Counterbalance: ‘Franz Ferdinand’

And if you leave here, you leave me broken, shattered, I lie. I'm just a crosshair. I'm just a shot, then we can listen to the 192nd most acclaimed album of all time. Franz Ferdinand’s 2004 debut is this week’s Counterbalance.
Franz Ferdinand
Franz Ferdinand

Mendelsohn: If there was ever a band that seemingly had it all together and then never really capitalized on their new found fame, I think it might be Franz Ferdinand. You know, that band that released “Take Me Out”, last decade. Everybody loved it. They got a bunch of awards. And then the follow-ups sort of fizzled. Either as a consequence of the times or diminishing returns, I’m not sure which, however I would wager it would be both as the general listening public moved away from the art rock and jangly guitars and the members of Franz Ferdinand struggled to recapture lightning in a bottle.

And what a shame, Klinger, because Franz Ferdinand’s self-titled debut was a magnificent piece of rock, positioning them as heir apparent to the art rock throne, if not as future music overlords. They had managed to make Krautrock sound cool, made art rock even cooler while swiping the best pieces available from the likes of Roxy Music, David Bowie, Radiohead, the Clash, Joy Division, and so many more. Maybe it was just unsustainable. Did you hear this record when it came out? What did you think?

Klinger: I remember my wife talking about them for a while, but I don’t recall if I spent any time listening to them. Also I’m a little surprised that you forgot Gang of Four in your litany, since not only covered them relatively recently but that’s the first thing I thought of when I settled in for this album. The other thing I got to thinking about was how very British this album seems to me, which in turn got me to constructing one of my unproveable theories about the British rock family tree. Looking to start a barroom debate with your rock nerd friends? I’ve got your topic right here.

Assume for a moment that all post-Invasion British rock flows, at its essence, from four primary sources—the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and the Kinks. [Ed. note: The Small Faces need to be in there for five primary sources.] The Beatles, when they’re not busy being curve-breakers who are probably too ingrained in everything to make this argument interesting, can lay exclusive claim to art-rock thinkpiecers like Pink Floyd and Radiohead. Let’s say that the Rolling Stones gave us the loose shimmy stuff; the T. Rex/Mott the Hoople brand of glam, not to mention the more obvious example of the Faces. The Who gave us the big chords and the fists in the air: the Zeppelin/Sabbath strain. The Kinks were the most British at their core, and really the least bluesy. You get the smaller stories from them, the ones about real people. You also get the vaguely louche attitude, suggesting languid days and sybaritic evenings. It’s a feeling that extends from the Davies brothers on through Roxy Music, the Jam, Pulp, and into this century with the Libertines and Franz Ferdinand.

That’s not to say that each of these groups didn’t bring something unique to the table, and Franz Ferdinand brought a sense of fun to the proceedings, as well as a big enough beat to “make girls dance”, which was their aim all along. It’s also made me come very close to dancing, which couldn’t possibly have been their aim, but there you go.

Mendelsohn: Yes, how could I have forgotten Gang of Four? It was only a year ago that we were taking about Entertainment! We’ve only had to go over some 50-odd records since then. I can’t even tell you what I have for breakfast most days (and I eat the same thing everyday).

Klinger: Was it really that long ago? That’s crazy. I have clearly lost all track of time. Is Obama still President?

Mendelsohn: On a serious tip, I very much went to be involved in your bar room nerd rock brawl. Can I be the guy in the corner waving a chair above his head in a threatening manner and shouting, “WHAT ABOUT DAVID BOWIE?! HUH? YOU WANKERS!” Not that I have any real problem with your breakdown, in fact, I think its brilliant and I will go toe-to-toe with anyone in your defense — especially if there is a chance I can hit them with a chair while shouting unintelligibly about Ziggy Stardust.

Klinger: Well, I think Bowie was too much of a changeling to really commit to… No, sorry, Mendelsohn, we really must keep it on topic for now. Save it for the pub tonight.

Mendelsohn: I think anyone who has had any exposure to the Canon will immediately recognize just how British Franz Ferdinand’s music is at the start (despite being a bunch of Scotsmen). And as you noted, there is no doubt they are just one group in a long line of rock groups to tread the stages of the British Isles. I would think that would be obvious to any music critic worth their salt. Franz Ferdinand isn’t doing anything new. For a time they are doing it better by smoothing the rough edges of the Gang of Four, being sexier than Roxy Music and cooler than Joy Division (as impossible as it sounds) while pushing a groove so irresistible that everyone wants to dance just a little bit. In doing so they landed on the Great List at No. 192. The album has fallen steadily over the years from its high point at No. 108(!) before making some positive gains but it’s still there, as well respected as ever, representing 2004 in the shadow of the Arcade Fire’s Funeral.

In the end, though, I think it might be the overt Britishness that sort of doomed Franz Ferdinand. There are only so many ways to update that branch of the rock family tree and it seems that the critics and listening public, while wholeheartedly open to the idea, will only accept so much in the way of the louche slouch and vague Dada references before they look for something new (just for the curious, that new thing was Sufjan Stevens, followed by Antony and the Johnsons).

Klinger: I guess I hadn’t thought too much about why the rock cognoscenti seldom talks about Franz Ferdinand these days, but I suspect that it may have to do with the fact that Alex Kapranos and company were so good at writing about being young. There’s a real sense of immediacy in a song like “Jacqueline” or “Take Me Out” that ends up reminding even grizzled old-timers like me about the irresponsible joys of being a young adult. That may be what you described earlier as unsustainable, which makes sense when you consider that it sets a difficult precedent as older listeners might move on if you keep writing about clubbing and younger people might not want to hang out in clubs with a bunch of thirtysomethings. Just another unproveable theory, I suppose. It’s also true that the group has become a lot less prolific in recent years, waiting four years between albums. Momentum—we’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating.

Mendelsohn: Yes, Franz Ferdinand was able to capture a little of their own zeitgeist the next year with You Could Have It So Much Better, but at No. 1461 on the Great List, it will have a negligible impact in the future. Two more albums followed in 2009 and 2013, respectively, but both were politely ignored by everyone. It’s hard to write about the tribulations of youth when you are no longer young. And you are right, Franz Ferdinand’s debut did an excellent job of capturing that lighting in a bottle, distilling it and then selling it back to their peers (or people who wanted to live vicariously through wax). It’s that immediacy that drives the record and not just on “Jacqueline” and “Take Me Out”, but the tales of infidelity in “Cheating On You”, the homoeroticism of “Michael”, and the overt sexuality and gnawing uncertainty of “Dark of the Matinee”. The whole album is a laundry list of risqué behavior connected to youth, be it hooking up or jumping off 40-foot cliffs.

That immediacy is then amplified by the unrelenting danceable beat that drives the sumptuously produced pop songs that fill this record. Those 40 minutes always seem to fly by and I never leave disappointed. It occurs to me that Franz Ferdinand might be the Television for a new generation. A well-regarded band, writing rock on their own terms but never brought up all that often. Here’s hoping Franz Ferdinand isn’t lost to the annals of time.

Klinger: I’m not overly concerned about that, because the Great List has proven to us time and again that sometimes that one album is all it takes. From Marquee Moon to Forever Changes, that one album can so perfectly capture its time and place that it will make perfect sense forever. And it can inspire future musicians, ones who weren’t there and couldn’t be there, to take that sound and build on it. Franz Ferdinand, with its melodic sensibility and immortal ability to make butts move (perhaps the noblest ability of them all) might well have that capability. I’m looking forward to finding out.

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