You wouldn’t know it to look at the five unassuming men on stage, but they are defying the laws of rock physics. Two-thirds of the way through a sold-out UK tour celebrating Teenage Fanclub’s 10th album, the Scottish band’s three singer-songwriters – lead guitarist Raymond McGinley, rhythm guitarist Norman Blake and bassist Gerard Love – exude sweet harmonies. It is St Andrew’s Day, and it’s apt that he is both patron saint of Scotland and of singers.
The opener, Start Again, is an old Blake tune. “Even though it’s complicated/ We’ve got time to start again,” he croons. Addressed to a girl, the song might as well describe a band who have pushed hopeful constancy as hard as some push partying or nihilism. Most pop is about the first flush of lust, or the cataclysm of heartbreak: TFC songs cover love as an ongoing process.
Song two is a Gerard composition, Sometimes I Don’t Need to Believe in Anything, embellished tonight by the keyboards of helpmeet Dave McGowan. Then it’s Hold On, from the new album, Here. “Think of the ones you love,” sings McGinley, “what they want, what they need.” The science bit? This extreme even-handedness offends a cardinal law of rock, in which having too many talents too close together leads to fissile meltdown. Historically, pop three-ways have tended to implode in an upheaval of ego, recrimination and intoxicants. Sweet harmonies, nothing: you could run a couple of monthly music magazines off the heat still generated by the schisms of the Byrds, and the subsequent jockeying among David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young. Fleetwood Mac play nice these days, but it took decades to recover from a surfeit of infidelities and one-upmanship.
Having begun in the late 80s, TFC’s beer-drinking recherché romantics never engaged in the sort of pissing wars that end with the band taking separate jets. They never became legendary as they nursed their wounds, and never reunited when the offers to bury the hatchet grew irrefusably large.
More fool them, in some ways; this was a band for whom Kurt Cobain campaigned tirelessly. Hindsight suggests TFC could have parlayed their cultural capital into scarcity value by hating each other until the time was right, but nobody knew that in those days. Back then, TFC’s peers were deranged noiseniks Dinosaur Jr and My Bloody Valentine. You can still hear faint echoes of that early 90s aggression on songs like Love’s Star Sign or when McGowan straps on a guitar to add to McGinley’s and Blake’s. If there is a downside to the performance tonight, it is the retrenchment into mellowness. No one here expects to leave with their ears bleeding, but the band’s mid-pace could do with a decaying Doc Marten up the backside.
You could call these national treasures nearly-men, but that’s not the whole picture. As “alternative” hotted up as a genre in the 90s, TFC had a better chance than their Creation labelmates Oasis at breaking America. Their third album, 1991’s Bandwagonesque, was “a record dipped in British irony, sung by Scots in emulation of Americans influenced by English pop singles of the 60s,” wrote David Cavanagh in his learned book about the label, The Creation Records Story. Bandwagonesque was “absorptive on a broad scale”, in contrast with the Britpop flag-waving going on among their peers at home.
Superstardom never did arrive. But occasionally, the showbiz charabanc detours past their door. Dave Grohl summoned TFC to support Foo Fighters in Manchester last year, and the sight of Charlize Theron driving a Mini and singing along to TFC’s The Concept in the 2011 film Young Adult reminded the US that Fleet Foxes had no copyright on elegiac harmonising. They close their set tonight with The Concept – as a way of allowing McGinley gnarly free rein on the lead guitar, after an hour of relatively discreet solos.
Tuned in as it was to Big Star, the Byrds and Love, TFC’s aesthetic was always probably more suited to a steady-state existence than the restrictive burn out/fade away dichotomy coined by Neil Young that Cobain wrote about in his suicide note. TFC albums have become more infrequent but have never nosedived in quality. The latest is a deathlessly melodic and wise record that grazed the UK Top 10 on its release in September.
Of the five new songs tonight, four fit seamlessly into the Fannies’ sound, which never strays far from source. Only a stripped-back With You, in the encore, departs a little from the template sonically, but once again hymns lasting love: “I will laugh with you at madness, at learned stupidity,” McGinley murmurs.