Teenage Fanclub are a Scottish institution. Many of us have grown up with them. TNPC speaks to Gerry Love and selects two albums often unfairly overlooked from an impressive career.
The inclusion of Teenage Fanclub in The New Perfect Collection was always an easy decision. Not so easy was narrowing it down to a single choice. Bandwagonesque and Grand Prix tend to get the plaudits, even making some of those Best Albums charts which were a reason for starting this blog. That still left me with 5 albums which were all candidates for inclusion (even Thirteen which Norman Blake recently rated as his least favourite but which includes personal highlights ‘Norman 3’, ‘Gene Clark’ and ‘120 Mins’, classics all).
But the inclusion of A Catholic Education may not be as obvious a choice. In a lot of ways it is the least Teenage Fanclub sounding album. Its true it is sonically different to the TFC we now know. This is TFC before they were fully formed, recorded before they had played live. A noisier, more raucous confection, less obviously in thrall to Beach Boys/Beatles/Big Star/Byrds/Orange Juice. The sound here is closer to a loose Crazy Horse meets the Stones filtering through the myriad of changes affecting American post punk and hardcore. The early hazy melodicism of R.EM., the fuzzy power of Husker Du, the ear bleeding folk rock of Dinosaur Jr. Most of all I thought of them as a stoned (more Stoned?) Replacements, a similarly Alex Chilton-obsessed band with a reputation for riotous early gigs.
Formed from the ashes of The Boy Hairdressers, a group was assembled to record an album written by Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley before they had ever played live. Initial recordings made in Glasgow were supplanted by a re-recording of four songs at Peter Hooks studio in Rochdale in the second half of 1989. This is the Fannies before they discovered those daydreaming harmonies, before those jangling chiming guitars. The guitars, for reasons that now seem lost to time are down-tuned two semi-tones, giving them a thicker sludgier sound, a sound they would move away from even as it became more popular in the early nineties. It has a style of guitar playing that had all but gone by the time they recorded Thirteen.
Some will dismiss it as an album overshadowed by one killer song, filled out with instrumentals and two versions of the title track. While true that the heart melting surge of ‘Everything Flows’ is possibly the standout track on the album, and is the only track from the LP still performed live, it fits the flow (ahem) of the album perfectly. Starting each side with an instrumental I always thought was a supremely confident move, ‘Heavy Metal II’ in particular sounding like Crazy Horse jamming on the Pastels’ ‘Ditch The Fool’ and I wouldn’t trade a second of either. The inclusion of both versions of ‘A Catholic Education’ was down to indecision over the best version (version 2 adds a chord and ups the tempo), and manages to sum up a youthful nihilism in about 10 words, played with a suitably ‘Rip This Joint’ looseness. Skill.
For me, however, its the rest of the songs that are the heart of the album. Early live favourite ‘Too Involved’ is a withering attack (“You’re just nothing”) on a slacker. ‘Don’t Need A Drum’ pitches itself somewhere between a shuffle and a boogie, with a lead guitar higher than the vocal. The vocals on the album are generally deep in the mix, unusually for a band with such good singers. their records would rarely be this unbalanced again. Side one closes with ‘Critical Mass’, a bittersweet love song in true Fannies style (“You’re in my heart, but its the feeling that all fell apart”)
‘Eternal Light’ is such sunny sing-a-long tune I wish I knew what the lyrics were so I could join in, and is graced by one of Raymond’s finest guitar solos. At various times ‘Every Picture I Paint’ has been my favourite song on the album, a love song to rival TV Personalities finest. Another of the reasons that A Catholic Education feels different to almost every other TFC album is the lack of Gerry Love songs, and perhaps this is the strongest reason for not including it. Indeed the only writing credit he received is on the scathingly funny album closer ‘Everybody’s Fool’. A friend once called this (not entirely tongue in cheek) our generations ‘You’re So Vain’. Whether or not it is about a specific person or not, I’m sure most people will have come across someone like this at one time or another. It dishes out some brilliant Glaswegian sarcasm, before building to a delightfully dismissive sweary chorus. They always seem to know when best to deploy the F-bomb (‘Verisimilitude’, ‘Some People Try To Fuck With You’)
I admit that some of my affection for this album is tied up in nostalgia for the period it was released. I saw them at (I think) their second gig supporting Primal Scream at the Glasgow Tech. They seemed to crop up regularly on support slots around that time and they were always a joy to behold. But that does not take away from this record. They would release better collections of songs in the future, their new album has all the makings of a masterpiece. But whenever I haven’t listed to them in a while, A Catholic Education is always the first one that I reach for, and it invariably leads me to working my way through the entire catalogue. It has been 10 albums and 26 years since A Catholic Education was released. Listening to it now, the distance from there to Here doesn’t seem so far. (TT)
The guitars are all down tuned a whole tone (I think) for this album. Was that a nod to The Velvet Underground/Sonic Youth, or was it the result of experimentation that worked for these songs?
“Looking back, I don’t actually know why the guitars were tuned down two semitones. I asked Norman and Raymond the other day and they can’t remember exactly why. Our only guess is that there might have been a change of key in a couple of the songs, if the original key was proving a more difficult range to sing, and tuning down would allow the chords to be played in the original shapes; having the same open strings ring out in the same way instead of placing a capo higher up the neck or trying to find a jazzier way of playing it and losing the open strings. Tuning down definitely made for a more resonant sludgy sound, especially on open strings, and maybe they just decided to record everything that way instead of tuning up then tuning down. There was probably no real reason why the bass should have been tuned down too but I had just joined the group and I just did what they did, I wasn’t going to rock the boat.”
I read that the band were not happy with the initial recordings made in Glasgow and it was re-recorded in Rochdale. Does the album include recordings from both sessions?
“The first session was recorded in Pet Sounds, Maryhill, with Francis Macdonald on drums. In the following months, Brendan O’Hare joined the group and the decision was made to re-record four of the songs which we thought could be improved, maybe the tempos were slightly wrong or maybe we decided to try a different feel. We recorded the four songs and then mixed the entire album at Suite 16 in Rochdale – but i could be wrong, it’s all a bit blurry, maybe mixes from Maryhill made the final cut, but I think it was all Suite 16. The album contains the four songs recorded with Brendan and seven songs from the Maryhill session, with Francis. The song ‘A Catholic Education’ appears twice as we couldn’t decide which one was best.”
Was anything recorded at the time not used?
“No, everything was used. The whole point of the session was to record an album that Norman and Raymond had written. We hadn’t played live at this point, we weren’t really a band as such, we were a means to an end. We didn’t even have a name when we first turned up in Maryhill. The first album was the absolute beginning of the band; apart from a few rehearsals, there was nothing before that.”
You, Norman and Raymond are all credited with writing ‘Everybody’s Fool’. Was it written with someone specific in mind? (someone recently called this our generation’s ‘You’re So Vain’).
“I have to say I don’t know if the song was about anyone in particular but we all knew characters who tried too hard to be cool, who would try to put you in your place, and I always regarded the song as a counter to that type of character. As far as I remember, this was the only lyric that Norman didn’t have finished. He may have had a few lines here and there and I remember us sitting about suggesting possible rhymes to finish off the verses, but It’s all a bit hazy. It was predominantly Norman’s song, myself and Raymond might have come up with a line each and so we shouldn’t really have had any significant songwriting credit.”
Had you played in any bands prior to TFC?
I played bass guitar in a live incarnation of Joe McAlinden’s Groovy Little Numbers. I’d messed about with pals before that but nothing had ever come of it. The Groovy Little Numbers was the first time I had ever played bass and the first time I had ever played live on a stage. I knew Joe and Catherine from school, and I knew a couple of the other guys in the band, including Francis Macdonald. They were a nice bunch of people, with a few patter merchants – it was a good laugh.”
If they have stayed true to that cautionary maxim not to become too big for their boots, then Teenage Fanclub have done so virtually unselfconsciously. In itself, commercial success was never something they strove to achieve. If it came along, then sure it would be welcomed; if not, then too bad. It would be futile, dishonest, to chase after it. It is that very groundedness as human beings – the stubbornly democratic creative principle within, the unassuming personalities outwith – which is a turn off for some. This is rock’n’roll after all. Where’s the glam, the swagger, the smashed up hotel rooms, the foul mouthed tirades?
It’s a rhetorical question of course. Cliched rock’n’roll behaviour was never really their thing. Instead, they excel at making brilliant records. Their collective artistic output during the ’90s compares favourably with any other band I can think of. Usually however, it is Bandwagonesque and Grand Prix which battle it out for the accolade of best album, but our second Fannies’ pick is Songs From Northern Britain, coincidentally the band’s highest charting release (#3, August 1997).
“Here is a sunrise/ain’t that enough?/True as a clear sky/ain’t that enough?”
Sometimes chastised as the blander, ‘mature’ album, a pale regression following the dazzling cocksureness of Grand Prix, it was a record that saw a conscious shift in approach. Gerry Love explains: “I think we decided, after making the Have Lost It EP, that we may as well do our own thing from then on, please ourselves and just follow our own instincts…we had done noisier stuff but we didn’t want to get stuck there, we were into all sorts of music and I guess we wanted to express ourselves in a slightly different manner.”
And the results were fresher than a fridge full of fruit smoothies. Blake, recently married and a new father, was in fine optimistic fettle on ‘I Don’t Want Control Of You’ an ethical, nay equitable, adult love song with majestic group harmonising, and is at his yearning poetic best on ‘Planets’ a romantic ode to seeking out nature’s solitude, which as well as conjuring images of chilly autumnal evenings in the West Highlands, is also one of three songs to experiment with the Mini Moog the band had acquired relatively inexpensively in Boston six years earlier. “I guess we used it because we had it there in the studio, but also the musical territory of that album provided a perfect context” recalls Love. “[It] sat really well amongst the strings in the song ‘Planets’, it was Norman’s idea to arrange it that way…it provided a good counter-texture to the more scratchy rhythmic elements.” The string accompaniment was added at Abbey Road.
Raymond sounds equally ‘loved up’ hitting peak form on what I understand to have been the last song recorded for the album, ‘Can’t Feel My Soul’. A stinging lead intensified by some seriously twisted whammy-bar pummelling recalls the axe sound on those early fuzzmungous Buffalo Springfield records. Meanwhile the ghost of ‘Eight Miles High’ wanders the corridors of his equally splendid ‘Your Love Is The Place Where I Come From’.
Gerry’s Zuma-flavoured desert foraging on ‘Mount Everest’ sounds bruising, possibly even rather solemn, whereas his ‘Take The Long Way Round’ and in particular ‘Ain’t That Enough’ are unashamedly ebullient slices of pure pop, as indebted to The Archies or The Monkees as to Big Star and The Byrds.
I have always found the lyrics to the closer, Gerry’s ‘Speed Of Light’, to be a little cryptic. If they communicate positivity, still I’ve struggled to deconstruct them. Perhaps it’s pointless to try – I suppose we construct our own meanings from our favourite songs – but under minimal duress, their intrepid author was happy to explain (spoiler alert*): “Firstly I need to describe the context: I was in a marijuana phase at the time, we were on the verge of a new century and I guess I was trying to write some type of futuristic pop song. It’s not a short story or a cohesive narrative in the traditional sense, it’s more like a slide show of related images…Lyrically, I would classify it as an advice song. I’m from a big family and I have a lot of younger brothers and sisters, and at that time a couple of them were still teenagers. It wasn’t intended as an instruction manual for them, or for anyone for that matter, it was only intended as a vehicle for the melody, under the guise of bubblegum philosophy. It’s certainly no big hitter, nothing there that I’m particularly proud of. I was just looking for a lyrical possibility, a means to an end, and this was it, this was the breakthrough. In the first verse, “ Drive an easy road, if you’re looking for direction”, “Take an easy load, all you need is information” – pretty straightforward, be smart and value knowledge over materialism. “Only you and me add up” – together we’re stronger. “The speed of light and stars have planned it” – it’s simply a law of the universe, how it is and how it will always be. Second verse “Need a changing face when the wind around is blowing” – A clunky way of saying if the wind changes direction your face will stay like that, which was the type of advice I received when I was a teenager, which I would guess translates as roll with the punches and don’t get too hung up. “Waste in space, if you’re looking for persuasion, everything you need can grow” – back up in outer space, I can see space junk and fruitless searches for meaningful life and I’m saying forget that – all we need is right here on earth. And there you have it, ‘Speed of Light’, a lyrical deconstruction twenty years later!”
Rather than being a watered down version of what came before, here we see our four friends finally finding their places in a world of adult responsibility. Through their lens, this grown up graduation was not as unwelcome as it is for many. Liberated from the burden of having to make any kind of statement, musically or politically, they simply let their own optimism and enthusiasm spill over naturally into what I would regard as their finest set of songs. It’s more them than Bandwagonesque (indisputably marvellous but sooooo Big Star) and the songs, performances and production (if not the volume) are ratched up a notch or two from Grand Prix. It’s unfairly maligned and is deserving of greater acclaim. I often think of it as their Notorious Byrd Bros, their Loaded. With characteristic understatement Love recalls the album fondly. “I think we achieved good results everywhere, everything sounded really nice, we were working with good equipment and good people.” TFC have the knack of making everything sound effortlessly joyful and uncomplicated. Northern Britain is proud of you. (JJ)