Teenage Fanclub – Bandwagonesque

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

I recall fondly the way MTV VJ Dave Kendall would pronounce Bandwagonesque, which he did often when I was in college. It felt like the video for “The Concept” was always on 120 Minutes, and honestly, it’s not even in my top 7 songs from this album. Maybe not even top 8. I would have much rather had “Star Sign” – the song that first attracted me to Teenage Fanclub – get all that attention. 

What I Think of This Album

This is technically the third Teenage Fanclub album, but I think of it as the second one because the true second album – The King – was essentially a joke recording, supposedly made in one night (after the sessions for Bandwagonesque were completed). The fact that Bandwagonesque was released roughly three months after The King tells us which one is the real album.

Anyway, this is the album, produced by Don Fleming (who also worked with Hole and Sonic Youth), that made Teenage Fanclub famous. Bandwagonesque was the band’s defining moment in more ways than one. Apart from being the album that broke them in the US, it also set the framework for future TFC albums, with split songwriting, a greater emphasis on harmonies and melody, and the songwriter taking lead vocals on his songs. The third (second) album also moved permanently away from the sludgier A Catholic Education in that it evinced a predilection for love songs, and this time the guitars chime and jangle as much as they churn and distort.

Norman Blake provided four tracks, bassist Gerry Love five, guitarist Raymond McGinley got his feet wet with just one, and then Love and drummer Brendan O’Hare collaborated on one, with the entire band getting credit for the throwaway “Satan.” The quality here is so high it is difficult to decide whether Love or Blake comes out ahead. I might have to give the nod to Gerry Love, but I can see the argument the other way.

First, “Star Sign” is impeccable, a Byrdsy treat about superstition that comes to life after a lengthy, almost infuriating intro. The rising bass part and the “oh well” nature of the lyrics play off O’Hare’s near-manic drumming and the tape flutter effect near the end, where everything goes out of tune for a hot second is fucking awesome (this was mysteriously eliminated from later versions of the song – I have listened to them all, and even communicated with Brendan O’Hare’s spouse on Facebook about it). Love also contributes the beautiful and enigmatic  “December” (what the fuck does “I wanted to assassinate December” mean?), with perfect strings from BMX Bandit Joe McAlinden (a band Blake was also in). This track admittedly does bring to mind Big Star’s “September Gurls.”

Love gets religious on “Guiding Star,” also again benefitting from McAlinden’s arrangement, which flows like honey out of the speakers on the harmonised vocals of the band members, and a nice little guitar riff at the end. Casting that aside, Love turns in the psychedelic, swirling instrumental “Is This Music?,” on which O’Hare wears out the bass drum while McGinley and Blake’s guitars weave around each other and climb towards the heavens. I don’t much care for “Pet Rock,” but the horn part is cool (McAlinden once more), even if the guitar solo is a bit too conventional for me.

Blake, though, gives us the so-stupid-its-perfect “What You Do To Me,” possibly the most reductive love song in the world; the guitars, vocals, and melody suggest the Beatles, Beach Boys, and the Byrds all locked in the same room. Blake’s other stunning contribution is the fantastic (and fantastically titled) “Alcoholiday.” This is a guitar showcase, yes, but the sighing harmonies and the lyrics of ambivalent love (including the dismissive “Baby, I’ve been fucked already”) are stellar; meanwhile, the solo at the end should have led to an invite from Neil Young to join Crazy Horse.

I will give Blake most credit for “Sidewinder,” another simple but perfect love song with silly lyrics (“When you’re ticking / I’m your tock), this time aimed at a drummer (“You look so cute behind your kit / . . . / Hit the snare you know it makes me smile”), and another casually enamel-stripping solo from McGinley. “Metal Baby” is probably Blake’s weakest offering, reinforcing the notion from A Catholic Education’s “Heavy Metal” and “Heavy Metal II” that this band does not know the first thing about metal. Blake also wrote “The Concept,” which I never cared for that much. The feedback opening is cool, and I dig the chord progression. McGinley plays one excellent solo (the first one) and one good solo (duh). And I like the shift to the dreamy, weightless, wordless harmonies. And I really like it when the strings take center stage for a few seconds, right before the second solo. But while there are a lot of things about this song I like a lot, it doesn’t come together for me. Part of it, I think, is that it’s just too goddamn long.

McGinley’s “I Don’t Know” is not surprisingly, a riffy little affair with some great vocal harmonies, and a fine melody.

I dispute the inescapable comparisons to Big Star. I dispute and reject them. First, these Scots have much better voices than Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. If there is any complaint about the Fannies’ vocals, it’s that they can seem a bit lackadaisical. Big Star, on the other hand, often relied on bluesy throat-straining – the opposite of lackadaisical – which you will never hear on a TFC album. Second, there is not that much Big Star that actually sounds like this. More to the point, there is a lot of Big Star that doesn’t – “She’s a Mover,” “Mod Lang,” “O My Soul,” “Don’t Lie to Me.” Teenage Fanclub has a fairly consistent sound, whereas Big Star tended to wander from style to style. Yes, this music owes a debt to “September Gurls” and the last half of “Daisy Girl,” but to claim this is the equivalent of the fourth Big Star album is insane.

The cover art was intended to be a snide comment on the music industry, cheaply put together using clipart by Sharon Fitzgerald (McGinley’s girlfriend at the time). Little did TFC realize that Gene Simmons of KISS had apparently trademarked bags of money with dollar signs on them (?????) and decided to sue.

The yellow spine of my CD has faded to white, but I will never replace it (because I need that moment in “Star Sign” that has been erased from history).

The Best Thing About This Album

“Star Sign,” now and forever.

Release Date

November, 1991

The Cover Art

It has grown on me. The color is garish and the image is silly, and at one point I really didn’t like it. I still don’t love it, but it doesn’t bother me anymore.

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