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Best albums of 1991: #2 Teenage Fanclub “Bandwagonesque”

Teenage Fanclub is yet another band that I have MuchMusic’s “CityLimits” to thank for the introduction. And I know I’ve written about this very subject many times but it’s true. The late Friday night alternative music video show on Canada’s music channel was instrumental in my education, especially once I had set my sights on music from the left-hand side of the dial. The Fannies video for “Star sign” was what first caught my eye, the jangly psychedelics in sound and image had me tangled immediately and irrevocably in its hypnotic snare. Other videos followed, a few of which are below, and they found themselves on the video cassette tape nets in which I was collecting as much music as I could catch. So when MuchMusic started using the introduction from “The concept” as part the show’s opening, I smiled knowingly every time.

I learned much later that the band formed in 1989 in Bellshill, Scotland. Founding members Gerard Love, Norman Blake, and Raymond McGinley were all talented guitarists, songwriters, and vocalists in their own rights and each contributed mightily to the band’s finished products, especially as time wore on. But even in the case of today’s focus, the incredible third album, “Bandwagonesque”, each member listed above and even the drummer at the time, Brendan O’Hare, had their own written song(s) on the card that the writer sang on the recording and would take up the mike when performed live. (For you Canadian music fans out there, this might remind you of a certain homegrown band of east coast origins by the name of Sloan.) And not only did each sing their own songs but they also found voices on all of the tunes, harmonizing in a way that some might compare to The Beach Boys but those in the real know might liken to Big Star*.

“Bandwagonesque” was a huge leap for the quartet. Their two previous outings were practically throwaways, in-jokes and shambolic cacophonies. In fact, their sophomore album, “The king”, was hastily recorded and deleted from circulation the day after it was released. And the though the third album was still comical and taking humorous kicks at the music industry (just take a look at the name and album cover**), it shows hints at the maturity, musicianship, and longevity of group that still releases music to this day.

The album actually did just as well in North America as it did in Europe and Britain, a feat they were never able to repeat. Many of its singles hit it big on college radio and some even managed to latch on to the newly established Billboard modern rock chart. Indeed, “Bandwagonesque” placed highly on a great many music magazines’ end of year lists, famous placing number one on Spin Magazine’s list over “Nevermind”, “Out of time”, and “Loveless”. I can’t say I disagree with Spin’s assessment (though I am sure in hindsight their pick would be changed), as wouldn’t a bunch of artists that were influenced by the group, like Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, who released a cover of this complete album back in 2017.

My three picks for you from “Bandwagonesque” are all songs with which I fell in love through repeated plays of their videos but really, each of the eleven tracks on the album are pure noise rock perfection. If you’ve seen the cover and heard the name but never taken the plunge, get on it. You won’t be sorry.


”What you do to me”: “What you do to me… I know, I can’t believe. There’s something about you, got me down on my knees.” Those are the lyrics. That’s it. Granted, these are repeated throughout, some of the lines more than others. But these four lines really tell the story and evoke exactly the passion felt by one Norman Blake. The track is just a shade over two minutes with lots of rip roaring and crunchy guitars, hair hanging long over the face, masking the angst there, while the whole band gets involved with harmonies. And then, if listening to the version in the video below (which of course, was my introduction to this song), the band leads right into instrumental track, “Satan”, which is just an explosion and mess of instruments letting loose the passion previously restrained.

”Star sign”: As I mentioned above, Teenage Fanclub were jokesters, not taking themselves, nor anything, really, too seriously. Here, they poke fun at superstitions and good luck charms and astrology. “Hey there’s a horseshoe on my door; big deal. And say there’s a black cat on the floor, big deal.” But bassist Gerard Love does so with such verve and panache, you can’t feel beaten at, even if you might swear by these things. “Star sign” was the first track to be released off the album and was my intro to the group. The video reflected a retro 60s vibe but the sound was of its true time and space, reverb and feedback gives way to thumping drum fills and driving guitars and of course, plenty of harmonies. Powerful vibes throughout, man. Yeah, it stuck.

”The concept”: This very track, the six minute opener of the album, appeared at number seven when I counted down my favourite tunes of 1991 a few years ago. You can go back and re-read that post if you’d like, but I’m going to plagiarize a good part of it here: “[The song] starts off the album with a scream of feedback and that iconic first line: “She wears denim wherever she goes, says she’s gonna get some records by the Status Quo.” Its first two minutes set the stage for the rest of the band’s career, mellow rocker with jangly guitars just this side of fuzz and Blake’s gentle rock star vocals with the three part harmonies the band would become known for at the chorus. Between the verses, the guitars become just that much more raunchy and then, at the three minute mark, the song becomes completely instrumental and the guitars follow the drums into a loose jam, at one point, a violin bow is even brandished to further accentuate their point.”

*That’s a subject for a whole other post maybe…

**The album cover was designed by one Sharon Fitzgerald but once Gene Simmons caught wind of the moneybag motif, a cheque had to be written to acquiesce the Kiss frontman’s trademark.


Check back two Thursdays from today for album #1. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Ned’s Atomic Dustbin “Godfodder”
9. Spirit Of The West “Go figure”
8. Chapterhouse  “Whirlpool”
7. Blur “Leisure”
6. Levellers “Levelling the land”
5. The Wonder Stuff “Never loved Elvis”
4. R.E.M. “Out of time”
3. Primal Scream “Screamadelica”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

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Tunes

100 best covers: #80 Teenage Fanclub “Nothing to be done”

<< #81    |    #79 >>

One quick glance at my best tunes of 1990 and 1991 lists and you’ll likely notice I tended towards British music in that decade. It got worse when Nirvana’s explosion meant that the American (and Canadian, to a slightly lesser extent) music industry looked to grunge for the template to all things ‘Alternative’. So in the world before the internet, of course, it made sense that I would find my way to the British music magazines that managed their way to the shelves across the Atlantic and that I would constantly peruse these pages in search of new bands to explore. My favourite of these magazines was the now-defunct “Select”, champion of all things Britpop.

“Select” was also known for the cassette tape compilations that it would include with certain issues. Personally, I was always surprised when I’d find a copy that had somehow survived the voyage with the cassette still attached so it would invariably join me on my return home. One such cassette that I remember, mostly because it is still in a shoebox along with other preserved cassettes in my basement, was the 1995 compilation titled “Exclusives”. It was so called because the songs or versions thereof were only supposed to be available on this tape. It included tracks by Spiritualized, Boo Radleys, U2, EMF, and this cover by Teenage Fanclub.

Of course, at the time I didn’t know it was a cover. I had never heard of The Pastels, the highly influential Scottish indie rock band who did the original. I just loved the laid back groove of the Teenage Fanclub track that came out just one month before their fourth album, “Grand prix”, the crisp production and jangling acoustic giving a foreshadowing impression of what to expect when the new CD was to hit my carousel. And I couldn’t possibly know that the female vocalist tracing barbs with Francis MacDonald on the recording was Katrina Mitchell, a then member of the band being covered.

The original appeared as the opening track on The Pastel’s sophomore record, 1989’s “Sittin’ pretty”, and is more raw sounding than the Fannies cover, vocals even more lazy and guitars raunchy and keys plunking. It sounds a lot like Teenage Fanclub, themselves, sounded like in their early days, not far-fetched given the two bands’ shared geography. And I don’t know if the bands always knew each other or they met due to the recording of this cover but the collaborations didn’t end here. All of MacDonald, Norman Blake, and Gerard Love would lend a hand on later Pastels records.

Anyway, despite enjoying the original, my preference here is the cover and I think it is not just because I heard it first. The aforementioned vocals in the original were performed by founding Pastels members Stephen McRobbie and Annabel Wright (Katrina Mitchell had not yet joined the band when it was recorded) and though fun, they lack the melody of the cover. The Fannies’ version is also slightly more cheerful and playful.

What about you folks? Pastels fans? What’s it to be – the original or the cover?

The cover:

The original:

For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.

Categories
Tunes

Best tunes of 1991: #7 Teenage Fanclub “The concept”

<< #8    |    #6 >>

Moving deeper into the top ten of my favourite tunes of 1991, I have, at number seven, Teenage Fanclub’s “The concept”, the epic opening track off “Bandwagonesque”.

Teenage Fanclub was formed in Scotland in 1989 by guitarist/vocalists Norman Blake, Gerard Love, and Raymond McGinley. Over the years, all three of these founding members have shared songwriting and lead vocal duties across their albums. Their number have typically been rounded up to four with a succession of drummers that have included Francis MacDonald (twice!), Brendan O’Hare, and Paul Quinn, and in recent years, they have added keyboards, the fifth member up to this year being Dave McGowan.

The band has never taken themselves too seriously and this was never more true than in their very first few years, prioritizing fun over proper song structure and form. Their first couple of albums were mostly just noise and laughs. “Bandwagonesque”, their third, bridges the gap between these early games and the surprisingly long career and excellent discography that followed. They were obviously still having fun here, as evidenced by gentle punches pulled at the metal genre (“Satan” and “Metal Baby”), and there was still a lot of noise happening, but there was also a lot more attention paid to songcraft. It didn’t sell a lot of copies at first release (though it did reasonably well in the states) but the critics loved it and so did their peers. They were name checked at the time by Sonic Youth and Nirvana and quite famously, Spin magazine picked this album as their album of the year for 1991 over “Nevermind”, “Out of time”, and “Loveless”. And it is still quite influential to the kids that were listening to it at the time and that have become known musicians these days, like Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, who recorded a full album cover of “Bandwagonesque” in 2017.

“The concept” starts off the album with a scream of feedback and that iconic first line: “She wears denim wherever she goes, says she’s gonna get some records by the Status Quo.” Its first two minutes set the stage for the rest of the band’s career, mellow rocker with jangly guitars just this side of fuzz and Blake’s gentle rock star vocals with the three part harmonies the band would become known for at the chorus. Between the verses, the guitars become just that much more raunchy and then, at the three minute mark, the song becomes completely instrumental and the guitars follow the drums into a loose jam, at one point, a violin bow is even brandished to further accentuate their point.

As album openers go, it doesn’t get much better. The six plus minutes is like butter on toast, urging you on for another bite. Happy Friday.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1991 list, click here.