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Twenty Years On: Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque Revisited
Jim Keoghan , December 21st, 2011 06:32

Jim Keoghan says forget Nirvana, the Fannies were the real heroes of 1991...

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Over the years, it’s likely that few people really care or remember what album Spin magazine crown as their release of the year. Probably not even the people who run the magazine. But students of indie will likely recall the one occasion when Spin’s anointment did cause more than a few raised eyebrows amongst music writers and also provoke a fair few grunge-kids to briefly shake off their crushing sense of ennui and remonstrate at the magazine’s decision.

In 1991, the year that saw the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind, widely regarded as one of the most iconic and influential albums of that year, that decade and probably the last fifty years, Spin opted to anoint Bandwagonesque by Teenage Fanclub (TFC) as their album of the year, leaving Nevermind to trail behind in a disappointing third place. At the time, Spin’s folly was ridiculed; a response that has persisted since. Nevermind remains revered; an example of an album whose apparent greatness has only been magnified by the passage of time. By contrast, Bandwagonesque, despite its initial critical and commercial success, remains largely unknown beyond the confines of the indie-world and even within this only by those who lived though the nineties or have the desire to develop a musical hinterland.

But contrary to the received wisdom and at the risk of angering grunge kids old and new, I think Spin got it right. In fact the mistake they really made was in putting Nevermind so high up the list, specifically when albums such as Primal Scream’s Screamadelica and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless were also in contention that year. I’ve never really got Nevermind. It’s a good album with plenty of decent tracks. But it was far from the best album released that year or that decade. It isn’t even the best album released by Nirvana.

By contrast, Bandwagonesque is a beautiful body of music. An almost perfect piece of work produced by one of this country’s best, if criminally underrated, indie bands.

Before its release, there were no real hints that TFC were capable of putting-out something as mighty. Their earlier albums; the debut A Catholic Education and their follow-up, The King were only intermittently exciting. The effortless melodies that have since become the hallmark of all TFC records might still have been evident, but they were too often lost amidst a grungier sound.

Bandwagonesque though, saw the emergence of a different TFC. Although hints of their noisier past remained, the album witnessed the creation of a much more polished, mainstream sound; one that would invite comparisons with leading power-pop exponents, Big Star.

In fact, some writers thought the comparison so close that the band might have gone too far. Reviewing the album for Melody Maker back in 1991, Steve Sutherland wrote, "Bandwagonesque echoes Chilton’s [Alex Chilton, singer, writer and guitarist with Big Star] ‘Radio City’ so closely so many times that anyone with a prior knowledge of the American maverick’s work can’t help wondering whether these young Scots have overstepped the mark where acceptable, even laudable, inspiration becomes wholly criminal plagiarism.”

But whether you think the album blurred the boundaries of homage or not, what is unquestionable (something recognised by most critics at the time) is how impressive it is.

The three singles from the album, ‘Star Sign’, ‘What You Do To Me’ and ‘The Concept’ best exemplify the power-pop sound that TFC were aiming to create. Melodic, irredeemably catchy and packed with luminous harmonies, they set the tone for the rest of the album. Of the remaining tracks, the saccharine sweet ‘Sidewinder’, the Byrds-esque ‘Alchoholidy’ and the beautifully melodic ‘Metal Baby’ stand out above the rest, although this is by the slimmest of margins.

It was this quality that accounted not only for the album’s critical acclaim but also its commercial success. Along with decent sales in the UK, Bandwagonesque gave the band a presence in the US, with all three singles reaching the top twenty of the Alternative Songs chart.

But aside from being a great collection of tracks, what’s also so appealing about Bandwagonesque is its indifference to what was happening in the wider musical landscape. The album emerged at something of a tumultuous time for indie music. Scenes like Grunge, Shoegaze and even Madchester (although something of a spent force) competed for dominance, whilst alongside them developments in dance music nudged at the musical consciousness of many a songwriter.

For lots of bands this presented a bounty of bandwagons upon which to jump. Turgid acts like U2 could strap on a few dance beats and become relevant again, and an up and coming band like Blur could hedge their bets and place a foot in more than one camp.

By contrast, TFC decided to ignore what was going on, dismiss what music writers deemed cool and instead opt to plough their own furrow. There’s certain bloody-mindedness about this long player that only adds to its attraction. It represents a band writing the music they want, irrespective of how they think it’s going to be received.

Although TFC have continued to release good albums since, they’ve never really been able to recapture the attention that this gave them, which says more about the record buying public than it does about the band themselves.

But despite this, at least their greatest album did get the attention it deserved. It wasn’t groundbreaking; it didn’t shake the foundations of British music or create a scene of its own. Instead it was just a wonderful collection of songs; and one that can leave Nevermind for dust any day of the week.

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Dec 21, 2011 11:50am

I know it's only an opinion but...
'In fact the mistake they really made was in putting Nevermind so high up the list, specifically when albums such as Primal Scream’s Screamadelica was also in contention that year'.

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Dec 21, 2011 1:10pm

Did the NME pick Nevermind as number 1, I have a vague recollection that they gave it to Screamadelica. Generation Terrorists came out in '91 as well, what a year.

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Matthew McConkey
Dec 21, 2011 1:51pm

I was a Select reader at the time, their albums of 1991 looked like this:

1. Primal Scream - Screamadelica
2. R.E.M - Out of time
3. Public Enemy - Apocalypse ‘91 the enemy strikes back
4. Pixies - Trompe la monde
5. Massive attack - Blue lines
6. My bloody Valentine - Loveless
7. The Fall - Shiftwork
8. Teenage fanclub - Bandwagonesque
9. Ice-T - Origanal Gangster.
10. Intastella and the family of people - S/T

Nirvana got in at #11.

I think the poor reception that Teenage Fanclub's next album, Thirteen, received also affected Bandwagonesque's reputation to some extent.

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Dec 21, 2011 2:27pm

In reply to Gordon:

Nah, Screamadelica was no. 3 and Bandwagonesque no. 2 after Nevermind.
Massive Attack's Blue Lines was at 6, by the way. And Foxbase Alpha at bloody 24. Those are the ones I love most from that year.

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Mark T
Dec 21, 2011 3:12pm

I think there's a bit of revisionism going on here, Mr. Keoghan. Yes, a lot of people were scratching their heads at the choice of Bandwagonesque as SPIN's Album of the Year, but at the time the list was published (late November/early December '91), Nirvana's Nevermind wasn't THAT much more widely known. (Their #2 pick, R.E.M's Out of Time, would have been the "safe" choice.)

The Nirvana juggernaut did pick up soon afterward, what with the SNL appearance and the #1 Billboard album and the cover of SPIN and the arena shows with the Chili Peppers. But none of that happened until late December/early January.

I haven't heard Bandwagonesque in its entirety, so I'm probably not qualified to comment on the album per se. But "What You Do to Me" always felt a little slight for my taste... of course, I felt the same about the Lemonheads, and they got the similar reverent Quietus treatment a few weeks ago. So maybe it's just me.

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Dec 21, 2011 5:56pm

In reply to Mark T:

I agree with you. Bandwagonesque seems a pleasant enough record, nice, I do not want to belittle its appeal, but it sounds like a Beatles-inspired attempt at something that Eleventh Dream Day had achieved much better at that time and it lacks both the sublime fury of Goat (The Jesus Lizard) or the sublime beauty of Loveless. So in my opinion Bandwagonesque appears like a record that lends itself easily enough to be put on while engaging in a really pleasant pastime, so one can fondly muster up recollections of having listened to it some decades later and not be disturbed by either, (thank God I never kissed a beautiful girl while U2 were blaring out of a set of speakers), but is that what makes a record great? I think it is maybe too twee for that.

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Dec 22, 2011 12:40am

I enjoyed reading this, as a fan of the album.

When Jim writes "one of this country's best...indie bands," which country does he mean exactly?

Jim writes about TFC's "indifference" to the wider musical landscape but then goes on to cite grunge and shoegaze as scenes which TFC manage to ignore. Strange comment given that the sounds of grunge and shoegaze which are quite similar sum up the TFC aesthetic pretty closely to my ears.

Steve Sutherland's obsessing about TFC ripping off Big Star WAS a great way of introducing Big Star to a generation that might have never heard of them, but I've since listened to Radio City dozens of times. Apart from the phrase "melodic power pop" I can't say I've ever really heard much in the way of specific steals. Cite some Steve/Jim.

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Dec 22, 2011 5:02am

At that time, i listened to Bandwagonesque much much more than Nevermind. But come on, it should had been Loveless.

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Dec 22, 2011 2:20pm

I suspect there might have been a fair degree of revisionism going on back in 1991 as well. Do you honestly believe that most of the journalists berating TFC for "ripping off" Big Star had actually HEARD Chilton & co before TFC clued us all back into them? Nah, me neither...

So, Bandwagonesque. Great LP, & one I still can (occasionally) still listen to, my copy of Nevermind having been dismissed to the vinyl knacker's yard a decade ago. But Grand Prix & the (vastly underrated) Thirteen are even better.

1991 though, WHAT a great year for music.

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Dec 22, 2011 3:16pm

In reply to TheRipper:

See, that's the great thing about opinions:
Finding it "LOL" (christ, I hate seeing that written down, someone keeps texting me with it at the mo and it's driving me nuts) that Screamadelica is, and it really is, better than Nevermind, well, that's all very LOL in itself.
You forgot to quote Loveless as well, which is better as well.
1991, what a year.

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Jul 22, 2013 3:47pm

I love how people always try to downplay Nevermind these days, like it wasn't absolutely amazing. You're all trying too hard.

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