Rank Your Records: Norman Blake Merrily Rates the Ten Teenage Fanclub Albums
Depending on whom you ask, they are either "the best band in the world" or the "the second best band in the world."
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Teenage Fanclub is either the “best band in the world” or the “second best band in the world.” It depends on whom you ask. Kurt Cobain allegedly said the former, while Liam Gallagher most definitely said the latter (second to his old band Oasis, of course). One thing is for certain, however: Teenage Fanclub is one of the best bands in the world. And for the last three decades, the Glasgow-bred band has bucked many trends (grunge, rap-rock, Britpop) to steadily craft some of the loveliest guitar-based pop songs ever put to tape. Despite their rather genial manner, they’ve also surrounded themselves with some pretty jaw-dropping associations: touring with Nirvana at the height of Nevermind’s world supremacy, partying during the Creation Records wild years with Alan McGee, Primal Scream, and Oasis, and recording a track with De La Soul for the groundbreaking Judgment Night soundtrack.
The Fannies—as they’re affectionately referred to by fans—haven’t exactly been prolific this century. But after a long six-year wait, Norman Blake, Gerard Love, and Raymond McGinley are finally back with a new LP called Here, their 11th full-length to date. And they know they’ve been slow. “Over the years, it has just taken us longer to get over the finishing line,” admits Blake. “I had to leave the country to work on the record, so that just added to it taking longer because I was also working on other things, as were some of the other guys. But it’s nice to get it done and be out touring again. Personally I think this is the best thing we’ve done in a while. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?”
In anticipation of Here, we got the always gracious Blake to rank the previous ten records, which he gladly did over the phone from his home in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.
10. Thirteen (1993)
Noisey: Why is this your least favorite?
Norman Blake: I’d say the reasons are more circumstantial than musical. That was an album that took us a very, very long time to make. But unlike this latest one, we were in the studio for most of that time. We’d been on tour for Bandwagonesque and gone everywhere. That record was very successful for us. What we foolishly did was come back home and have a few weeks off, then go into the studio in Glasgow and begin recording. We still found ourselves at that studio three or four months later with about 80 fragmentary pieces that weren’t quite finished songs. And then from there, we eventually decamped to a studio in Manchester for another two or three months of that material and whittled it down to the songs that made up Thirteen. So it’s not that I have anything against the songs, it’s just when I think of making that album it wasn’t a very pleasant experience. It seemed like a lot of hard work.
Gerard told Melody Maker that this album was less honest “because of the time involved” and because you were “trying to outdo the last album.” Was there too much pressure because of the last album’s success?
There probably was, but I think we just lost the plot a little bit too. We were just in the studio for too long. It’s interesting that you quote Gerry because I remember doing a round of interviews for the record, and we spoke about how negative and unpleasant the experience was of making the album, and I remember someone from the label said, “Don’t do that! Tell them it was great! Even if you think that, don’t tell people that!” Maybe we were just being a bit too honest. What happens I think is with any album you get one or two positive reviews and it begins to snowball. Lines from those original reviews get quoted in other reviews. But what you say about the record in those interviews can go a long way in how the record is perceived ultimately. And so we’ve learned that lesson. The new one’s fantastic, by the way!
A lot of fans think the album was named Thirteen as a tribute to Big Star. Is that true?
You know what? There were 13 songs on the record. But we were definitely listening to Big Star and we even got to meet and work with Alex [Chilton]. Unusually, he liked us. He didn’t like many people but he liked us. We got on with him really well, and he said we reminded him of him when he was younger. He didn’t care about the business and we didn’t either. And you can definitely hear Big Star’s influence in that music, along with a ton of other things at the time too. But people kind of picked up on the Big Star thing, and at that time they were still fairly obscure. I remember we did an interview for Melody Maker with a guy called Steve Sutherland, who ended up being the editor. So he asked who we’d been listening to, and we said Big Star. And then he said, “I don’t know who that is.” He didn’t know Alex Chilton or the Box Tops either. So Big Star was a reasonably obscure reference at the time.
Tell me about the album cover, because I know that Geffen wanted something different.
We had a formal conversation with someone in the art department at Geffen and he said, “I’d love to try and come up with something for the cover.” So we said, “Sure, feel free. Obviously we’ll have to think about what you come up with, but send us some ideas.” And a few months later we get sent this image of a girl crying with mascara running in a white t-shirt with a 13 on it. So we said, “Thanks a lot for doing that but it doesn’t really represent the music.” So the guy called me when we were in London and he said, “You know we spent a lot of money on this.” And so I said to him, “Look, we didn’t ask you to spend money on it. And we didn’t say we would go with what you came up with. You have to respect that.” And he said, “I have to say that if you guys aren’t gonna go with the sleeve, I don’t know how interested Geffen will be in promoting your record.” And I said to him, “You know what? I don’t give a fuck.” Don’t try and bully us into going with something we don’t want. But we ended up having to pay them ten grand, because they got a photographer, a studio, and models. They had to pay them off.
That idea for the sleeve is a weird one.
We made a bit of a mistake going with Geffen. I think they were trying to market us to teenage girls. If you look at the video for “The Concept” we did with Douglas Hart, I think it damaged the way we were perceived in the US and Geffen was trying to sell us to teenage girls and the MTV generation. And I mean, we were still a pretty young band, but the music didn’t really appeal to those people.
And so you put a basketball in some water for the cover?
Yeah, we put together the sleeve at the end, and it’s not the greatest. Jeff Koons did an art piece with a basketball suspended in water, which I liked the look of, so I thought I’d just rip that off because he does that with other people’s ideas. So there is another negative thing related to Thirteen. The whole process was a bit of a downer.
9. The King (1991)
This was an album we made within Bandwagonesque and it’s near the bottom because it’s our least focused. One night we all got completely wasted. We were only 22 at the time, and Don Fleming was there and we said, “Let’s make a LP overnight. We’ll just improvise some songs and do some covers and cobble it all together.” So we went to Alan McGee and said we’d love to put it out as a limited edition thing and make 500 copies of it. He said, “Sure, let’s do it!” And I think Creation pressed 10,000 of them! So you come across them from time to time. It is an album, but it’s unofficial in a way. I like this record because I enjoyed the improvising. It was fun to do. We were definitely more open to doing that back then than we are now. I can’t see us doing a King 2.
There were accusations that The King was made hastily to get out of your Matador deal. Is that true?
No, that’s not true because we’d only done a one-album deal with Matador and that was for A Catholic Education. And we had a decent relationship with the label at the time, but people were throwing those accusations around and they were absolutely not true. And then at that point Creation came along for the UK and we did a deal with Geffen. Could we have stayed with Matador a bit longer? Possibly. It could’ve been a good idea. But we certainly needed money. We were skint. We were young and had to pay the rent. So we did a deal and got some cash that allowed us to make Bandwagonesque. So we never had a second album with Matador. And I remember people saying, “Oh, you’ve sold out to the major label.” But I found it ironic when Matador was bought for six million dollars or whatever it was. But the rift with Gerard Cosloy [Matador Records founder] is all water under the bridge.
8. Words Of Wisdom And Hope (2002)
This was your collaborative album with Jad Fair.
And it’s this low not because I don’t love that record because I really do—I think it’s one of my favorite things we’ve done—but because it’s not entirely a Teenage Fanclub record in a way. I’ve known Jad for a number of years. I met him through Stephen Pastel. At the time of this record, Jad had gone through a messy break-up and he went around Europe touring and putting out albums. And when he came to Glasgow, he’d come and stay with my family, so he became a very good friend. I think it was over a game of Scrabble and a glass of wine that me and Jad got talking about making an album with Teenage Fanclub with him providing vocals. I got in touch with the other guys and within a few days we rented a French studio.
Jad’s an amazingly talented guy, even though he can’t really play any instruments. His improvisational skills are brilliant. Jad had this little book of lyrics that he’d go through and he would put the vocal down in one take and that would be the track finished. And we’d switch instruments and do it again. We recorded about 16 tracks over two days and had the album. Everything was completely improvised. It was very liberating to do something so quickly. Jad’s still a good friend of mine, and, in fact, we made a new album together last year.
7. Shadows (2010)
We did most of that at Raymond’s place as well as at Rockfield Studios, which is a great. It’s likely in this position because I don’t really have anything to say about it.
To me, it seemed like a reaction to Man-Made, which was very stripped down.
You know what? You’re right. Thank you. We recorded a lot of that record in Norfolk. Do you remember the Darkness? They’re nice guys. We met through a mutual friend and Dan from the Darkness was a big Teenage Fanclub fan. He’d set up his own studio at his house in Norfolk. And it just so happened that Nick Brine, who’d engineered quite a few of our other records, had become the house engineer at Dan’s studio. So it seemed like the perfect place to go. And we went down there and just had a nice time in eastern England. I remember being in Glasgow and renting a truck that we filled with every piece of equipment we had. For Man-Made we didn’t take anything. We turned up in Chicago at John’s place with only four guitars. For this one we took the kitchen sink. So we probably did throw everything at that one. We have an expression we used called “underdubbing.” We very often do this with records where we get a track and chuck loads and loads of things on to it, more than it needs. And then we start underdubbing where we take them the unnecessary tracks off. So maybe with this one we didn’t do enough underdubbing.
6. Man-Made (2005)
It was a lot of fun making this record. Again, I think we just wanted to extricate ourselves from the UK completely, and we’d never made a record in America before. So we thought, “Where can we go? Who can we work with?” We had some mutual friends who knew John McEntire, and we liked his music—Tortoise, his music with Stereolab, all sorts of things he’s been involved in. So we got in touch with him and he said to come on over. And so for this record, we just brought some guitars and used all of the equipment that John had. And John’s got a lot of equipment, like unusual bits and pieces. He’s a bit of a quiet guy. He just gets on with it and left us to be creative in our own way, which we liked. He made sure it was all recorded properly.
We did it in two sessions. The first time we went over it was the height of summer in Chicago, which is blisteringly, crazy, crazy hot. Then we went back to the UK and toured a bit, and then came back in February and it was horrible! You know how cold it can get in Chicago. It was just crazy, crazy cold weather. But the experience of making the record with John was good fun. He had this massive book of menu cards, and each night we’d go out somewhere different to eat. It was nice to go and be in a different environment like that.
5. Howdy! (2000)
Howdy was a funny time. Creation had been bought by Sony, or was about to be, and Alan McGee came to us privately and said, “Look, I’m gonna make sure that you guys are okay with your next record. I will see that Sony puts the record out and gets you a good deal.” Amazingly, he gave us a two-album deal, knowing that the whole thing would be over soon enough. By the time we got around to making Howdy, Creation was gone, but we were able to make the record. Sony had to either pick up the record or pay us money, so they decided to pick it up. The second album in the deal was the compilation, which was a bit of a compromise. We didn’t want to be there and they didn’t really want us to be there either, so the compilation was a nice way for us to get out of the deal, deliver them an album so that both parties were happy.
So with Howdy, we had to work with a label that we hadn’t signed up to work with. It was a very transitional period. We recorded the album at Dave Gilmour from Pink Floyd’s studio. It was a houseboat on the River Thames with incredible equipment that was really amazing. We didn’t get to meet Dave, unfortunately. And we finished the album at Rockfield Studios in Wales, which is another legendary place. There is a famous photo of Lemmy with Hawkwind sitting next to a bunch of farm equipment—that was at Rockfield. Musically, the album has one of my personal favorites of my own songs, it’s called “Dumb Dumb Dumb.” Again, I like the song just because of how it’s structured. It has an offset drumbeat.
I remember this being a hard album to find over here at first. I bought it as an import.
I think you’re right. With Sony not being crazy about the band maybe we were not a priority. I think we were way down in the pecking order. The distribution probably wasn’t good and the promotion wasn’t what it could have been. I guess it was just the way things go. We ended up not going with a producer too. We produced it ourselves, like we did with this latest one. So it was difficult to get that record out to the world, sadly.
4. A Catholic Education (1990)
We made that record with our own money in Glasgow and at Suite 16 in Rochdale that Peter Hook owned. We didn’t have much money and this is absolutely true. Raymond’s neighbor had passed away, and he kind of looked after her, so she left him her refrigerator and stove, which he sold to get us some studio time. We recorded the album in a few days and even bought the master tapes ourselves to save some money. We also wanted to keep it, of course. Francis Macdonald played drums on that record. So we had an album’s worth of material, but we weren’t that happy with it. And in that interim period Francis had decided to go to university, which was a wise idea, and we got Brendan [O’Hare]. So we recorded a few more songs at Suite 16 with Brendan playing, and stayed with a pretty cool band called the Membranes. It was a good experience and cost us less than a thousand dollars to make that record, all paid for by ourselves.
So I gave a cassette to Stephen of the Pastels, who I’d played with before on a European tour when I was 20, who passed it on to a guy called Dave Barker, who had a previous label called Glass Records. And Dave liked the cassette and wanted to put it out on Paperhouse, which he did. Stephen also passed it on to Gerard Cosloy, who also wanted it for Matador, and before we knew it the record was out. Before we knew it we were in New York playing a new music seminar. The first night we got there we played in a small rehearsal space where we first met Yo La Tengo and Steve Shelley, and that was in 1989. Then we played at CBGB and it was all the legendary stuff we read about in fanzines for years. We got to hang out with Sonic Youth on that trip. It was amazing.
This record was very noisy and sounded a lot like what Sonic Youth were doing at the time.
Yeah, that’s what we were listening to. British music wasn’t like that at the time. A lot of the bands were using a skippy drumbeat or whatever. Glasgow didn’t feel like it was in line with London. Calvin Johnson was a friend of ours, we knew those people in Olympia and some in New York. We knew more people in those cities than we did in London. We knew some in London like Loop and the Valentines, but most of our allies were over in the US at the time. It was kind of strange. I guess there was a bit of a Neil Young influence on that record too. We liked him a lot. There are a couple of instrumental tracks that have a definite Neil Young influence.
3. Bandwagonesque (1991)
I feel like most people will expect this album to be your number one.
Well, we had quite a bit of success with it. It gave us the opportunity to tour the world: we went to Australia, North America, Japan for the first time. And it took us to a much bigger audience. It too was an enjoyable experience. We made that one in Liverpool. I think we achieved much of what we wanted to do. I think we made much of it up as we went along. We worked with Don Fleming, and we met him through a guy named Dave Barker, who put out our first record. Don was in Gumball and he was from that Sonic Youth type of noisy American pop music, so we were into that of stuff. I think we were trying to emulate that sound, especially on the first record. But Don had heard us singing these harmonies and said, “Why don’t you guys do that? No one is really doing that right now. Everyone is doing noisy guitar pop and that’s easy. Not many bands harmonize like that. See what you can come up with.” And it was actually good advice. Don wasn’t hands on. He would twiddle the knobs, but also give some direction in that classic old school way. And his advice took us to a wider audience.
SPIN named Bandwagonesque its album of the year in 1991. So it beat out Nevermind, Achtung Baby, and Loveless. Were you surprised?
We were mildly surprised until we found out the reviews editor at the time, Steven Daly, had been the drummer in Orange Juice, our favorite band from Glasgow. When we found out he was the editor, we thought maybe he had influenced that decision. No, but here’s the thing, the critics liked that record in the US, and I think Geffen expected it to sell massively because we had known the Nirvana guys pretty well. We toured with them on the European Nevermind tour, which was an incredible experience. To be able to witness that phenomenon, you know. But we knew them before when they were smaller. We got on with them and played some shows together. So I remember at the time it was our album, Nevermind and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless at the time. I guess they had to pick something, didn’t they? And maybe picking something that was a little more exotic appealed to the writers. Everyone likes something exotic. And the way that the British bands are enamored by the USA. And not so much now, but back then, the USA was enamored with the British. Maybe that would also explain SPIN having it as album of the year. I think it annoys a lot of people that Nevermind didn’t get it. But that’s just the way it goes, doesn’t it? Why not us?
What do you remember about performing on Saturday Night Live?
I remember the crew being absolutely respectful and very nice to us. They were very professional. But I also remember we didn’t know very much about it because it wasn’t on in the UK when we were kids. I had no idea what it was. So I remember Don Fleming coming down with us and we just thought it was another TV performance. I did like that we performed live and then we were done. There’s something exciting about being on live television. I remember Mike Myers being a nice guy and chatting with him. He’s got some Scottish relatives that he was telling us about. The whole experience was a lot of fun.
Tell me about “God bless my cotton socks. I am wearing a blue shirt.”
Oh, what’s that?
Apparently that’s what it says when you play the song “Satan” backwards.
Oh, really? That’s amazing. In fact, it does ring a bit of a bell. I think that was probably our drummer at the time Brendan who would have come up with that. He’s a funny guy.
2. Songs from Northern Britain (1997)
I think we had been on a bit of a roll at this point. Everyone was happy, we’d been successful touring and written a lot of songs. And again we didn’t want to take too much time on this record. So we recorded it in London at Air Studios, George Martin’s studio. And that was a good experience too. We’ve always tried to get out of Glasgow and make records in different cities. Again, with Thirteen, we learned that was a big mistake being in Glasgow, and part of the reason was that we were in our comfort zone and could go home every night. We like to think of making records as a kind of event. So that’s our London record. “I Don’t Want Control Of You” is one of my favorite songs I’ve written. I still enjoy playing it. I achieved what I was aiming for there. I like how it has a key change. As a musician and a songwriter, I feel like I got pretty close to achieving what was in my head. I really like the artwork on this record too. A friend of ours, Donald Milne, who we still work with, took all of the photographs for the record and the singles. They’re all related. It’s a little road trip around Scotland. So that was a lot of fun.
I’ve got a good story from this record too. We were upstairs in Air Studios, and beneath us Oasis was making Be Here Now. One night Liam comes up to our room and asked us to come down and hear the album. And Liam’s a great host. So we go down to the studio and we walk into the room—and we’d heard a lot of noise coming from their studio—and they were mixing the album on a live PA system! And they were working with Owen Morris, who is pretty crazy as well. So Liam sits us down in the back of the room and hands us all beers, and then gets Owen to play the album for us start to finish. And Liam’s getting excited saying, “Listen to our kid on the guitar solo!” And he starts air-guitaring with Noel’s parts. It was a very entertaining evening. He kept bringing us more beer and singing the album for us.
I believe that was around the time that he called Teenage Fanclub the “second best band in the world.”
Yeah, that was great. He said to me, “Great band. Great band. Second best band in the world!” [Laughs] I thought that was a great compliment. He’s a nice guy, Liam.
The title Songs from Northern Britain seemed like it was poking fun of Britpop.
Yeah, because I think we felt outside of that. We weren’t a London band and the whole Britpop thing was very London-centric really. Even Oasis, who were from Manchester, lived in London. And we didn’t feel like we were part of it. It had nothing to do with Scottish independence. We just thought it sounded funny. No one calls Scotland “Northern Britain,” although technically it is. So it was distancing ourselves a little from Britpop. But we did have a lot in common with many of the bands, like Pulp. We certainly didn’t feel like we were part of a movement though.
1. Grand Prix (1995)
You’ve said this was your favorite before.
Oh good. For me it’s the most important album because that’s when I met my wife Christa. It was the most important period of my life too, because we’re still together and we have a kid. I mean, there are a number of reasons why but the most important one is that I met my wife while we were making Grand Prix. She’s Canadian, but at the time she was the housekeeper at the Manor studios in Oxford, where we made the record. Basically I turned up at the door after coming from France, where we had been staying with my then-girlfriend. So we spent six weeks at the Manor, which is a great, great studio where some amazing records have been made. At the time it was owned by Richard Branson.
This was after Thirteen, and although we had some good press, the whole experience hadn’t been great. The record hadn’t been received as well as Bandwagonesque. But with Grand Prix I think we felt that we had something to prove. We knew we had a good record in us, so we approached the record in a different way. We only gave ourselves six weeks to work on it; we only took what we needed, which was 13 or 14 songs. I had fallen in love with Christa, who became my muse and gave me good lyric ideas. And some of our biggest songs are on that record.
There was a great advertisement for Grand Prix in one of the music weeklies.
Yeah. We were with Creation at the time in the UK, and Alan [McGee] is a great friend of ours. They would spend money on random ideas. So there was a reviewer I think in Melody Maker who gave us a scathing review. He hated the band. But everyone else had given us good reviews. So we thought, “How can we stick a finger up to Melody Maker?” And what we did was, and Creation was up for this, we took the back page of Melody Maker and we had ten quotes that said, like, “amazing album” and “album of the year,” and then we put his quote of something like, “this band should be thrown into the trash bin of history.” It was based on this cat food commercial from the 1970s that said, “Nine out of ten cats prefer Whiskas.” So we took the ten quotes and wrote, “Nine out of ten cats prefer Teenage Fanclub.” It cost Creation like three grand to do that, but it was such a nice way to say fuck you!
Cam Lindsay is on Twitter - @yasdnilmac