Desert Island Discs: “Grand Prix” by Teenage Fanclub (1995)Posted: January 11, 2012
Every now and then the gods of rock’n’roll reward me by dropping an unexpected treasure in my path. I owe a great debt to modern-day newfangled media delivery systems. In this case, Pandora. One day in early 2009 I tuned into one of their power-pop stations. After a couple of familiar numbers, along came “Ain’t That Enough” (not on this album) by Glasgow band Teenage Fanclub. Intrigued, I clicked for more by the same artist and up came “Sparky’s Dream” which IS on this album, “Grand Prix.” As soon as I heard the little two-measure guitar riff that preceded each chorus, I was hooked. Hooks tend to do that. Beware.
Got the CD from Amazon, and it literally stayed the entire summer of ’09 in my car’s CD player. A Desert Island Disc to be sure.
How surprised I was to discover that it had been released in 1995, fourteen years before I tumbled onto it. Because it doesn’t sound like anything else that was around in 1995. It sounded more like a throwback, a relic, and thus stood out from its surroundings. “Timeless” is an overused term, but it’s that and more. Reviewer Nick Butler wrote:
“Had ‘Grand Prix’ been released in 1965, 1975, or 2005 people would have swooned over it, and yes, it probably would have made many end-of-year Top 50 lists. But in 1995, nobody cared that one of the most perfect pop albums of all time was right under their noses. Now that’s really stupid.”
The guitars are jangly and chimey and crunchy, the keyboards are subtle, the drums are right in place, the harmonies are from “Pet Sounds” by The Beach Boys, but this isn’t just sunny music. In some circles Teenage Fanclub has the mantle around their necks of being Byrds-wannabes. Rowan Collinson from the BBC wrote that the songs on “Grand Prix” are about being hopelessly, head-over-heels in love, and added:
“There are those who say that Teenage Fanclub’s main weakness is that they only have one song, and it sounds like The Byrds…(but) ‘Grand Prix’ still sounds as fresh as it did on first listen. You’d struggle to find a more perfect pop album than this. For forty-two breathless minutes it condenses the best bits of The Byrds, Big Star, and the early Beach Boys…’Grand Prix’ still sounds as fresh as it did on first listen, and perhaps even better. If they do only have one song, then long may it continue to play.”
I don’t consider The Byrds’ comparison a damning one at all. But to me “Grand Prix” sounds more like equal parts Badfinger, Big Star, and Todd Rundgren. And yes, “Revolver” by The Beatles. It’s that good. It also compares well with Elliott Smith, Sloan, and Fountains of Wayne. From Butler again:
“The harmonies, the happy jangle, the sunny disposition were all in place… and the songwriting is frankly stunning. They’d also perfected the art of referencing their influences liberally without sounding like copycats, or even sounding dated.”
And from reviewer Stuart Maconie:
“The band have honed a particularly agreeable sound, chimingly melodic guitar rock replete with history but thoroughly modern. There is wit, energy, passion… (and) huge, head-swimming choruses rooted on the band’s craftsmen’s knowledge of harmony and chord work.”
Teenage Fanclub – “The Fannies” to those in the secret handshake club – has three principal members who each write songs. Norman Blake long had the rep of overshadowing the other two in songwriting, with Gerard Love and Raymond McGinley picking up the slack. Not so on “Grand Prix.” All three contributed amazing songs with hooks and harmony and clever lyrics. Three songs, one from each, are the jewels here. The album opens with the rush of Ray’s “About You.”
Midway through comes Norman’s “Neil Jung,” one of the best pun titles I’ve ever heard. The song soars despite its dark undertones. Twice it sounds as though it’s about to wind down, and both times it kicks back in with another guitar solo.
Near the end is Gerry’s “Going Places.” It’s jangly and ballady and folky (those Byrds influences again), with one of the best opening guitar riffs ev-ah, and the interplay between the guitars and the mandolin is intricate and nuanced.
The only slight misfire is an abbreviated track at the end, “Hardcore/Ballad.” It’s a throwaway that puts me in mind of the baffling inclusion of “Her Majesty” at the tail-end of “Abbey Road.” But honestly, there’s not a weak song here. I could have just as confidently listed Norman’s “Mellow Doubt” (another great pun!), Ray’s “Say No,” and Gerry’s “Don’t Look Back” as the jewels on this album.
Butler wrote that “Grand Prix” sums up Teenage Fanclub’s greatest strength, the knack of taking something tried and true and making it new and exciting:
“Nowhere near enough people heard this record (in 1995), and nowhere near enough are hearing it now. Even now, in a time when music has expanded beyond all reasonable expectation to include all manner of styles and sounds, there just aren’t enough albums like this. It’s a pop album and nothing more, but it’s absolutely everything pop should be – fun, affecting, and intelligent without being preachy or smug.”
And because I dig it, and just to prove a point, here’s a bonus non-album song by the Fannies. Their cover of The Byrds’ “Feel A Whole Lot Better.” Runs circles around Tom Petty’s version.
(Clips from youtube)