(Taken from the Volume
Feature: Ian Oggly
Photos: Jeff Davy
Oh God. An interview to do this early and I went out and got drunk. Mad."
Norman Blake has the hangover from hell. Last night on his return to the hotel,
he'd found Rob and Martin Boo holding court in the bar. Things, as they say,
went downhill from there. A glass or few of whisky came and went. Norm only
got to bed a couple of hours ago. Uh-oh.
To compound matters, Snapper Davy has insisted that we pop over the road into
Kensington Park for the photo-shoot. It's a gorgeously sunny day.To Norman it
feels like Satan is torching his retinas with a 1000 watt light bulb. But he
copes admirably, striking poses and getting through his version of Endurance
with a smile and a brave face.
We repair to the hotel. I produce some industrial-strength painkillers, Norm
orders fresh tea (every fifteen minutes or so), and we begin the journey through
the story that is Teenage Fanclub.
(Fact: Norman Blake does not feel comfortable talking about his band's music.
In conversation he's affable, interesting, funny, never dull. But ask him what
makes his music special, what sets Teenage Fanclub apart, and you'll get a veritable
Hadrian's Wall of ums, ers and
weeells. He is the word 'unassuming' personified. You get the feeling he'd have
been happier if his mum had christened him Normal Bloke.)
To the task in hand, then. The beginning is as good a place as any to start.
"ln 1986 me and Raymond were in a band called Boy Hairdressers. We made one
record but it kinda fell apart, it wasn't going anywhere. So a year or so later
we decided to form a new group. We were mates with The Pastels - they'd funded
their own records so we did the same.
"Raymond sold his fridge and I borrowed a coupla hundred quid off my parents."
Very much a part of the mid'80s DIY scene then, where was the first LP recorded?
"It was a place called Pet Sounds in Glasgow," replies Norman, a knowing smile
spreading across his lips as he alludes to the Beach Boys references/rip-off
allegations that have since featured heavily in Teenage Fanclub press coverage.
"We met Gerry a couple of weeks before we went in and got him to play bass.
Brendan played drums on some of the tracks. It was a crazy time really, we recorded
the other half in Rochdale and ended up sleeping on the floor of (Volume scribe
and media starlet) John Robb's sauna. Basically we did 'A Catholic Education'
but then ran out of money, so we had to look for someone to release it. "
'A Catholic Education', and the single culled from it,'Everything Flows',
found outlets through two fledgling labels, Paperhouse in Britain, and the soon
to be hipper-than-a-snake-in-snakeskin-shoes-and-Raybans Matador in America.
The basic production captured a mood of spontaneity. 'Everything Flows' turned
guitar fans' heads, and four young Glaswegians, who'd never really bothered
with such trivialities as rehearsing, started to get noticed.
The beginning of 1991 saw Teenage FC join the already impressive Creation
Records roster. A marriage made in heaven, or the old school leather jacket
"Well yeah, I'd known most of the Creation people for years, from when they
were all still in Glasgow. We needed money to be able to record another album.
I bumped into Bobby Gillespie one night, he said that Alan McGee had liked the
first album and that he'd probably be up for one on Creation. So basically I
rang Alan and we got it together."
The recording of 'Bandwagonesque' began almost immediately. Don Fleming was
drafted in to produce. Norman was pleased.
"He's not a hands-on producer, but he got a good vibe going, which was important.
It was fun." Geffen, who'd just secured the signatures of three long-hairs from
Seattle called Nirvana, won the American race for the Fanclub moniker after
beating off a swarm of competitors.
August '91 saw the release of 'Star Sign', the first single from the album,
a glorious adrenalin rush that married soaring melodies with the driving bass
elements of the soon-to-be-huge grunge. 'The King', a messy, largely instrumental
album recorded recorded one weekend during the 'Bandwagonesque' sessions, came
out at the end of August and entered the album charts at 53 with virtually no
The second single for Creation, 'The Concept', was released in October, followed
a month later by the now eagerly anticipated 'Bandwagonesque'. With Nirvana
going mega-bucktastic on a worldwide scale, there must have been much talk at
Geffen Towers of Teenage Fanclub 'shifting units'. A daunting prospect for the
"No, not really ' says Norman. "We never felt any pressure because we didn't
think it would sell masses. Nirvana were bigger because they crossed over into
the rock market, we didn't, simple as that. We're not a rock band.
"Geffen sent our album to rock stations who wouldn't even listen to it because
we'd got 'Teenage' in our name. Talking to Geffen now they think they didn't
market it properly, but we were quite happy. We sold 120,000 copies in the States,
we were fucking amazed it was that many."
While 'Bandwagonesque' received an almost universal thumbs-up from fans, many
critics were qualifying their praise with the words Big Star, Beatles and Beach
Boys. I mention this and Norman's eyes half-close with that 'here we go again'
look. "Well, it's never really pissed us off," he mutters. "We thought it was
funny, we like Big Star.
"If you're trying to explain what a group or a record is about I suppose you
need some reference points. Big Star became one of ours, which is okay, it's
better than having some really bad reference, y'know, like fucking Van Der Graaf
Generator. Besides, we got to meet (Big Star's) Alex Chilton through it."
And they hit it off big time to boot. Chilton joined them onstage in New Orleans
to play 'Free Again', and subsequently flew over to Scotland to record a radio
session with the Fannies.
During a gruelling promotional and touring schedule that might have destroyed
other bands, there were rumours that Teenage Fanclub had actually grown to hate
'Bandwagonesque'. "We didn't hate the album." asserts Norman. "We just got tired
of the hype, we never felt happy with the amount of hype we were getting:' It
can't have been all bad, surely?
"No, it was good to do Saturdoy Night Live in America, 20 million people got
to see us live on TV. I think the good thing about 'Bandwagonesque' was that
it really established us over there. "
Teenage FC gigs around that time were something else, an air of mayhem pervading
every venue they set foot in. The band would take to the stage in weird and
wonderful attire. Songs would grind to a halt after a few seconds, or mutate
into walls of feedback halfway through and peter out five minutes later. Sticksman
Brendan would decide five bars into a number that he wanted to sing and someone
else would take over drumming.
How much of this 'chaos' was contrived?
"Oh, none of it was, it was all totally spontaneous. Things were mad at that
point. It was partly the result of us having a few before we went on, although
we never really had that much to drink. I think it's just down to the fact that
we've always tried to be entertaining. We're not a stand-still-and-look-cool
And so 'Thirteen', the band's fourth and potentially most diffficult album.
Norman, now halfway through his fourth cup of well-sugared tea, takes up the
story. "We'd toured 'Bandwagonesque' for months and months and months," he says,
the tiredness in his voice reflecting how much of a trawl it was. "We got back
to Glasgow in March '93, had about a week off and then went straight into the
studio to start work on 'Thirteen', which took us eight months to do."
A tad longer than anticipated?
"Oh God, yeah, it definitely took us too long. We still like the songs, we're
just not happy with the way we executed them. It was down to not rehearsing
before we went into the studio.
"We just didn't know what we were doing - we'd record the basis of a song
one day and then go back to it six months later. We'd only vaguely remember
it, and you can't work like that:' He takes a long draught of tea then leans
forward, brow furrowed. "lt was like trying to do three jigsaws at once. Totally
'Thirteen' was released in November '93 to a response that at best might be
termed 'lukewarm'. Once again critics were citing Big Star, The Beatles and,
in particular, The Byrds, this time in a derogatory context. The Fanclub were
accused of having no imagination and no originality.
Blake refuses to be drawn into having a go at said critics, accusing only
one (unnamed) reviewer of being facetious (which may well be Norm-speak for
talking faeces). Doesn't he find it at best ironic, and at worst bloody annoying
that here we are, nearly two years on, and Oasis are being lauded as the dog's
tackle for doing the same thing, albeit with T. Rex and Gary Glitter riffs alongside
The Beatles and The Byrds?
"No, I find it really funny. There's been a sea-change and at this moment
in time it's okay to talk about your influences. We were given a hard time about
it, but maybe we paved the way, we were one of the first bands to talk openly
about our influences.
"The biggest influence on us was Orange Juice, I was a massive fan. I'd been
into punk, big on The Clash, then they turned out to be a total sham, a really
rich guy talking a load of bullshit. Orange Juice came along in 1980 saying,
'Yeah, The Buzzcocks are brilliant, punk rock is good, Joy Division are brilliant;
but so is Neil Young, so are Buffalo Springfield, so are Love. That completely
changed my attitude and | began to check out stuff from the '60s."
Unable to resist a subtle dig at the class of Britpop '95, Blake adds a footnote.
"Orange Juice weren't claiming to be the best band in the world ever, which
is refreshing because you get a bit sick of hearing that after the 500th different
band has said it."
Back to the point, Norm. The critics said the songs on 'Thirteen' were too
slow. Didn't those who remarked on a band not feeling at one with themselves
have a point?
"Defintely. The album was lyrically downbeat which was to do with how we were
all feeling at the time. We weren't getting on as well as we had in the past.
We got sick of seeing each other after being in the studio for eight months
and none of us were having a particularly good time in our personal lives either."
Fast Forward. The touring around the release of 'Thirteen' went well, proving
to the band that they still had a loyal, hey, fanclub.
But there was intra-group tension. Brendan O'Hare, to many fans the epitome
of the funny, wacky, call it what you will Teenage Fanclub, had become unreliable.
Norman doesn't relish telling the tale.
"We had to to fire Brendan which was difficult because he's a great guy. We
started rehearsing for the next album and Brendan just wasn't turning up. We
didn't think he was committed to the band anymore. Me, Gerry and Rwmond wanted
to spend time making a really good album but didn't feel Brendan was on the
Blake's words are chosen carefully and delivered slowly, tinged with sadness
but certain of the inevitability of that situation.
"lt was very difficult. Being in a group with someone for that length of time
is a bit like being married to them, you go through a lot together: Brendan
was upset about it, I think there's still a bit of resentment on his part, but
overall he seems fine now."
Any regrets over the decision?
"No, it's the best thing that could have happened. | don't think we'd have
made another album if we'd stayed together. It brought us closer, we got really
into working seriously."
Which brings us rather neatly (almost) to the present. 'Grand Prix', the band's
fifth album, is a stunning return to form. Teenage Fanclub have every right
to feel as proud as the spotty teenager who's just learned to play the riff
from his favourite song all the way through for the first time.
"We're pleased with this one. It's brought us back to a certain level. With
'Thirteen' we lost a lot of ground, people said we were finished. I think 'Grand
Prix' has re-established us, we've made an album that's all about good music.
Norman's on a high. The band are on a roll again, the interview is nearly
done, and his hangover has all but faded. Our minds turn to other matters. It's
Reading Festival time again. Teenage FC have done more than their share of festivals
over the last five years. What's been the best?
"We did one called 'The Big Day Out' in Australia, which toured all over the
country. The Breeders were on the bill, we know them quite well, and I got to
know James from Smashing Pumpkins during the tour. Australia's an amazing place,
there was such a good atmosphere with all the bands flying round on the same
plane, really memorable."
And the worst?. "Well the toilets are always a bad experience at festivals.
I haven't really had a worst festival. they've all been good."
And with that we're done. We spend the next half hour drinking tea and comparing
hangover cures. As Norman is about to go he stands up, shakes my hand and smiles.
"Y'know, Teenage Fanclub are more together now than we've ever been."
Norman on the Record: Part One
'A Catholic Education' (Paperhouse PAPCD004 - 1990): "The normal way
to do a debut album would have been to do loads of demos until they were polished
enough for someone to release one of our records. We just thought, Fuck that,
there's no point in doing demos forever, we wanted people to be able to hear
us from the stage of being really simple. We had some basic ideas, and we wanted
the album to have a sort of live feel to it - the basic production helped, gave
it a certain rough quality."
Norman on the Record: Part Two
'The King' (Creation CRECD096 - 1991): "We made it with Don Fleming of
BALL. The way BALL worked was mad, they'd just jam tracks together, then Don
would decide to put a vocal on it. He suggested we do the same thing, there
was no real reason for doing it, we just put it together and thought it was
funny. In some ways it's nonsense, but I do like some of the tracks. But it's
interesting, I supposed it's our tribute to Kramer, Shimmydisc and New York."
Norman on the Record: Part Three
'Bandwagonesque' (Creation CRECD106 - 1991): "By this point we were getting
more 'song' based, y'know, good tunes, and people still like those songs today.
We were still a bit naive in terms of song-writing and recording, which gave
the album a certain charm. I listened to it recently, it sounds fine and I still
like it. I think it flows well as an album, we're as happy with it as we can
be given the money we had to do it with."
Norman on the Record: Part Four
'Thirteen' (Creation CRECD144 - 1993): "I still like the songs, though
I wouldn't play the album. It's very downbeat compared to when we play the songs
live. In essence, it's OK, but it could have been so much better. We had ups
and downs with Geffen, minor niggles like they hated the sleeve design, but
they got resolved in the end. It was just one of those albums where loads of
things went wrong."
Norman on the Record: Part Five
'Grand Prix' (Creation CRECD173 - 1995): "It's our best one yet, in terms
of songs and in that it's the closest we've come to achieving what we set out
to do. That's down to rehearsing properly before we went into the studio. All
the songs were recorded pretty much live, with vocals overdubbed, we knew the
songs so well that we could capture the performances exactly as we wanted. Everyone
knew the plot, which makes it so much easier to make records."