Hot Band: Teenage Fanclub – Rolling Stone
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Hot Band: Teenage Fanclub

A college-rock favorite is now earning mainstream pop acceptance

Teenage Fanclub

Teenage Fanclub

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England’s top live TV show is erupting in acid-flashback bursts of strobe lights and Day-Glo. Kids in the crowd twirl and stomp like extras from Hair while video projectors splash action-adventure scenes across the studio walls and hired dancers gyrate on raised platforms above the mayhem.

It’s Teenage Fanclub’s live television debut on The Word, and the band is scheduled to play “What You Do to Me,” ninety seconds’ and just twenty-one words’ worth of pure, unapologetic pop. Sporting a plastic Mardi Gras-style medallion from the group’s field trip to Stonehenge and a sticker on his guitar proclaiming, I Love the Osmonds, Norman Blake has just finished crooning the tune’s final lines when the entire band lurches into “Satan,” its one-minute whirlpool of instrumental iniquity.

As audience members stagger around the floor and the band careens across the stage, the moment comes to an abrupt, cymbal-crashing close, and the monitors fade to a commercial. For its first potential star turn since the spiraling success of its second U.S. album, Bandwagonesque, Teenage Fanclub has managed not only to provide two songs for the price of one but to prove that with every bit of good comes a little bit of evil.

Blake laughs. “Really,” he says, “playing ‘Satan’ was just to fuck ’em off a bit.”

MORE ACCURATELY, breaking into “Satan” after “What You Do to Me” might just fundamentally define Teenage Fanclub’s precarious position somewhere between punk rock and the Top of the Pops.

Released last November, Bandwagonesque – with its combination of avant-rock guitar blur and sing-along song structures – immediately launched the Fanclub to the top of the college-radio charts, a perch from which it ultimately peered down for a full month. Now, as Bandwagonesque continues rolling along, people are starting to realize the group’s full pop potential.

The studio version of “Satan” illustrates the Fanclub’s yin and yang. The track begins with the same scratching and clawing drone of the devil-worship-style backward masking that landed Judas Priest in front of a Nevada judge. Unmask the message, however, and you hear: “God bless my cotton socks. I am wearing a blue shirt.”

“Yeah,” says Blake. “I guess it’s nothing too satanic.”

The Fanclub’s two albums are like glimpses of two distinct personalities. Named to infuriate the sectarian groups that divide the band’s native Glasgow into Protestant and Catholic factions, A Catholic Education, Teenage Fanclub’s 1990 debut, was a stunning genuflection to American indie strum and grunge. It brought the group a forest-depleting stack of rave reviews and helped fuel a clash of major-label titans that wanted a piece of the band.

Bandwagonesque – the group’s equally impassioned major-label coming out – is, by contrast, innocent and earnest. While A Catholic Education‘s cynical observations – like “I don’t fucking care/How you wear your hair/You’re still fucking square,” the chorus of “Everybody’s Fool” – are insulated by layer upon layer of amplified fuzz, Bandwagonesque‘s Sixties-style love songs are shouted from the rooftops in boyish three-part harmony. At a time when most of the alternative-music world is out shopping for Marshall stacks and extra layers of amp-induced grunge, Teenage Fanclub has actually peeled off its topcoat to reveal a Beach Boy-ish heart lurking beneath the flannel.

With the downtown-New York noise merchant and Gumball frontman Don Fleming handling production chores for Bandwagonesque, the fact that the Fanclub’s rock excavation went past Dinosaur Jr and ended up uncovering pop purists like the Raspberries came as a bit of a shock to the self-appointed alternative-rock police. The band has been simultaneously lauded for producing one of the year’s true treasures and assailed for going from casually flip to self-consciously hip. “It was really Don Fleming’s idea to make it not so grungy,” says Blake. “Everyone expected us to make a really hard album. He didn’t want to. Anyone can grunge. It takes a lot more skill not to be grungy. We just decided not to.”

But before to grunge or not to grunge became the question, the band faced a sterner dilemma. After extended courtships from a gaggle of major labels, Teenage Fanclub signed with Geffen Records’ subsidiary DGC, home of Sonic Youth and Nirvana. But the group still owed a disc to its indie parent, Matador Records. Although Bandwagonesque was already completed, the band instead handed Matador chief Gerard Cosloy The King – a ragged set of instrumental jams and a cover of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” – which failed to see the fluorescent light of U.S. retail outlets. Toss in an undisclosed, five-figure hunk of cash from Geffen, and the Fanclub suddenly had a break from the past and a new lease on the future.

The group, however, is extremely sensitive to the media’s depiction of it as abandoning a pure indie aesthetic. “A lot of journalists really knocked us for [leaving Matador],” says Blake. “They say we really fucked Gerard over. But it’s okay for him. He has a job. We didn’t have jobs. The main reason we went to a major label is that we needed money to live. You can have the coolest band in the world, but you have to live. This is the real fucking world.”

Guitarist Raymond McGinley jumps in: “You have to realize that it’s people’s lives at stake. With A Catholic Education, that was our entire life at that point in time. It wasn’t just one stupid record by an indie band. If we’d stayed on Matador, the band wouldn’t exist anymore.”

(For his part, Cosloy says the matter was simply business and at this point is finished business. “I personally don’t think they fucked us over,” says Cosloy. “In the end, we’ve been compensated for losing the band, and everything’s cool. I respect their desire to move to a major label. I just believe they should have fulfilled their contractual obligations. This is a job. But it’s a job that started from scratch. We spent our own time and money trying to help Teenage Fanclub establish a foothold in the States. If they want to say that if they’d made one more independent record, they’d be broken up, that’s fine. But they must be the most impatient band on earth if they really believe that.”)

Blake tries to explain further. “You also have to realize Gerard did a lot for us, but we did a lot for him, too,” he says. “Most indie labels have major-label mentalities anyway. It was kind of a Catch-22 situation. We weren’t going to be paid, but because of the record, we weren’t entitled to unemployment benefits. What were we supposed to do?”

Blake pauses and smiles shyly. “And now we’re rich, so we treat people like shit.”

IT’S PAST midnight, and Teenage Fanclub’s closet-size dressing room for The Word is overflowing. Bodies are strewn about like piles of dirty laundry while Alan McGee – president of the band’s U.K. label, Creation Records – pops a bottle of congratulatory champagne, takes a swig and passes it around.

Fanclub drummer and comedian-in-residence Brendan O’Hare is propped against a radiator, entertaining the troops, when a member of the Mega City 4 – one of the two other bands to share the TV bill with Teenage Fanclub – sheepishly walks into the fray. “That was unbelievable,” the band member says, sounding decidedly star struck as he approaches Blake. “You guys are unbelievable. Do you think I could get your autographs?”

Blake pops up from the ground and smiles. “You guys were really great, too,” Blake says as he signs a piece of paper. “You know, we’re playing tomorrow night. We could put you on the guest list.”

Blake is genuinely disarmed by the attention of his fellow musician. It is, in fact, exactly this attitude – Teenage Fanclub’s unconscious charm in the midst of the group’s burgeoning stardom – that has distanced the band from the horde of breathy, sound-alike shoegazer bands in the U.K. and the growing group of thrash-happy Sub Pop clones in the U.S. Fanclub bassist Gerry Love believes that the band members’ distrust of music trends has ironically made them fashion setters in their own right.

“I think one reason why we’ve been kind of separated from other bands is that there’s a really big fashion thing here,” says Love. “It makes bands. Indie bands. They don’t care about music. They get a look first. We’ve never been into that. We’re not making records so that people will think we’re cool.”

Like it or not, a growing throng of fans and fanzines does think Teenage Fanclub is cool. The band has literally saturated the sensationalistic British music press, an establishment that has depicted the band members as either a wild horde of drunken practical jokers or merely an ensemble cast for Blake’s star turn. Both descriptions leave the group livid.

While Blake composed virtually every track on A Catholic Education, songwriting credit on Bandwagonesque is more evenly distributed, and vocal duty is a shared chore. The more communal sophomore effort, in fact, has achieved the group’s desired fusion of band personalities and overall facelessness.

“It really pisses me off when bands become a cult of personality,” says McGinley. “We’re just a band. We’re not about this or about that. We’re a band.”

Point out the fact that many great bands are still identified by the face of one distinguishable frontman, and the lads in Teenage Fanclub will hurl their idols at you. “If you look at the Beatles, every member had something special,” says Blake. “The Who was the same way. That’s the way we want people to think of us.”

The Fanclub feel is one of an extended family. Blake and McGinley have been cutting out their own place in the Glasgow rock world since they formed the Boy Hairdressers in the mid-Eighties. When the group disbanded, Blake worked in a music shop, and McGinley graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Glasgow. Continuing their partnership, the pair then formed Teenage Fanclub, recruiting Love – whom they met at a Dinosaur Jr concert – to join the club. Love, in fact, recorded A Catholic Education just one week after graduating from the University of Strathclyde with a degree in urban and regional planning. Meanwhile, O’Hare – who at twenty-one is the youngest member of the Fanclub – traded research for rock. After being offered scholarships to study molecular biology, O’Hare was recruited as a research assistant for a cancer laboratory. He chose Teenage Fanclub.

On tour, Teenage Fanclub is a very tightknit unit The road crew is made up of the group’s lifelong friends, and the band’s girlfriends even traveled from Glasgow to the London television taping en masse.

“I couldn’t justify hiring somebody we didn’t know,” says O’Hare. “Not when we could be around our friends, and they could be making money.”

Each individual in Teenage Fanclub serves as a piece of the larger puzzle of the group’s collective personality. Blake is the group’s natural leader. With his rumpled demeanor (he spent his three days in London in the same ripped jeans and T-shirt) and cherubic grin, he looks both innocent and impish – ready to pull his band mates and anyone willing into trouble at any moment. He also serves as the group’s primary spokesman.

“When you’re younger, you’re more likely to say you like something because you think it’s cool,” says Blake. “As you get older, you say, ‘Fuck that, I happen to like this record.’ That’s how I feel about us and our music. The critics and cynics might bash something, but fuck it. I don’t care.”

McGinley embodies the silent resolve and ambitiousness of the entire group. The quietest member of the Fanclub fold, he is also the only one of the four who claims he would uproot himself from Glasgow in search of something more exciting. When excitement arrives, however – as in a live television broadcast in front of 4 million viewers – he is the most likely to be unfazed. “I didn’t really think about it being television,” he says. “I just thought it seemed like kind of a mad thing going on.”

As the bass player and, with Blake, one of the band’s two primary songwriters, Love approaches the Fanclub with often childlike enthusiasm. He chews bubble gum incessantly, even while singing. On trips to and from the band’s endless promotional events, he immediately pops Gram Parsons cassettes into the tape deck and talks passionately about each track, at one point even pulling a recent Parsons biography from under his seat. Faced with an eight-hour wait for the band’s two minutes of television fame, Love will sit in the studio cafeteria, lean back in his chair smiling and say, “Isn’t this just the best job in the world?”

It is O’Hare who comes closest to portraying the British press’s picture of the Fanclub. There is not a moment of silence that O’Hare doesn’t seize.

“A lot of people expect us to live up to the depiction of us as total practical jokers and crazies,” says O’Hare, whose drum kit sports the words BRENDAN: THE DRUMMER. “It’s like we did this TV show here, and for a dare, I wore stockings and a bra. And that was it. I won the bet, it was over. And we went to Chicago to do a show, and they had all these dresses hanging up, and the first thing they asked me was whether I’d be wearing stockings and a bra. I just thought, ‘If I want to do it, I’ll do it.’ I don’t do things as an order. He expected me to just put on my bra and play.”

And while the media’s complaints about such cross-dressing escapades ruffle Teenage Fanclub, the band chooses to ignore another frequent criticism – that the group’s penchant for drawn-out instrumentals isn’t shared by even the most fervent members of the Fanclub’s fan club.

“You can’t worry about it,” says O’Hare. “The writers probably slagged Beethoven, too.”

Blake, in fact, feels that his band could help lead by example. “I would have loved the Doors a lot more,” he says, “if they were just an instrumental band and Jim Morrison never opened his mouth.”

Instrumental complaints aside, Bandwagonesque has helped to refocus mainstream attention on driving, harmony-drenched pop. The album, in fact, glides along with the effortless ease of a marble rolling across glass – because of the strength of the group’s lilting, boyish harmonies and forceful, hook-heavy guitar fuzz.

The band’s steamrolling success even helped Teenage Fanclub nab a coveted spot as musical guest on Saturday Night Live (the built-in pun on the group’s moniker next to the name of guest host and Beverly Hills, 90210 hunk du jour Jason Priestley didn’t hurt, either). But in keeping with the group’s resolve not to break ranks, the band members refused to play the show unless their girlfriends made the trip to New York.

With the Saturday Night Live appearance under its belt and MTV on the bandwagon for its newest video, “The Concept,” the key word of late for Teenage Fanclub is momentum. The band’s major-label album is getting a major-label push.

And while Bandwagonesque doesn’t contain a specific moment as transcendent as A Catholic Education‘s “Everything Flows,” the band’s epic ode to indecision, it is nevertheless a beautifully seamless, collective love song to the band’s own love of music. Songs like “December” and “Guiding Star” have the wonderfully wide-eyed quality of an adolescent crush. Even “Alcoholiday,” Bandwagonesque’s crowning achievement and one single flash of cynicism, recaptures a musical innocence altogether lacking in postpunk alternative rock.

“In Glasgow, you have the steelworks, and nobody has jobs,” says Blake. “Over the last ten or fifteen years in Scotland, the shipbuilding industry has gone. The steel industry has gone. The coal industry has gone. It’s decimated the place. I don’t want to get all of Scotland or myself any more down by making down records. That’s why I hate it when people think we’re letting down the independent sector, because we’re not. We’re definitely not.”

THE BBC RADIO TRUCKS are blocking most of the entrance to London’s Town and Country Club. It’s the night after Teenage Fanclub’s appearance on The Word and the final night of a sold-out European tour with Redd Kross – and Radio One is broadcasting the concert live.

Backstage, the band members are bouncing a soccer ball, eagerly waiting for the night’s first act, Blake’s original band, the BMX Bandits.

“Most of the bands we like are American bands like Gumball, Superchunk and Urge Overkill,” says Blake. “But we really love a couple of Glasgow bands, like the BMX Bandits and Captain America. They’ve never gotten that popular, but they’ve done okay, and their fans have stayed with them. And you know, I don’t think they give a fuck about it all. I like to think we’re the same way.”

The mood in the dank dressing room is decidedly upbeat. After tonight’s show, the Fanclub members plan to travel back to Glasgow for a few days of Scodand-induced normalcy.

“Glasgow doesn’t change for us,” says McGinley. “When we go back to Glasgow we can just throw off our guitars and head for the pub.”

The group is happy to have the break. New York, the band’s first stop, will serve as an industry-dominated introduction to its upcoming tour of the U.S. With the status of hot young band burning over them, the members of Teenage Fanclub still aren’t comfortable staring into the spotlight.

“I had a real problem with New York last time we were there,” says O’Hare. “I went a bit crazy. There were all these record-company people coming up and touching us and saying, ‘Ooh, yeah, yeah.’ I ended up just locking myself in a hotel room.”

The band realizes, however, that it is these hands-on record-company higher-ups that have helped to make it all the fashion. The ace in the hole for Teenage Fanclub, however, is that it has never bowed to style or image.

“We’re selfish,” says O’Hare. “We make music for us. If people want to listen to fashion bands, then fuck it. I guess we’re the flared pants of the music business.”

His band mates break into laughter.

“We’re the flares of the music business?” says Love.

“Yeah,” says O’Hare. “And we’re not going to change even if people think we’re out of style.”

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