|Sparky's Dream||Grand Prix|
|Neil Jung||Grand Prix|
|Ain't That Enough||Songs From Northern Britain|
|Your Love Is The Place ...||Songs From Northern Britain|
|I Need Direction||Howdy!|
|Dumb Dumb Dumb||Howdy!|
Contributors: Rob Morgan & Keith Shackleton
If it weren’t for Paul I wouldn’t be writing this now. It was Paul who gave me the confidence in my own abilities to form a group with him back in 1994. It was Paul who encouraged me to write better songs – on my own and with him. And it was Paul who insisted that I listen more carefully to Teenage Fanclub. I’d known about the Fannies – as they are known to their devotees – from back when their first two singles had appeared in Peel’s 1990 Festive Fifty (a particularly good list, that year) but I had dismissed both Everything Flows and God Knows It’s True as second-rate Dinosaur Jr. I’d liked Star Sign enough to buy the seven inch of it from Woolworths’ 25p bargain bin but the praise for the Bandwagonesque LP in ’91 went in one ear and out the other. I wasn’t even interested when Nirvana praised them to the heavens. I had my Big Star records already – why did I need Teenage Fanclub? And weren’t they just another band on Creation Records? Admittedly Creation was hitting a purple patch with Screamadelica and Loveless but still … did I need another press darling in my life?
Jump to 1995 and Paul is driving me back and forth to band practices every Thursday evening and the tape in his little red Nissan is invariably Grand Prix, Teenage Fanclub’s fourth album issued that year. I’d heard Mellow Doubt and Sparky’s Dream on the radio but they hadn’t really registered with me. But slowly over time the album grew on me, enough for me to ask Paul for a tape of it. I remember listening to that tape on the bus journeys into work, liking the way the stereo separation worked on the opener About You, and how the album became mellower and darker as side two progressed. But still it didn’t quite connect with me.
It all clicked for me with the release of the Songs From Northern Britain LP during the summer of 1997. The first single, Ain’t That Enough, actually reached the Top 20 so they played on Top Of The Pops – a performance I remember watching on a tiny TV in my fiancé’s bedroom. The single was perfect summer pop – a wash of rich vocal harmonies, guitars and autoharps. I bought it and found that one of the B-sides was even better – Broken was a simple chord sequence (stick a capo on the seventh fret of a guitar and it falls into place from an open G chord) but builds up with layers of guitars, harmoniums, subtle horns and a spooked ice-cream van chime. It would have made a perfect album closer, and very nearly was – a missed opportunity there!
The whole album was near-perfect, full of songs of love and life and existence, but not in a dramatic way. Instead the songs dealt with these issues with humanity and subtlety and a sense of melody that was totally refreshing. I Don’t Want Control Of You sounds like a song about letting go slightly, but turns out to be about having children. Planets is a graceful hymn to a moment in love – two people recognising their place together and finding a place to live. I Don’t Care is a rollicking gem with squiggly Moogs and Latin percussion in its middle eight. Best of all is Your Love Is The Place Where I Come From – one of the most heartfelt and honest love songs I’ve ever heard, a plea for comfort and friendship and companionship – “I disappear when you’re not here in my life”. And the music’s marvellous too. The album became the soundtrack to that summer for me. It wasn’t all about Radiohead’s angst and the Verve’s strident bombast and whatever soggy Britpop was around at the time. Songs From Northern Britain was a forty three minute blast of cool fresh air.
Obviously I had some catching up to do, especially as Paul and I had tickets to see the Fannies in Bristol at the start of October so I worked my way through all their albums up to that point. Their debut, A Catholic Education, was very much of its time and is generally overshadowed by the bleary glory of Everything Flows. Bandwagonesque was – as I suspected – in awe of Big Star but when it reached past its influences it produced some cracking songs. Album opener, The Concept, is a wonderful two part beauty, Star Sign was a rocking number about belief and gullibility, What You Do To Me was two minutes of perfect pop, but best of all was Alcoholiday, a woozy mid tempo song full of pathos and hazy remembrances.
Their third album, Thirteen (geddit?), felt like a pale photocopy of their previous LP, although it had a few great songs on (the Harrison-esque slide guitar parts that brighten up The Cabbage for a start) but they seemed to hammer their good ideas into the ground – Norman 3 really could have faded out by 2:30 but instead grinds on for another two minutes. However, the best track was Gene Clark which shows that Teenage Fanclub could do Neil Young and Crazy Horse if they wanted to. Although I had a tape of Grand Prix it was only when I bought the CD that I concentrated enough on it to love it. (This is a fault of mine – I never consider a tape or a CD-R or an MP3 to be as ‘important’ as an actual record, I need to own the recording for it to be mine. Sad, I know). Now Neil Jung leapt out as another – ahem – Neil Young tribute, Verisimilitude has one of the best uses of f*** in pop music, Going Places is a dry run for the lovestruck Planets, and Tears is a heartfelt piano ballad (it’s worth mentioning here that Tears has an answer song – No Future by BMX Bandits, the same music but sung from the opposite viewpoint).
So now I was ready for the Teenage Fanclub live experience, and it was absolutely brilliant. For a start the support bands were cool – Warm Jets (before the Zoe Ball connection became a tabloid millstone) and Gorkys Zygotic Mynki. Then the Fannies themselves played a great set, full of numbers from Songs From Northern Britain plus the best bits of Grand Prix and Bandwagonesque. But what was most enjoyable was the camaraderie between the band and the audience – the rapport there was amazing, the band seemed humbled by the response from the audience, and the audience would shout requests or direct questions at the band members which they would respond to. It was also an unexpectedly polite crowd – Paul and I were down the front and there was one bloke who kept crowdsurfing over our heads. At the end of the gig he shook our hands and said “Thanks for being so tolerant, you made it a cool night”! We’ve seen the Fannies twice since that night but that was the only time we saw them play Alcoholiday.
The Songs From Northern Britain period could be seen as the high point in their career – a top twenty single, a well-regarded album – but it was only because the world had turned towards Teenage Fanclub not the other way. By the time they issued their next album, Howdy!, in 2000 the world had changed again. The Britpop era was over, replaced by the resurgence of bubblegum pop and they weren’t invited onto Top Of The Pops. They were now part of Sony Records as their previous label Creation had closed its doors earlier that year, and it showed. There were great songs on the album but the production was muddy and lifeless in places, and some of the songs reflected the changes and doubts around their label at the time. Still, lead single I Need Direction was a glorious burst of sunshine pop – those backing harmonies were pure Association – and there’s enough good songs to fight through the murk. But their work rate was slowing down – three new songs on a compilation album as a farewell to Sony in 2003, then new albums in 2005 and 2010 on their own label. These are all fine albums – I have a lot of affection for both Man-Made and Shadows but nothing on them matches that mid 90s period. Actually that’s not true – Raymond McGinley’s songs on Shadows touch nerves about aging, remembering the past and living in the moment like few others around and if we were doing a top 20 I would be including The Fall and The Past. But rules is rules …
Teenage Fanclub have matured with age – the music has mellowed out (sorry) and the lyrical emphasis has changed, but they still create lovely music, and if and when they play Bristol again Paul and I will be fighting our way to the front to stand in front of Norman Blake, watching him push his capo up two frets on the key change to I Don’t Want Control Of You, grinning as he plays the xylophone solo on Your Love…, does a whistling solo on Mellow Doubt. Thanks Norman, Raymond, Gerry and all the other members over the years. Please don’t change too much.
I didn’t know a Teenage Fanclub ten was in the offing when I asked about it, and I’m pretty sure Rob was in position A for writing it, but an opportunity was spotted to dig a little deeper and we both rolled up our sleeves, ready for one of those plus-sized Toppermosts with sneaky extra lists of obscurities, but following a fairly rapid exchange of email and judicious pruning, hey presto, boys and girls, ten songs that we’d both be happy to write about easily fell into place. So no controversy here (unless you’re up for a fight?)… grab the career retrospective Four Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty-Six Seconds and you’ll get eight of our list, not including Alcoholiday (man, what a great song) and one other. Rob and I both picked Gene Clark, from the ‘difficult’ third album, which I guess might not be everybody’s glass of Irn Bru, but hence made the list.
The Belshill Beach Boys * are a democratic bunch: good Scottish egalitarian principles mean that duties are divvied up almost equally between Norman, Gerry and Raymond: I did have a shortlived idea that we might do a top twelve with four from each songwriter as a tip of the cap to the band’s albums, but it was better to have a free choice.
Rob’s done a stellar job on the song descriptions, so I won’t add too much. I think I was the one who pitched Dumb Dumb Dumb more strongly … that stereo guitar back-and-forth is killer. One relative rarity which popped up for me since we did the list is drummer Brendan O’Hare’s Golden Glades … neat little song, that.
Having not worked with Rob before (ahem), I was ready to strongly insist on two songs – Your Love Is The Place… and Ain’t That Enough – of course, I need not have worried. They’re indisputably great, and he rightly selected them.
Nick Hornby had them both as part of his 31 Songs, and while that particular fella has a lot to answer for, he’s got an ear for a great tune. I can mark him well down for his contribution to the middle-class-isation (and thereby the ruining of) football, but his music writing is different. In homage, we are Hornbyesque in our examination of lists on this web site, cf. the scene in High Fidelity where the folks in Championship Vinyl discuss the Best Side One Track Ones of All Time – it’s essentially what we do here. We’re not any old Tom, Dick and Harry, we’re Rob, Dick and Barry.
So to get to the point, Hornby makes a couple of neat observations about music when discussing Your Love Is The Place… and Ain’t That Enough.
One being that music doesn’t always have to remind you of a time or a place or a person to be a favourite… sometimes you just like it for what the song brings to you, and not for what you bring to the song. For me, Teenage Fanclub make that kind of music, which simply appeared in my life sometime in the mid 90s, and never went away. Grand Prix and Songs From Northern Britain never ever get old. I listen to them with just as much joy now as I did then, with no additional context.
Secondly, Hornby ponders “the strange critical phenomenon that only works that are edgy, or scary, or dangerous are regarded as in any way noteworthy” using the lengthy, terrifying Frankie Teardrop by Suicide as an example set against Ain’t That Enough which is, as we know, “a three minute blast of Byrdsian pop, packed with sunshine and hooks and harmonies and goodwill”. He likes Teenage Fanclub better, and at this time in my life so do I. I don’t mean to suggest Frankie Teardrop isn’t worthy, it is, but life itself is scary enough, and Teenage Fanclub music is an antidote. I refuse to get snooty about it because it doesn’t happen to be Bela Lugosi’s Dead or Release The Bats.
All I can say is Teenage Fanclub deliver music that fits me perfectly and is completely enjoyable. What more can we ask of our musical heroes?
* a nickname which was allegedly contested by politician Gordon Brown in an apocryphal story. He thought they sounded more like Big Star, although, as Norman Blake once said: “We met Gordon Brown once, in Inverness. He told us he liked Big Star. I think he’d been briefed.” Believe what you will.