To put a spin on the famous line spoken by John Cleese in 80s Britcom Clockwise - a near-contemporary of The Wedding Present’s classic debut album - it’s not the despair. David Gedge can take the despair. It’s the hope he can’t stand…
Coupling the lacerating wit and devastating honesty of Weddoes frontman Gedge with Peter “Grapper” Solowka’s furious buzzsaw guitar, the band’s 1987 debut George Best remains an erudite, passionate and occasionally uproarious reflection on matters of the heart. Fellow Peel darlings The Undertones may have declared in their most well-known song that it was "teenage dreams" that were so hard to beat, but here was a record that demonstrated how drawing upon teen (or at least early twenty-something) angst could prove equally compelling. Especially if it was set to a breakneck clangour and delivered in a sardonic West Yorkshire-via-Greater Manchester accent.
Twenty seven years on from its initial release as a seventeen-track sequence of crushing sucker-punches depicting losses sustained on love’s battlefield, Edsel Records have bulked up a new edition to three discs and 60 tracks, including a live show at London Town & Country Club, a set from Rotterdam, a Swedish radio performance and the obligatory Peel Sessions tracks.
Seven other key Wedding Present releases from the late eighties/early nineties have been similarly embellished for 2014 re-release. Of these, the murky, desolate, Steve Albini-produced third long player Seamonsters (1991) claims all-time top spot in the eyes of many fans. Indeed, both the band and their followers may consider George Best somewhat raw, perhaps even a little gauche. But this debut, recorded by the original four-piece Wedding Present line-up alongside guest vocalist Amelia Fletcher of Talulah Gosh/Heavenly and produced by Chris Allison, works brilliantly as an accessible, if at times gut-wrenching, introduction to TWP.
Contentious as the term continues to be, this is surely one of the ultimate “indie” albums. It proudly eschews bravura musicianship without deploying the self-conscious and ultimately restrictive rudimentary approach of other C86 acts. It was popularized by fanzines, late night radio and word-of-mouth. It was spawned by a provincial, unglamorous group and centres around universally relatable subject matter, conveyed in bluntly matter-of-fact terms. Woody Allen biographer Myles Palmer wrote that the success of his subject’s comedy prose was due to the fact that ‘Woody is taut, modern, journalistic and never florid.’ It’s also the key to Gedge’s songwriting here.
Despite his romantic tribulations and elevation to something of a scene Godfather, the down-to-earth Gedge has always been widely acknowledged on the circuit as an approachable and genial performer, ensuring precious little division between artist and audience over the course of his career. There’s some charming early 90s interview footage available online, in which the singer attempts to rationalize The Wedding Present’s appeal by downplaying comparisons to fellow eighties alternative frontrunners The Smiths and their rather more enigmatic leader Morrissey: “I’m not really an icon, more of a big brother. We’re like everybody else. We never set ourselves up to be....revereable...” There’s further evidence of this on Disc Two of the freshly-minted version, as Gedge also admits to some unease at his newly-acquired sex symbol status following a rollicking live version of "Don’t Be So Hard": “Last night we had knickers on stage, girls throwing them on... I’ve never been so embarrassed in all me life...”
Even in its unadorned first incarnation, George Best is not a particularly short album, and volatile mood swings abound. One minute Gedge is spitting opprobrium at an old flame’s “new friend” (as per the rollicking, scornful opener “Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft”) or the gloriously passive-aggressive "Give My Love To Kevin". The next, bitter reality and a severely bruised ego forces him to come clean and drop the facade: "My Favourite Dress" contains Gedge’s philosophy-in-a-nutshell (“Jealousy is an essential part of love...”) "Nobody's Twisting Your Arm" is a rattling college-rock take on Dorothy Parker’s short story “A Telephone Call.” Accompanying a frantic jangle, the yearning "A Million Miles" celebrates that pivotal, stomach-churning juncture of emerging romantic potential: “How are you going to get back home? Oh, I'd be willing to walk that way...”
A personal highlight is "I’m Not Always So Stupid", an acerbic (and, from a 2014 perspective, charmingly archaic) analogue-era lament. A couple of years previously, Paul Westerberg of Minneapolis alt-rock icons The Replacements had demanded to know how anyone could “say I miss you to an answering machine”. Likewise, Dave can’t quite bring himself to give up the ghost, accompanied by yet another fantastic full-throttle Grapper rattle: “You changed your number and my phonebook's such a mess/But I can't bear to cross your name out yet....” The alternative version that opens CD2 is even faster, even more desperate and thus even more brilliant.
Perhaps the final thought should perhaps be left to the band’s most distinguished advocate, Liverpool FC-supporting (and thus natural Bestie sceptic) DJ John Peel, who in justifying a Weddoes-heavy Festive Fifty in 1987 wryly remarked that “their LP George Best, should not, despite its title, be overlooked.’” Wise, wise words.