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 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.
Let’s look at their history over those 30 years.
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 arpeggiated 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. Pitchfork calls it the “sloppier follow-up” to Bandwagonesque. It’s an accurate statement.
Grand Prix (1995)
Following the disappointment of Thirteen, Teenage Fanclub soldiered on, taking two years to write and record their follow-up, Grand Prix. What followed was a sharper, more melodic version of Thirteen, aided by the improved songwriting of Raymond McGinley. There were now three main songwriters in the group, and it allowed them to move their best songs forward; there was no room for any throwaways anymore. Like the Beatles, the group not only spurred each other on but pared the songs down to the best of the best.
Song for song, Grand Prix is the most consistent album they’ve ever done, if not the best. Varied in tempo and emotion, it ranges from the highs of “Sparky’s Dream” and “I’ll Make it Clear” to the somber tones of “Tears” and “Mellow Doubt.” Each song is crafted carefully, with varied tempos and complex arrangements. “Tears” features horns and strings; Norman Blake even whistles on “Mellow Doubt.” McGinley named a song “Verisimilitude”—how many of us have even used that in a sentence?
Although it didn’t spawn a Top 40 hit on either side of the Atlantic, Grand Prix was the band’s most successful album to date, reaching No. 7 on the UK album chart. In 2000, Q magazine ranked Grand Prix at No. 72 in its list of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever.
Songs from Northern Britain (1997)
This is where I come in. I bought Songs from Northern Britain because I had vaguely heard of the band. It was the perfect primer to Teenage Fanclub, if not fully representative. They had lightened their sound somewhat, adding acoustic guitars, banjos and xylophones to the mix and inserting layered harmonies throughout. The result is an eclectic, beautiful album that peaked at No. 3 on the UK chart. The highlights, “Ain’t That Enough” and “I Don’t Want Control of You,” channel the Byrds’ heartaching harmonies.
What is most shocking about the album is the critical reception. The fickle press called it “tepid,” “homogenous” and “momentum-halting.” But author Nick Hornby calls Songs from Northern Britain one of his favorite albums and featured “Your Love Is the Place Where I Come From” and “Ain’t that Enough” in “Songbook,” a book of essays that describe his 31 favorite songs. It is their most cohesive album—each song flows into the next, each one laid out beautifully until it comes to the epilogue, Love’s “Speed of Light,” the perfect ending to the album.
My personal favorite. Keyboard-heavy and at times quirky, Teenage Fanclub’s seventh album features two of their greatest songs: the deceptively complex “Dumb Dumb Dumb” and the hauntingly beautiful “Near You.” And the album ends perfectly, with Blake’s quiet acoustic ballad “If I Never See You Again.”
But you start to see some creative differences begin to develop. Love veers off in a more decidedly guitarless pop sound, heavy on the vocals and keyboards, while Blake stays true to their guitar sound, although it’s evolved to an instrument of punctuation and support instead of the main noisemaker. McGinley continues to get stronger as a songwriter, with “I Can’t Find My Way Home” being his best yet.
The buying public would have nothing of Howdy!, though. It only hit No. 33 in the U.K. and didn’t chart in the States.
It took Teenage Fanclub five years to get around to recording the follow-up to Howdy!. The result was a stripped-down record that didn’t sound anything like their earlier releases, an album that was kept in line by new drummer Francis MacDonald, who had briefly been with the band at its inception. The band had also hired Finlay MacDonald (no relation) to play keyboards to fit their evolving sound; he filled in the gaps on the minimalist record, especially on Raymond McGinley’s “Only With You.”
But there’s something missing on Man-Made; perhaps it’s the fuzzy guitars, but they had been largely absent since Thirteen. Melodically, it’s their weakest since Thirteen. But there are moments, especially when the three come together to sing harmonies on the lush choruses. Standouts include the opener, Norman Blake’s drum-heavy “It’s All In My Mind,” Gerard Love’s whispery, harmony-laden “Time Stops,” and Blake’s return to the sound of yesteryear with the gorgeous “Slow Fade.”
Another five years passed. The band thought that perhaps Man-Made was a little too minimalist, so they added layers of overdubs to Shadows, and as a result, a level of complexity exists in the songs that we haven’t heard since Songs From Northern Britain. Horns and major seventh chords grace Love’s opener, “Sometimes I Don’t Need to Believe in Anything,” and he paints a warm pastiche in “Into the City,” exclaiming, “Live wires in endless streets, the crowded valley’s alight / Breaking through the warm electric glow that stretches deep out of sight as we drive.”
But this is mostly Blake’s album: “Baby Lee,” with its orchestral flourishes laid on an acoustic background, the simple mid-tempo hymn “When I Still Have Thee,” and the piano ballad “Dark Clouds.”
The band went on hiatus for six years. Love started his own project, Lightships, which allowed him to explore the atmospheric sound he had been developing over the last few albums. Blake created the New Mendicants along with Joe Pernice of the Pernice Brothers. The members of the group approached 50, and as middle age is sometimes wont to do, their sound mellowed even more, and they wore their hearts on their sleeve. “It feels good with you next to me / That’s enough, that’s enough,” sings Blake on the opening track to Here, “I’m In Love.” It’s their best song since “Near You.”
Love continued to focus on ethereal tracks that were nonetheless melodic as ever. “I Have Nothing More to Say” is mostly him and layered keyboards creating a dreamy soundscape. Blake fits the perfect words to the music in “The Darkest Part of the Night,” singing, “You’ve been living in a bad dream baby, I know / Been lost to the light / You’ve been living in the darkest part of the night.” Here is a long way from Bandwagonesque. It’s more than an evolution; it’s a transformation.
What’s next for Teenage Fanclub
The band toured, but when it came to touring Asia and Australia, Love balked and abruptly left the group. “The idea of this tour eventually became a fork in the road and we have just agreed to go our separate ways,” he said on Creation Records’ Facebook page. “It’s not ideal for any of us but it’s as amicable as it can possibly be.”
So Teenage Fanclub replaced Love with McGowan, added Euros Childs as keyboard player, and continued on without Love, and with Love went one-third of the group’s setlist. Whether they will record another album remains to be seen; they released a single, McGinley’s aptly named “Everything is Falling Apart,” which is his best tune in years. If he can pull up the slack created by Love, then the band will be okay. Besides, two-thirds of a great band is better than no band at all.