Star Star Light Star Bright She’s A Star It’s Written In The Stars Superstar Shine Like Stars Starry Starry Night Star Maker California Stars Co Stars Starry Eyes Baby I’m A Star Starman Lady Stardust Ziggy Stardust The Prettiest Star Black Star Lost Star New Star Stars Are Strong Strange News From Another Star Star Sign GUIDING STAR Star Of Bethlehem Wishing On A Star Thank Your Lucky Stars Star 69 Star Me Kitten Star Sailor Star Shaped My Dark Star Little Star Near Star Pole Star One Bright Star Shooting Star Star Spangled Banner Starmoonsun Your Star Will Shine Star Fucker Morning Star Evening Star Starry Eyes In The Ocean Of The Stars
At this time of year though, one star song shines brightest of all.
Teenage Fanclub – Guiding Star
Guiding Star is the penultimate track on Teenage Fanclub‘s Bandwagonesque and it’s perfect for repeated plays in the run-up to Christmas. It’s ethereal, woozy and melancholic, a dreamy ballad soaked in the strings of sighing cellos – the saddest instrument of all – and brightly ringing, high in the mix jangling 12 string guitars that sound, to these December ears, a bit like sleigh bells.
The triumvirate of songwriters in Teenage Fanclub really began to show their individual strengths around the time of Bandwagonesque; Norman did the uplifting, life-affirming ones – The Concept, Alcoholiday, Raymond did the noisy ones – I Don’t Know and Gerry did the wistful, regretful, heart-tugging ones – chiefly December and Guiding Star.
Time has shown that Gerry’s songs are the ones I probably value just that wee bit more than the others. The benefit of years and years of listening to one of our finest-ever bands still throws up unexpected new things in Gerry’s songs; previously unnoticed fret-spanning bass runs, a nod here and a wink there to a crate-dug 60s sunshine pop obscurio, a rhyming couplet that remained buried for years underneath glorious Fanclub noisepop. He’s a much underrated writer, is Gerry Love.
Guiding Star may be Gerry’s song, but it’s a real band effort in pulling it together. The others give him the spotlight, stepping forward as and when the song requires them. Here comes Norman with those caramelised, high, high, “hey!” harmonies. And here comes Raymond with his pedal board and understated avant gardisms. Those morse code guitar bleeps, firing off little tracers of olde-worlde communication out into the night sky. Stay in touch, they say, you’re my guiding star – you’re my number one.
Then there’s the fuzz guitar in the background, heavily manipulated by Raymond’s slo-mo, divebombing whammy bar, My Bloody Valentine with better manners and cleaner hair.
While all of this plays out, Gerry is singing about Jesus Christ and how he wears his hair and how he walks on air, and the vocal floats magically above the quiet storm below. And then Raymond turns it up another notch and he’s sliding straight into the feedback ‘n sustain solo that carries us to the song’s suddenly fading conclusion. Over and out. Gone.
Wise men used to follow stars. Wise men and women still follow the Teenage Fanclub. Stars of another sort.
There are things I want to do, goes the opening line on Teenage Fanclub‘s evergreen Alcoholiday. But I don’t know if they will be with you…
When, back in April, the greatest band of the last 25 or so years (and I’m up for a fight if you disagree) announced a run of shows to mark the re-release of their Creation Records era, only the quickest off the mark were fortunate to bag the recession-friendly season ticket deal. The rest of us – myself included – had to make do with the scramble for individual tickets, a moderately costly affair when taking into account the surprising but welcome “me too!” from both Mrs POP and daughter. Night 2 was the wallet-buster for me, but as it would turn out, a priceless one also.
What was initially billed as a celebration of the band’s glory years turned into something else entirely when, out of the blue, founding Fanny Gerry Love announced he was leaving the band. Social media was filled with tear-soaked declarations and outpourings of grief. The world briefly stopped spinning on its axis. Candles were lit. Posters torn down. Records (yer original Creation pressings, natch – those re-releases were still in production) were spun. The only thing missing was a digital book of condolence. It seemed that Teenage Fanclub fans were just Take That fans in denim and desert boots. “Gerry! No! How could you?!?” scans just as easily as “Robbie! No! How could you?!?” does it not?
The three shows were marvellous. I say this as a veteran of Teenage Fanclub shows since 1990. They were right up there as some of the best TFC shows I’ve seen; King Tuts dressed in Elvis impersonator gear around Christmas of ’91, the Grand Ole Opry show in ’97 (?) and the Bandwagonesque revisted show from 12 years ago where, as they did this week, they played 2 excellent sets on the same night.
The triptych of shows this week featured Bandwagonesque and Thirteen on Monday night, Grand Prix and Songs From Northern Britain on Tuesday before Howdy! and a set of rarely-played b-sides brought the proceedings to a clanging close on Wednesday. Five albums played in chronological order plus a set of Fanclub curios. 75 songs all in, as Norman announced before the final song on Wednesday. It’s no wonder that the bulk of the crowd was made up of the same folk each night. This was more one big gig with a few hours sleep between sets than 3 individual shows. In football parlance, Monday night was the first half, Tuesday the second, with extra time on Wednesday.
The re-released albums have seen much reappraisal for the old stuff. Thirteen in particular has gained real favour amongst the band’s faithful. Originally considered a mis-fire between the long-haired riffing on Bandwagonesque and the classicism of Grand Prix, it’s now seen as the equal of those early albums, the second one in in a 4 album run the equal of Bowie, The Beatles and all the very best. Played hot on the heels of a fizzing Bandwagonesque – highlights undoubtedly being a trippy Star Sign, the world-weary heavy sigh of Alcoholiday and a crystaline Guiding Star that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on The Velvet Underground And Nico – the tracks from Thirteen fired and fizzed, little napalm bombs of amped-up pop. Back on drums for the night, band jester Brendan O’Hare mimicked a heart attack as he worked his way into the count for the frantic knee tremble of Radio. Escher and Fear Of Flying ramped up mid-set proceedings, 1800 sillhouted heads bobbing in time to the steady throb coming from the stage. It’s the set closer though that sends everyone home on a high. Gene Clark has steadily become the hidden gem in the Fanclub’s stellar back catalogue; a chugging, riffing Neil Young workout named after The Byrds erstwhile maverick with Raymond McGinley pulling sounds from his guitar that J Mascis would willingly give his strumming hand for. To paraphrase Nigel Tuffnell, it’s all about the sustain, man.
Night two was more of the same. If early TFC is the sound of a band skirting around its influences in an attempt to nail a definitive sound then Grand Prix and Songs From Northern Britain are the Rubber Soul and Revolver of the band’s ouvre; essential, defining and destined to still be spinning centuries from now. Everything; the playing, the singing, the writing stepped up a gear. “It’s the album where we started using capos, for fuck’s sake!” relays Norman as the band ease their way in to Don’t Look Back, a song that has suddenly taken on a whole new meaning. Don’t Look Back manages to be both melancholic and uplifting, Gerry’s lamenting vocals giving way to terrific three part harmonies from Blake, McGinley and a moonlighting Francis MacDonald who’s given the drum stool to Paul Quinn for the night while he augments the swell of sound from the stage with all manner of keys and stringed instruments. Is there any finer sight in music than when the principal members of Teenage Fanclub step up to their respective microphones and let forth their honeyed tones? Clearly, that’s a rhetorical question. A massive, riffing Neil Jung and a killer Going Places are the pick of a particularly bountiful first set.
When they return twenty minutes later – on paper this would appear quite a short break but the Fanclub demographic – more Middleaged Manclub – is such that the queues for the gents’ is longer than the solo on the aforementioned Neil Jung and mild panic sets in until needs are met – the band launches into what is arguably their finest sety of songs. Start Again. Ain’t That Enough. I Don’t Want Control Of You. Planets. Take The Long Way Round. Speed Of Light. It’s an obscenely rich set of songs, expertly played as faithfully as the recorded versions. By the end of night two I’m emotionally drained. My ankles are also the size of average-sized Ayrshire smallholdings, again another side effect of the Middleaged Manclub and given that I’ll be back for the next night, a self-inflicted by-product of attending three shows in a row.
Howdy! has also benefited from positive reappraisal. It signals the band’s autumnal years, where pace slowed, hair regressed and the comfort of a trouser was more important than the cut of the trouser. Love’s songs (again) may well be the pick of the bunch. I Need Direction with its spiralling riff and Hammond-heavy break. Near You‘s electric frug. The Town And The City, all woo-whoos and 60s sunshine pop. A groovy Cul De Sac that points the way towards Gerry’s Lightships project. Every one a crucial component in making the set as enjoyable as the previous two nights, something I might’ve considered impossible had I not been there.
It’s the second set that has the Fanclub fanclub all in a tizzy. It’s the only set of the shows that remains a mystery, so when they emerge and ease into Norman’s misty-eyed Did I Say, expectations are high for a set of rarities, curios and lesser-played gems from years gone by. No-one is disappointed. Long-forgotten b-sides Thaw Me, The Shadows, Some People Try To Fuck With You and a terrific The Count (where, in classic Fanclub style, the band members struggle to end it together) all pop up, totally unexpected and greeted like returning heroes. He’d Be A Diamond flies past, a sugar-coated rush of pop harmonies and ringing guitars. Then we get Broken. Stuck on the b-side of Ain’t That Enough, Broken was a track that waited patiently for the world to catch up. It’s a simple song. Wistful guitar plays out the melody. The band yawn and stretch and feel their way into it. Norman repeats the same line over and over and over and over again until the band fade out to silence. The Barrowlands crowd continue singing softly until Norman smiles and we stop. It’s now a folk song, our song, the unofficial anthem on the night when Gerry played his last Glasgow show. Brendan is in tears. His heart has been broken again. We get one more song – the 75th – and Gerry leads the band through a ragged rousing take on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Older Guys, Norman providing enthusiastic woo-hoo-hoos above Raymond’s effortless Fender bending.
Suddenly it’s over. House lights go up slightly. The crowd cheers for more. The stage crew appears. Lights go down. The crew hang back. Whispers of Everything Flows and God Knows It’s True find their way between the bootstomps and cat whistles. Guitar George cuts across the stage carrying Gerry’s bass. He stops stage centre and shrugs apologetically. The crew come on and start dismantling equipment. The lights go up. There are more than a few boos, directed at whoever decided there’d be no encore, be that the management, the promoter or the band themselves. A slight tarnish on what was an extraordinary set of shows. To use football parlance again, everything but the penalty shoot out but a brilliant home win.
There’s a tiny wee Teenage Fanclub renaissance taking place just now. Last week saw the 20th (the 20th!!!) anniversary of the release of their Grand Prix LP, the album many consider to be unmatched by anything else in the band’s brilliantly rich and epoch-defining (well, in my house at least) catalogue.
And also just last week, the band came together in Manchester to play a stadium show with Foo Fighters, warmed-up for with a 2 hour show the preceding evening in a small venue in Yorkshire. By all accounts the band were at their very best. Even Dave Grohl took time out from international rock star duties to sing their praises to Foo Fighters’ audience.
Me and Teenage Fanclub go waaaaay back. To 1990 to be precise. That summer, I caught them supporting the Soup Dragons in Glasgow’s Garage, bought Everything Flows on 7″ a few days later and set off on a proud run of buying each record on release day and catching the band play live at least once a year every year until 2014, when they had the audacity to play a rare gig at the refurbished bandstand in Kelvingrove Park on the same night I had chosen to book Glenn Tilbrook to play a tiny venue in Irvine. Glenn was good…..but he wasn’t Teenage Fanclub. Not that you could tell, but I’m still irked somewhat that I missed the bandstand gig that night.
When the TFC started out, they were ramshackle to the point of comedy. Their gigs, a right ramalama of long hair and Marshall-stacked riffs, were punctuated by false starts, broken strings and the erratic antics of Brendan on drums. Lurking underneath the friendly shambles though was a set of melody-rich songs doing their best to burst out of the confines of the plaid shirts and band in-jokes.
Teenage Fanclub – God Knows It’s True (single version)
Second single God Knows It’s True is a little lost jewel in an embarrassment of riches. The bridge between the gaffa taped DIY of A Catholic Education and the power pop sheen of Bandwagonesque, God Knows It’s True is rough-’round-the-edges indie rock; guitars-turned-up-to-10 and howling like Neil Young in the eye of a hurricane, with a saccharine-sweet minor key chorus that repeats ad-infinitum to the end. As it’s playing just now I can picture the band on stage in King Tuts, guitars slung low and heads bowed lest the 3 frontmen clatter their heads off of Tuts’ roof.
“God knows it’s true, but I think that the devil knows it too.” CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! Der-Der-De-Der De Duh-Duh-Duh-Duh-Duh!
Teenage Fanclub – God Knows It’s True (Peel Session, August 1990)
By the time Bandwagonesque came to be committed to tape, the band were in a rich vein of songwriting form and had taken to recording their valve-driven amps at full volume, mic’d up inside cupboards so as not to blast out any windows within a 20-mile vicinity. But you knew that already.
An interesting metamorphosis has taken place over the course of the band’s career. The hair, once “down my back” has crept slowly upwards. Add an extra member who can enhance the live sound with subtle keys and all manner of instrumentation and stick some necessary yet tasteful spectacles on the faces of half the band and Teenage Fanclub now resemble a quintet of slightly trendy science teachers, the kind of teacher who’d be equally at ease telling you the properties of the most obscure chemical elements in the Breaking Bad titles and be able to point out a major 7th chord on Love’s Forever Changes LP. Then shuffle on and rock out at the end of year school prom.
And as the hair has shortened, so too have the guitar solos. They’re still there, but they’re not at the forefront of everything anymore. The focus these days seems to be on the melody and the power of the backing vocal, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that. There’s no finer sight in live music than when the 3 frontmen step forward as one to harmonise the opening lines of About You. None.
Teenage Fanclub – Sometimes I Don’t Need To Believe In Anything
Sometimes I Don’t Need To Believe In Anything from the aptly-named Shadows LP (where the band have been in the intervening 5 years since its release) sums this up brilliantly. A softly sung vocal from Gerry builds into a brilliantly-layered harmonising ba-ba-ba outro, creating a super soaraway sunshine pop song. Beach Boys by way of Bellshill, if you will.
The next TFC LP is due at some point this year. Whether the guitars have regained their room-filling volume, or whether the vocals are now competing for ear space with flutes and strings, I don’t mind. Nor, I suspect, do the legions of getting-on-a-bit-now men (and women…women like TFC too, y’know) eager for a new slice of Fanclub action. I cannae wait.
Dave knows the score
Useless TFC facts with tenuous links to this writer:
1. Both Gerry and myself are West of Scotland Our Price alumni. Despite numerous training days and the parochial nature of the job, we never knowingly met at the time.
2. Gerry contributed to this rather fine 6 Of the Best many moons ago. I met him quite by chance afterwards when he was DJing in a pub and I thanked him heartily for participating. My Fanclub fanboy conversation was such that he missed the start of the 7″ he’d queued up to play next on the turntable. Jam Master Jay he is not.
That’s Moondog, the blind composer, poet and inventor of all sorts of weird ‘n wacky instruments. For twenty or so years he lived on the streets of New York, sometimes dressed head to toe in full-on Viking garb, earning himself the title ‘The Viking of 6th Avenue‘. Moondog always composed his musique concrète from the street sounds of daily Big Apple life, turning honking traffic horns and street corner spats into snaking, rhythmic pieces of music. The most cult of cult figures, he makes Yoko Ono come across like Will.I.Am by comparison.
MoondogDo Your Thing:
1978’s H’art Songs featured Do Your Thing, a childish, reedy-vocalled, piano-led baroquish, sunshine piece of pop that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on The Kinks’ We Are The Village Green Preservation Society LP.
As a one-off curio, it’s a nice wee song. And while I can’t vouch for the rest of Moondog’s output, I suspect it’s perhaps not as accessible as Do Your Thing. One person who might know is Gerry Love, who’s Lightships project first brought Do Your Thing to my attention.
LightshipsDo Your Thing:
Lightships‘ version comes vibrating out of the haze towards you, shimmering softly in the July heat like a frisbee forever floating, edges morphing out of shape under the glare of the midday sun with three chords, double-tracked whispered vocals and a tinkling glockenspiel with its arm wrapped around a twanging guitar for comfort. It calls to mind the hissing of summer lawns, the far-off laughs of children and melted tarmac on the pavement. Your hayfevered eyes and nose might be flowing uncontrollably like a mountain stream but this record will surely cure you. I could listen to it forever.
One of the high points of a ridiculously brilliant project, Gerry Love’s transcendent cover of Do Your Thing first appeared a couple of years ago on the b-side (the b-side!!) of the Sweetness In Her Spark single, tucked away for the ears of only trainspotters and completists. The true sound of summer, now is the time to liberate it.