congenial tone. The US edition of the ten-song album adds three British B-sides.
Instead of recording a new LP in 1992, the Wedding Present — with Solowka replaced by Paul Dorrington — devoted the year to executing an ambitious project worthy of both Christo and Ed McMahon. On the first Monday of each month, from January to December, the group released a new 7-inch (the A-side an original, the B-side a cover) in the UK. The gimmick guaranteed the band extra-musical notoriety as well as unprecedented chart success: snowballing interest, coupled with the short shelf lives of these limited-edition issues, accelerated sales enough to vault the lot, if only for a week each, into the British Top 30 in turn, thereby earning the Wedding Present a Guinness Book of World Records citation for equaling Elvis Presley’s feat of a dozen chart hits within a single calendar year.
If only the records were as deliberate as the scheme. Enthusiasm for (and even success with) the concise, punchy 45 format does not equal a talent for it, and the Wedding Present’s sketchy structures and casual indie sound do not make its craft timelessly memorable, even in pop’s disposable aesthetic. Of the dozen A-sides, none is an apotheosis of the art; some (“Blue Eyes,” “California,” “Boing!”) would make good album filler. Given the opportunity, that’s how some of them register. Hit Parade 1 and Hit Parade 2 compile, respectively, the first and second chronological halves of the campaign. Each disc presents six months’ worth of originals, followed by their six flipsides — which at least have the benefit of songwriting variety. Among the treats on HP 1 are Neil Young’s “Don’t Cry No Tears,” a revelatory rendition of Julee Cruise’s “Falling” (the Twin Peaks theme) and an amusing swipe at the Monkees’ “Pleasant Valley Sunday”; the catalogues of Altered Images, Close Lobsters and the Go-Betweens each cough up a tune as well. Among HP 2‘s genre-spanning covers are the reverently wah-wahed “Theme From Shaft,” Bowie’s “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family,” Mud’s “Rocket,” Bow Wow Wow’s “Go Wild in the Country” and Elton John’s “Step Into Christmas.” (As a byproduct of the band’s standing invitation from the John Peel show, initial English copies of Hit Parade 2 included a bonus disc of the series’ songs remade for radio transmission.) Stretching the concept a tad, Hit Parade 3 is a semi-related six-song collection of covers.
If Gedge can be observed to harbor some uncontrollable artistic urges, Watusi indulges two of the most evident — toward trendy Amerindie powerhouses and duplicitous romantic entanglements. Produced/organ-ized by Steve Fisk, with vocal assists on two tracks from Heather Lewis of Beat Happening, the Wedding Present downshifts into a winning compromise with the light, easygoing minimal pop known to emanate from Olympia, Washington. Frequently slow and spare, letting small-scale instrumental restraint release Gedge’s most luminous melodies and performances, the album is a surprising charmer — except in the lyrics of songs that shrug off guilt while acknowledging its validity. “For a start I don’t feel any remorse/But how can I resist/When she doesn’t even know you exist,” Gedge sings merrily in “Catwoman,” which trots out the predictable feline sex metaphors. In “Big Rat,” he tries to defuse a tearful row with the pathetic excuse that “she meant absolutely nothing to me … I’m not sure I even had any fun.” In “Gazebo,” he tells an ex “just how much you meant to me,” offers the information that “I’m seeing someone here you don’t know her” and then turns the tables: “She’s one in a million, but she isn’t you.” Musically, Watusi has all the variety absent from prior Wedding Present albums, as if the group had suddenly discovered that an album could be more than one thing without breaking into little pieces. “Spangle,” in which Gedge is the loser for a change, gets a crackling 78 rpm atmosphere that doesn’t seem gimmicky; “So Long, Baby” gets away with a patchwork of a giddy power pop refrain and a thick, tough Fall-like verse. This is the kind of excellent record the Wedding Present should have made years ago.
After another long break, the group picked up the other thread of its obsession, and did an EP of songs at least nominally about cars and driving. Released in the US with a Butterglory cover and two other added tracks (expanding the clever automotive joke of the title, Mini, to Mini Plus in the process), the record retains some of the open-toed architecture and delicate detailing of Watusi, but does it on cruise control, and fails — by a couple of microns — to spark the previous album’s gratifying combustion.
With Gedge again flirting with obnoxiousness by rationalizing romantic indiscretions (“I kissed her/How could I resist her?” in “Hula Doll”; “I don’t care where this lands us” in “Kansas”) and unpleasantness (“Montreal” is a brusque kiss-off), Saturnalia — like Mini, produced by the band with Cenzo Townshend — is a solid (if unannounced) swan song that flashes lyrical ingenuity and stylistic novelty. “Big Boots” actually sounds like the Cure, and it’s not the only track here to summon up that band at least a little. Engaged and evocative, Saturnalia suggests Gedge still cares. Nonetheless, the Wedding Present ceased to exist in early 1997 and he subsequently formed Cinerama. The inevitable postscript to that postscript, however, was the 21st century dissolution of Gedge’s relationship with Sally Murrell, his partner in Cinerama, and the relaunch of the Wedding Present.