The Wonder Stuff’s late 80s student disco anthem had its genesis in a recording accident, as frontman Miles Hunt explains
For anyone who was paying attention to the UK indie scene in the late 80s, looking at the chart position attained by The Wonder Stuff’s A Wish Away may come as something of a shock. So ubiquitous was the song with its “I wish you were here, I wish you we-ere heeeere” chorus, it’s hard to believe it didn’t make the Top 40. Funny old world we live in.
Not that the charts would remain untroubled by The Wonder Stuff for long – their next single, It’s Yer Money I’m After Baby, would kick off a string of 13 Top 40 singles for the band, who formed in 1986 out of the same pool of local musicians that spawned Pop Will Eat Itself. They split up in 1994 but frontman Miles Hunt put together a new line-up in 2000, and they’ve been touring and recording in various formations ever since.
Here, Miles recalls how A Wish Away came into being, and explains why it isn’t called I Wish You Were Here…
“Back in the early days of The Wonder Stuff, the songwriting routine was always pretty much the same. Songs would be written as jams in rehearsal rooms, then I’d come home from rehearsal and sit with an acoustic guitar and finalise the lyrics. But I always quite liked how I got the title for A Wish Away, which obviously should really have been called I Wish You Were Here but I was very aware that that title had already been taken.
“What happened was, I was living with Clint Mansell from Pop Will Eat Itself at the time, and he had a four-track Portastudio. I recorded a version of A Wish Away on that, and I don’t know if you remember how those things worked, but it gave you four tracks because it splits the two stereo bands from side 1 and side 2. And then when we sat down to listen to it, I put it in the cassette deck the wrong way round, and so because I’d double-tracked the guitar and double-tracked the vocal, I had one guitar and one vocal going backwards. And it ends up going ‘aaaaaaaaawish-away’ rather than ‘I wish you were here’ or… actually I don’t know what part of the song it was, though I do still have the tape somewhere, I think. I remember thinking ‘That’s odd’, and then thinking ‘Hmm… a wish away… that’s what I’ll call the song!’.
“So that became the last line. And then it’s been pointed out to me in recent years that there are very few songs in the pop arena where the title of the song only appears once in the song, and only in the last line. And it’s quite a nice collection of songs: Up The Junction by Squeeze, A Wish Away by us, Just Like Heaven by The Cure and I think there’s only one or two others. So that’s quite a nice little nerdy songwriting detail! But again, like everything else with The Wonder Stuff, it happened by accident rather than design.
“I’ve never regretted calling the song that. Some people say you should always go for an obvious title that’s the same as the chorus, so people can go in a record shop and say ‘Have you got that record Achy Breaky Heart?’ or whatever, but I’ve always been the opposite, I’ve often used titles that aren’t even in the song. Unbearable isn’t in the song and I’ve done that a few times… if I can sum up the whole feeling of the song in one word, I quite like that.
“I think titles are really important… I grew up, in my late teens, buying Smiths singles, and half the time it was like the title was almost more important than the track! They were just great, like who’d have the audacity to call a song Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now? I mean, the song’s all right but that title’s great! Shakespeare’s Sister, is another one… Morrissey did that quite a lot. And I don’t mind if I do that and it loses us a few sales. I didn’t write the songs to sell ’em in the first place, so it’s not something I’m gonna spend any time worrying about.
“As regards recording the song, the final version of A Wish Away was probably about the fifth time we’d tried to record it, including the Portastudio version. And I remember that we didn’t want to record it that day. Pat Collier the producer had listened to various demos of it that were all terrible: we always thought ‘This is our strong song, this is going to be our third single, our follow-up to Unbearable‘, and we’d tried to record it on our own money before Polygram got involved. We recorded a version in Wolverhampton, and that was terrible; we did another version at a studio in Warwick, and that was terrible too! We just couldn’t get it right. Some of that was to do with the arrangement, and then the last-but-one version we did was more or less the same arrangement that we did for the Eight-Legged Groove Machine version… but we played it like arseholes so that was terrible too.
“We really, really didn’t want to record the song again”
“But Pat Collier was still convinced that it was a strong single contender, and I remember that on the day, we were recording Eight-Legged Groove Machine and Pat said, ‘Okay, it’s time to have another look at that A Wish Away song and we were like, ‘Nah, nah, we’ve moved on from that. We’re never going to get it right, and we’ve written this, let’s do No For The 13th Time or Grin’… we really, really didn’t want to record A Wish Away again, we’d given up on it. But through Pat’s tenacity, we did.
“That doesn’t happen very often. I think A Wish Away and Golden Green are the only two songs that we ever stuck in a cupboard and said ‘We won’t go near those again’ that we actually came back to. There are plenty of others – and many of them have turned up on various bootlegs over the years – that we’ve just gone, ‘Nah, we’re not doing that, it’s a piece of shit’. But Golden Green was another one that we tried a couple of times to record and finally got right, and again that was down to Pat Collier going ‘What have you got for today?’ and we were like, ‘Well I’ve got this chorus but the rest of the song’s shit,’ and Pat said, ‘Well don’t play me the rest of the song, play me the chorus and we’ll go from there’. So that’s what we did, but those are the only two. I think as a general rule, if you’ve shelved a song you’ve shelved it for a good reason, and so generally – whether it’s with The Wonder Stuff or other people I’ve worked with – if something’s shelved, it stays shelved.”