The Special Relationship

A Dumb Comparison

In April of 1989, Pixies released their second LP Doolittle. In May of 1989, The Stone Roses released their self-titled album The Stone Roses. Some would say the similarities between the two end there. Their sounds are extremely different, which I suppose makes sense. The Stone Roses are from the UK, and their influences are pretty clearly based in the UK, as well. Most people would probably hear The Beatles, The Smiths, Primal Scream, and The Jesus and Mary Chain in The Stone Roses. Pixies formed in Boston, and their influences were naturally all American–The Cars, surf rock like The Ventures, and then American hardcore bands like Hüsker Dü and Black Flag.

So, The Stone Roses and Doolittle sound nothing like each other, the bands in general take their influences from entirely different sources, and they formed on different continents. And yet, whenever I listen to The Stone Roses, I think about Doolittle, and whenever I listen to Doolittle, I think about The Stone Roses.

Leaving aside the fact that the albums came out a month apart from each other, I think I make the comparison because both albums sum up what I love about each country’s indie rock tendencies in under an hour. That’s probably a dumb and simplified way to look at the two albums, but I’m pretty sure being dumb and simple is only a bad idea if you’re being negative. And I could never find a reason to be negative about Doolittle or The Stone Roses.

The Stone Roses

Might as well start with the album that came out second. My favorite part about British indie is how big it all sounds. The Smiths, The Cure, The Chameleons, etc., all drenched everything in reverb, and each instrument sounded like it was jumping out of the speakers. The Stone Roses took that idea and sprinted with it. It’s easy to hear in the opening of “She Bangs the Drums.” The cymbals and bass immediately start driving the song, and then the guitar comes in like a wave. It seems impossible that anything could sound bigger after that, but the chorus adds double-tracked vocals and a guitar line that completely seal the deal.

The next song, “Waterfall,” begins with just an echoey guitar line. The drums don’t come in until beyond the :30 mark, but again the sound is so huge that you barely even notice there aren’t drums. “Waterfall” is an apt name for the song, because the whole thing–particularly the rave-up outro–drowns the speakers in bright-sounding guitars and drums. This album is so bright that even when lead singer Ian Brown gets dark lyrically, there’s still a pop hit going on in the background. The 8th track, “Made of Stone,” starts out much moodier than the rest of the album. The band can’t help themselves, though, and the chorus breaks the tension and provides one of the catchier moments on the album. And when I say they can’t help themselves, I really think that’s true. Allegedly, “Made of Stone” is about a car crash, and the cover of the single is in black and white to indicate the song is dark. But the chorus is a legitimate sing-along.

Ultimately, The Stone Roses is a completely over-the-top, hook-filled marvel that took the best of so much British music and mixed it all together to create a sound as bright as its album cover. “She Bangs the Drums” notes that “the past was yours/but the future’s mine.” I’d say Ian Brown was spot on about that; his band set the formula for British indie rock for the next decade plus.


If the defining element of British indie was its expansiveness, then the defining element of American indie was its aggression. The Replacements, Minutemen, Minor Threat, etc., played music that was purposely confrontational. Pixies took that sound to its logical conclusion a lot like The Stone Roses did with their country’s sound, but while The Stone Roses accomplished that by adding layers, Pixies accomplished it by carefully stripping layers away. Doolittle is famous for its “soft-loud-soft” sound, where the verses are pretty quiet, and then the choruses are laughably loud. Minor Threat, an American indie band pre-Pixies, were extremely loud right away, didn’t let up for about a minute, and then moved on to the next song. Pixies were content to let their aggression simmer for a while, which made their outbursts even more shocking by comparison.

A good example would be the second track, “Tame.” Lead singer Black Francis literally whispers the first verse, and legendary bassist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering play a steady rhythm. At around :20, chaos strikes, and Black Francis screams at the top of his lungs for a good ten seconds while a guitar comes in that sounds like factory equipment. By the :35 mark, the guitar falls out and Black Francis is back to whispering.

“Gouge Away” closes the album, and follows pretty much the exact same formula as “Tame.” I think “Gouge Away” works even better, though, because if you’ve listened to the album all the way through, you’re not tricked by the opening quiet verse. You know the explosion of the chorus is coming, which somehow makes the verse more exciting. Every song on Doolittle seems like a game: how will the band wind up at a point where they all sound like they’re participating in an exorcism?

What I like most about Doolittle is that it sounds menacing and angry, but the lyrics don’t reflect that at all. American indie in the ’80s involved a lot of screaming about the government and drug abuse and alienation. Here’s a non-comprehensive list of topics Pixies yell about on Doolittle: a Spanish movie from the 1920s, Samson and Delilah, Hebrew Numerology, College Roommates. There’s plenty of politics on the album, too, but you have to look hard to find it. Pixies were way more oblique than most American indie at the time, and helped usher in more surreal bands like Pavement into the scene.

Doolittle completely changed the landscape of American indie rock. Essentially every indie band in the 1980s started as a pure hardcore punk band, and that style was reflected even if they ultimately abandoned that style. Just like The Stone Roses, Pixies were a primary influence for nearly every other indie band in their country for over a decade.

Wrapping It Up

I wouldn’t say that The Stone Roses and Doolittle are necessarily my favorite British/American indie albums. I don’t really like ranking music in that way. But I’m willing to say that the two albums defined the sounds I associate with indie rock, and a lot of my favorite guitar-based music that came out in the 1990s and 2000s are indebted to them in a huge way. Again, this is way too simple of a statement, but to me, The Stone Roses are the British indie band and Pixies are the American indie band. How crazy is it that they both released their best albums within a month of each other? Music’s cool.

All I Know is All I Know

“Bandwagonesque” by Teenage Fanclub, 1991


Someone please let Bandwagonesque stand on its own merits.

This album is unfortunately doomed to be compared to other albums. The first album mentioned in connection with Bandwagonesque is Nirvana’s Nevermind. SPIN Magazine named Bandwagonesque its “Best Album of 1991” ahead of Nevermind, and the world seemingly never let the poor magazine hear the end of it. Is it Teenage Fanclub’s fault that SPIN preferred the Scots over the Seattleites? Not really, so let’s go ahead and make this the last mention of Nirvana for now.

The second album mentioned in connection with Bandwagonesque is Big Star’s Third. Bandwagonesque is purportedly so similar in sound to the Memphis band that critics labeled it “Big Star’s Fourth.” To be clear, Teenage Fanclub are outspoken Big Star fans, and would never deny being influenced by the band if asked about it. But, again, is it fair to Norman Blake, Gerard Love, Raymond Mcginley, and Brendan O’Hare that rock media is obsessed with discussing influences? Not really. I’ll be done with the words Big Star for now, as well.

The truth is Bandwagonesque is a noisy, melodic, beautifully sloppy set of songs that deserves to be mentioned by itself, in its own catchy and clever universe.

The Tunes

A debate I’ve had many times with a friend: what’s the best opening track on an album? For me, the answer could very well be “The Concept.” It’s such a complete statement on what Teenage Fanclub is all about that you almost don’t need to listen to the rest of the album. Some heavy feedback leads to some funny lyrics about The Pill and the 60s band Status Quo and then the chorus provides some awesome harmonies. Around the 2-minute mark, there is a guitar solo for the ages, one more chorus, and a lesser band would have just stopped there. Instead, Teenage Fanclub breaks out a three-minute outro filled with harmonies, chiming guitars, and a slow but powerful bassline. It’s evident the band knows “The Concept” is transcendent–they go so far as to give listeners a quick cool down with the 1-minute noisy interlude “Satan” before returning to the rest of the record.

The rest of the album proves that Teenage Fanclub are masters of songwriting conventions. “December” makes great use of a violin in the chorus which plays nicely off a bright guitar riff. “What You Do To Me” is two-minutes flat and contains only twenty words, but the drum fills and the stop-and-start nature of verses and choruses makes it one of the catchiest songs on the whole album. It’s the little things with these guys.

“Metal Baby” is about a guy who takes a girl to a metal concert, and she promptly ditches him and takes off to a new city with members of the band after the show. Is she at fault here, or is he truly that boring? He is, after all, “not ready to be party to her plan.” It’s a tough call, but I think she might be in the right on this one.

As “The Concept” already proved, Teenage Fanclub are masters at the outro. It’s sort of a classic rock idea, the outro. But Teenage Fanclub make it their own, and “Pet Rock” and “Alcoholiday” are better as a result. “Pet Rock” spends most of its runtime on an outro that adds horns into the mix. All the song needs is one verse and an outro. There really is no chorus required when you can make guitars and drums sound as catchy as Teenage Fanclub can. “Alocholiday” is similar in structure to “The Concept,” but instead of the “oohs” of “The Concept,” this outro provides the band’s best lyrics of the whole album. “All I know is all I know/what I’ve done I leave behind me/I don’t want my soul to find me.” Great stuff.

“Is This Music?” is an instrumental that closes the album, and has an ’80s style guitar sound that contrasts really well with the rest of the record. The effect placed on the guitar adds the perfect amount of melancholy to bookend everything.

But Who Cares?

Here’s a dumb generalization: the 1980s and 1990s indie music scene worked to deny the things they thought had hampered the rock industry for the previous two decades. They hated guitar solos, they hated groupies, they hated unnecessarily long tracks, they hated it all.

For me, though, the best bands of the indie scene, the ones that are still talked about with reverence, managed to alter the rock landscape and play outside the lines without a condescending disdain about them. Teenage Fanclub were among the least condescending bands of the era because they understood it was the sound, not the scene, that would have staying power. They loved guitar solos. There’s a solo on most of the tracks on this album. Whatever their personal relationship to the “groupie” concept was, they still wrote a funny and potentially self-deprecating song about one. They loved unnecessarily long tracks. They knew the truth about them, which is it’s not unnecessary if it’s really catchy. Teenage Fanclub took the good things about rock music and made them their own, which is all that any band could ever hope to strive for.

So does Bandwagonesque deserve to be called 1991’s best album instead of Nevermind? I’m not sure. I’m not a rock critic. What I will say definitively about Bandwagonesque’s relationship to Nevermind is the former has no business serving as a footnote to discuss the latter’s place in music history. It’s all good music. Teenage Fanclub knew that better than anyone.