A Fanclub's Notes

Once hyped as a supergroup, Teenage Fanclub may have to settle for midlevel stardom, and that may be just fine

Norman Blake has been called the nicest guy in rock. As the Teenage Fanclub guitarist chats with me via phone from Paris, it's easy to see why. He uses words like "integrity" and "honesty" as if he truly means them, and when asked about his band he goes off on one of the most endearing rock rants ever. "People have said this in the past: 'You guys aren't rock 'n' roll, you don't trash your hotel rooms, blah blah.' And I always say, 'Who fucking cleans the hotel rooms,' you know? It's someone who doesn't make a lot of money -- it's not the owner of the Radisson -- it's someone who's underpaid and has to go and clean up all your shit; it's someone like my mom. Fuck that."

Considering Teenage Fanclub's career trajectory, you might expect Blake to have more of a rock star attitude. There once was a time when the Scottish quartet was the best rock band on the planet. In 1991, Spinproclaimed TF's Bandwagonesqueto be "the greatest album made by white people in 10 years," and in its end-of-the-year wrap-up listed the record ahead of discs by My Bloody Valentine, R.E.M., and (gulp) Nirvana. Rolling Stonechimed in as well, tapping the act as the hot band of 1992. Five years down the road, the Fannies were still as bitchin' as a Camaro, according to Radiohead's Thom Yorke, who picked the act's Songs From Northern Britainas his favorite LP in Rolling Stone, and Oasis' Liam Gallagher, who called the outfit "the second best band in the world" (and, no, the Beatles weren't the first).

And yet, today, if you were to poll kids at the mall, very few would even recognize TF's name, let alone be able to sing one of the band's songs. Here's a group that's toured with Nirvana, Radiohead, and Weezer, that rocked Saturday Night Live back when it was cool, that played for 15,000 kids in a bullring in Spain, and it practically can't get arrested now. The Fanclub has been dumped from major-label land, having to release its latest album, Man-Made, on the tiny (but well-respected) indie Merge. Gone are the posh hotel rooms, helpful roadies, and luscious groupies; hello the secondhand vans, half-baked burritos, and tiny venues.

Teenage Fanclub: "They've retained their 
whole vision, but they've progressed," says 
Eric Shea, leader of S.F.'s Mover and 
Parchman Farm.
Teenage Fanclub: "They've retained their whole vision, but they've progressed," says Eric Shea, leader of S.F.'s Mover and Parchman Farm.

"Maybe unfortunately for them," says Eric Shea, leader of S.F.'s Mover and Parchman Farm, "they're going to become exactly what they started out as: our generation's Big Star."

"All you can do is make the records, and hope a group of people will pick up on it, and it will become the received wisdom that that's the record to buy," Blake says. "Because that's kind of how the music business works, isn't it? You think of the Coldplay record or something like that. The received wisdom is that you should have that on your coffee table, if you buy one record every two months or whatever."

In 1991, that wisdom was that you should buy Bandwagonesque, the Glasgow band's second LP, and for once said wisdom was right on the money. Bandwagonesquewas -- and is -- a near perfect rock record, a collection of timeless melodies, euphoric guitar freakouts, and gorgeous vocal harmonies. In an era when guitar albums were everywhere (see Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, MBV, etc.), the Fanclub concocted something that truly stood out.

"I still think that record is one of the best ever," says Chuck Gonzalez of local indie bands Lessick and Lines in Analog Sound. "A lot of that stuff's dated now, but that record's still fresh."

One of the components that separated the disc from the chaff was its lyrics, which could be clever ("She don't do drugs/ But she does do the pill"), surreal ("I wanted to assassinate December"), or, most often, heartfelt ("When you're rocking, I love your rock/ When you're ticking, I'm your tock").

"I liked that they were totally unafraid of making love songs rock," says Shea. "Most rock 'n' roll that I'd heard at that time seemed to carry some sort of agenda or chip on its shoulder."

What Teenage Fanclub carried instead was a healthy love for '70s power-pop bands, groups that knew how to capture both the sweet and the sour of romance. Thanks to the Fanclub's slavish appreciation for Big Star -- which turned legions of kids onto the genius of Alex Chilton -- Bandwagonesque remains one of the greatest records in rock history.

The band's follow-up releases were less successful. The quartet's third LP, 1993's Thirteen, was both cleaner and more ambitious, but also somehow less dynamic and less interesting, with a lyrical causticity brought on by newfound fame ("I want to thank you, I'm a mess/ I want to thank you, the way you dress," went one couplet). On 1995's Grand Prix, the foursome (now on their third drummer, Brendan O'Hare) ditched feedback nearly altogether, trying on a sunny, Cali-rock style reminiscent of the Byrds and the Beach Boys. (Blake now equally shared the songwriting with the other two founding members of the band, Gerry Love and Raymond McGinley.)

With 1997's Songs From Northern Britain, Teenage Fanclub better integrated its influences, crafting several tracks that were as stunning as those on Bandwagonesque. (High Fidelity author Nick Hornby liked the CD so much he chose twoof the tunes for his rumination on musical excellence, Songbook.)

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