You Scratch My Back Catalogue, I’ll Scratch YoursAugust 1, 2016
In the early 90s, there was no finer sight in music than when the three frontmen from Teenage Fanclub stepped up to the mic as one and filled the room with honey-coated harmonies that surfed across the top of their ramshackle fuzz. Lest we forget, in the year that saw both REM’s Out Of Time and Nirvana’s Nevermind released and racking up gazillions of sales, Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque sat proudly at the top of Spin Magazine’s ‘Albums Of The Year‘ list. And rightly so. Bandwagonesque is classic Fanclub; a welding together of God-sent melodies with a clanging calamity of sweet-sounding guitars. To achieve the overdriven sound that defines much of the album, the band had the amps turned up as loud as they would go, put behind a closed cupboard door and close mic’d up. The effect is a cobweb-dusting thing of beauty, but you knew that already.
On account of their ability to conjure a slightly wobbly three-part harmony out of thin air, fans of the band renamed them The Bellshill Beach Boys. Lazy writers at the time were less generous, waxing lyrical about the band’s obvious debt to the three Bs – The Beatles, The Byrds and Big Star.
This was the first time I (and I suspect many others) had ever encountered the names ‘Big Star‘ or ‘Alex Chilton‘ and the hastily re-released #1 Record/Radio City twofer that followed on the heels of Bandwagonesque confirmed that Teenage Fanclub had indeed tipped their hat in the particular direction of their 70s idols. Other bands are guilty as charged when it comes to blatant sticky-fingered plagiarism, but Teenage Fanclub were clever enough not to steal whole songs, lock, stock and barrel from Big Star. The overall mood though of Bandwagonesque, from the mid-paced strumming and guitar sound to the uplifting melancholy that sticks itself to many of the tracks (The Concept is essentially a sad song, but it’s sky-scrapingly magnificent. Likewise, December and Guiding Star) is very Big Star. Nowt wrong with that of course.
Bandwagonesque remains an early high point in a discography embarrassingly rich in high points. Will the new album ‘Here‘, released in just over a month, have the same impact? Going on the strength of the lead single I’m In Love, with its trademark harmonies, fancy chords and Thin Lizzy-ish guitar solo, the early indications are good, but let’s remember that Bandwagonesque was released a quarter of a century ago. That Teenage Fanclub are still releasing records to an always-appreciative audience is fine in its own right.
Alex Chilton and Teenage Fanclub would play a few shows together. They also released a limited single via the NME, where Alex was backed by TFC on one side, and TFC were backed by Alex (kinda) on the other. At some point or other, (I’d like to imagine it was during the sessions for the NME single, though we’ll maybe never really know), Alex and TFC ran through a gloriously ragged live take of Bandwagonesque‘s Alcoholiday.
The track is credited purely to Chilton, but if you listen carefully between the clanging chords and underneath Alex’s world-weary, 30-a-day Marlboro-coated voice, you’ll be able to make out Norman Blake’s ooing and aahing backing vocals. It’s a beautiful thing. Perhaps even more beautiful than the original….
Teenage Fanclub – Alcoholiday
Teenage Fanclub have also dipped more than a toe into the extensive Chilton back catalogue. An early US-only single from around the time of Bandwagonesque saw them zip through a brilliant version of Free Again, replete with a kazoo solo, a key change and seemingly, the kitchen sink.
Teenage Fanclub – Free Again
Free Again is a post Box Tops Chilton three chord boogie that would first see the light of day on 1977’s The Singer Not The Song EP, from a period in time when no-one seemingly gave a damn about Alex. Given the shambolic mess that made up the EP, this was also a period in Chilton’s life when he seemingly didn’t give a damn about folk either, but that’s another article for another day.
Alex Chilton – Free Again