They never really stood much of a chance of being taken seriously. Having chosen a, well, wet name (inspired by a Scritti Politti lyric), they were fronted by a Tom Cruisean grinmeister backed by a trio of sidekicks who looked more like journeymen footballers for Clydebank than the craftsmen of infectious blue eyed soul which they were. The early hype as their debut single hit the charts painted them as the successors to Wham! in the teenybopper hierarchy, at a time when the Taste Police was already rounding up those still in possession of Nik Kershaw albums (with exception of the dedoubtable Giles Smith, who used to be friends with Lil’ Nik).
All this did not prejudice sales. The barely pubescent girls bought Wet Wet Wet’s records, as did the occasional connoisseur of pop whose critical appraisal was not influenced by the demographic the music as marketed at (though that segment may well have been turned off by the Wets’ poor but chart-topping cover of With A Little Help From My Friends). A few years after Wet Wet Wet arrived on the scene, they managed the cross-over, from schoolgirls to the mainstream that bought albums by Céline Dion, Bryan Adams, Whitney Houston and MFB, thanks to their massive hit Love Is All Around, a cover of the Troggs’ song. The progression from one despised market demographic to another was seamless.
I think their version of Love Is All Around is quite lovely, though I know I’ll find myself in a pitiful minority here. I think more people would share my view that it is quite lovely had it not been played to absolute death. Love Is All Around may have financed singer Marti Pellow’s tragic drug addiction, but its overexposure removed whatever shade of musical credibility Wet Wet Wet might have aspired to. And even as I set out to defend the group, I can do so only on basis of their first three albums, being almost entirely ignorant of their subsequent output.
The debut, Popped In, Souled Out (1987), however is a pop gem (groanworthy punnery in the title notwithstanding). Pellow, let there be no doubt, was a very good singer, even if he was given to overemoting at times. The musical and vocal highlight of the LP is Temptation, in which Pellow pleads gently, then angrily, then with the desperation of an Al Green seeking a repair kit for his broken heart. On the LP version, he even swears as he exclaims “don’t waste my fucking’ spirit”. The lyric on the gatefold cover excises the expletive. On the best-of compilation Part One (1994), the word “fucking” has been overdubbed with what sounds like “angry”. Unaccountably, it then fades out before the climactic “peace, love and understanding” bridge and Pellow’s ad libbed “mwah!”
For all its merits, Popped In‘s sleek production was not a reflection of the way the band saw itself. The foursome considered themselves serious soul aficionados, influenced by the ’60s and ’70s sounds of Stax, Hi and Vee Jay, Atlantic and Chess, of Memphis, Philly and Motown. The real sound of Wet Wet Wet, unfettered by the dictate of A&R people, was captured on The Memphis Sessions, recorded before Popped In but released only in 1988.
The eight-song set was produced by the legendary Willie Mitchell, who at Hi Records produced Al Green in his pomp. The group had the self-confidence to cover Mitchell’s song This Time — it does take courage to record a song by one’s hero as he sits in the studio — and did so beautifully. The difference in sound is most obvious when the Memphis version of Sweet Little Mystery is played against the poppy hit version. The Memphis Sessions is not a soul classic — they just hadn’t earned their stripes yet — but the album presents Wet Wet Wet as a group of serious, talented musicians who understood and respected the genre for which they had such an affection.
The follow-up, 1989’s Holding Back The River, sought to incorporate that soul sensibility into the pop sound. It worked only incompletely. The title track tries to combine soul, blues and gospel, coming across entirely self-conscious in the process. The album’s best songs are the mid-tempo pop songs, Sweet Surrender and Broke Away.
One day in early 1990, a dance remix of Sweet Surrender was playing in a Cape Town disco I regularly frequented when the DJ interrupted the song to announce that the following day, Nelson Mandela would be released from prison. Whatever demerit one might want to attach to the song, to me it will always be beautiful as a symbol of the sound of the final nail being banged into apartheid’s coffin.
Wet Wet Wet – Temptation (LP version).mp3
Wet Wet Wet – Temptation (Memphis Sessions).mp3
Wet Wet Wet – Sweet Little Mystery (Memphis Sessions).mp3
Wet Wet Wet – Sweet Little Mystery (Single version).mp3
Wet Wet Wet – This Time (Memphis Sessions).mp3
Wet Wet Wet – Broke Away.mp3
Wet Wet Wet – Sweet Surrender (remix).mp3