I learned the word verisimilitude from WS Gilbert, he of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe, The Gondoliers… all those melodious light operas so beloved of earlier generations. The quote in question comes from arguably the best known of them all, The Mikado. I was about twenty years old and had just discovered that, despite having been raised on them, I did not like the musicals very much. Paradoxically, reading the scripts was rather a hoot. They were fast and witty and had some wonderful turns of phrase. Like this one, a deliciously dressed up excuse for embellishing the truth:
“Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative”
Try it out next time you’re accused of bullshitting. It’s sure to go down a storm.
Fast forward twenty years to a mature me (well, in age at least) browsing the CD bins out front of JB Hi-Fi in Burke Road, Camberwell one fine Saturday morning. An album called Grand Prix caught my eye. I’d heard of Teenage Fanclub and vaguely recalled a guitar-driven song that referenced Status Quo of all people, but I’d never paid close attention to this Scots band. Scanning the back, I grinned as I saw a song entitled ‘Verisimilitude’. Who calls a song that? In the mood to take a risk, I bought it—possibly tipped over the line by the bonus disc of b-sides on this tour edition—or more likely because the song after ‘Verisimilitude’ was ‘Neil Jung’. Two grins in a second; can’t fight that.
It didn’t take many plays before Teenage Fanclub were enthroned as a new favourite band. Opening song ‘About You’ sets out the Fannies mission-de-jangle superbly. Chiming guitars, tight harmonies, killer chorus, a sniff of melancholy in Raymond McGinley’s voice… and a hint of post-punk attitude in the arrangement. Sweet vocals, but nothing saccharine about the overall sound. (Listen here)
It is instructive to look at the first few songs on Grand Prix, as they reveal a central aspect of the Teenage Fanclub blueprint. After McGinley’s opener, we have Gerard Love’s ‘Sparky’s Dream’, a melody that is, if anything, even more gorgeous than ‘About You’. The rhythm guitar riff is infectious, the (slightly mournful) singing about ‘that summer feeling’ is both beguiling and tearful. And then it just continues to be fabulous, because the third songwriter of this unique band is up next with his first entry: ‘Mellow Doubt’. Norman Blake takes the tempo down with a minor key ballad that nevertheless jumps into focus when the rhythm section kicks in. Fourth track is Gerard Love’s ‘Don’t Look Back’, which seems perhaps a little pedestrian until you get to the glorious chorus. It is probably my favourite TF lyric:
And understand if I must say
I’d give both these wings away
I’d steal a car to drive you home
(I) Don’t look back on an empty feeling
The sharing out of album space between three songwriters is a powerful factor in the reliable quality of Teenage Fanclub albums. Look at the Grand Prix credits and you’ll get the idea.
‘Neil Jung’ channels Big Star superbly while giving a big guitary nod to Mr Young in the final instrumental coda (listen here). ‘Tears’ changes down with another ballad, this time piano led—a nice textural shift—with strings and brass sweetening the arrangement. The second half of Grand Prix continues in much the same way without sameness—it is a very consistent album.
As a result of joining the Fanclub, I worked backwards and forwards to build pretty much the entire Fannies catalogue. I even have quite a few singles, a mark of both Vinyl Connection devotion and of quality b-sides (a characteristic Teenage Fanclub share with that great antipodean alt-pop-rock band, Crowded House, whose fan club I actually did join).
We’ve established Grand Prix is strong. In other news, breakthrough album Bandwagonesque (1991) remains a delight, millennial sleeper Howdy (2000) continues to deliver pleasure and Man Made (2005) is like a fine red wine that matured in the bottle and opens up on drinking. Yet my favourite Teenage Fanclub album remains 1997’s Songs From Northern Britain.
From the ringing guitars opening ‘Start Again’ (Blake), this is classic Fannies. The melody, the melancholy (‘I don’t know if you can hear me’), the mischievous little rhythmic quirks… Heaven.
Second track ‘Ain’t That Enough’ (Love) might well be my favourite song on my favourite TF album.
Here is a sunrise
Ain’t that enough?
True as a clear sky
Ain’t that enough?
Soaring beauty, A-grade jangle, a reference to the Lovin’ Spoonful. Perfect.
The natural order demands that Raymond goes next. It is ‘Can’t feel my soul’, one of several McGinley songs that place his relationship at the very centre of his world (‘Your Love Is The Place Where I Come From’ is another). Indeed, relationships are a key theme in Songs From Northern Britain. The songwriters are no longer young bucks doing gigs, drinking ale and shagging groupies (if that is what they did. Dunno, but it’s what I’d have done at twenty, given half a chance and a modicum of talent for any of those activities). Now they are in their thirties and considering what life as a grown-up is all about. Norman Blake’s ‘I Don’t Want Control Of You’ captures this in its title, while his co-write with drummer Francis MacDonald, ‘Planets’—a gorgeous ballad with under-stated strings—captures something of the personal intersecting with the universal.
Were going over the country
And into the highlands
To look for a home
Were leaving nothing behind us
And no one will find us
When we’re on our own
I feel the planets surround me
They gather round me
As track-by-track analyses are more fun to write than to read (unless both writer and reader know the album really well and can argue vociferously about which really is the ‘best’ track), I’ll close with a couple more highlights from Songs From Northern Britain.
‘Take the Long Way Round’ has magnificent Beach Boys-inspired harmonies and continues the theme of searching for fulfilment, ‘Winter’ is a magnificent Norman Blake seasonal ballad, ‘I Don’t Care’ cheekily misleads with its title—it is a heartfelt song of partnership and a McGinley—no, more than that—a Teenage Fanclub favourite. Having overused glowing adjectives and totally expended the monthly allowance of ‘favourite’, we better stop.
So, in sum, twelve terrific tracks by three fine songwriters with a unity of vision about what makes a good alt-pop song and enough individual voice to make the forty-three minutes fly.
If you don’t know Teenage Fanclub and are interested, get the generous (if daftly titled) compilation Four Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty-Six Seconds – A Short Cut to Teenage Fanclub. If you know the Fannies but don’t have Songs From Northern Britain, attend to this oversight immediately. You’ll not be disappointed*.
* Which is what I sincerely hope I’ll be writing about the new Teenage Fanclub album Here when (a) it arrives in the post, and (b) has had a few spins.