Friday, 15 June 2012

Songs that saved my life part 14:Teenage Fanclub-The Concept/ the Libertines-Time for Heroes

The first famous person I saw in the flesh (who I had not paid to see) was Norman Blake out of Teenage Fanclub. Trigger and I went to Birmingham record shopping when we were about fifteen. We hoped that we may bump into one of the Ned’s or even Miles Hunt, but soon put this down as silly school boy day dreaming. But there he was, in Birmingham’s Virgin mega store, singing his head off to a Neil Young song as he flicked through the racks. Wearing a duffle coat, long hair and trademark John Lennon specs. There was Norman out of the Fannies, looking just like he did in the pages of Melody Maker, checking out records just like we were. By the time I found Trig, Norman had gone, and I’m not sure he believed me. It would be a few years before Norman and I caught up again.

There are some bands that stay with you all through your life. Some bands remain in your life because of nostalgia and laziness, others because you genuinely love them. Teenage Fanclub are the latter in my life. Like many others, I first got into Teenage Fanclub through the single ‘What you do to me’, two and a half minutes of pure sixties sing along summer pop. The record barely left my turn table for a good couple of weeks, so it was no surprise when I hunted down the ‘Bandwagonesque’ LP. It’s a near masterpiece of harmonious pop music, wearing on its sleeve the influences of the Beatles, Beach Boys and Big Star as well as a watered down nod to Nirvana and Dinosaur Junior. The opening track, ‘The Concept’, typifies the album. Seemingly about a dream girl rather than a real girlfriend, the track starts with some wonky feedback and the most aurally pleasing opening couplet ever-“She wears denim wherever she goes/Says she’s going to get some records by the Status Quo, oh yeah”. The song plays like the said Quo being teased by a Nirvana high on Tizer. Just when you think the song has finished, a drum beat kicks into a beautiful outro that recalls the harmonies of Beach Boys via Neil Young. It’s perfect. On its year of release, America’s iconic Rolling Stone magazine voted Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ number two in its end of year poll. Number one was Bandwagonesque by Teenage Fanclub. Not bad going for bunch of long hairs from Glasgow.

Half the appeal of Teenage Fanclub is how nice they appear. As label boss Alan McGee put it “They are P.R. geniuses. People fucking love them”. They come across as not being caught in the ‘cool’ trap, as genuine music fans and genuine guys. This image cemented itself as I first got into the internet as a means of meeting other music fans and finding new records. One of the first places I found a home in was the message board on Teenage Fanclub website. Most band put these up as a place to market records and generally let the fans discuss what their favourite song was and ponder what type of underwear the band wore, but this place was a real community. Norman himself posted all the time, happy to recommend records and listen to others that other posters had fallen in love with. I’ve learned so much from that place. I’ve discovered so many great bands and records. It was a great place to keep in touch with people who, like me, where mad into music and who had friends who just were not into to the same things. The message board was not without its problems however. Like any community, there were arguments. Mostly about football, leading to some very nasty Celtic-Rangers, Catholic-Protestant debates. Because of the anonymous nature of the internet, it was rife with online bullying or ‘Trolling’. But the board stuck together and the nasty people usually got bored and left.

Another message board still thriving to this day is .org, a board for fans of the Libertines. The Libertines are seen as something as a joke these days, but when they first popped up they really did save British music’s bacon. At the time, any music not in the charts was in a post Britpop mish-mash of shit American bands. The kids had suddenly got into sub-Marylyn Manson Rocky Horror schlock rock in a major way. Imagine Alice Cooper joining Kiss-subtract the spooky fun and intelligence and you’re almost there. Fat kids in black t-shirts, finger less gloves and make up where in-fun, irony and humour were out. Amongst the worst offenders where Slipknot (a bunch of blokes in boiler suits and customised joke shop masks) who somehow caught the imagination of bored suburban kids everywhere by falling off a balcony in Wolverhampton and inhaling dead birds and vomiting on stage, and the tunes where just as bad as the ‘antics’. But the kids loved them, and where Dylan fans were ‘Bobcats’ and Beatles fans were ‘Apple Scruffs, Slipknot fans were known as ‘Maggots’. Nice eh? Worst though, was Fred Durst of piss poor ‘nu-metal’ combo Limp Bizkit. Not only was Fred old enough to be most of his fans’ father, he also elected to dress them. Now, as offended as I am at a man in his forties dressing in calf length shorts, a basketball vest and (true sign of a wanker this one) a backward baseball cap, what really worries is me is this-When did pop stars start dressing like their fans? Surely it has always (and always be) the other way round? And he was an executive on the board of his record company. Outside Scooby Doo, have you ever heard of such a sinister old man?

Thank Christ then, for the Libertines. Unbeknown to me at the time, I first heard the Libertines at an indie night in Shrewsbury called ‘Thrills, Kills and Bellyaches’. A refrain that went ‘I cherish you my love, I cherish you my love’ stuck in my head but being an indie snob, I recognised that the tune was a cross between ‘Happy Hour’ by the Housemartins and ‘Boys don’t Cry’ by the Cure and dismissed them. Luckily, a couple of weeks later I was at a house party where the hostess Helen played ‘CD random factor’-a game where she closed her eyes and picked a CD from a stack, thus instantly stopping any arguments about what album would go on next. My mate Mike Feast and I listened with a barely an interest, but we were sucked in as every track was as good as the last. At the end we insisted that the album (Up the Bracket) was played again. It was that good.

Before the Kate Moss and skag scandals made Pete Doherty a Sun staple, The Libertines where romantic, even innocent, to the point of naivety. Their sound was kind of punky with lyrics of a very English slant, their nostalgic whimsy making them more Sid James than Sid Vicious. The Libertines where appreciatively received by young music fans, who no longer had to put the with the out dated, luddite lager-rock of Oasis and by critics, who finally had something interesting to write about after desperately clinging to The Strokes for inspiration, a band for all their twangy riffs and ultra studied sub-CBGB cool, still came across with the collective charisma of Bill and Ted in a collarless leather jacket.

Initially, the Libertines, and in particular Pete Doherty, caused something of a renaissance amongst British youth. For all the critics of Doherty's music (and there are plenty, I’ve seen many a level headed music fan turn apoplectic with rage when the sobriquet 'genius' has been used to describe him and his songs), for all the people fed up to the high teeth of the 'Potty Pete' stories, what is undeniable is the effect he had over his admirers. He made music romantic again.
He inspired people. I have met people who have started bands, set up record labels; write poetry, put on nights, promoted live music, because of the ethic of The Libertines. I’ve met people who have become writers, musicians, fashion designers, artists, reviewers, bloggers, travellers, thinkers, because the saw a twinkle in Pete Doherty’s eyes and thought 'I can DO something. I can be different'. Hearts are won, the arrow ascends…

When the band first started to do ‘guerrilla gigs’ (tiny, genuinely word of mouth gigs that took place in peoples flats and the like) they advertised them on .org. This was where the Libertines hardcore got their information. The fans were obviously thrilled they could see their heroes play in the actual flat were their heroes lived, and the band were touched they could advertise a gig hours before it was due to start and people actually came. The kids went on search of the mythical ‘Albion’, a dog-eared yet romantic home for people who carried a battered paperback with them a dreamed of carrying this teenage feeling of artistic freedom into their old age.

From a magic marker-d ‘THE LIBERTINES’ scrawled on the ceiling of the Birmingham Academy to kids passing around dodgy copies of downloaded sessions and demos, it seemed something was happening. Not since the Clash had a band done so much to tear down the band/fan barrier nor had a band been held so firmly to a fans heart. When Doherty went to rehab, poured his heart out or simply wrote a new poem, he was able to post it to his appreciative audience. They, in turn, were free to respond by sending support and best wishes via the message board. The fans, I think, were just much as the Libertines story as Kate Moss and crack. When Doherty played a tiny solo gig above a ramshackle pub in Shrewsbury, the kids came from as far away as Glasgow and London just to be part of the adventure. They swapped emails and shared bottles. These are the people who, for however briefly, lived the Acadian dream.

After the descent and messy split of the Libertines, .org remains a fascinating curio of pop culture. The fans on it are a bit older now and a bit embarrassed by being swept away on the whole ‘Arcadian dream’ thing. (They shouldn’t be. It’s unlikely their kids will have half as much fun, adventure or inspiration following however their hearts and ears lead them too.). Yet the message board remains just as active as it always has. Through the initial poetic whimsy to the post Sun/Potty Pete influx of strangers and bitterness, .org still thrives. It’s an odd place, a genuine community with its share of people you like, dislike and feel sorry for. I know the personality of some of the posters better than anyone out a soap opera. It’s a place where a photo of a disabled person masturbating can cause discussion for months but collectively can solve almost any problem. I can’t think of a fan base that has had to deal with such a spectrum of change from a band-From wide eyed innocence to drug fuelled falling apart to your hero being involved with suspicious deaths and It’s telling that the board can switch from childish to grown up at the drop of a hat. They have really seen it all before. I wonder whether people will still post on there in ten years time, I suspect that they will.


Meanwhile, Teenage Fanclub went through the same period just as they always do. No super models, no drama, no drug fuelled falling apart-just the giving off of great attitude and the making of great records. It’s a good life being a Teenage Fanclub fan. It may seem like a lifetime between releases and tours, but there is always the amazing back catalogue to listen to. It may not have the thrills and spills of being a Libertines fan, but I suppose it depends on what you really want-exciting memories or new records. And, of course, there’s also the message board-possibly the friendliest place on line. If you ever fancy discussing your love of Neil Young or finding something new to listen to you should drop by.

There is something comforting in knowing that a band you have enjoyed for twenty two years still have it in them to come up with an amazing album. This is something I drunkenly told Norman as I finally met him (a stones throw from where I saw him originally and thirteen years later) and Gerry post gig at the Birmingham Academy. They were both the most charming people you could wish to meet. On almost exactly the same spot, a year later, someone would scrawl ‘THE LIBERTINES’ on the ceiling above us and someone else’s heart would be lost forever

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