Between nostalgia and weightlessness: The ‘Classic album gig’ syndrome (The Wedding Present play ‘Seamonsters’)

Friday night I went to London’s Koko to see the Wedding Present play their 1991 album Seamonsters, the first time I’ve been to one of these ‘heritage album’ events that have become such a staple on the cultural calendar over the past decade or so. On the one hand it’s just a part of the ongoing need for bands to monetise their back catalogue, on the other it’s a welcome way for long-lived bands (though of course David Gedge is the only surviving member of the band that recorded Seamonsters) to contextualise their long existence.

The Wedding Present live on stage, and some 40-something men

And it is this that makes these heritage gigs so fascinating, because they foreground the dynamic that underlies all rock and pop gigs once you’ve got four or five albums under your belt and have to decide how and when in the show to ‘play the hits’. This dynamic, for the fans, is one based not merely on nostalgia, which is a passive emotion, but on an active attempt to recover a lost sensibility – to push through nostalgia to measure the distance travelled from who and how we were, to who and how we are now, and how that reignited passion (the rush of recognition when the first chords kick in) sits differently in us today.

That distance, of course, is made manifest by the presence onstage of the band members, or in this case singer, who are there no longer as avatars of youth and rebellion, but of middle-age and, if not obstinacy then certainly perseverance. The reasons to be a pop star or indie musician or whatever at 18 are obvious; to be so at 25 or 30 (Gedge’s age when he recorded Seamonsters) understandable; to be so at 45 or 50 (his age now) far more complex.

Why does he do it? Because he is still ‘hungry’? Because it’s his only viable livelihood? Or because we need him up there, we call him up, like some lifesize voodoo doll, to perform for us the strange, culturally-specific ritual dance of lost youth reanimated?It’s not about regaining lost time (though those first chords will evoke a rich and complex array of physiological and psychological sensations in the brief second or seconds before it is identified, named, dated) but about measuring the ground covered. In seeing how the singer performs a song from twenty years ago, whether and to what extent they replicate, respond to and comment on an initial creative impulse now long gone, or long fossilised, is just an externalisation of what is going on inside us:  how we relate to those initial responses we made to the song when it was fresh and relevant to our young lives.

Seamonsters, for me, was the perfect album on which to try out this temporal gymnastics. I was 19 when it came out (to Gedge’s 30) and it was, for a while, an important album to me: it was demonstrably more grown-up than The Wedding Present’s previous albums, with their adolescent longings painfully dredged up in Gedge’s lyrics, and then absolved by, or reburied under, the swathes of post-Buzzcocks thrashy strumming. (The coda to the standard Wedding Present song was a cathartic, heads-down, lyric-less three chord work out borrowed from the end of The Velvet Underground’s What Goes On, with a rhythm as familiar, within this musical subculture, as the Bo Diddley chug.) The album, crucially, was that bit more grown up than me – about ‘proper’ adult adultery, rather than adolescent unfaithfulness – and therefore a sort of guide to the life to come, rather in the way of Helen Simpson’s story Heavy Weather (as discussed in a previous post here). It reassured the nearly grown-up me that proper grown-up life didn’t rule out the possibility of the kind of high passion (ie not really that high) I had thrived on, or liked to think I did.

Seamonsters was grown up, lyrically, but it had also found a harder edged sound to match that development, thanks to the production work of Steve Albini. Where the thrashy play-outs to earlier songs were trebly, this was bass-heavy and dissonant and anti-melodic, as in the wordless barrages of noise that punctuate album opener ‘Dalliance’. It’s strange to think the album came out just sixth months before Nirvana’s Nevermind and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, both of which it pre-empts (though pre-empts is an unfair term) at certain moments.

But how was the gig? It was good. It wasn’t as loud as I’d hoped, despite the presence of that fireworksy, sub-tinnitus crackle in my ears – or perhaps the sound system was better than it would have been, back in the day – and in any case I watched, detached, from up in the gallery; if I’d wanted to really hurt my ears, and possibly body, I’d have been stumble-pogoing around in the melee downstairs. Gedge’s voice was surprisingly good, in that foghorn/croon way of his, but I couldn’t get around the fact that, for the most part, he was acting out his lines (“pretending that it’s you/it still won’t go away”), rather than trying to crawl back inside them and at least pretend to be singing them from the inside out.

The lyric-less parts of the songs were different. In those strange, out-of-time sections of thrash, mostly three- or one-chord (two chord in ‘Rotterdam’, I notice), in which the time of the song itself seems suspended (“Time stops in a pop song”); in which it sets up an internal recursion that seem to set the song on a trajectory with no conceivable end or exit: at these times the song, like a reduced gravity aircraft that gives people the momentary experience of astronaut-like weightlessness, left me floating, timeless, ageless, back in the body of a 19-year-old. I just wanted those sections to go on. There was an emotional geometry in them that could have carried extrapolation. They were no longer pop songs, they had achieved something experiential, a form of performance art – an achieved moment that, once seized, deserved holding longer, stretching out, pushing to further limits, to see what those limits were. Other bands would have done so. (Sonic Youth, Neil Young). They did it occasionally, in the feedback at the end of ‘Lovenest’, and, strangely, in the held note at the end of the chorus of ‘Corduroy’ (“But you’ve not changed at awwwwww……”). Then, I was with them, in and out of body, straddling decades, and glad to have been given the chance.

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