Teenage Fanclub - Grand Prix

by Sean Hewson Rating:10 Release Date:2018-08-10
Teenage Fanclub - Grand Prix
Teenage Fanclub - Grand Prix

Sing Hosannas as Sony Music are reissuing Teenage Fanclub’s five main Creation albums (Bandwagonesque to Howdy) with bonus 7” singles. Grand Prix falls right in the middle of that run and, along with Songs From Northern Britain, marks their imperial phase. To be clear, all 5 albums are brilliant, it’s just that Grand Prix and Northern Britain are particularly brilliant. The bonus single for Grand Prix wasn’t available for review but it contains Every Step Is A Way Through (Neil Jung b-side) and Some People Try To Fuck With You (Mellow Doubt b-side).

The intro to Raymond McGinley’s About You might well have been the cause of a lot of the Big Star comparisons (admittedly along with the band’s constant citing of them as an influence). It was almost certainly intended but it shouldn’t distract us from this fine song, fine album, and fine band. About You is a very TFC song whereas McGinley’s songs can often bring the slight change of direction that makes their albums fuller and more varied. This might be why it was chosen as the opener. It puts everything in the shop window. As a new listener at the time, the first thing I noticed was how good their harmonies were.

Love’s hit single Sparky’s Dream is next up and is an absolutely exceptional pop song. In my opinion, Love’s run of songs on this album is about as good as anyone’s on any album. McGinley and Blake would be top dogs on Northern Britain, but Grand Prix is mainly about Gerry. The stop/start nature of the song and the spacey lyrics can’t make this gem Alternative, it’s total Pop. Blake’s warmer, more worn voice makes its first appearance on the mainly acoustic Mellow Doubt. Blake’s songs on Grand Prix are generally the ones that pull at your heart the most. He is also quite a clever/cheeky arranger, so there is a whistling solo, a Neil Young tribute in the handclaps and a sudden stop that sets up the intro to Love’s Don’t Look Back perfectly. McGinley’s lead guitar kicks it off but, again, it’s all about Love’s melodic gifts and fragile vocal. New drummer, Paul Quinn (from the Soup Dragons) pushes the chorus and Blake and McGinley’s guitars take us home.

Verisimilitude is the first oddity here. The jangly guitar, the cheap keyboard and McGinley’s smart, wordy lyric (I had to look it up, forgotten what it means though) make this very Proper Indie. The tune is great though, as is Love’s bass line and they stick a noisy guitar mid-section in. Blake’s use of Neil Jung as a title slipped into everyday usage amongst journalists at the time. The song itself has the emotional pull of Neil Young in the guitars but the lyric is classic Blake, a dignified and emotional account of a relationship that’s gone awry. The chorus is classic as is the key change into the solo. As with a lot of Blake’s work, there are little tricks and twists in the arrangement to keep him and us engaged. It finishes with a guitar solo that is somewhere between Neil Young and J Mascis but also plays the changes. Tears, another Norman Blake heartbreaker, is next. Driven by piano this time and backed up by strings and brass. The melody is quite repetitive but the strain in Blake’s voice as he aims for the high notes keeps you interested. Love’s exceptional Discolite is next with a guitar strum in each ear (they’d return to that idea on Howdy). The tune itself is almost all chorus and exhilaration. A trait of Love’s songwriting is that he often changes the verse melody throughout the song. As with Blake’s arrangement quirks, this sustains the interest.

The acoustic Say No is one of the less engaging tracks on this album but, even then, the harmonies are beautiful. At the time, we had TFC down as a sloppy, drinking, grungy band and didn’t realise they had the sobriety or ability to pull off three-part harmonies. I’ll admit that Say No is very Big Star and would fit on the b-side of No.1 Record very nicely. Love’s last song, Going Places, is probably his best. The gorgeous guitar line that starts it, his more considered melody (as opposed to the solid pop that went before), the bigger but still sedate chorus backed by McGinley and Blake’s backing vocals, the way the band drop out in the verse and then come back for the second chorus. It’s obvious stuff but so effective. There’s still time for a belter from Norman, and I’ll Make It Clear is one of those. As the most experienced song-writer he is solid throughout Grand Prix (he would step up another level on Songs From Northern Britain). It also has my favourite guitar solo on the album. McGinley (if it is him) is part George Harrison (brevity) and part Neil Young (noise). Raymond’s last track is a likeable descending chord progression called I Gotta Know. His vocal is very assured on this track. Like Blake, he would really step forward on Northern Britain. He also squeezes in another solid solo. Hardcore/Ballad is, let’s face it, the sort of nonsense Alternative bands put at the end of albums in the 90s. I suspect it’s the combined fault of Nirvana’s hidden track on NevermindAbbey Road and CDs giving bands too much time to play with. It being Norman Blake, however, the chords are good and it’s quite a cute tune at the end that could probably have been worked up into something more than an afterthought.

Most of these songs, for various reasons, put my heart in my mouth. The words, the tunes, the vocals, something usually gets me. To me, this is where Teenage Fanclub moved beyond the media’s perception of them and became a truly great band. It’s also, with the departure of Brendan O’Hare, where they became the three writers backed by a drummer. Paul Quinn is great throughout, but he wouldn’t be running around his drum riser on stage. I might be alone in this opinion but Grand Prix (and Northern Britain) are up there with the greats that first influenced Teenage Fanclub (all the Bs – Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds, Big Star). Just because it came after and no one died, doesn’t make it anything less of a total treat. Everyone really needs to check this (and the other 4 albums) out.

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