As debut albums go, George Best was quite a calling card for Leeds band The Wedding Present. Released in a blaze of jangly guitars in October 1987, it was one of the most successful indie albums of the year, spawning five songs in John Peel’s Festive 50 for that year, including four in the top ten.
The group’s membership may have changed a number of times since then but, 30 years on, original frontman David Gedge is revisiting the record – hailed by the NME as one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All-time – with The Wedding Present’s current line-up, for what he claims will be the last time live.
The tour, which stops at Leeds this weekend, coincides with the release of a ‘reimagining’ of George Best that was recorded in half a day in Steve Albini’s studio in Chicago in 2008 and subsequently forgotten about until this year, when Gedge decided to have the tapes properly mixed and mastered.
“We were at Albini’s studio and we were actually recording another album, El Ray, which came out the next year and we just had some [spare] time in the studio,” the 57-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist recalls. “Because it was just after we’d done a load of George Best gigs to celebrate the 20th anniversary we were well-rehearsed and we knew it and we were playing it really well, and because we had this half a day left and the equipment was already mic-ed up and ready to go we just decided to record it.
“We did it and to be honest I totally forgot about it. I thought, ‘OK, that was interesting, maybe I’ll use that one day, we’d made use of this half-day in the studio, great’. Then towards the end of last year when certain festivals approached us saying ‘It’s the 30th anniversary of George Best next year, do you want to come and play at our festival?’ I was taken by surprise because I’d genuinely forgotten that it was going to be 30 years because it didn’t seem that long ago since the 20th. I said ‘OK, we should do that’ and then I thought ‘Blimey, we should mix that recording that we did all those years ago and release it to coincide with this year’, so it was mixed and finished this year. It was a bit of a long project.”
Gedge admits to feeling a certain nostalgia over the record. “It’s one of the three most personal albums, I think,” he explains. “That, Going, Going... last year and Take Fountain are the three that are the most personal to me. Revisiting those lyrics and singing those songs straight away I’m back there, 30 years ago, re-living the situations that happened to inspire it, but obviously for the rest of the band it totally wasn’t because I think I was the final original member remaining by about 1993, there have been a lot of line-up changes since, so for them it was a whole new project, in a way, which was quite interesting.
“I think there was a feeling that they wanted to change it and move it on. With lots of different people playing it it’s going to sound different because they’ve got different styles etcetera; at the same time they wanted to keep to the spirit of the original recordings so it was an interesting compromise. But I think that any time we do an old song which people in the band didn’t play on the original it’s interesting to see how they interpret it, how they rearrange it. It’s all part and parcel of the process. It’s not purely nostalgia, certainly.”
For a Leeds band, naming the record after one of Manchester United’s greatest footballers was “controversial”, Gedge admits. “Even though I was born in Leeds I actually grew up in Manchester so when I was a kid Manchester United was my team,” he explains. “He was the star player of that team in the 60s and 70s and I had posters of him on my bedroom wall, but more than that I think it transcends football, in a way. He was like the first football pop star, if you like, his long hair and his shirt was never tucked inside the 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 it 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.
“He always had this iconic status for me and when it came to a time of choosing a name for the LP I didn’t have to think too far really because it was obvious that I was going to call it George Best. Of course it means that we never sell T-shirts in Leeds,” he laughs. “I get this every time, ‘Ah, David, love the LP but there’s no way I can buy that T-shirt, I’m not wearing a picture of a Manchester United player on my T-shirt’, so there you go – you can’t win them all.”
The album may be revered as one of the landmarks of British independent music in the 80s but looking at it now, Gedge says he feels “it’s like a flawed LP”. “I think we were quite naive and not very skilled at writing and arranging and recording so I do feel it’s a bit one-dimensional. I think I’ve gone on to make better record since but whenever I talk to people they say they quite like that aspect of it, it sounds young and naive and maybe flawed and that’s part of the attraction.
“It’s hard for me to say being the person who was involved in the making of it, but I do enjoy playing it live, it’s so frantic and energetic, it’s a real workout to play live, but I do think as the band have gone through the years we’ve developed different styles and gone in different directions. We’ve become more accomplished, really, than we did on that first record.”
Last month Leeds label Hatch Records also released a second CD of The Wedding Present’s sessions for BBC 6 Music DJ Marc Riley. They cover a wide range of songs that Gedge has written over the years. “We will go in there and do a new song and maybe something from the past, for instance certain years we’ve been playing a certain album live. We did Seamonsters one year so we played one of those tracks on the programme,” Gedge explains.
“It’s a different way to do it, really, and I think it’s nice to change things around and try different things with different line-ups.”
Riley, it seems, has become a friend. “We see him once a year now,” Gedge says. “We try and make time to pop in there [to the 6 Music studios] if we’re passing through Salford.”
The singer sees Riley’s show keeping alive some of the spirit of the late John Peel. “I think he’s the closest to it. I did feel [John Peel] was by and large irreplaceable, he was such a brilliant presenter and he managed to combine that interest in new music with the knowledge of the history of popular music going back to the 30s and maybe even earlier. I don’t think anyone’s got quite that depth of personality and history and knowledge, really, but I think Marc is in the right ball park. He seems to be one of those people who genuinely wants to be on the radio to play records that people might like – a lot of DJs are not on the radio for that reason – but it’s good that is taking up that battle.”
The Wedding Present perform George Best at O2 Academy Leeds on Saturday December 9. scopitones.co.uk