In the early 90s Glasgow’s Teenage Fanclub would briefly conquer the world. Signed to Creation records (along with equally important label-mates Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine and Ride) their unabashed take on classic American 60s and 70s rock – sparkling melodies, tuneful harmonies over bumping riffs and an abundance of flowing hair – would reach a pinnacle with the release of arguably the genre’s finest album Bandwagonesque (1991) to feverish acclaim. So feverish in fact that it edged out Nirvana’s Nevermind for the No.1 SPIN Album of the Year, followed by blistering festival dates across the globe, earning substantial US chart success with classic singles Star Sign and The Concept (on Geffen in the US). Teenage Fanclub were the coolest band on the planet, their power-pop famously reminiscent of career-best Big Star, achieving a level of success that band never did.
By 1993 however, the rock landscape had shifted. The highly anticipated follow up (putting the contractually obliged The King to one side) was the sprawling Thirteen – released in the thick of the popular American Grunge movement led by Nirvana and Pearl Jam, it seemed out of step with current trends and was savaged by critics and fans alike. Teenage Fanclub’s strong US foothold established with Badwagonesque vanished overnight.
Blessed with three strong singer-songwriters – Norman Blake, Gerry Love, and Ray McGinley – Thirteen would be something of a Teenage Fanclub album blueprint, as all three musicians began to contribute evenly, a trend that would crystallise more so on forthcoming albums. Scattered and imperfect, the album represents the band writing and recording the music they want to, irrespective of how it would be received. A good example of this is the distorted guitars of opening track Hang On. Something of a throwback to their largely ignored sludgefest debut, A Catholic Education (1990) it is a highpoint of innovation and mid-tempo expressive power, and like much of the album gorgeously melodic, sung with sweet harmonies – the Fannies’ strength.
The peerless pop genius of band leader Norman Blake is exhibited on the George Harrison All Things Must Pass-era The Cabbage (an album highlight) and the blissfully dumb brilliance of Norman 3, with its endless 10 x chorus refrain of “I’m in love with you”. Radio, a Gerry Love barnstormer, and Ray’s Escher add to this great collection of tracks, however things do backfire occasionally: Get Funky, a slight instrumental rave-up by drummer Brendan O’Hare (who would quit the band the following year and join Mogwai), and the whiny 120 Minutes, both lacking in essential Fanclub areas of glowing harmonies and melodic attack.
The album closes however with the masterful Gene Clark and is perhaps the best thing here. Named after touchstone influence The Byrds’ former member who had died young, the song begins with a steady rhythm under a brooding guitar solo, almost experimental, only to break into a sweet vocal melody some three minutes later closing out the album nicely.
With Thirteen, Teenage Fanclub didn’t burn out; in essence it laid the foundation. They would release their finest offerings in the 90s (Grand Prix in 1995, and Songs From Northern Britain in 1997), and would remain happily indifferent to the wider rock scene throughout 2000s – sporadically releasing underrated gems: Howdy (2000), Man-Made (2005) and Shadows (2010). Hardly groundbreaking, more a superb display of timeless songcraft that would serve the veteran Scottish quartet well, and unlike Nirvana, still echoes in the musical landscape of today.1. Hang On ∗∗∗∗
2. The Cabbage ∗∗∗∗
3. Radio ∗∗∗∗
4. Norman 3 ∗∗
5. Song to the Cynic ∗∗
6. 120 Mins ∗∗∗
7. Escher ∗∗∗∗
8. Commercial Alternative ∗∗∗∗
9. Fear of Flying ∗∗∗∗
10. Tears Are Cool ∗∗∗
11. Ret Liv Dead ∗∗∗∗
12. Get Funky ∗∗
13. Gene Clark ∗∗∗∗∗