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.
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.