The Prix is Right
From New Musical Express, 26 August 1995
[Watch out all you rock'n'roll monsters! Teenage Fanclub are in the area and they're
being, gulp, NICE. OK, so 'Grand Prix' might be one of the best albums of 1995,but
it that any excuse to be so bloody charming? John Mulvey goes stateside to meet
the Glaswegian popsters it's impossible to hate. 'Club class: Stefan de Batslier]
It's been a long, stoned drive down a bumpy highway. Past Seaside Park, Mansfield,
- Norwich and yes! - a town called Cheesequake. Past countless redneck resorts
and demure white collar commuter enclaves. Past Manhattan, fading into the Atlantic
behind a filthy shroud of smog.
Now, though, it is twilight, many miles down the road, and Boston awaits.
Inside the chilled splendour of the tour bus, placid lethargy is replaced by
something approaching anticipation. As we look out onto noble cityscapes, grand
tree-lined boulevards and town houses lifted straight from one of London's classier
manors, a new CD is slipped excitedly into the machine. It's a male singer;
a giant, emotional, swelling voice, utterly predictable in its swoops and warbles,
but no less stunning. There are no harmonies. The melody's wonderful, too, undulled
by familiarity, really rousing and simple. But no, there are no guitars.
Meet Teenage Fanclub; genius rock artisans, Glaswegian gentlemen charmers,
expectant fathers and BIG Luciano Pavarotti fans. And you, admit it, thought
everything about them was so predictable...
It's Tuesday. It's Boston. It's been a weird tour. Teenage Fanclub are in
the middle of a six week jaunt around the States supporting the thunderously
shite Weezer. Tonight, they should be in Tom's River, New jersey, playing the
venue's inaugural gig. However, Weezer's chief dweeb, the exotically-named Rivers
Cuomo, isn't feeling too well and has pulled the show: understandable, really,
considering he has a metal cage on one leg (from an operation to lengthen his
limb) and is forced to sleep every night in a cramped and bouncing tour bus
Rivers, the word is, isn't too happy at all right now, sick of Weezer's smiley-happy-celebrity
status and desperate to go back to college. Rumour has it he hasn't spoken one
word to the crew all trip. He hasn't said much to the Fanclub, either.
It gets worse. The show before Tom's River, in Buffalo, had to be cancelled
after three songs by the opening act, That Dog, when a freak rainstorm flooded
the outdoor venue. Oh, and ticket sales haven't been great, either, considering
Weezer's MTV-fuelled popularity: the hot theory is that most of the fans who
bought the stomachchurning 'Buddy Holly' single are just too young to be allowed
out by their parents to a nasty punk rock gig. Great.
Here, then, we find Teenage Fanclub, quite clearly the most indestructibly
mellow band on earth. A little bemused? Sure. A touch frustrated at having two
shows cancelled? That too, but hardly stroppy.
Not much appears to worry them. They are, after all, the makers of 'Grand
Prix', one of 1995's stone classic LPs: a collection of impeccably crafted and
unfashionably wise guitarpop homilies that currently sits at Number Two in the
fairly influential - if financially unrewarding - US College Radio charts. More
importantly, they are to a man possessors of a wit and pragmatism which stops
them feeling the need to dick around like a bunch of sad, self-mythologising
rock'n'roll wannabes, and allows them to amble on, honestly and simply taking
care of business. Smart.
"We just do our own thing, y'know?" says the unfailingly amiable Norman Blake
much later, and so ingenuously that this may well be the first recorded instance
of a journalist not wanting to kill a musician for uttering that line. "Fashions
come and go. I mean, we've come through about four generations of fashion."
"I can't remember which ones," adds the unfailingly amiable Raymond McGinlay.
"We've lived through being the only band in the Indie Top 20 other than the
Pixies who didn't have the 'Funky Drummer' beat on their record."
Norman looks up again. "I think we've got to the stage where it's not as if
we have to try and be cool anymore."
He smiles contentedly. So does Raymond. So do the equally unfailingly amiable
Gerard Love and Paul Quinn. If they weren't so gob-smackingly genuine, you'd
think they were Moonies. This is rock'n'roll, isn't it? We pay for these people
to be scumbags, don't we?
Thankfully, no. Teenage Fanclub are, it's fair to say, a few steps up the
evolutionary scale from the likes of labelmates Oasis and Primal Scream. They
have brains. They have talent. They have straightforward, anthemic and frequently
brilliant songs that sidestep all the traps and cliches that this down-the-line
sort of stuff so regularly falls into.
What's more, they have quite staggering charm. The night before - Monday -
we're in Woodbridge, New Jersey, down the road from Tom's River. Teenage Fanclub
are playing an acoustic showcase at a generously-stocked record store in the
kind of American town that seems to consist almost entirely of drive-in shops
and restaurants. The shop has a stock of old surf records that sends Norman
politely rabid, and Monkee Peter Tork's autograph scrawled on the wall, which
is pretty cool. The set's just fine 'Mellow Doubt', 'The Concept' slowed down,
a harmonious canter through The Beatles' 'Rain'. At the end, though, Norman
does another one of those things - he makes a habit of it - that would seem
frankly nauseating coming from damn near any other singer. He sits himself down
at the drumkit and asks if any of the gumchewing, largely dozy crowd would fancy
a "jam". Run away? Nah...
After an unstylishly short pause, two college boys lope onstage, grab acoustic
guitars and, with startling but not entirely atypical American gutsiness - launch
into the Fannies' own 'December'. The rest of the band nod paternally, the harmonies
wobble heroically, and the new specky singer has an expression of lucky-git
glee that suggests he'll be boring the USA with this story for years to come.
Still, the overall effect is, as they probably say round these parts, kinda
cute. And the huge good vibes increase when, during a post-gig autograph session,
the saintly Norman slips $10 to a girl who can't afford their album.
Everything the band do, in fact, is carried off with such artless good humour
they seem to cruise right through potentially sticky situations. Take, for instance,
the way they charm the New Jersey policemen who arrive to investigate the four
pairs of trousers left drying in the car park of their beach motel after a photographer-encouraged
dip in the sea.
Or take what happens later that night, when they adjourn to the local bar
the awesomely-named 'Burn Rogers'. It's an American classic: beer, clams, sports
on the TV, Springsteen on the jukebox and a clientele of baseball-capped rednecks
who look ready to form a lynch mob and run some Limey hippies straight out of
town and into the Atlantic. By closing time, of course, they're going home with
autographs and bemoaning the fact that the gig's been cancelled. Only Teenage
Fanclub, it seems, can do this...
It's Wednesday. It's Boston, and the band, finally, have a gig to play. They've
spent 24 hours in this most bourgeois - let's be blunt, British - of American
cities, done a couple of interviews and played a couple of songs on the local
Commercial Alternative radio station.
Now, though, we are sat outside the venue, closeted in the air-conditioned
serenity of the bus, watching the Weezer faithful - average age: 14 and Teenage
Fanclub faithful - local acolytes Velvet Crush and the Gigolo Aunts, some idiot
with a Scottish flag - file in.
Mere minutes before their show and it comes as little surprise to relate that
an almost preternatural calmness still rules over the band.
"Another journalist went out on tour with us and said that we were boring,"
admits Norman, "but we just don't fit into what some journalists want a rock
group to be. It's just that he's really boring and doesn't have a life."
There must be times when you lose it a bit, though.
"Oh yeah, there have been mad tours," he continues, clearly racking his memory.
"We played in Hamburg once and Brendan (O'Hare. former drummer) stormed off
the stage, kicking over his drumkit. We had a big argument that night. So yeah,
occasionally...but not for years. We're not like that, we just get on well."
"It was more volatile when Brendan was in the band," says Raymond. "For some
bands, like The Rolling Stones, it makes them make good records but it made
us make bad ones. We work best when things are calm."
Earlier, driving through a tunnel beneath Boston's Charles River, Norman remembers
that on a previous visit to the city Brendan had decided to hold his breath
for the duration of the same subterranean jourriey. The journey lasts nearly
two minutes. By the end, Norman recalls, his old drummer was purple and nearly
expiring, defiantly juvenile to the last.
You can't see his replacement, Paul, indulging in sucks chicanery, regardless
of his new Tweety Pie tatoo or shady past in The Soup Dragons. A non-drinker
and keen golfer who played in The Boy Hairdressers (the proto-Fanclub) and who
- along with Norman - is one of the band's fathers-to-be, he's so easy-going
that he almost makes the other three members of the band look like prima donnas.
He also makes a big difference to the band live. Witness the Boston show:
no walkabouts, no tantrums, drumming in time - the lot. Norman meanwhile, cultivates
the stage persona of a congenital liar, convincing the crowd Raymond's name
is Victor and that he was an extra in Rob Roy. In New York, he will also pick
on Gerard: first claiming it is the bassist's birthday, then revealing his surname
is Gallagher, his two brothers are in Oasis, and that Noel wrote the next song
- suitably, 'The Cabbage' - especially for the Fanclub.
The Boston gig makes for an ideal introduction to the band. Because at heart
here, beyond the clowning and underpinning even the more intense moments, we're
dealing with music that inspires an uncommon joy. Suspend cynicism: the pleasures
of Teenage Fanclub transcend any accusations that they're retro (and what does
that mean any more, in these salad days of Britpop?) by playing proud, emotional
and - in the best possible sense - good-time music.
"If you're smiling from the stage, people smile right back at you - it works!"
grins Norman, with customary innocuousness.
Afterwards, the Fanclub sneak through the club next door - in which the anti-Weezer
Morbid Angel are sending a sweaty herd of metal brats comprehensively apeshit
and into an upstairs room where the local music industry awaits to trade handshakes
and platitudes; the ritual immortalised in a thousand on-the-road-in-the-States
features, the Meet' n' Greet.
After a while Norman ducks away. We find a balcony overlooking the stage where
Weezer are now playing and watch the crowd for a while: unblemished suburban
kids, uniform in baseball caps and big shorts, racking furiously like extras
in an Offspring video. Occasionally, someone tentatively tries to surf the crowd.
Norman looks rueful. "I've been watching them. They mosh in the f---ing interval.
They get girls up if the air and they're all grabbing their tits, all these
wee hands, these little Beavis and Butt-heads. They're a bit more right-on here,
but when you go down to f---in' Birmingham, Alabama..."
He trails off. Time to cut through the ranks of anxious parents outside, and
back to the road.
It's Friday afternoon. The bus is parked in Central Park, New York. Outside,
rollerbladers circle ostentatiously. Inside, Teenage Fanclub collapse, exhausted
by a rocky ride back down the potholed and pock-marked Route 95, now stunned
by the heat and, asa result, liberally drenched with sweat. The soundcheck,
on the park's beautiful outdoor Summerstage and with the temperature nudging
100 degrees, is thankfully just over.
And, as another batch of dignitaries from Geffen, their American label, climb
aboard to pay their respects, it becomes apparent that the band's very affability
is their strongest support mechanism; that their brand of quiet politeness is
the best means of overcoming the irritations and routine boredom inherent in
a physically and psychologically battering American tour. Sullen introversion
or full-on arrogance might be infinitely more credible options, but this one
works. Given the choice, they've gone for sanity.
Another gig, anyway; a brilliant one, as it happens. Again, it's a 40-minute
'greatest hits' set that curiously omits 'Mellow Doubt' (too circumspect for
the US punker kids, presumably), and the lustily chiming new single, 'Neil Jung'.
But, as the sun sets poetically over Central Park and the assembled Geffen glitterati
watch approvingly, at least a few of the 3,000 Weezerites many clearly at their
first gig - are gently and unmistakably converted to the Fanclub cause.
To an audience weaned on Weezer's anodyne buzzpop, this humane, insidious
and utterly genuine music must be little short of revelatory. And when they
even try crowdsurfing to Raymond's stealthy and beguiling 'Verisimilitude',
then victory has been achieved.
Afterwards, of course, there's a seriously highpowered meet'n'greet. Norman
is more irrepressible than ever, shepherding old friends into the backstage
area and endlessly telling everyone how much he wants to get drunk tonight.
By 4am, long after the others have crashed out, he is sat in an Irish bar on
the Lower East Side with 'Grand Prix' producer Dave Bianco telling stories of
his latest client, the stupendously un-Fannyish Ozzy Osbourne. And, needless
to say, Norman's mission has been emphatically accomplished.
The next morning, the band reassemble in the hotel restaurant for breakfast.
Norman, hungover and fuzzy, orders a salad and begins to recall details of the
"It's funny, that guy Brian from Weezer had three young models with him last
night. They were nice girls, truly innocent."
"I was walking through the park last night," says Raymond, his usual unflappable
self, "and everyone was shouting, 'Hey! It's Victor! Victor! Victor, can you
sign my album?' So I signed it 'Raymond' and said, 'That's how you spell Victor
He thinks for a while about how contented he seems to be.
"We manage to get comfortable pretty quickly wherever we are. A lot of British
bands get kinda freaked out about how foreign it can be over here. But the first
few times we came here people took us into their houses and all that. We didn't
get all that major label limousine stuff until a year-and-a-half after. So we
met all the real people first, whereas a lot of bands get into the whole bullshit
thing first and it gives them a tainted view of America.
"If anyone comes over here with a 'Brits are coming' attitude, it's a real
turn-off because Americans come to Britain and say 'Your country sucks, you
can't buy anything at four o'clock in the g morning, f--- off. America's one
of those places where society's f---ed up but there's millions and millions
of nice individuals. Now you see people at that gig last night who've been coming
to see us for three or four years. We do tend to get a lot of commitment."
Why is that?
"I think it's because we're not cynical about playing," rejoins Norman. "We've
always seen it as entertainment. And we're not up our own arses about it, are
"No. No, Norman," deadpans Raymond.
"No. I mean, we always involve the audience ir our shows. It doesn't work
for a lot of bands - I can't imagine Spiritualized involving the audience, it
wouldn't work - but for what we do, it does...Salad breakfast...unbelievable!
I never thought I'd have salad for breakfast."
Right. 1995 has, in many ways, been a reassuring year for Teenage Fanclub.
After the disappointingly unfocused 'Thirteen' album ("We got a bit self-conscious,"
says Raymond. "As soon as you become self-conscious about what you're doing,
you're f---ed, really.") they've returned to the level of critical approbation
and loyal support they had four years ago. And without the constricting feeling
that they are this year's hip models.
"To maintain being cool is difficult," reasons Raymond, "'cos you eventually
become cabaret, some sort of pastiche of your cool past, and people like you
for some sort of kitsch factor."
"We're also better musicians," continues Norman. "It's not as if we ever wilfully
tried to underplay to be cool. We didn't even realise we were shambolic - that
was us trying our best. But maybe we were elevated to a successful position
tog quickly. We weren't really ready, we didn't feel as though we deserved it.
If 'Bandwagonesque' was out now, I think it would've been much more successful,
if you look at things like Supergrass. Three years, and everything changes."
So you and the people around you have realised you're not exactly suited to
being the biggest band in Britain?
"Not right now. But give it a year..." he laughs, "and we'll be the biggest
band in the world ever."
He finishes chasing lettuce leaves around his plate and goes to fetch his
luggage. Any minute now, that omnipresent icebox bus leaves for Montreal, for
another long drive through small town USA, for another quietly addled ten-hour
session soundtracked by Yo La Tengo and Beck and, yes, 'Nessun Dorma'. On and
on, more gigs to play, more Weezer shows to avoid. None shall sleep until Reading,