In the late ’50s, Scotland’s youth looked westward, saw American jug band music, decided it was good, and produced Lonnie Donegan, the lively superstar of skiffle. Three decades later, having witnessed stylistically self-willed homegrown inventions like Big Country and the Postcard popsters (Orange Juice et al.), Scotland’s young people turned again to the colonies for inspiration and saw Big Star, the Byrds and Neil Young. Arising from the gene pool of a strong local indie-pop scene guided in the late ’80s by the Pastels and Vaselines, and ultimately given their big push into the world by Creation Records (the playground of Scottish entrepreneur Alan McGee), there came a new generation of international bands, foremost among them Teenage Fanclub.
From the time it was formed as a successor to the obscure Boy Hairdressers, itself an outgrowth of the BMX Bandits, the Glasgow quartet of Norman Blake (vocals/guitar), Raymond McGinley (vocals/guitar), Gerard Love (vocals/bass) and Francis Macdonald (drums, replaced following the recording of the first album by Brendan O’Hare) has demonstrated a calmly garrulous pop sensibility, adapting (never quite aping) their sources and mirroring Amerindie irreverence with good-natured aplomb and a lilting Scottish burr.
The band’s wonderfully rich blend of loud, layered guitar and raggedly handsome harmony vocals was established almost from the first: “Everything Flows,” the group’s winning debut from mid-’90, contains all of Teenage Fanclub’s distinguishing features. (Still, among the early Paperhouse and Matador singles compiled on the tasty and reasonably solid Deep Fried Fanclub — which also contains a ’92 K Records single and a demo of A Catholic Education’s “Critical Mass” — are two primeval B-sides that don’t have the sound down at all.) Displaying plenty of the right spirit and attitude, TFC was instantly welcomed into the international pop underground, and has held onto its indie credibility despite grander label arrangements. Cover versions — and influences — have been flying between Olympia (Beat Happening), Memphis (Alex Chilton/Big Star), Providence (Velvet Crush) and Glasgow ever since.
Recorded in a week, the rough and relaxed A Catholic Education keeps the vocals offhand and the root melodies ascending; the combination of informal and uplifting presents the straightforward guitar pop in a flattering light. That leaves only the uneven songwriting to control the album’s caliber; after “Everything Flows,” “Critical Mass,” “Eternal Light” and “Everybody’s Fool” (proof that sweet sounds don’t always imply a sweet disposition), slim pickings keep A Catholic Education from being a full course.
The four-song God Knows It’s True (repeated in toto on Deep Fried Fanclub) was produced by Don Fleming in a one-day New York session and sounds it; the title track and “So Far Gone” are keepers. Everything Flows, another fully compiled four-songer, boasts a shaggy cover of Neil Young’s “Don’t Cry No Tears” and “Primary Education,” a B-side demo for “Catholic Education.”
The King was rumored to have been made in order to either satisfy or break TFC’s contractual obligations; regardless, the hastily tossed together album is an interesting curio. Included among the nine tracks are a quizzical pair of non-originals: Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” which can be seen as a response to Ciccone Youth’s versions of “Burnin’ Up” and “Into the Groove,” and Pink Floyd’s oft-covered psychedelic classic, “Interstellar Overdrive.” The rest might seem disposable on first listen, but further investigation reveals a number of them — including the Bevis Frond-like guitar wank of “Opal Inquest” and the Butthole Surfers-influenced “Robot Love,” complete with vocals distorted beyond recognition — to be quite interesting (as is the skronking saxophone of Superstar leader Joe McAlinden, guesting here). The King was allegedly deleted the day of its release, making it an instant collectors’ item — a gambit the group had already used in late ’90 with the one-day release of a one-sided 7-inch of “The Ballad of John and Yoko.”
Bandwagonesque is the pinnacle of Teenage Fandom, a superb blend of great songs, wry inside humor and diverse, energetically relaxed performances (not to mention the chintzy fuck-us sack o’ money cartoon cover). A month spent in Liverpool with Don Fleming worked clarifying wonders for the group, and Bandwagonesque is a modern pop classic. The highlights of this highlight include Love’s harmony apocalypse “Star Sign,” elegiac “Guiding Star” and “Pet Rock.” Doubling the fun, Blake contributes the glammed up “Metal Baby,” the Big Star-styling, Status Quo-naming fan portrait “The Concept” and the even more Chilton-like “What You Do to Me.” The obvious tribute being paid in no way diminishes the band’s own achievement here: aping a group whose 20-year-old records never sold is hardly a sellout strategy. If not for the pretentious trendiness of so many Big Star acolytes, this wouldn’t be any sort of an eyebrow-raiser at all. The ’92 What You Do to Me EP consists of the album track, a raveup version of it and four more leftovers, including “Like a Virgin,” T.Rex’s “Life’s a Gas” and two Gerry Love originals. (The radio snippet that precedes “Maharishi Dug the Scene” is from an old Alex Chilton interview.) Besides the title tune, The Concept presents the demo of “What You Do to Me” and two non-LP numbers.
The sound is tougher and less gauzy, the songs country-inflected and a notch shy of those on Bandwagonesque; still, Thirteen is an excellent follow-up that moves the band along without losing its way. Self-consciously hitting back at the music press (“Song to the Cynic”), the US music biz (“Commercial Alternative”), radio (“Radio”) and absolutely everything (the Gram Parsons-by-way-of-the-Lemonheads “120 Mins”), the band finds space in its heart to express admiration for another Byrd (the Neil Young-y instrumental “Gene Clark”) and one of its own (“Norman 3”). TFC also admits emotional need (“Hang On,” with a Marc Bolan intro) and faces a hard breakup (“The Cabbage”). Pitched at a lower emotional key by a more accomplished outfit, Thirteen goes out on a limb and comes back safe and sounding good. (The CD contains six bonus tracks. Recorded simply in electric and acoustic variations, the extras are quite good — especially McGinley’s “Genius Envy.” The covers of Gram Parsons and Phil Ochs, however, are justly consigned to their subordinate fate.)
Without casting off its basic approach, Teenage Fanclub (now including new drummer Paul Quinn) transformed itself into a Byrdsy/Beatlesque country-rock combo on Grand Prix. Completing an organic progression that leaves the group just on the other side of a crucial line in the stylistic sand, the enticing album tones everything down — sounds and emotions. The production is occasionally conspicuous, and the record lets the energy lag in spots, but it’s a largely successful course adjustment. With McGinley, Love and Blake each writing a third of the songs, the diverse album takes cues from all sorts of eras and idioms; for every strong country leaning (the Revolver-ish “About You,” the Chiltonesque “Neil Jung,” the acoustic “Say No”), there’s a more familiar-sounding pop number (the swoony “I’ll Make It Clear,” the daring “Verisimilitude,” the rousing “Don’t Look Back”) and something unprecedented (the piano-based “Tears,” the ripping/whispering “Hardcore/Ballad”).