THERE IS A certain symmetry at work in the career of Teenage Fanclub. Their debut album A Catholic Education was released independently in 1990 and since then things have come full circle. Twenty years on from that debut comes the band’s 10th album, the wonderful Shadows, also released independently.
Although the band’s core members, songwriters, and vocalists - Norman Blake, Gerard Love, and Raymond McGinley - hail from across Lanarkshire, Teenage Fanclub have always been associated with the county’s main town, and Scotland’s second city, Glasgow.
Glasgow was where the band came together in the late 1980s and the three young men pooled their songwriting talents to come up with enough material to create A Catholic Education.
The album appeared out of nowhere and was released before the band had yet played any gigs. Today that might not be so unusual, but in 1990, it was eccentric.
“In some ways it does not seem like 20 years ago that we made the record,” Gerard Love, who aslo playes bass in the Fanclub, tells me during our Monday morning interview. “We didn’t have a record deal and we hadn’t played any gigs so there was this vacuum and then we revealed ourselves as being in existence.
“It was an unusual beginning. I had just finished university and my mum and dad were worried about me getting into music instead of getting a good job. Eventually they realised I did have a job as a musician.”
Sectarianism has long been a running sore in Glasgow and some ways stems from the Catholic Irish and Ulster Protestants who brought their political and religious differences with them. The divisions can still be seen in the Celtic v Rangers rivalry.
“It was a time when Glasgow was not as well integrated as it is now,” says Gerard, “so calling our album A Catholic Education was a comment as your religion was a bone of contention back then, but anyone who was into music was above all that. They didn’t ask ‘What school did you go to?’ Music helped us mix really well.”
However the album title was a kind of statement by the band on who they are and on their background.
“I am a Celtic supporter,” says Gerard. “I’m not a staunch supporter but I go to every home game. I’m interested in roots and there is an Irish connection to the band. My mum is from Fermanagh and Raymond’s people are from Donegal. Most people in Glasgow who dig into their history will find connections with the northern part of Ireland.”
Nirvana and Big Star
Teenage Fanclub would really begin to make their mark on music critics and the public in what was an extraordinary year for indie and alternative rock - 1991. My Bloody Valentine unleashed Loveless, Pixies released Trompe Le Monde, Primal Scream and Massive Attack made the masterpieces Screamadelica and Blue Lines respectively, and before the end of the year Nirvana would release Nevermind.
Into this mix came Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque. I well remember the buzz around the album at the time with great things predicted for the Glaswegians. Gerard though, has very mixed feelings about the record.
“It was an important album for us as it allowed us to continue and get good reviews,” he says. “It did well in the US and that allowed us to be accepted in Britain. Spin magazine ranked Bandwagonesque above Nirvana and Public Enemy for album of the year and we had to bear the backlash from that.
“A lot of people think of it as our high point in terms of sales but for us it was the starting point for the development of the group. There are some half decent songs on it but some of them are sketches. There is an instantaneousness to it that is attractive but it is flawed. We got better as we went on.”
It was around this time the band started to be referred to as the ‘Fannies’, which, though meant affectionately by fans, is still rather unfortunate. Gerard sighs when he thinks about it.
“We started it before some else did so no one else could come up with it,” he said. “We got badges done up saying ‘I’m a Teenage Fannie’. It is unfortunate but there you go.”
Teenage Fanclub may have raised cynical eyebrows for getting more praise than Nirvana, but Kurt Cobain did not mind and he famously declared the Scots “the best band in the world”.
There is a famous photograph from the 1991 Reading Festival picturing the Fannies’ Norman Blake with The Vaselines’ Eugene Kelly and Cobain. While Blake and Kelly appear relaxed, Cobain looks like an ecstatic fan-boy, thrilled to be beside his heroes.
“I remember watching Nirvana playing, they were on at about three or four in the afternoon and they hadn’t released Nevermind yet,” recalls Gerard. “I bumped into Kurt a few times and he seemed very friendly.
“We respected him and he respected our music and knew a lot about bands from Glasgow like The Vaselines and The Pastels. He did appear to be like someone from Glasgow. He was slightly built, unsure of himself.
“We later got to tour with them in Spain and Scandinavia when Nevermind was out. All our lives had changed but not to the same extent as his. He was a reluctant rock star and his life was more difficult.”
Teenage Fanclub’s members share a love of The Beatles, The Byrds, and Big Star and have been strongly influenced by those bands’ sense of melody and vocal harmonies. Unsurprisingly then that in 1993 the Fannies jumped at the chance to record with Big Star founder and songwriter, the late Alex Chilton.
“The first time we met him was in 1989,” recalls Gerard. “We saw him again in 1991/92 and he knew who we were. He had a reputation as someone who was difficult and troubled but we hit it off and saw a different side of him.
“He regarded Big Star as something in his past that didn’t work out and that was that. He was a fantastic guitar player and was content in where he was. He was also charming and cultured and interested in the history of Glasgow. He attended talks on history in the library and loved architecture and museums. He was more interested in that than hanging out afterwards at gigs.”
Over the past 20 years the Fannies’ sound and style has barely changed - melodic and intelligent guitar driven pop, with sublime vocal harmonies, and warm and compassionate lyrics. It has resulted in many fine albums and wonderful songs as ‘Ain’t That Enough’, ‘Mellow Doubt’, ‘I Need Direction’, ‘I Don’t Want Control Of You’.
The new album Shadows contains the Fannies’ sonic and vocal trademarks. Yet, despite sticking to their formula (“It’s our DNA, it’s the way we do things,” says Gerard ), tracks like ‘Baby Lee’, ‘When I Still Have Thee’, ‘The Fall’, and ‘The Back Of My Mind’, pulsate with a vibrancy which declare that Love, McGinley, and Blake are enjoying a burst of renewed inspiration and energy.
The album opens with Gerard Love’s song ‘Sometimes I Don’t Need To Believe In Anything’.
“Most of the time you need to believe in a perfect state in the future and most of us are waiting for something better,” he says, “but there are moments, very brief moments, when you feel everything is as it should be. It could come from a baby’s smile or a sunset and you don’t need anything to change or be different. I imagine Buddhist monks feel like that all the time.”
Gerard also offers an interesting take on Norman Blake’s ‘When I Still Have Thee’ and its key line: “The Rolling Stones/wrote a song for me/it’s a minor song/in a major key.” What Stones song is he referring to?
“I assume it’s ‘When I Still Have Thee’ he’s singing about,” says Gerard. “The song’s riff is what Norman would think of as a Stones riff so I guess he’s pre-empting people making comparisons to the Stones.”
Teenage Fanclub have enjoyed 20 years of fair success and enjoyed what few other bands do - a harmonious relationship that has secured their longevity.
“We never have arguments,” he says. “We all have families and children and so we take breaks from each other and have lives outside of the band. The music has given us a good quality of life and we will do it for as long as we enjoy doing it.”
The Róisín Dubh and the Galway Arts Festival present Teenage Fanclub in the Radisson Live Lounge on Thursday July 22 at 7.30pm. Tickets are available from the festival box office, Galway Tourist Office, Forster Street, and www.galwayartsfestival.com