The Wedding Present first charted with "Kennedy" in October 1989, from their second album, "Bizarro". They were gruff, brusque, exhilaratingly Motorhead-loud and faster than a pharmaceutically-fuelled Olympic 100m final. Leading the sonic assault from the front was David Gedge, lyricist, guitarist and vocalist. Over the years, there have been numerous personnel changes and a seven-year hiatus, but Gedge has remained the constant. This year, the band is reprising their 1987 debut album, "George Best", in its entirety at certain shows. Before one such performance in Bristol, David spoke to Contact Music about that album, and his thirty-plus years at the helm of The Wedding Present.
George Best is 30. How does that feel?
We did a twentieth anniversary tour ten years ago and it was something we really wanted to do. Then last year, a couple of festivals got in touch and said, 'Seeing as it's the thirtieth anniversary, would you be interested in playing "George Best"?' and I thought, 'Woah! Thirtieth already?' I hadn't realised.
Was there a sense of 'We've already done a twentieth celebration; do we want to do a thirtieth?'?
It really didn't seem that long ago. I said I'd speak to the rest of the band, because they're obviously not the original line-up; they all said that it'd be brilliant. If we were going to relearn it for three gigs, then we thought we'd do some more, so we've ended up doing selected gigs throughout the year. I've got a love/hate relationship with "George Best". It's my least favourite Wedding Present album, but as a live set, it's one of my favourites, so it can go both ways. Of all the records we've done, it's one of the most personal, so it's like going back. I'd littered it with names of people I knew at the time and actual locations. It's like reading a diary, but at the same time, it's so long ago, it's like reading the diary of a different person.
In the first bars of "George Best", there's that sharp intake of breath, followed by 'Oh, why do you catch my eye, then turn away?' That's such a point of departure for where a lot of Wedding Present songs went after that. Has it been important for your songwriting to be raw and honest?
I think early on I decided that my forte was being straightforward. I've never been a big fan of metaphorical pop lyrics and I've always been attracted to the conversational style. I think it works and I'd feel pretentious if I sounded more literary. Earlier, I was in bands like The Lost Pandas, where it was more arty-farty, so by the time we started The Wedding Present, I'd honed it down to the style which I've more or less kept since then. I think about how and why people say things, especially within relationships.
How's it felt to re-read that thirty-year-old diary?
It's interesting. I didn't realise at the time that the whole album is pretty much about one relationship ending. It's almost a concept album! It was very honest at the time.
People always say that, but I'm not sure it felt cathartic back then. I'm reliving the "George Best" era in a way, so it's not cathartic now. I'm dragging myself back through it all!
Were you just basting in your frustrations?
Those frustrations - anger, jealousy and the feeling of betrayal - are all very inspiring for a songwriter. It's just gold, especially for someone like me who's interested in Motown, or punk and post-punk. I was always interested in love songs and songs of despair. I really didn't have to think about writing that LP. It was just putting what I was going through at the time into lyrics. That's happened a couple of times since. "Take Fountain" was like that and "Going, Going" was a true story in its own right too.
Obviously there's a totally different line-up and thirty years have elapsed, but how much do you feel has changed in that time?
We play it a lot better now. Hearing old tapes and recordings, this line-up has better musicians, and better gear.
Do you have a favourite song on "George Best"?
It's hard, because they're all my babies and I've seen them all through from birth; having said that, I recognise that "My Favourite Dress" stands out a bit higher than the rest. I remember Shaun, when he first joined the band, saying that the song was on a different level. It's odd because it's a simple song. It's got three chords, so anyone can play it on an acoustic guitar. It's poignant but simple in the lyrics. It's a lesson in how you don't have to overwrite, add all sorts of arrangements and parts, because it just works as a melody and a simple arrangement. I guess it's the song of which I'm most proud from the record, certainly.
I only discovered recently just how much friction there was whilst recording the album.
I do an autobiographical comic called "Tales From The Wedding Present" and we did a special issue on that recently. It brought it all back. There was tension, because we didn't have that much money and we met a producer called Chris Allison who suggested an alternative way of recording, which would have reduced the cost. Usually a major cost is hiring a decent room that you can get your drums in. Guitars and vocals, you can pretty much do anywhere. He suggested that we used electronic drums and Shaun played it into a sequencer. Because we did it that way, the recording was quite cheap and we could spend more money on mixing, which we did at AIR Studios, George Martin's place on Oxford Street, which we could never have afforded otherwise. We were never totally sold on the idea and Shaun especially hated it. Even now when I listen to it, there are bits that sound robotic in the drum line. I think Chris felt his brief was to take this fledgling indie band and take us to another level in terms of production - make us more radio-friendly. We weren't having any of that, so there was a brick wall there. In the end, we sacked him. It wasn't the easiest of debut albums.
In terms of making you commercial and radio-friendly, is that the opposite to what Steve Albini then did?
I think he basically made it sound great, and that was really picked up on by people in the media, especially in America. His name probably drew extra attention to it as well. We did an EP with him to see how it would work, with "Brassneck" on, and it went really well. I always think with "George Best" and "Bizarro" that they're OK records. They'd always sound disappointing to me somehow, but I'd never know why. When we played them live, they were textured and dynamic, but on the records, they always felt a bit flat. I think Albini solved that problem.
Apart from making a damn fine album cover, why George Best? For quite a swaggering, playboy footballer, you probably couldn't find a less swaggering, posturing band.
The simple answer is that I grew up in Manchester, United was my team and he was the iconic figure. I loved it. He was a great player, he had long hair and he had his shirt outside of his shorts when everybody else's was tucked in. He'd get into arguments, late for training because he was still out dating Miss World or hanging out with The Beatles. For a kid, that was fantastic. I always knew that I'd call an album "George Best". There was never any debate in my mind and when I said it, everyone else said yes. I thought the words looked and sounded good and then we found that photograph from a sports photo agency. It all happened without having to think much about it. A few things have happened like that with The Wedding Present. It was like that when we did "The Hit Parade". It was a five-minute conversation that said 'Let's not do an album; let's do twelve singles'. It was all sorted - we'd do them on seven-inch, we'd do a cover on the B-side, we'd have a video for each one.
And was that a tremendous adventure, or about halfway through, a frightening ballache?
It was quite stressful, to be honest, because it was a very different way of writing.
Because you were on it all the time?
Yeah, because normally you write a load of songs, then you think you've got enough to make an album, so you go and record. It's a very leisurely process. With this, it was more like having monthly publication deadlines. We had an underlying, unspoken rule that if we ever felt like the music was suffering, then we'd stop, because it wasn't that important to do twelve singles. I think, with exception of a couple of the B-sides, it all stands up. It was a fascinating way to do things for a year. It stretched the band and we were all totally glad when it was over.
The words 'shy' or 'reserved' have always been bandied about when describing you. Are you a reluctant front man?
I think I've got used to it now - grown into it, really. Often people ask if I want to do something that involves speaking to a group of people and that terrifies me, but I've never been that nervous about going on stage and playing. I've got a kind of drive to do that. I guess that's different from the off-stage me. I've found it mystifying when I've worked with musicians that need beta-blockers because they're so terrified to go on stage, or they need to get rat-arsed. If you're that terrified about playing, you should find yourself something healthier to do that won't require taking drugs to do it.
I know John Peel called you 'direct and uncomplicated' and Stuart Maconie called you 'ordinary'. I assume all of those go down as compliments in your book?
I can see how some people would see those as negative. In the early 90s there was a big rivalry between the NME and Melody Maker, and we were more of an NME band. I think one of the weapons that Melody Maker used to attack us was that we were 'ordinary'. A certain part of the audience wants their pop stars to be God-like and untouchable. It's weird because pretty much all bands start ordinary - you form a band with your mates, hire a van and book your own gigs. That happens for as long as it takes to get famous and then people won't do that anymore, because they're pop stars; they'll pay someone to do it all for them. We never made that transition for some reason!
When you released "George Best", did you ever wonder where it would lead or whether it would last?
It's a difficult question to answer, because on the one hand, I've never been that confident; if you ask that unconfident person, then yes, I am surprised that here I am, thirty years later, still doing it, but on the other hand, I did have that drive from a very early age and I can't think of what else I would have done. In some ways, I think it is a good job that I made a success of it!
Is a small amount of that success allied to the patronage of John Peel?
It was fundamental for a band like us. In those days, for any alternative band, he had so much power, in playing your records or giving you sessions. It was a lot easier; as soon as he started playing Wedding Present records, people came to us and said 'We've heard you on John Peel, can you play our venue?', or 'Can we interview you for our magazine?' But there were bands for whom it didn't happen. I always use The Membranes as an example, John Robb's band, because I always thought he never quite gave them the support their music deserved. I thought they'd totally sound in place on John Peel's show, but he didn't really play them. I really love John Peel and I adored those programmes. They shaped my musical heritage, but at the same time, I realise that he was too important. Nowadays, there are so many more outlets, especially with the Internet.
Self-releasing is big right now. You put "George Best" out yourself on Reception Records. You were on RCA for a bit, but you've self-released on Scopitones ever since. You were ahead of the curve there.
There's no reason to be on a major label nowadays, unless they're paying you a load of money, which they won't, because they haven't got loads of money anymore.
As the BBC celebrates Music Day with blue plaques being revealed around the country, where would the Wedding Present put up a blue plaque? Which place really defined you?
I'd probably nominate the first venue we ever played as The Wedding Present, with the line-up that went on to play "George Best", but I'm afraid that venue was knocked down many years ago. It was in Allerton Bywater in Yorkshire, a mining village just south of Leeds. For me, it felt like that was the band coming together. It was 1985, and a couple of months later, we released our first single. It was called The Shires Club.
Was it like Phoenix Nights?
Very much so!
Maybe they should mention you on the 'You are now entering Allerton Bywater' sign instead. You said this year is the last time "George Best" will be played as a whole body of work.
Yeah. There are a couple of things: I don't want to be seen as a band that plays an album like "George Best" ad infinitum and I feel like thirty years is a good place to draw the line. I wrote that when I was in my twenties; some of the songs even hark back to before then. Here I am now in my fifties, it feels a little bit weird, a little bit like teenage angst. I enjoy playing it, but one reason why I'm enjoying it this time is that I know that it's the last time I'll be doing it. I'm going to play it in Leeds in December and that'll be the final time, so that'll be cool, taking it back to where it first started.
By my calculation, it's also the 40th anniversary of "Mitosis", the band you started with Peter Solowka. Tempted?
What, to reform the band? Definitely not! If you heard them, you'd understand why. I think we did one demo tape. I did play it recently, though. It came up because of the book that's coming out, called "Sometimes These Words Just Don't Have To Be Said", so I went back and played the tape. It wasn't as bad as I thought. There may be a place for it. but that place is probably in a box file.
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