Can it really be 30 years since The Wedding Present released Tommy? In those days constantly the bridesmaid to Morrissey’s bride and the second favourite band of many Smiths diehards, the album Tommy, like Hatful of Hollow, was a compilation of John Peel sessions, singles and B-sides rather than a studio recording. For those of us who spent the evenings of 1988 doing homework in our bedroom while strategically pressing record on our radio cassette players during Peel’s radio show, It was an opportunity to catch up on those tracks missed due to immersion in binomial equations.
The following year, I witnessed their black-clad angst in the flesh at Reading Festival. Having worked my way to the front of the stage during Billy Bragg’s set, I was unprepared for the moshpit that would erupt as vocalist / guitarist David Gedge, resplendent in short shorts despite the grim weather, launched into My Favourite Dress. I fell onto the wet and slippery field surrounded by clog-shod New Model Army fans, my glasses frames irretrievably bent.
Although wary of the slam dancers at future gigs, I was smitten by the wall of sound underpinning embittered tales of rejection delivered in an unreconstructed Northern tones, such that The Wedding Present become my favourite live act for the remainder of the sixth-form. Never quite capitalising on that post-Smiths vacancy to take over the indie guitar world, they nonetheless became as much of a cult classic as the Star Trek actor they name-checked. If The Smiths were the arty, poetic lyricism of unrequited love, The Wedding Present were the scientific certainty that emotional attachments that come up must surely come down.
Fellow Peel session and Festive Fifty stars, Melys opened the show at O2 Islington. Despite the early doors, punters were soon pulled away from the bar. Candy-sweet vocal tones floated softly across the room, backed by swirly indie guitars and cleverly contrasted with deliciously dark programmed atmospheric soundscapes. With a delivery as soft and melodic as Saint Etienne‘s Sarah Cracknell but the presence of a gutsy Sixties diva and the wistful melancholy of Portishead, all eyes were on Andrea Parker, sporting a glittery mini-skirt changing colour with the stage lights. Hailing from Wales, their set included a bilingual song.
After almost as many line-up changes as Peel’s mainstay The Fall, but similarly retaining the name, songs and lead singer, The Wedding Present took to the stage in front of a similarly aged crowd. That’s not to say that a few first-timers hadn’t found their way in, perhaps the offspring of the faithful. As for the band, looking less like the old gang of skinny boy mates and more like a cool uncle handing out with the kids, three-quarters of them looked too young to have remembered the first time around. Still black-clad, David Gedge has lost the fringe (‘Can you see my bald patch from the balcony?’ he lamented. ‘We can see it from down here, mate!’ responded a straight-talking punter in the stalls), but has retained his angst-ridden adolescent demeanour and vigorous guitar breaks.
Guitarist Danielle Wadey and bassist Melanie Howard played a pretty faithful rendition of the old tunes, although at times tending towards the janglier side of the songs rather than the thrashing of old favoured by Peter Solowka et al. The music has always provided challenges for drummers and Charles Layton did well to keep up with a physically demanding set.
The youthful exuberance of Go Out and Get ‘Em Boy was prefaced by the Peel voiceover that once introduced it on his show. The chiming chords had lost none of their skin-tingling power and adrenaline-fuelled rush to the head, played slightly more slowly than back in the day but with all the poignancy of small town hopes and dreams.
Speaking of which, as Gedge swung his hips to the opening notes of You Should Always Keep in Touch With Your Friends a few hundred punters grew misty eyed over the pleasure in the pain of first love, as they prepared to mouth the words back at him. The vocal delivery has mellowed over the years, developing from bluffly bitter to tenderly nostalgic, as the guitar lines have become more relaxed yet more varied, with some interesting discordant elements being slipped in. “A smile in these ungrateful times” became “a smile in these uncertain times,” capturing the zeitgeist of a land that has changed from being governed by a female Tory prime minister destroying lives with sweeping public sector cuts and being undermined by her own party over Europe to… oh.
Gedge is perhaps over dismissive of his earlier numbers. Maybe they are a bit adolescent, maybe they are influenced by his school friend’s criminally underrated band, The Chameleons. No matter; they may lack the musical sophistication and diversity of Gedge’s later work but they have a touching humanity that made Peel fish them out from a pile of demo cassettes and ensure that regardless of how life moves on, they still evoke the frustrations and gut-wrenching disappointment of failing relationships that touch a twangy chord three decades on.
This time round the moshing took a bit longer to get going, but once the apple pie anthem that is Kennedy had arrived, the jostling and jumping had taken hold. A pared back version of My Favourite Dress was rather more sedate with the assembled throng singing along rather than shoving each other.
There were a few more I longed to hear: the tight-mouthed sarcasm of Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft and Give My Love to Kevin (a song beloved by Stacey Dooley’s boyfriend – possibly), the clipped gruffness of Brassneck, and the bouncy indie-pop of Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now? Apparently Charlie the drummer chose the set list so it was definitely his fault. But there was little to moan about with around two dozen songs played over an hour and a half set, with the tracks from Tommy interspersed with highlights from the extensive back catalogue. Certainly the late 1980s accusation that all of their songs sound the same no longer holds substance.
Eschewing encores as ever and rejecting the temptation to close the night with a banger, they ended with No Christmas, a tortured torch song of regretted deeds, a relationship on the brink and a longing for security, that perhaps sums up the average festive season experience more pertinently than anything by Slade. As for New Year celebrations, well as Gedge cannily reminded us, 2019 marks the 30-year anniversary of the release of Bizarro so maybe it won’t be too long before we get to hear Brassneck after all…
Words: copyright Sarah Corbett-Batson
The Wedding Present played the O2 Islington on Friday, 14th December 2018