FOREWORD: Teenage Fanclub roughen up glammy power pop with noisy guitars in a way shoegazers and grungemeisters approved. The Scottish band, led by Norman Blake, achieved tremendous indie exposure for ‘91 masterpiece, Bandwagonesque. I spoke to Blake ten years hence, during promotion for TF’s valiant Howdy! It bettered future endeavors such as ‘02s middling Words Of Wisdom And Hope (done with Half Japanese pop eccentric, Jad Fair) and ‘05s return-to-form Man-Made. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Prior to the grunge explosion, Scottish rockers Teenage Fanclub merged lessons learned from post-punk legends Sonic Youth and the Replacements with the ripe influence of Big Star and the Beatles on ‘90s thrilling debut, A Catholic Education. Though they received fabulous press and great underground exposure, American commercial radio denied vocalist-guitarist Norman Blake’s combo the much-needed access Nirvana’s groundbreaking Nevermind was afforded one year afterwards. So following the raw 12-minute quickie, God Knows It’s True, Teenage Fanclub hooked up with famed indie pop producer Don Fleming for ‘91s brilliant Bandwagonesque.
A great step forward, Bandwagonesque was better recorded, more lyrically focused, uniformly sequenced, but undeservedly hidden beneath the shadow of Seattle grunge masters Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam. Its crown jewels included the insouciant power pop charmer “What You Do To Me” (owing as much to ‘70s band, the Raspberries, as Big Star), the exuberant post-punk standout “Star Sign,” and the glam-rock T. Rex knockoff “Metal Baby.”
‘93s sprawling, 70-minute extravaganza, Thirteen, traded some melodiousness for fuzz-toned sonic guitar energy, gathering the opus-like neo-orchestral enchantment of the aching lament, “Hang On,” and the portentous ‘new vibration’ “Fear Of Flying.” Though ‘95s lighter-textured Grand Prix captured the genuine innocence of ‘60s folk-rock, ‘97s wholly decisive Songs From Northern Britain streamlined this newfound acoustic tunefulness with better pastoral refinement and earthier rural concision.
This subtle approach continues four years hence on Teenage Fanclub’s belated ‘01 re-entry, Howdy! Showing a passionate commitment to economize song ideas and unafraid to share their Byrds and Beatles influences while asserting a definitive personality, the democratic triumvirate of Blake, fellow guitarist Raymond Mc Ginley, and bassist Gerard Love, composed four tidy songs each.
Echoes of the Byrds could be heard on Blake’s resiliently surging “Straight & Narrow,” Mc Ginley’s affectionate “I Can’t Find My Way Home,” and Love’s bright-eyed “The Town & The City.” The languid ballad “Cul De Sac” may be the most beautiful composition Blake has recorded yet, but Mc Ginley’s love-soaked “The Sun Shines From You,” and Love’s illuminating “Near You” offer solid competition. Experienced indie musicians/ brothers Finlay (Vandals/ BMX Bandits) and Francis Macdonald (Speedball/ BMX Bandits) provide keyboards and drums, respectively.
NORMAN: We certainly never conceptualized it because there’s three of us writing separately. We never planned what we were gonna do besides showing up at the studio with new songs. As far as lyrics go, they’re fairly optimistic. We’re all singing about different specific things. My songs are fairly reflective and quite down. When you think of “”Dumb Dumb Dumb,” I wrote that when I wasn’t feeling that great. That’s a sullen song.
And so is the softly ticking, piano-based ballad, “Never See You Again.”
NORMAN: Yeah. That’s where my head was at during the making of that record.
The front cover imagery appears to show Teenage Fanclub hitting fertile ground or new territory.
NORMAN: I guess we were travelling around North of Scotland and decided to use one of the images. We had never put ourselves on any of our sleeves before.
The Byrds’ folk-rock and the Beatles’ Revolver seem to affect the acoustic dynamics of Howdy! The dewy harmonies and psychedelic ambience of “Accidental Life” reminded me of the Fab 4’s “If I Needed Someone.”
NORMAN: We feel comfortable constructing our harmonies after that model…or the Beach Boys.
Give me the scoop on the Words Of Wisdom And Hope record Teenage Fanclub did recently with Jad Fair.
NORMAN: He’s been coming over here (Scotland) to exhibit his art and play music. He’d been staying at my house and we became friends. I think one night, over a game of Scrabble, we got to talking and he suggested recording together. We did it on a whim. We thought it’d be different and fun. He’s constantly sending me records. Every three months I get, like, five albums.
Tell me about the hard-to-find early Teenage Fanclub U.K. release, The King (Creation Records), which contained versions of Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” and Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive.”
NORMAN: It was deleted the day of release. We were in the studio with Don Fleming a couple weeks. One night, we decided we’d have a day off and come up with song ideas, sort out instruments, jam, and make a racket. We thought it would be a funny, drunken session. It was just us messing about and was released as a thank you to our fans.
What about the one-sided single of the Beatles’ “Ballad Of John And Yoko”?
NORMAN: We had been in New York for the first time and originally met Don Fleming. We went down to Wharton Tier’s studio on what would have been the anniversary of Lennon’s 50th birthday. The guy who ran the label, Dave Barker, was a Beatles obsessive. It was his idea we went along with for fun.
I always thought the flourishing grunge scene, specifically Nirvana, influenced the hard driving, ear splitting Thirteen.
NORMAN: I guess. We were big fans of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur. We also liked melodic stuff by Love as well. So it was a mixture of influences.
Speaking of Arthur Lee’s fabulous ‘60s band, Love, “Need Direction” perfectly captures the essence of ’67 Flower Power. It’s also doused by ‘66 L.A. sunshine via Spanky & Our Gang and the Mamas & the Papas.
NORMAN: That’s the music we really like. Over the years, our records have become less heavy. We’re trying to concentrate on the arrangements more, using keyboards and different instruments to change and develop. “Need Direction” is Gerry’s song. He’s obviously a fan of West Coast ‘60s music and Northern Soul.
I thought Songs From Northern Britain may have been influenced by Northern Soul.
NORMAN: It’s not really. It’s just a way to say Scotland without saying Scotland. People would never say Northern Britain. It’s kind of an ambiguous statement. I can’t remember when it was coined, but there’s no reference to Northern Soul other than Gerry’s a major fan.
You’ve been working on new tracks lately.
NORMAN: There’s a compilation of our last ten years of work we’re putting together with three new songs that are different stylistically. Hopefully, they’ll add to the album. We’re not entirely sure which tracks will be on it. We may do another record compiling B-sides soon.