There’s a video on YouTube from a Foo Fighters concert at Manchester’s Old Trafford stadium last year, in which frontman Dave Grohl makes a corny but very kind speech on behalf of their support band, a group he toured with as drummer of Nirvana back in the early 90s and claims to have idolised. “All I ever wanted to do was write a song as good as the Teenage Fanclub,” Grohl gushes. “So I’m going to dedicate this next song to,” he switches to a naff Scottish accent, “the Teenie Fannies”.
The reaction from his audience is subdued. “At least we had one fan in that stadium that day,” reflects Gerard Love wryly. The gently-spoken Teenage Fanclub bassist, co-vocalist and co-songwriter had been well aware that the Belshill-formed jangling power-pop band didn’t exactly find much of a fanclub, teenage or otherwise, among 60,000 people who had turned up to hear soaring melodic hard rock. “I don’t think we really made sense to the vast majority of Dave Grohl’s crowd,” he goes on. “What we do is much softer than Foo Fighters. It was great for him to say that, but I just think that whole opportunity to support them was Dave Grohl giving us some money for nothing.”
The adulation of their peers, most famously Grohl’s Nirvana bandmate the late Kurt Cobain, not to mention a relatively small but passionate following around the world, has never added up to a massive amount for Teenage Fanclub in terms of wealth or fame – certainly nothing akin to the Foo Fighters. But they like it that way, as Love explains, approaching the release of their new album Here, their tenth in a steady 27 years as one of Scotland’s most quietly revered bands. “I enjoy our brand of success,” Love says. “We can go home and walk about and nobody has a clue who we are except for the odd person. There’s something really cool about that – that you can just disappear and become a citizen again.”
Pronounced modesty is just one quality among many that has ensured Teenage Fanclub’s longevity where so many other bands they came up with burned out fast. That and a uniquely democratic, egalitarian system of songwriting. There are 12 tracks on Here, four a piece by the band’s three songwriters, Love and guitarists/co-vocalists Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley. It was more or less always that way, ever since their 1991 breakout Bandwagonesque, an album which, in a remarkably fertile period for British music, came out on Alan McGee’s Creation Records within a few weeks of labelmates Primal Scream’s Screamadelica and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, and remains every bit as iconic as those two epochal albums in the minds of many listeners.
An even division of labour among three equally talented writers has had the double benefit of engendering a spirit of healthy competition, while at the same time lightening each of their workloads. “One of us maybe pushes the bar with a song,” says Love, whose Lightships solo project has also produced a superb album in 2012’s Electric Cables, “and you think ‘ah, I’d better smarten my ideas up a bit.’ I think that’s good. But there’s no sort of finishing line where somebody’s crowned the winner. It definitely helps us, and it’s definitely been a reason why we’ve been doing this for the length of time we have.”
Tracks such as the swooning, rushing, McGinley penned and sung I’m In Love and Blake’s utterly gorgeous The Darkest Part of the Night, could date from almost any era in the Fanclub’s history, so dependably consistent has their muse remained. With their almost telepathic three-part vocal harmonies, fuzzy guitars and natural instinct for classic pop chord structures and melodies, theirs is one of the most instantly identifiable and gratifying sounds in all of British guitar music.
So why doesn’t the music industry seem to give Teenage Fanclub their due? In the last several years countless groups of their era, such as former Creation labelmates My Bloody Valentine and Ride, have reformed to massive fanfare and money-spinning comeback tours. The Fanclub, meanwhile, have struggled to find a record label (like their previous two albums, Here is self-released). The narrative of the band that keeps on keeping on just doesn’t seem to capture imaginations like that of the group which burns out then later makes a triumphant return. Do Teenage Fanclub regret not splitting up long ago so they could have got back together by now for a big payout?
“There’s definitely a good economy in splitting up and coming back,” Love concedes. “I think people will put their hands in their pockets and I think a good promoter will offer more money for you to play. But to be honest I don’t know if we had the same enigmatic presence as other groups you mention. It would have been a gamble. We might have met not quite the same fate as The Pixies or My Bloody Valentine and been offered lots of money. We might have ended up bottom of the bill at King Tut’s.”
That seems an unfair self-appraisal of the legacy of a Zelig-like band whom, it bears remembering, rode the crest of not just one but two of the biggest waves in 90s guitar music, somehow without hitting the rocks. Through their association with Nirvana – whom they toured with in the run-up to the release of 1991’s Nevermind – Teenage Fanclub won the unlikely respect of the grunge scene as it exploded out of Seattle unto an unexpecting world. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, through their association with Creation Records, the Fanclub found themselves at the eye of the Britpop storm. There were, Love admits, some “wild” times as they travelled the world playing shows, even if he also accepts that they were all much too young to fully appreciate just what was happening to them.
His fondest memory of it all is typically unassuming. “In ’94 we went from Japan via Australia to the west coast of America to start a tour with Yo La Tengo, which was really memorable,” he reminisces. “In between we stopped off in Hawaii to do a show, bizarrely. I remember just sitting in a hotel in Hawaii with a suitcase full of dirty laundry, and there was an earthquake going on. And I remember just thinking ‘how did I end up here?’ It was the first time I stopped to consider what we were doing after three or four years.” Another two decades on, by no little merit, they’re very much still here. n
• Teenage Fanclub play the Liquid Room, Edinburgh, on 6 September, the Ironworks, Inverness, on 15 November and the ABC, Glasgow, on 4 December. Here is released on 9 September