Becoming famous overnight can be hell. Just ask Nirvana. Or Teenage Fanclub.
Two years ago, both groups were struggling indie bands whose latest records, while not stiffs, were not setting the world on fire.
Still, these discs, Bleach and A Catholic Education, respectively, were solid enough to warrant A&R flybys by several major labels. Armed with unprecedented six-figure deals, the David Geffen Company signed both bands. Nirvana paid off first, with the release of Nevermind. Three months later, Teenage Fanclub's debut, Bandwagonesque, also hit. Both bands went from unknown to unstoppable in six months.
Although it's not his favorite subject, Teenage Fanclub guitarist Raymond McGinley admits that there are spooky coincidences between his band and Nirvana. In yet another twist, the two bands will go on tour together this summer.
I can't speak for Nirvana, but we thought we could achieve a certain degree of success with Bandwagonesque. But we thought it would build, not explode," McGinley says, talking by telephone from his home in Glasgow, Scotland. Explode" means he has 20 more telephone interviews to do that day: ten in Scandinavia and ten in Greece. Don't worry about time," McGinley says affably, although he admits the Greek interviews will take forever."
The writer asks the translator a question, then he asks you, then you answer him, then he translates back to Greek. After an hour, you've got two questions answered."
As impressive as ten Greek interviews are, all of it's still small potatoes compared to the now well-worn Nirvana saga. Nirvana has gone beyond mere popularity explosion into full-scale thermomusical detonation. In an odd way, the group has become a sociological phenomenon-the first raw, punk-derived band to strike a chord and sell records in Smalltown, USA. Teenage Fanclub's fame has come more slowly than the spontaneous combustion Nevermind inspired. Although it was released only last December, Bandwagonesque impressed enough critics to make it onto a lot of 1991 best of" lists. The disc has sold steadily since then.
But the biggest distinction between Teenage Fanclub and the Seattle group is that Teenage Fanclub is a pop band. While Nirvana hit with a primal anthem, Smells Like Teen Spirit," TFC's biggest single so far has been The Concept," a tune built on a simple, gushy riff and a blatant theft from the Beatles. That brings up an irony in the Nirvana-TFC comparison. While reckless, uncivilized, in-your-face Nirvana has become the object of everyone's desire, sugary, Poindexteresque TFC has become embroiled in controversy. Since Bandwagonesque was released in December, this harmless little pop band has been reamed by its former label for selling out and charged with plagiarism by elements of the British rock press.
Pop bands aren't supposed to be controversial. Pop bands are supposed to be four cute, clean-cut white guys who write sappy lyrics, steal hooks from the Beatles and live on the screams of teenage girls. A lot of our favorite records are what people commonly call `bubblegum,'" McGinley says. Stuff like the 1910 Fruitgum Company and the `White Album' [The Beatles]. They're what we really love."
TFC blows its biggest bubbles with the smart hooks and sweet harmonies that make tunes like Star Sign" and Metal Baby" so irresistible. A couple of listens to Bandwagonesque are guaranteed to have you humming something. With less speed and more calories than power pop, TFC's lush music can at times be almost too cloying. What keeps these tunes from degenerating into Beach Boy retreads is the band's fascination with gloriously tattered and distorted guitars.
Star Sign," for example, opens with grungy guitar noodling that totally belies the passion to come. But this fondness for guitars can also lead the group into excesses like the guitar-and-cooing break at the end of The Concept." In many ways, the band's guitar edge is the offspring of the Seventies riff rock of T. Rex, the Faces, Mott the Hoople and Slade.
Noddy Holder," McGinley laughs at the mention of Slade's lead singer, a man famous for his top hats and platform heels. The first record I ever bought was a single of Slade's `Gudbuy T'Jane.'"
Between America's newfound veneration for Seventies trash and TFC's determination not to be a dance band, it's no surprise that the band is huge in the states. At home, though, where dance bands continue to rule, and where the Happy Mondays and the Charlatans are the rage, the going has been tougher. TFC spends a lot of time defending its more melodic leanings. To them, pop is not a dirty word.
We've stopped apologizing," McGinley says.
In part because its pop hooks are so big and obvious, unusually blunt accusations of plagiarism have been leveled at TFC in England, where the music press is notoriously meanspirited. Neil Young, the Raspberries and Dinosaur Jr. have all been mentioned as possible sources for the group's music. Alex Chilton's Big Star, however, is most often cited as the source of TFC's melodies and style.
The charges of plagiarism reached their crest last October when writer Paul Lester wrote in Britain's largest music rag, Melody Maker, Bandwagonesque features such unswervingly accurate reproductions of the truly godlike Big Star's No. 1 Record and Radio City it's quite astonishing."
Two weeks later another Melody Maker writer was even more direct: Bandwagonesque echoes Chilton's Radio City so closely so many times that...[one] can't help wondering whether these keen young Scots have overstepped the mark where acceptable, even laudable, inspiration becomes wholly criminal plagiarism."
McGinley admits the band considers itself devoted fans of Chilton and company. But he denies it's more than that.
The funny part about the Melody Maker stuff is that Paul Lester didn't even know who Big Star was," McGinley says with a cynical laugh. We spent half the interview telling him about it. Then he turns around and calls them `truly godlike'? It was very bad journalism.
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Critics who accuse musicians of ripping off other musicians don't understand about writing songs and making records. It's a subliminal thing. We don't listen to a Big Star record and then say, `Let's do this.' I don't know if anyone does that, really." According to McGinley, the biggest reason TFC sounds like it does is because the group wanted to distance itself both from the house-music-influenced alternative bands from Liverpool and the homegrown white-soul outfits like Wet, Wet, Wet and Deacon Blue.
Let's take the Happy Mondays, for example," McGinley explains. For a long time they were unknown. Then dance music becomes big and they get massively popular. When they came to Glasgow, we went to see them and afterwards we looked at each other and said, `Jesus, they're just pathetic.' That's when we decided to make a straightahead pop-rock record. No one was doing it and it seemed a lot more honest to us." Another controversy surrounding this decidedly noncontroversial pop band was generated by the end of its relationship with Matador Records, the label on which Teenage Fanclub released its first record, A Catholic Education, in 1990.
Teenage Fanclub began in 1986 when McGinley and Norman Blake played guitar in a Glasgow band, the Boy Hairdressers. Adding drummer Brendan O'Hare and bassist Gerard Love, the foursome recorded A Catholic Education with their last 2,000 pounds. Drenched in bluesy, crunchy riffing, Education sounded more like a lost Ten Years After session than the debut of a young Scottish alternative band. Sufficiently impressed, Geffen made an offer the band couldn't refuse. To fulfill its contract with Matador, TFC gave that label a collection of outtakes and sloppy covers they called King. Predictably, Matador balked. The company rightfully charged that the band was saving its first-rate material for its Geffen debut. Matador also sent up the cry that TFC's heart was in its pocket, and that the band had betrayed the indie cause. These accusations didn't elicit much guilt. It's difficult for indie labels, and Matador did give us our chance," McGinley says. But if you want to be in a band and do it all the time, you have to sign with a major. Indies are great, but they're always cash-poor. No one can survive on no money." McGinley says the band members feel a little uncomfortable being well-off in eternally depressed Glasgow. But he also knows that the trick will be to hang onto their money. Like Nirvana, TFC is now faced with the unenviable task of recording a follow-up to a hit album. Trying to equal the success of a record like Bandwagonesque can be stifling. In their own quirky way, though, TFC thinks the problem is licked.
Bands whose first records are big often want to work on the second one for years," McGinley says. They can't finish it because they're so worried. Because the first record is still so alive. That doesn't work for us. We plan to begin recording later this summer. And when we do, it will be with the idea that Bandwagonesque is totally dead.