FORMED IN GLASGOW as the '80s waned, Teenage Fanclub had the confusing distinction of being anointed "the best band in the world" by Kurt Cobain and then, years later, "the second best band in the world" by Oasis' Noel Gallagher. The quartet spent time on Creation Records, was handpicked to tour with Radiohead, and in 1991 Spin magazine infamously declared their third record Bandwagonesque to be the top album of the year (over Nevermind, Loveless, Achtung Baby, and Spiderland). It's a decision they surely regret today. But I don't.
Purchased at a strip mall Wherehouse Music that has long since gone out of business, stripped of its shrinkwrap on the long bus ride home, my cassette copy of Bandwagonesque was treated with tender reverence in my 13-year-old hands. It rested in my Walkman during junior high (biding time before soundtracking my walk home through suburban tract homes). It was also omnipresent in my bedroom boombox and the cassette deck of anyone who would relinquish control of their stereo to me. It never seemed to matter that their lyrics of relentless twentysomething angst and odes to chasing Scottish birds had little to do with the daily existence of a teenager living in the States (most notably the references to sex, "Went to bed but I'm not ready/Baby I've been fucked already" from "Alcoholiday," or to drugs, "Says she don't do drugs but she does the pill" from "The Concept"). I was hooked.
It wasn't long before my copy of Bandwagonesque died a death only an overused cassette could, coughing up its inner workings in long curled ribbons of dark magnetic tape. All told, I've purchased Bandwagonesque three times—twice on cassette, once on CD—which led down the slippery path of collecting bootlegs (the Live 105 Ventura Theater show from '91 is a personal favorite), poorly screened homemade T-shirts, and even a trip across state lines to see the band play California nine years ago (when asked the last time they played Oregon, singer Norman Blake was dumbfounded). This unwavering devotion triggered in me an avalanche of varied musical obsessions that still continues to this day, yet not a single band could ever have the same impact on me as Teenage Fanclub did back then.
Other than slightly thinner hairlines and thicker waistlines, Teenage Fanclub remains absolutely unchanged from their early '90s heyday. While their pristine pop songs have been diverted along the way—from the overly ambitious Thirteen to their Jad Fair collaboration Words of Wisdom and Hope—they have never strayed from their intended path. Credit this to the fact that the band sounded old even when they were young, as they eschewed grunge's ragged theatrics and all but ignored every single passing trend that soon followed. With the singing and songwriting duties evenly divided between Blake, Raymond McGinley, and Gerard Love, the band casually assembled harmony-heavy pop songs untethered to a certain time, place, or era. In Teenage Fanclub's universe the musical spectrum runs from Big Star to the Byrds and finally to Neil Young. After that holy trinity, there is little else.
To this day Bandwagonesque is their most iconic recording, but the stretch of full-lengths that followed—Thirteen, Grand Prix, Songs from Northern Britain—signaled a phenomenal run from a band in its prime. The contentious Thirteen, supposedly named as an ode to the iconic Big Star song, never resonated with fans as expected, although the 19-song Japanese version (again with the bootlegs) is a more complete recording. "I think if we could do one record again it would be Thirteen," explains Blake. "We took a long time to make that, probably too long."
With the recent Shadows, Teenage Fanclub continues growing more comfortable in their sound as time progresses, coming to terms with their role as power-pop elder statesmen and one of the few '90s alt-rock acts to never have bottomed out along the way. "I think the only thing we ever want to do is make a better record than the last one," says Blake. "Really, that's the only ambition that we have. We're pretty pleased with the level of success that we've had, and sure, it would always be good to sell more records, but there's not much we can do about that."
Always a bridesmaid to pop chart matrimony, Teenage Fanclub have bounced around various record labels, never able to match the momentum they achieved in the early '90s. Now currently on respected indie Merge in America and self-releasing their titles overseas, the band just seems content, a welcome change in the wake of decades of uncertainty. "Our initial objective was to make a record, and we've now made 10 of them," says Blake. "We're pretty satisfied with what we've done."
They're not alone.