Considering Teenage Fanclub's career trajectory, you might expect Blake to have more of a rock star attitude. There once was a time when the Scottish quartet was the best rock band on the planet. In 1991, Spin proclaimed TF's Bandwagonesque to be "the greatest album made by white people in 10 years," and in its end-of-the-year wrap-up listed the record ahead of discs by My Bloody Valentine, R.E.M., and (gulp) Nirvana. Rolling Stone chimed in as well, tapping the act as the hot band of 1992. Five years down the road, the Fannies were still as bitchin' as a Camaro, according to Radiohead's Thom Yorke, who picked the act's Songs From Northern Britain as his favorite LP in Rolling Stone, and Oasis' Liam Gallagher, who called the outfit "the second best band in the world" (and, no, the Beatles weren't the first).
And yet, today, if you were to poll kids at the mall, very few would even recognize TF's name, let alone be able to sing one of the band's songs. Here's a group that's toured with Nirvana, Radiohead, and Weezer, that rocked Saturday Night Live back when it was cool, that played for 15,000 kids in a bullring in Spain, and it practically can't get arrested now. The Fanclub has been dumped from major-label land, having to release its latest album, Man-Made, on the tiny (but well-respected) indie Merge. Gone are the posh hotel rooms, helpful roadies, and luscious groupies; hello the secondhand vans, half-baked burritos, and tiny venues.
"Maybe unfortunately for them," says Eric Shea, leader of S.F.'s Mover and Parchman Farm, "they're going to become exactly what they started out as: our generation's Big Star."
"All you can do is make the records, and hope a group of people will pick up on it, and it will become the received wisdom that that's the record to buy," Blake says. "Because that's kind of how the music business works, isn't it? You think of the Coldplay record or something like that. The received wisdom is that you should have that on your coffee table, if you buy one record every two months or whatever."
In 1991, that wisdom was that you should buy Bandwagonesque, the Glasgow band's second LP, and for once said wisdom was right on the money. Bandwagonesque was -- and is -- a near perfect rock record, a collection of timeless melodies, euphoric guitar freakouts, and gorgeous vocal harmonies. In an era when guitar albums were everywhere (see Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, MBV, etc.), the Fanclub concocted something that truly stood out.
"I still think that record is one of the best ever," says Chuck Gonzalez of local indie bands Lessick and Lines in Analog Sound. "A lot of that stuff's dated now, but that record's still fresh."
One of the components that separated the disc from the chaff was its lyrics, which could be clever ("She don't do drugs/ But she does do the pill"), surreal ("I wanted to assassinate December"), or, most often, heartfelt ("When you're rocking, I love your rock/ When you're ticking, I'm your tock").
"I liked that they were totally unafraid of making love songs rock," says Shea. "Most rock 'n' roll that I'd heard at that time seemed to carry some sort of agenda or chip on its shoulder."
What Teenage Fanclub carried instead was a healthy love for '70s power-pop bands, groups that knew how to capture both the sweet and the sour of romance. Thanks to the Fanclub's slavish appreciation for Big Star -- which turned legions of kids onto the genius of Alex Chilton -- Bandwagonesque remains one of the greatest records in rock history.
The band's follow-up releases were less successful. The quartet's third LP, 1993's Thirteen, was both cleaner and more ambitious, but also somehow less dynamic and less interesting, with a lyrical causticity brought on by newfound fame ("I want to thank you, I'm a mess/ I want to thank you, the way you dress," went one couplet). On 1995's Grand Prix, the foursome (now on their third drummer, Brendan O'Hare) ditched feedback nearly altogether, trying on a sunny, Cali-rock style reminiscent of the Byrds and the Beach Boys. (Blake now equally shared the songwriting with the other two founding members of the band, Gerry Love and Raymond McGinley.)
With 1997's Songs From Northern Britain, Teenage Fanclub better integrated its influences, crafting several tracks that were as stunning as those on Bandwagonesque. (High Fidelity author Nick Hornby liked the CD so much he chose two of the tunes for his rumination on musical excellence, Songbook.)
"I remember listening and going, 'Whoa, they've finally hit their stride and they're going to be huge now,'" recalls Shea. "And of course they were huge, but only in the confines of [Berkeley record store] Mod Lang."
After being on Geffen Records, home of Nirvana and Sonic Youth, TF was snatched up by Columbia, which never really figured out how to market the band. When the Fanclub's U.K. label, Creation, folded in 1999, Sony/Columbia inexplicably picked up TF's contract for two more albums. The band delivered 2000's Howdy! (a disc as unshowy as its name) and a 2003 retrospective, and then skedaddled off to indieville.
"We didn't feel like we were downsizing -- it was almost like we were getting out of jail," says Blake.
For the new album, the lads decided to try something they'd never done before: record with someone outside the U.K. Love suggested contacting Tortoise/Sea and Cake drummer John McEntire, as they'd worked together on the soundtrack to the Scottish indie film The Last Great Wilderness. Being fans of his work with Stereolab, the Clubbers trouped off to Chicago to meet McEntire in early 2004.
"Right from the start John said, 'Look, you guys have been doing this for years, so I'm not going to tell you how to arrange things,'" remembers Blake.
Thusly inspired, the band came up with direct, concise arrangements. Tracks like "It's All in My Mind" and "Fallen Leaves" feel both painstakingly crafted and thrillingly freehand, weaving together pristine melodies and roughshod solos. "We didn't take more than a couple guitars, and we were used to going down to the studio with a van of equipment," Blake says. "It was sort of liberating in a way. We had to concentrate on arranging the tracks, we couldn't embellish them needlessly."
With the tunes stripped down to their essentials, there was little room for error, and the Fanclub responded by turning in some of its most inspired -- and rockingest -- playing since, well, Bandwagonesque. The Thin Lizzy-ish riff on "Feel" bursts with summer barbecue good vibes, while the slide-guitar hook of "Save" weeps in a wonderfully '70s roller rink fashion. The chugging guitar of "Born Under a Good Sign" speeds like a runaway locomotive; the joyful power chords of "Time Stops" burrow into your head like a drill bit.
This reclaimed ardor helps the group's lyrics toughen up as well. Whereas the music on Howdy! was so unassuming that the stanzas nearly drifted away (one tune noted, "I Need Direction"), on Man-Made the songwriters reacquaint themselves with love songs that rock. The looping guitar figure on "Don't Hide" anchors McGinley's romantic sentiments ("I didn't know that my life was wrong/ Until the right person came along"), making sure they don't float off into the ether. Similarly, the raucous riff on "Time Stops" leavens Love's sad musings, giving added buoyancy to his query of "Is there more to love than I aim for?"
"They've retained their whole vision, but they've progressed," says Shea. "Whereas someone like Spiritualized is still saying, 'Hey baby, I love to do drugs, come on!'"
Not only has the band progressed, but for the first time, the musicians have truly overcome their influences, concocting a brand of power pop that's exclusively their own. Sure, you can hear an echo of Big Star, the Byrds, and the Beach Boys, but that sound is fainter than ever before. Man-Made is an impressive achievement, a record full of honest lyrics and inspired playing, brimming with sincerity and enormous hooks.
"A lot of bands you see that have been around 15 years, you go see them and you feel you've missed seeing them in their prime," Gonzalez says. "But these guys are still there. They've still got it."