The Great Albums


Thievery? Sure, But Inspired Thievery

February 9, 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 from 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. “Sister Lovers”).

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 copping 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 ultra-hip 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&M’s. 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.