Like the short kid stuck in the back row of the fourth grade class photo, Teenage Fanclub quietly lurked around the fringe of the hugely popular bands of the 90’s, trying to squeeze themselves into the picture. Their name was known, but they never got the same recognition as their contemporaries. Radiohead and other huge acts used to share the bill with Teenage Fanclub, so what gives? Were they just not as good, or did their ship just never come in? Honestly, I think it came down to the fact that they just didn’t fit in the right genre.
The 1990’s saw the death of 80’s disco-inspired synth-pop at the hands of the crunching guitar stomp of grunge and a blossoming crop of guitar-centric rock bands that were quickly categorized as “alternative”. As the decade rolled on, the alternative music scene became more of a commodity than a musical genre. Just as rock started to fall away, the electronic music scene exploded. DJ and rave culture pushed the long-haired guitar gods aside and claimed the throne….at least for a few years. Through it all, Teenage Fanclub was, arguably, the best power-pop band of the 1990’s. Teenage Fanclub are the modern-day Big Star. In the angst-ridden 90’s, power-pop just wasn’t tough enough or emotionally damaged enough to break into the big-time.
Not that they didn’t have their chances. The band’s 1991 release, Bandwagonesque was a favorite of critics and tastemakers alike. Bandwagonesque was one of the first records to get caught up in the major label punk/indie land-grab. The album sported some crunchy riffs as well as catchy power-pop grooves. The record was a bit disjointed in places, but it showed a band with a ton of promise; however, the public’s tastes changed with the moods of MTV. Without a strong MTV hit, Thirteen, the follow-up to Bandwagonesque, didn’t stand a chance, and 1995’s Grand Prix was an afterthought for all save the dedicated, long-time Teenage Fanclub devotees. With the band quickly locked out of the mainstream, Teenage Fanclub quietly released their masterpiece, 1997’s Songs From Northern Britain.
Grand Prix was Teenage Fanclub’s party album. Like your favorite drunk at any good party, Grand Prix stumbles between feel-good reveling and bleak moments of self reflection. Songs From Northern Britain is the sober morning after. Taken start to finish, Songs from Northern Britain plays like a movie soundtrack. “Start Again” opens the album and swells with majesty, hope and promise. The imaginary film characters make their way through the plot buoyed by gems like “I Don’t Want Control of You,” “Ain’t that Enough,” and “Can’t Feel My Soul.” There’s the sublime “Planets” that would clearly be paired with some sort of nostalgic montage, followed up by the protagonists crashing back to earth with “It’s A Bad World.”
Resolution begins to surface with “Take the Long Way Around.” The whole imaginary film comes to its crescendo with the pinnacle of the album, “Your Love is the Place Where I Come From.” Not only is this the finest point on Songs From Northern Britain, but for me, this track encapsulates all that Teenage Fanclub was and has become. “Speed of Light,” the album’s closing track, harkens back to the majestic good feelings of the album opener, but the song feels like it’s been on a tough but necessary journey… a little worn out, a lot wiser, and so much better for having taken the trip. This song would be perfect for the closing credits.
Songs From Northern Britain sounds mature. The album captures the feeling of having experienced the dark side of life but still holds firm to the belief that life is hard, but life is good. I think that’s why this album is so special. It’s perfect for any stage in life; whether you’re up or down or just in a holding pattern somewhere, Songs From Northern Britain sounds great. This is music for everyday, and in all dimensions of our lives there is the everyday.
Although they never garnered the legions of fans most believed they would in the Bandwagonesque days, Teenage Fanclub maintains a dedicated following. Songs From Northern Britain is a classic that is slowly starting to get the praise it deserves. Although it will probably never have the same reputation for greatness as Bandwagonesque, it remains a lasting portrait of a band that had mastered their craft and dominated their genre while the world buzzed by, singing along with the latest Third Eye Blind hit.