Teenage Fanclub And Me

Among the multitude of potential subject that I could write about, I kept coming back to one.  The group of middle-aged Glaswegian men collectively known as Teenage Fanclub.  I have loved their music for well over 25 years now and I think after so many years I actually feel something akin to affection for them, even though I have never met them.  They have never been particularly famous or cool, apart perhaps from a very brief period of vogueness around 1992.  They have never sold a huge number of records.  They’re never going to sell out Wembley Stadium.  But what they do, they do so well, so beautifully and so romantically that I can’t help but fall for them every time I hear them.

I first heard of Teenage Fanclub via a number of passing mentions in the NME (New Musical Express) in the early 90’s.  But I can remember the first time I actually heard them.  It was on a BBC TV show called “Band Explosion” showcasing live performances by new bands from London’s Marquee Club.  It also features a still-wet-behind-the-ears Manic Street Preachers.  What the Fannies (as we refer to them) were playing was objectively quite conservative, melodic, US-influenced rock music.  In 1991 this was very much against the grain of “indie” music in the UK.  The era of the indie/dance crossover pioneered by the likes of The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and The Charlatans was coming to an end, to give way to something altogether less hedonistic.  This was the era of the Shoegazers.  Floppy-fringed rather serious groups of young men making intense and serious music characterised by sheer walls of guitar noise created with banks of effects pedals.  This is the source of the name “Shoegazers”, since they spent most of the time staring at their feet during a performance because that’s where the effects pedals were.  Teenage Fanclub couldn’t be more different from that.  They came on this show and simply played a great and tuneful rock song called “The Concept” with a mid-tempo 4/4 beat and (shock! horror!) a guitar solo!  The first time I heard it I dismissed it as not very current.  The second time the chorus of “I didn’t want to hurt you, oh yeah” started burrowing into my brain.  By the third time I had watched the show through on VHS I was hooked.  This was very special.  And the performance is still on YouTube.

And with that, I was in.

From the start Teenage Fanclub have centred around a trio of singer-songwriters; Norman Blake (Guitar, stands in the centre on stage, does all the talking to the audience), Gerry Love (Bass) and Raymond McGinley (Guitar), with a few different drummers.  When they first formed in the late 80s their drummer was Francis MacDonald, swiftly replaced by Brendan O’Hare before they had ever released a record.  Next, they would recruit former Soup Dragons drummer Paul Quinn, who would eventually be replaced by the returning Francis MacDonald, who remains in the band to this day.

The album from which “The Concept” is taken is called Bandwagonesque, and I duly purchased it on the strength of this performance.  It still gets played regularly.  The songs on it are a fairly even split between Norman and Gerry, with Raymond and drummer Brendan O’Hare contributing one each.  Bandwagonesque was, depending upon your point of view, either their second or third album.  The first was called A Catholic Education, and features their first single “Everything Flows”, although it would be a while before I really got to know that song for the work of genius that it is.

The “second” album is called The King and is decidedly odd.  It was the second album to be released, and their first on their new UK label Creation (owned by fellow Glaswegian Alan McGee and home to My Bloody Valentine and, eventually, Oasis) however it was actually recorded after Bandwagonesque.  After, as in, the day after.  The band finished recording Bandwagonesque faster than expected and had a little unused studio time already booked and paid for.  So they knocked out The King, a very odd collections of improvised instrumental tracks and covers of both Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” and, even more weirdly, Madonna’s “Like A Virgin”.  Only 20,000 copies were made and it was deleted after one day.  I own one of the 20,000 copies.  I’m not sure I have ever listened to it all the way through.  A strong rumour persists, denied by the band, that it was released out of pure contractual obligation.  They had signed a two-album deal with their US label Matador, but on the strength of A Catholic Education, they were lined up to sign for Geffen.  They didn’t want to give Badwagonesque to the tiny Matador label, so they had to give them something to fulfil the contract.  Hence, the almost unlistenable The King.  Although, for a sense of completeness, here’s that cover of “Like A Virgin”

 

I know I haven’t put up anything from the first album.  This is because it was already in the past and quite hard to get hold of by the time I got into the band.  But one track from it became my favourite ever song.  However that would be in a few years’ time.

I became a little bit obsessed with Bandwagonesque, learning the chords to all the songs on guitar and conducting my own Teenage Fanclub concerts to an audience of zero.  And it must be said, Bandwagonesque includes one of my favourite Teenage Fanclub songs, and holder of the award for “Best Song Title In The World Ever”, the charmingly-named “Alcoholiday”.

I was ridiculously excited for the release of their fourth (including The King) album, which was to be called Thirteen.  The single released in advance of the album was called “Radio” and it remains a favourite to this day.  However despite a strong opening few tracks (Hang On / The Cabbage / Radio / Norman 3), the album overall was a bit of a disappointment.  There was a fair amount of filler on it, and certainly not the wall-to-wall stone-cold classics found on Bandwagonesque.  In retrospect, Thirteen is a decent album, but suffered in comparison to its predecessor.  But when it hit the heights, such as on “Radio”, “The Cabbage” or “Escher”, it was as good as anything they have done before or since.

Thirteen was the end of an era in two senses.  Most obviously, it was the final album recorded with drummer Brendan O’Hare, but more significantly it marked the end of the shambolic and raucous initial sound that the band had.  I am still not sure if this is a good thing or not.  I like a loose-sounding rock band, and I sometimes think of latter-day Fanclub as being a bit too tight, but despite that, the next two albums would be utter gems.  But it was the end of the grunge era, and the band would reflect that in a new, cleaner sound on their next album.  Despite being from Glasgow and not Seattle, they were lauded by such luminaries as Nirvana, supporting them on their 1993 European Tour.  Indeed I understand that they remain good friends with Dave Grohl, and were asked by an insistent Grohl to support Foo Fighters in huge arena and stadium shows.

Their fifth album, Grand Prix, was the first of three to feature ex-Soup Dragon Paul Quinn on drums, and the first single couldn’t have marked the departure from the old grunge-y sound more overtly.  This acoustic ballad was called “Mellow Doubt” (a play on words, Mellowed Out, get it?) and showcased a cleaner sound that for them was a big departure from what had gone before.  Second single “Sparky’s Dream” was definitely more rocky, but the swooping harmony “oohs” and “aahs” gave it a sweetness that was previously lacking.  However the third single from the album “Neil Jung” (another play on words) was the album’s crowning achievement.

Remember how the band had supported Nirvana on that European Tour?  Well I am convinced that Kurt Cobain is Neil Jung.  On that tour they had observed at close quarters Cobain’s relationship with Courtney Love, who had accompanied Nirvana on Tour.  And following Cobain’s suicide in 1994, Norman Blake’s lyric to “Neil Jung” is scathing about Love

You had a girlfriend
She wasn’t good enough for you

She’d get uptight with you
Fight with you
And you could never win
It wasn’t right for you

She was confusing you
Using you
You couldn’t understand

Don’t mince your words!

Around the time of Grand Prix’s release, I became friends with a guy called Jeremy, whom I had met through mutual friend.  It was one of those times (for this other friend) when you introduce two people to each other and they rapidly decide they like each other better than they like you.  Anyway, our friendship blossomed over a shared love of Teenage Fanclub, and in June 1996 Jeremy and I made the trip down to Dublin for a music festival called “Feile” that, rather bizarrely, was taking place indoors at the Point Depot (now known as the 3Arena).  We had tickets for Friday night and Saturday night, and although the bill was strong on both nights, we were really there to see Teenage Fanclub.  My first TFC concert.

We arrived at the Point and Beck was already playing his set.  We watched that, then stayed in place for Manic Street Preachers, who were on their first tour following the disappearance of Richey Edwards, and were rather spiffing.  The billing for the event was that Teenage Fanclub would be on next, second on the bill, before headliners the Foo Fighters took the stage.  Except a rumour was going round the crowd that the Foo Fighters were coming on next because they wanted Teenage Fanclub to top the bill.  They were, in a very real sense, not worthy.  And sure enough, out strolled Dave Grohl, Pat Smear, Nate Mendel, and the original drummer whose name I can’t remember.  Jeremy and I watched one song (“Big Me”) then decided to go for a beer.  Yes, we went to the (remarkably quiet) bar and had a couple of beers instead of watching the Foo Fighters.  Yes, the ones who are probably the biggest rock band on the planet now.  Those Foo Fighters.  Missed their set almost completely because, well, we couldn’t be bothered watching it.

The place emptied quite a bit after the Foo Fighters meaning we could get right up to the front for the Fanclub set and it was worth the wait.  Every single song was a gem, including a fab cover of The Byrds’ “Feel A Whole Lot Better”.  I had seen my heroes.  I would see them again.

The following spring (1997) Jeremy was in the famous Belfast record shop Good Vibrations, owned by the legendary Terri Hooley, the man who discovered The Undertones and who had a film made about him a few years ago (called, appropriately enough, Good Vibrations).   The shop was playing music that sounded remarkably like Teenage Fanclub, but songs Jeremy didn’t know.  He asked Terri if it was indeed the mighty Fannies, and he replied that yes, it was an advance copy of their new album Songs From Northern Britain.  He then offered to sell it to Jeremy for £5.  He didn’t need to be asked twice.  I got a copy on cassette, and it accompanied my and my new girlfriend (later to be my wife of 19 years) on a driving holiday around France in May.  The gorgeous melodies and sumptuous harmonies were the perfect soundtrack a fortnight in the late spring sunshine around La Belle France, and the album will always hold a place in my heart for that reason.  Possibly the standout track is actually one of their more low-key moments, and maybe the best thing Raymond McGinley ever wrote, “Your Love Is The Place Where I Come From”

Songs From Northern Britain marked the commercial peak of the band, reaching No3 in the UK album charts, with the lead single “Ain’t That Enough” peaking at No17 in the singles chart.  It remains their only top 20 single.

When my ex and I married in September 1998 Teenage Fanclub were to play a small part on the wedding day.  She chose the song for the first dance (“Private Universe” by Crowded House, a fine tune) but I chose the second dance, the one where the best man and matron of honour joined us on the dancefloor.  I chose another track from Songs From Northern Britain, “Planets”, a song co-written by Norman Blake and the band’s original (and future) drummer Francis MacDonald.

On the tour in support of Songs From Northern Britain, Jeremy and I noticed that the band were scheduled to play Belfast and Dublin on consecutive nights, a Thursday and a Friday.  Not ones to shirk a challenge, we bought tickets for both gigs.  It is the only time I have ever seen the same band on consecutive nights, although I have seen both Bob Dylan and U2 twice on the same tour, albeit in both cases those gigs were a couple of weeks apart.  The Belfast gig was straightforward to get to, but with the Dublin gig, it was a case of leaving work at 5, jumping in the car and hoping to be at the gig in time for the band taking the stage.  We didn’t quite make it, although assuming a largely similar set to the previous night, we only missed 1 or 2 songs.

Songs From Northern Britain was the final album on Creation records, but apart from a change of label, little else had changed by the time of the next album’s release, 2000’s Howdy!  Like Songs From Northern Britain, Howdy! is also forever associated in my mind with driving round France, this time an another similar trip that my ex and I took in 2001 when Howdy! was on heavy rotation on the car stereo.  In particular, “I Need Direction” will always make me think of driving the road between Cannes and Monaco, as well as providing a rather appropriate commentary on our navigation prowess in the days before satellite navigation.

Howdy! was Paul Quinn’s final album in the drummer’s chair, and in fact he left as soon as the recording was finished, taking no part in the promotion or tour of the album.  He was replaced by Francis MacDonald, who had been the band’s original drummer back in the late 80s and who remains the drummer today.

In the 21st Century the Fanclub have been a lot less prolific that they were in the 90s.  Between 1990 and 2000 they released 7 albums.  In the subsequent years, they have released only three.  It was a five-year wait for the next proper Teenage Fanclub album, Man-Made, although in the intervening period they did release a compilation entitled Four Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty-Six Seconds, as well as recording an album called Words of Wisdom and Hope with the poet and alt-rocker Jad Fair.

It is with the release of Four Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty-Six Seconds that I finally got to know the band’s first ever single properly and I will say this.  “Everything Flows” is quite possibly the best bit of music I have ever heard.  Definitely from the shambolic era of the Fannies, it’s a simple enough song, with very precocious lyrics dealing with the onwards march of life and going with the flow.  And those opening lines, how on earth can someone who was only around 23 years old write this?

See you get older every year
But you don’t change
Or I don’t notice you changing

But I will say this too:  the definitive version is not the single.  That’s too ramshackle, and is sung in quite a low register.  For me the finest version of the song is one that I heard in 1991 on a cassette given away free with a magazine, recorded for BBC Radio 1’s “Evening Session” show, and it features Norman singing the song an octave higher, and 3 or 4 minutes of the most spine-tingling guitar playing I know off.  Now guitar snobs might roll their eyes and think “Oh anyone could play that” but that’s not the point.  They aren’t the most technically amazing musicians, and a lot of people could play that.  But only Teenage Fanclub did play it.  I love this song.  I mean, really love it.  It has a place in my heart that few others occupy.  This is the definitive version of the greatest song ever.

The next time I saw the band live, in 2005 just prior to the release of Man-Made, they walked out on stage in the small club venue like they had just finished their pints and thought they might as well give this rock’n’roll lark a go, picked up their guitars and blasted into “Everything Flows” like they had just written it that morning.  It was sublime, like a group of angels had descended from heaven to give humanity a quick taste of divine noise before heading back up for a party.  It was the greatest musical moment I have ever experienced.

Man-Made was released the week after that concert and if the previous two albums remind me of driving the roads of France, this one makes me think of driving from Belfast to Donegal.  I had to go to Malin town, the northernmost town in Ireland, with work the day after the album came out, and that’s a solid two and a half hour drive.  I played the album on the car stereo non-stop all the way there and back.  It’s another worthy addition to the canon, with many contenders for top track, although for me it has to be the acoustic introspection of Cells, which is about, well the video is pretty self-explanatory

It would be yet another 5 years before there would be a new Teenage Fanclub album. Shadows was released in 2010 and carries on in the subdued and low-key style of its predecessor.  The tour in support of Shadows was also the last time I have seen the band live, although I hope it won’t be the absolute last time.  They’re still together, at least, so there’s a chance.

Although there was to be a six-year gap until the next album, the band members were not idle.  Norman Blake was involved in a couple of side projects called respectively Jonny and The New Mendicants, Gerry Love released a solo album under the moniker Lightships, Raymond McGinley joined a folk band with TFC live keyboardist Dave McGowan, and most unusually, drummer Francis MacDonald released an album of classical music recorded with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.  In fact, he has brought out another one this year too.

The most recent Teenage Fanclub album, entitled Here, was released in 2016.  It is probably a bit more upbeat than the previous two, but by this stage listening to an new Fanclub album is like putting on a pair of comfy slippers.  You know exactly what you’re getting and you know it’s going to be bliss.

Wow, don’t they look old?  Well they’re all in their 50s now – actually Gerry might have been 49 when that was recorded but he’s definitely past that milestone now.  That song, “Thin Air” from Here is great, gorgeous melodies and harmonies that wash over you like a comforting wave.

Thanks for sticking round this long while I witter on at length about my favourite band.  From early 90s alt-rockers to the comforting and avuncular presence they are today, Teenage Fanclub have been the soundtrack to my adult life.  I don’t doubt one could make a case for other artists being more adventurous and innovative, in fact I could do that myself, but for a body of work that includes such a huge depth of stunningly good songwriting Teenage Fanclub are peerless.  And that’s why I love them so much.

To finish with, I’m going to go back to the future.  Their first single again, “Everything Flows”, but instead of the 1991 version from up this page a little, this is them recorded playing it as the finale to their set in February 2017.  It’s still my favourite song.

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