Thievery? Sure, but inspired thievery ;
Teenage Fanclub followed path lit by Big Star
9 February 2003
Authenticity has always been a thorny concept in rock 'n' roll. Critics love
to laud originality and innovation, but this has always been a bastardized
art form, wantonly stealing from any number of other styles and genres. In
rock, nothing under the sun is ever really new; it's all been done before.
And while it may be fun to debate whence our heroes appropriate, at the end
of the day, it's best to dismiss such quibbling: If the music is good, just
turn it up!
The second album by Teenage Fanclub is a classic of tasteful thievery--it's
impossible to imagine it ever being made without the band's three
songwriters (guitarists-vocalists Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley and
bassist Gerard Love) hearing the three influential albums that pioneering
power-popsters Big Star made in the early '70s ("Radio City,"
"No. 1 Record," and "Big Star Third," a.k.a.
As teens growing up in Glasgow, Scotland, a world away from the American
South, the members of Teenage Fanclub had almost nothing in common with Big
Star's twin auteurs, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. Like Led Zeppelin or Derek
and the Dominos reinterpreting the blues greats a generation earlier, the
members of TFC applied Big Star's uniquely chiming guitars, moody
atmospherics, and oh-so-romantic lyrics to their own cultural touchstones,
substituting pubs for juke joints and jaded postpunk lasses for heartbreaker
Southern belles. Rather than coppying Big Star riffs and melodies wholesale
(try spotting flagrant note-for-note rips and you'll come up empty- handed),
the 12 tunes on the group's best album strive to capture a similar vibe and
the melancholy but ultra-melodic essence of what made Big Star great.
As I said, TFC couldn't have made "Bandwagonesque" without Big
Star. But you don't need to have heard Big Star to appreciate "Bandwagonesque."
Blake and McGinley first teamed with Love in 1987 in a short- lived Glasgow
group called the Boy Hairdressers, which issued one indie single before
disbanding. After a short stint with the BMX Bandits, Blake and his mates
reunited to form Teenage Fanclub in 1989; drummer and fellow BMX Bandit
Francis McDonald completed the original lineup, though he was replaced by
fan Brendan O'Hare during sessions for the group's debut, 1990's "A
Catholic Education," which was released on the revered Creation Records
label in the U.K. and the ultrahip Matador Records in the U.S.
Arriving a year before Nirvana's "Nevermind" ushered in the
alternative-rock explosion of the '90s, "A Catholic Education" did
its best to hide its sparkling melodies under hypnotic, droning rhythms and
expansive layers of the sort of raw guitars that would soon be ubiquitously
described as "grunge." But there were hints of what was to come,
and of the band's nascent obsession with Big Star.
To their credit, TFC never denied the influence, and the musicians
constantly lauded Big Star in interviews at the time. The title of their
second album acknowledges a debt to their forbearers- -the bandwagon they're
referring to was driven by Chilton and Bell-- though it's also a typically
snarky and sarcastic comment on the music industry post-"Nevermind."
Prior to the album's release, TFC became the subject of an intense
major-label bidding war in the States (the group eventually jumped from
Matador to DGC), and while Nirvana commented on similar circumstances with
its famous cover photo of fishing for a baby with a dollar bill, TFC went
the Seattle rockers one better with a simple cartoon of a big fat moneybag.
Blake has said that the disc's opening track, "The Concept,"
served as a blueprint for the entire album, which was expertly produced in
rough and ready fashion by Don Fleming
(former leader of the Velvet Monkeys, another group that knew a lot about
appropriation and balancing sweet pop melodies with grungy raunch). The song
finds Blake pining after a girl he knows isn't right for him (her tastes in
music clearly aren't as cool as his own--she likes bad '70s metal), but he's
determined to have her anyway. Still, he's a nice guy (even if he'd never
let his mates at the pub see that), and he hates the idea of breaking her
heart, though he knows he'll probably do it eventually.
"She wears denim wherever she goes," Blake sings. "Says she's
gonna get some records by the Status Quo/Oh yeah, oh yeah." Sublimely
stoopid, that's the entire first verse, but the tune just gets better:
"Still she won't be forced against her will/Says she don't do drugs but
she does the pill/Oh yeah, oh yeah/I didn't want to hurt you/Oh yeah/I
didn't want to hurt you/Oh yeah."
Not exactly genius poetry, but the sadly sweet singing adds a universe of
meaning in the same way that Marc Bolan's faintest hint of a leer added
unplumbed depths to the lyrics of T. Rex. And the words really can't be
separated from the music: After a burst of ugly feedback (echoes of "A
Catholic Education"), those gloriously sunny and chiming guitars kick
in, and they're as addictive as a bowl of M&Ms. They reign supreme
through the rest of the album, joined on occasion by expertly crafted string
parts, while the opening track builds to a beautiful, worldless, elegiac
climax and coda that hints that maybe, just maybe, our slacker playboy hero
wound up finding true love where he least expected it.
The moment is as good as power pop gets--pure bliss and unfettered
emotion--and many more follow, from the rollicking spoof of "Metal
Baby" to the achingly lovely "December," and from the catchy
and brilliantly inarticulate "Alcoholiday" and "What You Do
to Me" ("There are things I want to say but I don't know/If they
will be to you"; "I know, I can't believe/There's something about
you/Got me down on my knees") to the indelible closing instrumental
"Is This Music?" (which finds the musicians following in the
footsteps of New Wave-era countrymen Big Country, mimicking the sound of
Scottish bagpipes with their guitars).
Though "Bandwagonesque" was named album of the year by Spin
magazine (overshadowing even "Nevermind") and the band found
itself playing on "Saturday Night Live" and as an opening act on
several major tours, Teenage Fanclub never achieved mainstream success in
the States, racking up only a fraction of the sales of Nirvana or Pearl Jam.
(These were xenophobic years in America, and until Oasis, very little
English music topped the modern-rock radio charts.)
Nevertheless, the album has influenced countless power-pop bands that
followed, from Chicago rockers such as OK-GO and Frisbie to English bands
like Travis and Coldplay. And if TFC never quite got the mix of thievery and
distinction, sarcasm and heart-on-the- sleeve honesty quite so right again
(though there are certainly rewarding moments on efforts such as
"Thirteen" and the recent "Howdy!"), it did give us one
album that is every bit as great as those produced by the giants it lauded.
Pop Music Critic Jim DeRogatis writes about Rock's Great Albums every other
Sunday in Showcase. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
or visit him on the web at www.jimdero.com.