“My Mind Is Full Of Many Things Resembling A Thought”
For a number of reasons the bands and records you fall in love with when you’re 17 have a habit of staying with you. As time unfolds, however, you almost always find that the bands involved either split up, or else lose their shine in some other way. Either that, or you and your tastes change and you leave those once cherished records behind.
You will occasionally revisit them, either by accident or design, and when that happens you may find warmth and comfort in the memories of people and places they evoke, or you may find yourself perplexed at the idea of once being so enamoured with this dreadful racket. And sometimes it will be a mixture of both.
As you grow older you will fall in love with new bands less and less often, which of course makes new discoveries all the more pleasing when they do occur. But it’s never quite the same as it was when you were 17, and I think that this might just be one of those mysterious, universal forces that holds pop music together.
I was 17-years-old when Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque album came out, in November 1991, and I loved it straight away. I also loved them. They had the slacker thing — so cool at the time — down pat, but more than that they seemed to be writing better tunes than any of the other bands on the scene. They appeared also to be fuelled entirely by charm, wit and humour, rather than bravado, or anger, or any of the other things that make bands tick. And they sang in harmony, which is probably what really sold me.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Teenage Fanclub had not only become my favourite band of 1991, but they had become a band I would hold dear for the next 25 years, and beyond. They never lost their shine in my eyes. So, when they announced earlier this year that they were playing 3 consecutive nights in Birmingham this November there was never any question over whether I would be there. I always go and see Teenage Fanclub — they are my favourite band. Since I bought those tickets in April, however, there has been another announcement. One of the three key members, Gerard Love, is stepping down and the band will continue without him. It’s not known yet whether this is a temporary or a permanent thing, but it nevertheless gives these shows some extra resonance.
Whichever way things turn out it certainly feels as though something is coming to an end, and as the gigs approach I’ve found myself thinking quite a lot about Teenage Fanclub, and how they’ve been a part of my life for over a quarter of a century in a way that no other band has. In no particular order, then, some memories that — before the shows even happen — the three nights in Birmingham this weekend have brought to mind.
— In the year 2000, at around the time Teenage Fanclub released Howdy, I worked with a Scottish guy called Jem. He was a nice fella, and we had similar taste in music, so we got on. One day he announced he was moving to Manchester, and off he went. A couple of months later he dropped me a line out of the blue to say that his pal, Campbell, would soon be moving to Birmingham and didn’t know a soul. We were put in touch via email and — much like Jem — Cam and I bonded over music. We were pen-pals for a while, I suppose, and the first time we actually met was essentially a blind date. It involved a trip to Wolverhampton Civic Hall to see Teenage Fanclub. “We got pissed and hi-fived every chorus”, Cam recalled recently, which is pretty much how I remember it too. We’ve been best pals pretty much ever since that night. He was best man at my wedding. We’ve also been playing in bands together pretty much since that night. At the moment we’re both in Independent Country, knocking out country versions of classic indie tunes to people who get pissed and hi-five the choruses. Somewhat inevitably, Teenage Fanclub’s Star Sign is on our first record.
— In August 1995 I was on holiday in America. Upon arriving in San Francisco I immediately went for a stroll, and I happened to be wearing an Aston Villa shirt. I hadn’t walked more than a few hundred yards from the doors of my hotel when I heard a Brummie voice shout, “Up the Villa”. I looked across the street to see a man unloading guitar amps from a tour bus. He was a roadie for Teenage Fanclub, who happened to be in town that night supporting Weezer. Within 15 minutes of arriving in one of the coolest cities in the world I’d somehow ended up on the guest list for my favourite band, and they played a great show full of songs from Grand Prix. Along with a handful of others I hung around like a fanboy after the show and got to meet Norman, Gerry and Raymond. Not a bad start to a holiday.
— I walked around New York City for a week in 2005 with only a handful of albums on my MP3 player, one of which was Man Made by TFC. This was another US holiday and on this one I walked miles, on my own, visiting various places on Manhattan island, thinking nothing of a 30 or 40 block stroll between places as I soaked up that amazing city. I did not want to miss a second of it by taking the subway - and in any case I couldn’t fathom out how it worked and was too embarrassed to ask. One day I walked from Ground Zero to the Guggenheim Museum, and then decided I had to walk across 110th street. Whenever I hear a song from Man Made I can see skyscrapers looming in the cold, autumn sunshine.
— In the early 2000s I was sharing a house. I lent the boyfriend of one of the girls I was sharing with my vinyl copy of Songs From Northern Britain. They split up before he gave it back, and of course I never saw him or it again. I bought a replacement copy on Discogs a few years ago for £130. It is the most expensive record I’ve ever bought, and I paid it not only to recomplete my TFC collection, but also to teach myself a lesson: never lend out your records, kids.
— In December 2002 I got a call from a musician pal called Simon Alpin. We’d met a few years previously when one of the bands Cam and I played in did a John Peel session. We’d asked Julian Wilson from the band Grand Drive to play keyboards on the session, and he had suggested that Simon sit in also. Simon turned up and played beautiful dobro parts on 4 songs he’d never heard before. In 2002 he was playing keyboards for Teenage Fanclub, and so most of us from the band went to the Birmingham Academy and watched what was basically a greatest hits set as TFC were at the time promoting the 4766 Seconds — A Shortcut To Teenage Fanclub compilation. Our ‘in’ with Simon got us backstage after the show and we somewhat giddily met our heroes, trying and failing to pretend that this was a run-of-the-mill Sunday night. Norman Blake spent a lot of time showing us his iPod, then a miraculous, mythical new invention that none of us had yet clapped eyes on. There are some grainy photos from the dressing room that night, and in them Cam and me and the others are grinning like idiots.
— I was at Glastonbury in 1993 and did not get one of the hundreds of Thirteen footballs that were kicked into the crowd. I occasionally look on eBay to see if one will pop up, but it never does.
— When my boys were born and we were discussing names, I only half-jokingly floated the idea of Norman Gerard Raymond as a name/middle name combination. On both occasions my wife was having none of it. But I did manage to get Levon (as in Helm) as a middle name for the youngest.
— There have been several other gigs down the years. Like the one in 2010 on the Shadows tour with my pal Jez, who was also with me when we both saw the band for the first time, back in 1992. Or the one and only time I ever went to the Reading Festival, also in 1992. I went along with my friend Clare, armed with day tickets for what was a pretty incredible bill that included Nirvana, Nick Cave, and Pavement, alongside TFC. I lost touch with Clare at some point in the 1990s, in the pre-internet/mobile phone days when you relied on an address book and landlines, but last year I discovered a Facebook message she’d sent me in 2013 after tracking me down. I’d somehow missed this message for several years, but eventually responded. During the course of our first conversation in over 20 years we remembered amongst other things that day in the cold, wet and mud.
All of the above and more will flash through my mind this weekend as I sing along to some of the 250-odd songs that have been with me all through the years. And, as I always seem to do when I’m listening to Teenage Fanclub, I’ll be trying and sometimes managing to find a fourth harmony part.
I was always a sucker for harmony, you see, and that’s probably at the root of why I hitched myself to the Teenage Fanclub wagon. I’d grown up listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and the Mamas and the Papas, The Beatles, and hoovered up any group that could make that vocal magic happen. As a younger teenager I had been more into The Housemartins and The Proclaimers than I was The Smiths (The Smiths penny would eventually drop in my 20s, and of course I kicked myself for having missed them at the time). I also loved country and country harmony in particular, but the idea of someone like me making that sort of noise seemed to be ridiculous. This was music not necessarily from outer space, but certainly from somewhere far outside the Birmingham ring road. Yet, here was a band from the same island as me who were making music cut from a similar cloth to the records I was — as a 17-year-old, teenage fan — growing to love, and growing a collection of that continues to grow.
With those harmonies of theirs, Teenage Fanclub were my entry point to so much more: Big Star, Gram Parsons, Gene Clark, and so on and on, down the endless pop rabbit hole. And I’m still going deeper.
That’s the beauty of pop music — you can never get to the bottom of it.