The 25 Best Songs of Teenage Fanclub
In our latest artist list, we pay tribute to power pop legends Teenage Fanclub. Here are their 25 best songs.
Having just run a retrospective on the power pop heroes the Posies to commemorate their 30th anniversary and tour, it seems like a good time to provide the same treatment for the Posies' power pop brethren, the also brilliant, and also still highly-functioning, Teenage Fanclub. Consider this a head-start on commemorating the 30th anniversary of Teenage Fanclub's own debut release, which is actually not for two more years, or perhaps as a celebration of their upcoming vinyl reissues of five select albums. In any event, this is a band well worth extra attention.
Today, Teenage Fanclub is the three co-founders/guitarists/equal co-singer-songwriters: Norman Blake, Gerard Love and Raymond McGinley; drummer Francis McDonald; and, since 2004, keyboardist Dave McGowan. These Scotsmen first arose from a thriving but underappreciated Glasgow indie music scene in the late '80s. They have since become a legendary power pop group and, while not necessarily a household name (more on that later), they have long been revered by critics, and maintain a devout following.
On the one hand, Teenage Fanclub has deep roots in the distorted guitars of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, and the fuzzy/jangly guitar of American power pop group, Big Star. On the other hand, they are also very much rooted in the melodic, pop classicism of the Beatles and Love. Further, Teenage Fanclub also embraces some of the bare emotions of those latter groups. That is, they have no qualms singing choruses like "I'm in love with you, and I know that it's you ... Yeah," 11 times in one song, for example, or in naming another song, no kidding, "Tears Are Cool". Thus, where most bands would sound inauthentic, cloying, or just plain dumb, Teenage Fanclub pulls it off with ease.
Rock and roll, of course, has often been associated with a classic attitude of 'detached cool,' i.e. not caring, or at least pretending not to care, such as the leather-jacketed Marlon Brando's "What have you got?" to rebel against, or Elvis sneering his way through his first record, "That's All Right". And detached cool is fantastic. But to care deeply and openly—and still not worry what anyone thinks, that takes its own special kind of guts.
Teenage Fanclub debuted in 1990 with the fine A Catholic Education. That release isn't representative of the rest of their catalogue, but it does show the band's jumping off point with a proto-grunge of sludgy, fuzzed-out guitars, and a budding penchant for melodies.
The second album, Bandwagonesque (1991), drew critical raves and today is their canonized pop masterpiece. While still rooted in distorted guitars, the band's songwriting, melodies, and harmonies all developed incredibly quickly and, as a result, Bandwagonesque is pretty flawless in those regards, and from the first song to last. Languid rhythms co-exist with the immediacy of power chords and great hooks. It's been noted that Teenage Fanclub is an amalgamation of the Byrds, Big Star, and the Beatles, and with this album, especially, the group delivers on that lofty premise.
The third formal Fanclub release, Thirteen (1993) (a reference to the Big Star ballad of the same name), saw more expansive sounds, including some string arrangements, and more Byrds-like, country-rock influence. Because Thirteen didn't possess the immediately energizing effect of Bandwagonesque, critics and the mainstream music-buying public were mostly disappointed. Of course, many later came around to praise Thirteen and even to regard it as one of the group's best. Nonetheless, whatever commercial momentum that might have made Teenage Fanclub a household name at that time, stalled out.
This is hardly the first time that popular commercial concerns, and the universe itself, have conspired to reward the wrong people. Still, though, the story of the group's lack of mainstream notoriety is fairly remarkable.
First, recall the early and mid-'90s, when Teenage Fanclub had just begun to hit their stride, along with what was called a "power pop revival", that included the Posies, Matthew Sweet, and some others. At that time, the mainstream was, of course, embracing angst-ridden grunge, an edgier alt-rock movement, and beat- and verse-focused hip-hop. Simply put, despite Teenage Fanclub topping critics' lists and even performing on Saturday Night Live in 1992 (with Jason Priestley hosting!), highly-melodic, pop-classicism just wasn't the order of the day.
Furthermore, the biggest rock stars of the '90s, and even from each side of the pond: Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, Oasis' Liam Gallagher, and Radiohead, all had touted Teenage Fanclub as an absolute favorite. In fact, the Scotsmen somehow managed to avoid superstardom even after having been handpicked by Nirvana to open for them on the European leg of their culture-altering Nevermind tour in 1992, and again after being handpicked by Radiohead to open for them on their culture-altering OK Computer tour, five years later.
It seems that Teenage Fanclub's often stark vulnerability, in-your-face optimism, and lack of more hedonistic lyrical themes, all fly in the face of many of rock's norms and typical 'detached cool.' Thus, it is this approach that has perhaps kept the band from truly 'blowing up.'
The band members have always seemed comfortable with their career track, as well as themselves. They have avoided unnecessary outside distractions, such as ugly band fights, drug problems, punch-outs, crazy quotes, and the like. From the debut record forward, the group has simply remained focused on making the music they wanted to make. As Norman Blake once put it, they never were really "in awe of the music industry." Former band manager Chas Banks further clarified the band's approach, quoting a Geffen records executive that had dealt with the group: "These guys are amazing, you sit and talk with them and they are polite, attentive, and charming. You come out of the meeting totally believing they have 100 percent bought into the idea you've just presented to them; then they go off and do just whatever the f*** they wanted to do in the first place." (The Herald, 2005) Thus, Teenage Fanclub has gone their own way.
After Thirteen, the group's next releases, Grand Prix (1995), Songs from Northern Britain (1997), and (to a lesser extent) Howdy! (2000), were lauded by critics and fans, again, and kept the group selling records in Europe, though less so in the U.S. Grand Prix has some highs of shimmering power pop gold that arguably surpass the highs of Bandwagonesque. The latter two of the above albums are generally more relaxed and more nuanced collections of songs, but still of consistently high quality.
The last three proper Fanclub albums, Man-Made (2005), Shadows (2010), and Here (2016), represent a marked shift in the group's music. It is a more mature power pop, for sure, but they have found a groove that fits them extremely well, including a seamless inclusion of keyboards. The songs are personal, radiant, and uniformly good.
Teenage Fanclub has an apparent equilibrium, and a marked lack of egos. Each of their last five albums, for example, contain exactly twelve songs apiece, with exactly four songs from each songwriter. And since 2000, the group has averaged a seemingly leisurely five years between studio albums, ensuring their highest possible quality. And the albums are so good that no one is complaining.
And as to the songs, themselves? Here is one writer's list of Teenage Fanclub's 25 best, to-date.
25. "Fallin'" (a collaboration with De La Soul)
This early rap-rock track sneaks onto the last slot both for being a very cool song but also just for being unique in the Fanclub catalogue (and the sampled hook also happens to be a nice homage to Tom Petty). The groundbreaking Judgment Night soundtrack paired top rap and rock acts together, and this one worked particularly well. De la Soul is very loose, even looser than usual, while Teenage Fanclub modifies their style to make an open, alt-power pop bedrock for the rappers to do their thing.
24. Born Under a Good Sign
An atypical Fanclub song, with more textured and with a heavier beat (by Fanclub standards), discordant piano notes, and ragged guitar riffs. It is a bit dark and mysterious but, being Teenage Fanclub, you know they weren't born under a bad sign, either.
23. "Catholic Education"
From the debut, a straightforward but standout rocker with a Sonic Youth influence. A bit of a dig at the church, a rare thing for the apolitical band.
22. "Start Again"
A classic, easy-going song about struggling but having optimism. Has of late been the group's regular show-opener, and for good reason.
21. "The Town and the City"
Relentlessly upbeat and earnest, dream/sunshine pop from Howdy! Light piano and synth effects enhance an already great song.
20. "God Knows It's True"
An early Fanclub single, released in-between the first two albums and serving as an obvious bridge between the louder, noisier guitar of the debut and the more melodic sound of the second. Some of their most fun and edgiest guitar work. (And an extremely cool low-budget video, below, as well.)
19. "Thin Air"
Buzzing guitars and Love pondering the meaning of the world and of his life, and embracing every second of it.
18. "I Don't Want Control of You"
Bold, sometimes rather astonishing lyrical observations; a great, country-inflected melody; and a chorus that swells as the song goes along. Not to be confused with Ted Nugent's "Stranglehold" or the Rolling Stones "Under My Thumb".
A rare, but welcome, Fanclub blast of fast, raucous, fuzzed-out guitar.
16. "Dark Clouds"
One of their most somber numbers, and one of the best from their later era. Piano and strings help turn this into a special pop song.
15. "Fallen Leaves"
"Fallen Leaves" sounds, at first, like a perfectly fine example of the group's later-era, grown-up take on power pop, which is a great thing, by itself. Yet, and while Love's vocals are as laid back as can be, the group breaks out a hook that definitively shows that the group can still exhilarate, as well.
14. "What You Do to Me" / 13. "Sidewinder"
Both of these songs are on Bandwagonesque, ergo, they are both gorgeous and timeless power pop.
12. "Song to the Cynic"
A melodic, slow-churning, country-infused response to the state of the music business at the time, and the group's own experiences:
And you won't leave your mark on me
I'm protected by an honesty
A wonderful commitment to integrity.
11. "I Need Direction"
One of the Fanclub's most pure sunshine pop-type tracks, although the group's effort is so outstanding that they elevate the entire genre.
10. "Speed of Light"
A beautiful song built on a strong rhythm knocked out by then-drummer Paul Quinn, and propelled by Byrds-ian guitars and backing Beach Boy "woo-ooh-oohs". Some mildly-spacey synth lines are a perfect touch to set the theme. Along with some deceptively profound advice for the journey through life ("Don't forget to let your feelings go") and references to the universe, it all comes together to become one of the Fanclub's most transcendent songs.
"Speed of Light" is nearly the power pop equivalent of—I will say it—John Lennon's "Across the Universe".
9. "Star Sign"
A fantastic prolonged intro (make sure you're listening to the album version)—some rare delayed gratification in the world of pop music, and rewarded with hyped-up, jangling guitars, easy vocals, and rapid-fire rhythm changes.
A gem from Grand Prix whose peaceful, quiet start turns into a spectacular, loud power pop burst. Love has often written about his love for the city (fun fact: he has a degree in urban and regional planning), and this near-perfect ode to nights out in dance clubs is the best.
7. "About You"
Ringing guitars and an amazing melody and harmonies (yes, there is a pattern, here). Love's voice is surprisingly strong given the lilting melody, making the whole thing come even more alive.
6. "Fear of Flying"
A sluggish rhythm, Neil-Young-gone-power-pop guitars, and easily some of the Fanclub's coolest lyrics:
This is your one-way ticket so don't fuck it up
Your flight is boarding and you're running out of luck
Add a new vibration to the situation
Add a new vibration
To top it off, listeners can get perfectly lost in the extended outro of the Dylan-esque Hammond organ and the hypnotic and endless hey-hey-heys.
A standout among standouts on Bandwagonesque. Blake's vocals and lyrics are so good that he makes what sounds like a really tough situation and/or a break-up sound doable, and even heartachingly beautiful. Some writers had noted when Bandwagonesque came out that it was so indebted to Big Star, who only recorded three LPs, that this could be called "Big Star's Fourth" album. That may be nearly as much of a compliment to Big Star. In fact, Big Star's Alex Chilton sang this song with Teenage Fanclub backing him in a recorded rehearsal (the audio is on YouTube).
4. "Don't Look Back"
One of the highlights of Grand Prix and one of the group's greatest ballads. Fantastic, classic pop, pure and simple.
3. "Everything Flows"
"…we would tour with them and watch them and we'd think, man, if only we could have been that fucking good… all I wanted to do was write a song as good as the Teenage Fanclub." -- Dave Grohl
Trying to put any other ragged but melodic, punk-ish song even in the same sentence as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (1992) would no doubt lead to derision, as it should. Except for this song. Live. And live as shown in the below clip from the 1992 Reading Festival. From Teenage Fanclub's 1988 debut, "Everything Flows" did not capture a mass consciousness the way "Teen Spirit" did but with this song the group almost out-Nirvana-ed Nirvana, four years before the latter went number one.
As the live footage helps illustrate, this is a deeply-visceral rock song, but utterly mesmerizing, at the same time. It is a perfect fusion of melody and warm, squalling guitars. The band has the crowd bouncing, moving and swaying but particularly interesting is that at 3:21 in the video, those in the mosh circle seem to be a bit confused as they began to realize that this is not your typical angst-y punk. Instead, things are indeed just flowing.
2. "The Concept"
The opening song and centerpiece of Bandwagonesque begins with some feedback and some instantly memorable lines:
She wears denim wherever she goes
Says she's gonna get some records by the Status Quo
Oh yeah, Oh yeah
It's a bit tongue-in-cheek, but "The Concept" is actually a quite clear character study of maybe anyone in a "scene". Blake goes on to sing rather thoughtfully in describing a girl who really is pretty cool and hip—though maybe a bit too much for her own good.
The song is over six minutes long and gets better as it goes. The initial, British Invasion-styled guitar pop gives way to an understated, ringing, and surprisingly bluesy, guitar solo by McGinley. At around the three-minute mark, the entire narrative gives way to a series of radiant choruses of ooh-ooh-oohs, and then the song is a gorgeous, fading instrumental for the last several minutes. Thus, the hipster cool gave way to radiant rock guitar, which gave way to genuine pop bliss. It is a great, retro song that sounds as fresh today as it did in 1991, and it is still Teenage Fanclub's de facto anthem.
1. "Sparky's Dream"
Yes, "The Concept" could arguably be put in the top spot, and that song is probably more dynamic than the pure pop rush of "Sparky's Dream". But Teenage Fanclub is a power pop group, and "Sparky's Dream" simply embodies everything great about the genre. That is, the song is a culmination of drums, guitars and harmonies, into what is about as close to pure musical joy as possible, fully sustained for 3:18. "That summer feeling…," indeed.
There is something interesting and odd about watching Love sing "Sparky's Dream" (below), that brings to mind something else about Teenage Fanclub. When Love is singing, he shows virtually no emotion on his face, whatsoever; it's virtually blank at times. Yet this brilliant music is emanating out.
In fact, the group itself is not exactly known for wild, theatrical stage shows, guitar solos, or even for any of the members drawing undue attention to themselves, at all. McGinley, in particular, is known for being particularly introverted and nearly motionless during shows; the rest of the band is not much different. Not unlike their democratic divvying of songwriting and lead singing shares, when performing, the three Fanclub lead singers stand in a parallel line, equidistant from one another—thus no one is really out in front as the "front man". Love is always to their left, McGinley the right, and Blake in the center.
First of all, none of that is to say that they are not a fantastic live band. They are. But the point is that what could be a negative for some bands is actually part of what helps make Teenage Fanclub so remarkable. The group's only real purpose, like any band's (theoretically), is for all of its members, working as a unit, to produce the greatest songs possible. For Teenage Fanclub, it's as if any posturing or self-aggrandizement would only distract the band and thus detract from that ultimate objective. So, all of the excesses are eliminated, as much as possible.
"Sparky's Dream" then seems to best illustrate what happens when a band can in fact remove the unnecessary, i.e. the egos, from the equation, yet while still being a bold and focused rock band. This is when some real magic can, and does, happen. You would think that this is something that everyone would want to see become more widespread, whether fans of power pop, or not, and now as much as ever.
Listen to the bulk of these songs on our Spotify playlist.
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