Teenage Fanclub is a Scottish band that has never gotten the recognition it deserves. And it’s a trend, really, for bands trying to come across the pond from Glasgow: From Del Amitri and the Cocteau Twins to the Jesus & Mary Chain and Aztec Camera, many great bands from Scotland have never really taken hold in the United States.
At least Del Amitri had a top 10 hit in America. Teenage Fanclub has been releasing albums for 30 years now and has survived several lineup changes, but they’ve never had a top 10 hit and only hit the Billboard album chart once. But that doesn’t change the fact that they have put together energetic, melodic rock and roll for decades, and it doesn’t look like they’re going to quit anytime soon.
In this post I’ll romp through the 90s again, sail through the 2000s and show what you need to know about one of Scotland’s greatest exports.
A Catholic Education (1990)
The band formed in Bellshill, a town near Glasgow, in 1989. Like most new bands, they had no money but wanted to record an album. So when guitarist Raymond McGinley’s neighbor died and left him a refrigerator and stove, he sold them so the band could buy some studio time.
The result was A Catholic Education, a loud, fuzzy debut album by a group of boys who thought they sounded good and wanted to get it down on tape. The opening track, “Everything Flows,” gives us a hint about what the band would become—a varied melody, sing-song chorus, and lots of guitars. The rest of the album is lost in those guitars. It’s a fun album—one that would help propel the band to a major label—but it’s unpolished.
After Teenage Fanclub recorded the throwaway, hastily assembled noisemaker The King, the band shaped up—quickly. Bandwagonesque, recorded and released only a year after A Catholic Education, is the sound of a band who is starting to figure things out musically. It’s still fuzzy in parts, with feedback galore, but it’s more focused and refined. Songs have a plan, an order to them. Melodies start to surface.
“The Concept” is a rewrite of “Everything Flows” with the band’s trademark three-part harmonies starting to shine through. The three founding members—Norman Blake, Gerard Love and Raymond McGinley—are beginning to develop their own styles as songwriters, and you can hear those three distinct sounds starting to cohere. “December” is a ballad with arpeggioed guitar notes accentuating the silence. They are starting to realize that there is music in the gaps between the notes, and they don’t have to be singing and strumming guitars the entire time.
It was with Bandwagonesque that the band peaked commercially. Blake’s quick, two-minute single “What You Do To Me” got play on indie stations and made it to No. 19 on the U.S. Modern Rock chart and No. 31 on the U.K. Singles Chart. The track “Star Sign,” written by Love, reached No. 4 on the Modern Rock chart. The strength of those two singles helped propel Bandwagonesque into the Billboard Top 200 – all the way to No. 137. It was the highest they would ever get with an album.
Bandwagonesque was voted 1991’s Album of the Year for by Spin magazine, defeating Nirvana’s landmark album Nevermind. Nirvana’s lead singer Kurt Cobain proclaimed them the best band in the world. That’s a lot to live up to.
Trying to live up to Bandwagonesque took its toll on the band. Their follow-up, Thirteen, took a few years to record. The band was all over the place, at one time having 80 pieces of songs to try and sift through. The result, apparently named after the song by Big Star (one of their influences), sounds disjointed and inconsistent, but the first couple of tracks are sublime. The production is clear, the guitars less overpowering.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on the first track, “Hang On,” which starts like something from A Catholic Education or The King, and you say, here we go again, but then it modulates over and over again, morphing into the sunshine as Love sings, “Been bought and I’ve been sold / And I’ve forgot what I’ve been told / And now I need someone.” Backed by Love’s descending bassline, the chorus is laden with their rich harmonies, and it would become their signature sound for the next 25 years.
The rest of the album tries to live up to the high standard that “Hang On” sets, but it doesn’t quite get there. Blake’s “The Cabbage” could have been on Bandwagonesque, and on “Norman 3” Blake proclaims, “I’m in love with you / And I know that it’s you,” taking a riff and extending it a la “Hey Jude” for over 3 minutes as guitars intone over the chorus. But the rest falls flat.