Features Music Interviews
Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake
In Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz a grizzled artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them.
1When you play the Teenage Fanclub song ‘Satan’ backwards, what message appears?
“I know it was Brendan [O’Hare, Teenage Fanclub drummer from 1989 to 1994] who did that, but I’ve absolutely no idea.”
WRONG. It says: ‘God bless my cotton socks. I am wearing a blue shirt.’
“There you go! If you had anything to do with Devil worship or the occult, you had to have a backwards message on your record. Ours was more benign that the usual Satanic messages!”
2Who covered Teenage Fanclub’s 1991 album ‘Bandwagonesque’ in its entirety in 2017?
“Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard.”
“While he was making that album, he’d email me asking what a chord is on the second chorus of a song etc, and I’d reply: ‘Ben, I’ve no idea! I can’t remember!’ (Laughs) It was an amazing honour and he did a good job. We brought him onstage to sing the Bandwagonesque song ‘The Concept’ in 2017.”
Gene Simmons of Kiss attempted to sue you over the artwork for ‘Bandwagonesque’’s record sleeve. Ever run into him afterwards?
“We never spoke to him but when we played Saturday Night Live in 1992, a woman entered the dressing room and said: ‘I’m Gene Simmons lawyer. He’s in the studio and asked me to wish you luck on your performance’. It was probably a bit of sport for him. We used a clip art image of a bag of money for ‘Bandwagonesque’, but he seemed to think he had the copyright to it. We paid him a nominal fee but I wish we hadn’t. So there was no talk of a collaboration – and we’re certainly never going to cover any Kiss songs any time soon!”
3Which Teenage Fanclub song does Charlize Theron sing in the 2011 film Young Adult?
“I’ve never seen the movie, but that there’s footage of Charlize Theron singing one of our songs is the kind of thing that would have blown my mind as a 14-year-old in Bellshill. Having to sing the song a million times while shooting the film means she probably knows the words better than I do!”
Any other unexpected pop culture references you’ve enjoyed?
“We’re mentioned in Bret Easton Ellis’s novel Glamorama and my friend Joe Pernice wrote a semi -autobiographical novel, It Feels So Good When I Stop, which involves a teenage sexual encounter and a Teenage Fanclub T-shirt. I won’t go into details! The band, I Was A King – who we’re friendly with – have a song called ‘Norman Bleik‘.”
4Teenage Fanclub were signed to Creation. Who plays the label boss Alan McGee in his recent biopic Creation Stories?
“It’s the Scottish actor who was in Trainspotting, but I can’t remember his name. I’ll resist Googling it! (Laughs)”
WRONG. It’s Ewen Bremner.
“I haven’t seen Creation Stories, but being on the label was amazing and pretty random. When we were making ‘Bandwagonesque’, Primal Scream were recording ‘Screamadelica‘ and My Bloody Valentine were making ‘Loveless‘, and Alan and [fellow label boss] Dick Green put all of their money into making those records. At least one of them remortgaged their home. That’s how committed they were to the music. I remember playing London and Alan inviting us to the Creation office the next morning to give us some records. We got there and had a few beers, then Alan suddenly says: ‘OK, everyone, phone’s off! We’re having a party!’. Two hours later, there’s 80 people all off their heads dancing on the roof. Bobby Gillespie and Felt’s Lawrence are there, and we don’t get home for another day-and a-half (Laughs)”
McGee claims you were “total nut jobs” back in the day and that he once stole a boat from a posh hotel with you while you were on five E’s…
“(Laughs) That’s an amalgamation of a few different incidents! We had our moments. On our early tours we drove round in a transit van that didn’t have any windows, with a mattress chucked in the back. One lucky person sat up front with the driver and everybody else bounced around like popcorn in the back of the van.”
McGee also said his memoir that Teenage Fanclub could have become massive in America were it not for your “streak of self-sabotage”. Is that fair?
“Who knows? I don’t know if we could have ever been a really big band in America. When ‘Bandwagonesque’ came out, we were on Saturday Night Live and hot through our association to DCG Records. who had signed Sonic Youth and Nirvana.* But I don’t think we were slick enough to ever be big in America. I don’t think enough people would have connected with our aesthetic. In terms of self-sabotage… I don’t know, I think we’ve always just done our own thing. We don’t have any regrets – we’re happy with the way things went.”
*Famously, ‘Bandwagonesque’ beat Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ to be awarded Album of the Year by US music magazine Spin in 1991.
5What number are you holding on your second NME cover?
“Was it in 1993 and we’re holding the date? Am I holding a 9?”
WRONG. But close! It was 1992 and you’re holding the 2.
“I also have my trousers down. The photographer probably said: ‘Can we make this look more interesting?’ It was probably the day after the party at Creation! (Laughs)”
Talking of the music press, you once took out a “fuck-you” advert for Teenage Fanclub’s 1995 album ‘Grand Prix’ in now-defunct music weekly Melody Maker…
“Melody Maker had given us a scathing and nasty review for it, and we wanted to react to it humorously. So Creation spent £3,000 taking an advert out on their back-page based on the old “eight out of 10 cats prefer Whiskas” cat food commercials, where we put nine glowing quotes from reviews and then the worst quote from the Melody Maker review under the headline: ‘Nine out of ten cats prefer Teenage Fanclub.’ All just to make a point!” (Laughs)
6Teenage Fanclub recorded the track ‘Fallin’’ with De La Soul for 1995 action film Judgement Night. Name any star of the film.
“Never seen it! I’m not coming across as much of a cinema buff here, but it was widely panned. Denis Leary?”
CORRECT. Among others, you could have had: Emilio Estevez, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Jeremy Piven.
“It was a fun collaboration. The concept was they matched rap acts with alternative rock bands, and we were fans of De La Soul. They flew over to record just outside of Manchester and we spent a couple of hours getting to know each other before [De La Soul member] Maseo came up the breakbeat, we wrote some musical guitar parts and they came up the raps, and it was done in 24 hours. A couple of months later, we shot a crazy video with them in a Chicago high school. They were quiet, down-to-earth, humble people. I listen to that song occasionally – it still sounds good and holds up pretty well.”
7Which frontman said onstage in 2015 that when he was a drummer in a ’90s band, he would watch Teenage Fanclub play and wish he could write songs as good as you?
“Oh! Possibly Dave Grohl.”
“He invited us to support Foo Fighters when they played Old Trafford Cricket Ground in Manchester and said it then. We’ve known Dave for a long time. We did the European leg of Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ tour in 1992, which was pandemonium and phenomenons like that don’t happen often. We’d know Nirvana from their ‘Bleach’-period and they remained the same. They were still down-to-earth; maybe overwhelmed by what was happening. I’ve great memories of us hanging out in a playpark eating ice cream in Stockholm after a soundcheck. Even though Kurt [Cobain] had some issues, he was generally happy and in a good space then.”
Kurt Cobain is sometimes credited as calling Teenage Fanclub “the best band in the world” and claiming if he could be in any other band, it would be in your pre-Fannies group BMX Bandits. Ever speak to him about it?
“Not directly. But we weren’t even his favourite band from Glasgow. That was The Vaselines. I was with [Vaselines frontman] Eugene Kelly when he met Kurt on the ‘Bleach’ tour because he’d covered their songs and asked them to reform to play a show. Kurt was wearing heavy eyeliner and he had a real fan moment, and it was an amazing thing to witness. He had his troubles and issues with drug addiction, but behind all that was a young guy from Aberdeen who loved music, was friendly and enthusiastic and the thing I remember most about him is his lovely smile.”
8According to BMX Bandits leader Duglas T. Stewart, you once both played a pre-Pretty Flowers gig under which controversial band name that got you banned from a school?
“I don’t know. This might just be something that Duglas made up.”
WRONG. He said in the documentary Teenage Superstars you performed under the moniker ‘Child Molesters’ – covering Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Persuasion’. Cripes!
“So I’ve heard, but I think that’s one of his apocryphal stories. Even we wouldn’t have taken it that far to arrange a gig at a school under that name. I’m pretty sure that didn’t happen, but it’s a good story! We were dark – but not quite that dark!”
What were those days like?
“Fun. Duglas and I were both at school together and we’d make an album every couple of days. There wouldn’t be much instrumentation involved, just hitting Tupperware pots. We had many crazy band concepts – the one you mentioned wasn’t one of them! We started busking in town and things went from there. Duglas and Sean Dickson took off with BMX bandits and I did some writing for that first record and moved on to Teenage Fanclub.”
9What’s track eight of Teenage Fanclub’s new album ‘Endless Arcade’?
“It’s called ‘The Sun Won’t Shine on Me’”
WRONG. It’s ‘I’m More Inclined’.
(Laughs) “I thought I’d worked it out there! That’s another one wrong!”
It’s fair to say ‘Endless Arcade’ your most personal album yet…
“Definitely. I went through a separation in my life. As a songwriter, you’re always looking for something to write about and a traumatic event in your life is material. It was cathartic for me to write about what I’d been experiencing in my personal life. There was also a line-up change in the group – Gerry [Love, co-frontman] left the band after being with us for a long time and writing songs, so Dave McGowan switched to bass and Euros Childs joined on keyboards. So we all felt fresh and invigorated when we went into the studio to record. It still feels like Teenage Fanclub, though – the band’s been through seismic changes in the past, and it always just feels like a continuation.”
10What total do you get if you add up both ‘Heavy Metal’ title numbers from Teenage Fanclub’s 1991 album ‘The King?
“The songs are ‘Heavy Metal 6’ and ‘Heavy Metal 9’ so …15?”
CORRECT. The album is always presented as a contractual obligation album that you recorded hastily to escape your Matador deal…
“Which it wasn’t at all. We were just all messing around having fun. It was our day off making ‘Bandwagonesque’ with producer Don Fleming and we had nowhere to go so we just went into the studio and started improvising and recording an album in 24 hours. Our cover of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ was on there as well, which was just a game to see if we could record a cover without looking up the lyrics. It was album within-an-album. We asked Alan McGee to put out 500 copies, and he pressed way more than that. It’s fun.”
Did Madonna ever hear the cover?
“I’m sure she would have been mightily impressed if she had (Laughs). Let’s just say we took it back to basics! She never got in touch – sadly, we weren’t asked to be her backing band on her next LP!”
Bonus question! For half a point: Who once mimed an entire album for you?
“We were recording in a studio above where Oasis were making ‘Be Here Now’, and Liam had just finished the mixes and invited us down, got us drinks and played us the entire album while miming all the songs for us and miming Noel’s guitar solos. (Laughs) It was quite something!”
The verdict: 5.5/10
“My memory was tested by NME over 10 years ago and I got 9/10. This seems as fair reflection of brain cells lost since then!”
-Teenage Fanclub’s new song ‘In Our Dreams‘ is available now. The attendant album, ‘Endless Arcade’ is released on April 30. The band tour the UK in September