Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake: ‘My first band was the Spanking Newts’

Back with a new album, the Fannies frontman remembers his teenage years, from the kindness of the Specials to selling guitar strings to John Martyn – and trying to impress with his ice-skating skills

McCormack’s music shop

I got my parents to buy me a bass, because I admired the Clash’s Paul Simonon and thought that would be the easiest instrument to learn. McCormack’s was a Glasgow institution: when the Beatles played the Apollo, when it was known as the Green’s Playhouse, the amps came from McCormack’s. I got a cheap Fender Precision copy and a Wem Dominator amp from there. Plugging in for the first time was an incredibly visceral experience because it was so loud. I moved on to guitar, but after I left school I didn’t have a job and so asked if I could work in McCormack’s, which was amazing aged 17. I got to meet the artists that came in when they were playing Glasgow. I was told that John Martyn never paid for his guitar strings so I handed them over and he went: “Thanks, wee man!” I got to test the latest synthesisers and the reason I’m good at tuning guitars is because I did it 5,000 times in McCormack’s. I could also play them all day. In those days, Sean Dickson [Soup Dragons], Francis McKee from the Vaselines and Duglas T Stewart [BMX Bandits] and myself went busking together. My first band was with Duglas, whom I was at school with. It’s completely ridiculous but we were called the Spanking Newts.

The Specials

I was a big fan of the Clash, but when I was 14 or 15 the Specials seemed even more exciting. I knew this guy called John Martin, who went on to become known as “Joogs”, the tambourine player in Primal Scream. I bumped into him the day the Specials played at the Apollo just before More Specials came out. He said they were staying at the Ingram Hotel and suggested we go over and try to get some autographs. When we got there [singer] Terry Hall was standing in the foyer. We went over and he was brilliant, got us a Coke and a coffee and we ended up on the tour bus with the band. When the bus arrived at the venue, someone handed me Rico’s trombone to carry in as if I was a roadie, so I could get into the gig, which was incredible, kids just going nuts. Glasgow was full of deprivation and poverty then, and I think that visit inspired Ghost Town. Many years later, I had the opportunity of driving Terry’s son across London in a car with Edwyn Collins’s son. I just said: “Can you thank your dad? I’ve never forgotten his kindness.”


Glasgow was one of the first cities in the UK to have a skate park. I had a Skuda board, which was made of fibreglass with pretty small wheels. The council built the skate park and it didn’t have much beyond a couple of bowls and half pipes and some wobbly sections, but I think they had some of the first skateboard championships there. I could do quite a few of the tricks. Before they started putting “noses” at the front of boards, mine had a “tail” at the back, so you could flip it up if nothing else. Even though it was fibreglass it was pretty basic – not much better than chopping up a pair of roller skates and sticking them on a bit of wood – but skateboarding was huge at the time. At that age you feel indestructible, but luckily I survived more or less unscathed. The skate park closed after a few years but then it reopened again and when I go past now it’s never been busier.

Adam & the Ants playing in Glasgow, 1980.
Adam & the Ants playing in Glasgow, 1980. Photograph: Crumbstick/PA

Ice skating

I also got really into ice skating. There was a rink in nearby Hamilton so I started going with a couple of mates. You could hang out and there were lots of girls, whom we’d try to impress. There wasn’t much actual skating – we’d just stand around on blades in the middle and try to look cool – but I got really into it. I got these chunky ice hockey skates called Bauer Huggers. I could do flips, spins and glide around the rink if I wanted. At the time I was really into very early Adam & the Ants. Their T-shirts and badges were so cool, and the Dirk Wears White Sox album was fantastic. I have this vivid memory of me skating around in a T-shirt with Adam on it with his arms outstretched, trying to impress girls. I’m not sure that worked, but it was fun for a couple of summers and I made some good pals.

The science-fiction novels of John Wyndham

I saw the Village of the Damned movie starring George Sanders, which is based on John Wyndham’s book The Midwich Cuckoos. So I went searching for the books. I got The Day of the Triffids, The Chrysalids, The Kraken Wakes, Chocky … about half a dozen of them. Until then I hadn’t read books. My parents didn’t read to me because they were working all the time and were too tired, but in my early teens they got me a tape of Jon Pertwee – who played Doctor Who – reading Treasure Island. They’d stick it on by the side of my bed and leave me listening to it. The Wyndham books were much scarier, but I think quite influential. Margaret Atwood is a fan of The Midwich Cuckoos and you can see that in The Handmaid’s Tale. The Wyndham books started my love of reading and the idea that you can really escape with a book. I recently bought a Village of the Damned DVD and it’s as iconic as I remembered. The kids have bowl cuts and weird stares. They look like they’d be in an indie band in Glasgow, 15 years later.

Teenage Fanclub, 1992.
Teenage Fanclub, 1992. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

Glasgow record shops

In the early 80s in Glasgow there were loads of record shops, with their own personalities. When I was 14 and 15, my favourite was Bruce’s, started by Bruce Findlay, who managed Simple Minds and put their first single [Life in a Day] out on the Zoom label. If you bought a record at Bruce’s it came in a red bag that read “I found it at Bruce’s”. I grew up in Bellshill, a satellite town 10 miles outside Glasgow, and every week I’d go into “town” with my mate Gerry Brown. We’d always end up at Bruce’s, but sometimes we’d go into Listen Records, where Brian Superstar [Taylor] from the Pastels worked. It was a dark, gloomy shop where the guys – always guys – working there were more curmudgeonly and would sneer at you if they didn’t think what you were buying was up to scratch. Then there was Bloggs, who had two stores, Big Bloggs and Wee Bloggs, in the city centre. I bought Blue Boy by Orange Juice there, with the sleeve that was hand-coloured by the band. The arrival of the Virgin Megastore was the death knell for little stores, but I’ve got great memories of doing that circuit of them and maybe trading records outside. Kids today don’t have that experience. They’re definitely missing out.

• Teenage Fanclub’s new album, Endless Arcade, is released on 30 April on PeMa.


As told to Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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