Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Not like anyone I’ve ever met…

Saturday saw The Wedding Present play ‘George Best’ live for the final time. I felt I had to be there…

I’ll start with a confession. I don’t class myself as a fan of The Wedding Present as much as a fan of ‘George Best’, their 1987 debut LP. In addition, I must also confess to never having bought or owned the original vinyl version of ‘George Best’. Indeed I never bought it in any form until purchasing the ‘Plus’ version on CD several years later. Nevertheless, it has remained one of my “go to” listens for the past three decades and is the reason I felt compelled to share this post with you.

My enjoyment of the Leeds band’s original twelve-track LP came courtesy of a TDK C90 cassette prepared for me by my mate Gary in the early part of 1988. It had ‘George Best’ on one side and The Chesterfields’ ‘Kettle’ on the other and formed part of my then ongoing transition from retro-kid to indie-kid. With the Nineties appearing on the horizon, I was finally getting up to speed with the changing sounds of the Eighties. It was a transition that had been first forged in the company of John Peel and via early exposure to New Order, The Smiths and especially the so-called ‘C86’ world of jangly guitars. I liked what I heard but hitherto still not enough to divert money that would otherwise be spent on the next reissue from the vast Ace Records stable. As such, I relied on the wonderful world of the cassette to keep me abreast of the latest ‘in-bands’ that Peel and my hipper mates were raving about. ‘George Best’ would be a clincher.
I wasn’t the only one to be swept away by vocalist David Gedge’s “bittersweet, breathtakingly honest love songs immersed in whirlwind guitars”[i]. The NME described ‘George Best’ as “an unmitigated delight” and named it among its Top 500 Albums of all-time. Within two months of its release, five ‘George Best’ tracks had made it into John Peel’s legendary Festive 50 (four of them in the top ten). In a recent interview in the Yorkshire Post, Gedge himself said he regards it as one of his “three most personal albums”. I’d hazard a guess that many of the band’s fans felt/feel the same. In my case it certainly didn’t take long before the ‘George Best’ tape became one to slip into my Walkman on those long coach journeys back from another City away defeat and lose myself in whilst staring wistfully out the window. As the cliché goes, ‘George Best’ really did say something to me about my life.
According to their own Concertography, The Wedding Present played their first live gig in Hull at the University on 25 June 1986. I first got to see them at the same venue two years later on 17 October 1988, as part of their biggest tour to date and in front of a “packed, heaving crowd”[ii]. I’d offered to review the gig for Hull, Hell & Happiness[iii], which proved not the wisest move given my consumption of alcohol beforehand and my positioning in the middle of the front-of-stage melee. Already undermined by having missed excellent support act, The Heart Throbs, my eventual offering was not one to arouse the attention of the mainstream music press…     
“From the opening bars of ‘Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft’ to the closing encore of ‘This Boy Can Wait’ every song was met with a large barrage of cheers. The chart near miss ‘Why Are You Being so Reasonable Now?’ appeared early on, but the biggest cheer of the night was reserved for ‘Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm’, which Mr Gedge dedicated to all people from Hull: “You’re from Yorkshire and don’t let anyone tell you different!”
Originally, the plan was for the fanzine to also interview the band – which would have been a first for me. Sadly, this didn’t happen due to lack of time but The Weddoes generously offered to accommodate us at a later date. So a couple of weeks later, Gary and “friend of the fanzine” Sean P walked into The Hyde Park pub in Leeds where Mr Gedge and guitarist Peter Solowka were waiting. I should have been with them but a heavy night at Spiders curtailed my involvement – much to my later regret. In time-honoured fanzine fashion the interview wasn’t written up in time for the next edition, or indeed the one after that! And when it did finally appear it had to be split over two issues due to the band’s willingness to talk at some length about topics as wide-ranging as the workings of the music scene, football ID cards, boyhood heroes, touring East Germany, Top Of The Pops and, of course, ‘George Best’. They also gave their thoughts on the recent Hull University gig.
“I imagine the majority of people wouldn’t have been able to see what was going on. It’s narrow and there’s all those pillars. For people right at the front, there’s obviously a great atmosphere. There was a lot of movement, dancing shouting and that.”
Ironically, Gary’s main memory of the afternoon wasn’t the happiest: “I asked Dave Gedge, ‘Why George Best?’ and he immediately stormed off to the bogs. Peter replied, ‘Don’t worry, he just hates people asking him that!’” Quite. “It’s just a good name” was the eventual typed-up reply to a question the band had “answered about four hundred times now”. For those who don’t know and perhaps think it strange for a Leeds band to name a record after one of Manchester United’s greatest footballers, Duncan Seaman had more luck when asking the same question in the aforementioned Yorkshire Post piece. Although born in Leeds, Gedge was brought up in Manchester where as a kid he supported United. Best was his favourite player:
“He was like the first football pop star, if you like, his long hair and shirt was never tucked in his shorts like everybody else, he’d get into trouble for missing practices because he’d been out dating Miss World last night and he went to discos with The Beatles. For a kid, he was a great role model – here’s this rebellious, reckless character who happens to be brilliant at what he does as well, I think that was very appealing.”  
Shortly after the Hull University gig, The Wedding Present wound-up their independent Reasonable Records label and signed with RCA. As they told HH&H the move was purely down to the need to sell more records. Previous distributors Red Rhino’s limitations meant many fans overseas had struggled to obtain a copy of ‘George Best’. This really upset Gedge who holds his band’s foreign following in particular high esteem. In short, the success of the record had meant The Weddoes “had got a little too big for Red Rhino…it costs a lot of money to press up to 30 or 40,000 records”. In total, ‘George Best’ cost £60,000 – “not bad when you think Spurs paid £2m for Gazza!”   
In November 1990, in-between their two RCA studio albums (‘Bizarro’ and ‘Seamonsters’) the band played “a sweat-box of a gig” to a full house at The Tower. It was one of the first events attended by Gary and me since launching From Hull To Eternity. In what we thought would be an excellent coup for the new fanzine, we sent David Gedge one of our stylish ‘hull’ t-shirts (based on the best-selling ‘James’ design) to wear onstage. Alas, it never happened. Our hero failed to open the package in time, a fact he pointed out on a postcard sent to me from Minnesota, USA where ‘Seamonsters’ was being recorded in eleven days. (Incidentally, this was only the second postcard I’d ever received from a “pop star”. The first was from Sade…but that’s for another time).
‘Bizarro’ had spawned the band’s first UK Top 40 hit, ‘Kennedy’. It was followed in 1992 by twelve more as The Wedding Present equalled Elvis Presley’s record for most UK Top 30 hits in one year, courtesy of a dozen 7” singles released on a monthly basis. In total the band would enjoy eighteen stints in the Top 40. It’s an impressive figure, bettered only perhaps by the number of band members they’ve had! The aforementioned Solowka was the second of nearly twenty departures witnessed over the next three decades. But this wasn’t something that concerned me inasmuch as I’ve already stated – it’s ‘George Best’ the album rather than The Wedding Present the band that has always been the safety net for me to fall back on…
And so to Saturday, 9 December 2017: the final ever live performance of ‘George Best’ at the O2 Academy in the band’s hometown. It was a gig we couldn’t afford to miss – especially given that what we thought would be our final chance to see the album played live, at The Welly in Hull back in March, had turned out to be a standard Weddoes gig, albeit an excellent one.
For this occasion, the show formed the focal point of a weekend already steeped in nostalgia. Even local radio DJ Andy Comfort got into the spirit, airing ‘A Million Miles’ as part of his Friday request slot. I demanded silence from the two Slushettes for the duration of the track, which was only broken when my eldest said: “If this was X-Factor he’d be voted off first week”. I rather fancy that Mr Gedge would take that as a huge compliment! 
Later that night I joined several other like-minded folk at the “Cleveland Classics Christmas Cracker” at Halfway House on Spring Bank, with ‘Mr Spiders’ himself, Chris Von Trapp taking us on a wonderful musical trip down memory lane. Only the quality of the beer let things down, but given our plans for the Saturday that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. And come the following lunchtime all memories of poor ale were forgotten as my mate Steve and I sat in Amy’s Café Bar in Patrington, enjoying a couple of lovely pints of ChamALEon (The Crafty Little Brewery, Brough). From there it was a hop aboard the Withernsea-to-Hull service bus, a meet-up with Gary and Sheldon at the other end and then on to the 14.32 train to Leeds. Before four o’clock we were dropping our bags off at The Boundary Hotel, with Headingley cricket ground providing a somewhat ill-fitting backdrop on a day made for brass monkeys.

The lead-up to the gig involved copious amounts of ale, some good (Greene King Rocking Rudolph in The Skyrack and Daleside Square Rigger in The Hedley Verity) and some not so good (neither of The Original Oak’s cask offerings were up to scratch). Jeff Stelling’s announcement of City’s first win in seven was duly noted and a tweet of mine received a reply from the legendary @FredBoycott, before it was time for the main event. 
Initially Mr Gedge teased us with a selection of songs from across the past three decades. ‘Once More’, ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah’, ‘Corduroy’, ‘Broken Bow’, ‘Deer Caught In The Headlights’, ‘The Girl From The DDR’, ‘No’ and finally ‘England’ (the latter complete with a cameo appearance from Simon Armitage). Having unwittingly missed support act Young Romance, it acted as the perfect warm-up before it was time for the main man to utter those immortal words that lead into 'Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft'...
“Oh why do you catch my eye then turn away?”
Gedge told the Yorkshire Post that when he sings those songs, “straight away I’m back there, 30 years ago, re-living the situations that happened to inspire it”. He’s not alone. I closed my eyes and I was back staring out the coach window again; back to weekdays listening to angry young men at work and back to weeknights listening to angry young men on the wireless. Back to Saturday nights in Spiders and Sunday mornings spent wondering what if? But then, far too soon, it was over, as Gedge spat out the final line of ‘You Can’t Moan Can You’...
“You have got everything that you need”.
And indeed I had.
The last line of ‘George Best’ didn’t actually signal the end of the set as the band threw in ‘Bewitched’ and ‘Kennedy’ to finish. In truth I barely noticed them, save for the chance it offered for a final sing-a-long. Instead I remained immersed in thoughts of the various past acquaintances brought to mind by hearing live again one of the landmark albums of British independent music. It took the bitterly cold air of a December night in Leeds to snap me back to the present, a present perhaps not as “young and naïve” but in many ways just as “flawed”[iv]. While Gary headed home on the last train back to Hull, Sheldon, Steve and I retired to The Cuthbert Brodrick and reflected on what the magnificence we’d just witnessed. Our recollections were aided by several pints of Yorkshire HeartBrewery’s quite wonderful (and aptly named?) The North Remembers.
We arose early Sunday morning to find the threatened snow had failed to materialise and by 9.52 we were safely aboard the TransPennine Express, bound for Hull with no delay. It was a quiet end to an excellent weekend but should there be any danger of a mood of melancholy descending over us, Steve has pointed out that dates are already in the calendar for the 30th anniversary of ‘Tommy’ in 2018. Sheffield Leadmill next February anybody?

[i] From TWP website scopitones.co.uk
[ii] From Hull, Hell & Happiness issue 4
[iii] Issue 2
[iv] From The Yorkshire Post, 8 Dec 2017
1) The 1987 publicity shot with George Best is courtesy of Scopitones - the official home of The Wedding Present and Cinerama
2) 'Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft' (1990) courtesy of Gareth Youngs via YouTube
3) 'My Favourite Dress' video courtesy of kbehnia via YouTube
4) Finale video courtesy of Anthony McDonagh via YouTube

1 comment:

  1. Postscript: A new feature documentary from KneejerkFilm: "Something Left Behind" tells the story of The Wedding Present's much-heralded 1987 debut album "George Best". Directed by Andrew Jezard this documentary will explore the 30 year lifespan of a record that has come to define youth in the minds of so many for whom those days are long since past. Andrew has set up a Kickstarter crowd-funding page to help reach the £30,000 target required to complete the project. At time of going to print, £23,769 has so far been raised. There is also a DVD of Saturday's final ever live playing. Got to be worth an investment hasn't it? Further info can be found at https://www.somethingleftbehind.com