My Greatest Hits
The Teenage Fanclubber takes us through his career highlights, from his early days in Bellshill to 99s in Stockholm with Nirvana
Since the very end of the 80s, Norman Blake has been a driving force behind one of Scotland’s best bands. Formed in 1989 in the Bellshill area of Glasgow, Teenage Fanclub quickly became the favourite band of music writers and record shop workers, marrying a grunge aesthetic to heavenly melodies inherited from The Byrds and Big Star. In Blake, guitarist Raymond McGinley and former bassist Gerard Love, they were overly blessed in the songwriting and harmony stakes.
With their 12th studio album, Nothing Lasts Forever, out this week and a UK & Irish tour on the horizon, we sat down with Norman on Zoom for a long chat through the 10 pinnacle moments in his career, from his early days with The Boy Hairdressers to touring with Nirvana at the height of their fame.
The Boy Hairdressers
It was me, Raymond [McGinley], Francis Macdonald on drums, Joe McAlinden, who was in Superstar, and a guy called Jim Lambie who is now a very successful Scottish artist. The band was named after a Joe Orton radio play. I think it must have been around the time of the Prick Up Your Ears book by John Larr that was about the story of Joe Orton and his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, and Joe Orton’s subsequent murder by Kenneth. I really got into that book so we named the band after a Joe Orton play.
Stephen Pastel was a good friend of mine and he was involved in a label called 53rd And Third. They’d put out the Vaselines records and BMX Bandits and a few other things. We really only had a handful of songs at that time, less than 10 songs probably in our live set. We recorded three of them and Stephen put it out, and then that band pretty quickly fizzled out. At that point, me and Raymond found ourselves in his flat with a little four-track portable studio, and we started doing demos. We thought, “Well, let’s keep doing something” and that something became Teenage Fanclub.
Forming Teenage Fanclub
There was only me and Raymond left [from The Boy Hairdressers]. Raymond had some money from a neighbour. She died and left him a couple of domestic appliances, a washing machine and a fridge, which he sold. We bought studio time with that at a place called Pet Sounds in Glasgow, which was owned by Wet Wet Wet. We did some recording there with Francis Macdonald on drums, and by that point we’d got Gerry Love involved. Gerry had played with Joe McAlinden, and we were looking for somebody to play bass. I think I just saw him one day and asked him if he was up for it. Francis, at that point, decided to go to university – fair enough, sensible choice. So, someone put us in touch with Brendan O’Hare and he joined the band.
This is the song that most people credit for indicating the direction the band would go in. Did you feel like you’d something special at the time?
I don’t really think so. It’s funny because I was talking about me and Raymond having the little four-track cassette and the porta-studio. That’s one of the things that we recorded on it. I remember we had a melody, but there was no sort of vocal, but we had the kind of structure of it. We knew it was gonna have a very long guitar solo at the end.
The general consensus was that ‘Everything Flows’ should be the first song that we released from the album. And it has become a kind of signature song. We finish every show with it, you know? I remember getting a call a long, long time ago from a friend saying, “You should check out John Peel. J Mascis is playing ‘Everything Flows’ in session. I remember tuning in and it was great, but then I’m thinking, “Wait a minute, Ron Ashton from The Stooges is playing in J’s band at the moment. Ron Ashton is playing a song that I’ve written.” That was kind of mind boggling for me, because I love The Stooges. That was a real thrill.
Do you still enjoy playing it every night?
Yeah, because you know you’re at the end of the set. We’re almost done [Laughs]. It’s still fun. We both play lead on the solo on the end of it and it’s always nice doing that. It’s still a thing that we get a lot of satisfaction and joy from. That’s the whole thing. When you’ve made an album, you’re itching to get back on the road again because there’s nothing like playing the songs live.
Signing to Creation Records
Being from Glasgow, I used to go to Bobby Gillespie’s club and knew him well. We’d hang out with all those Primal Scream guys quite a bit. So just through Bobby I met Alan McGee. He’d moved to London by this point and had started the label. Initially, I think the music press didn’t really take Creation very seriously, but then things started to pick up. Alan had put out Mary Chain, then he’d signed Felt and then My Bloody Valentine happened, and then Primal Scream started to take off.
Creation was a great label. We hadn’t even signed the contract, but we were in the studio and they were paying for it. Alan said, “Just get in the studio, we’ll work it out later.” It was a very artist-friendly label and they would just let you get on with it. That was an exciting time. The label started to take off – not in the way that it would when Oasis came along – but Screamadelica came out and My Bloody Valentine released Loveless and then we come out with Bandwagonesque all those records did pretty well.
They didn’t really play by the book. I remember playing a show in London and Alan saying, “Come by the office tomorrow and pick up some records on the way home.” We got there at midday and Alan asked “Do you want a beer?” and before you know it, Alan’s on the phone saying, “Everyone, phones off, we’re having a party.” And people start appearing with all sorts of stuff. We were still there at four o’clock the next morning. It was insane. When we were making our record and Primal Scream were making Screamadelica, Alan re-mortgaged his own home to keep the label going. There aren’t many record labels who’d take that risk. They were brave and it was an exciting place to be.
Topping Spin’s Best Albums of 1991
This was the year that Nevermind and Loveless came out…
That was amazing. I will say, you have to bear in mind that the album reviews editor at Spin magazine at that time was a guy called Steven Daly, who had been the drummer in Orange Juice and was from Glasgow. I don’t know what kind of influence Stephen had… [Laughs]
It was an exciting time, because we’d signed to DGC and toured with Nirvana during that time. It was amazing to witness that phenomenon and sort of be a small part of it, too. We’d a great time with those guys, they’re really nice people. And that was the start of their massive growth so it was quite a year. We got to play Saturday Night Live. I mean, I think we probably got to play Saturday Night Live because they wanted Nirvana and DGC probably said, “Well, if you want Nirvana, take these guys as well.” That was an amazing experience too.
It was quite a big year and a lot happened during Bandwagonesque. It did sort of get us into the US in a bigger way. We were very happy with the way all of that went. We obviously didn’t meet the record company’s expectations. I think they thought we were going to sell like Nirvana sold. I don’t think we had any notion of that at all.
Touring with Nirvana
We opened for them all across Europe and it was an amazing experience. They were doing pretty well at the start, but we watched that mushroom and become this massive thing. They were just young and they found the whole thing a bit overwhelming.
Obviously Kurt’s mental health issues dominate any conversation about him, but did you get to see much of the other side of all that?
Yeah, for sure. I’ve got a couple of nice memories of him. Kurt was a big fan of the The Vaselines from Glasgow and Eugene is a good friend of mine. Around the Bleach album, Nirvana had asked The Vaselines to reform to play a show with them in Edinburgh. I just happened to go up in the van with The Vaselines from Glasgow to Edinburgh, me and Eugene with a bottle of Buckfast in the back.
So we get to the venue and me and Eugene head up to the dressing room and walk in and there’s Kurt Cobain. He sort of looks over at Eugene, and extends his hand and says, “Oh wow, I can’t believe I’m meeting Eugene Kelly, I’m such a big fan.” They really hit it off and became friends. I think actually, at one point, they asked Eugene to join the band. There’s a photograph of me, Eugene and Kurt walking around backstage at Reading and Kurt’s got a big smile on his face.
There’s another memory from the tour with them. It’s a really small one, but it’s always stuck with me. We were playing in Stockholm and we’re in this park with the guys from Nirvana, and there’s an ice cream van. And we all go over and everyone gets a cone. So we’re all sitting in this little park: all these kids playing, us and Nirvana. It was just really nice. It’s really sad, what happened to Kurt. If you take away all the stuff that was troubling him and that was difficult in his life, he was just a really good guy.
You’ve said in previous interviews that the following Bandwagonesque was a difficult time. What was it like making Grand Prix after such a negative experience on Thirteen?
What happened with that record was that we’d come off the Bandwagonesque tour and we just went straight into the studio. We were having a great time, but we made a terrible mistake in that we recorded 30 songs. And they were kind of fragments of songs, they weren’t really finished or anything. We had all of these little bits of ideas and the process just ended up taking a long, long time. I think, in the end, we got a decent record, but we weren’t prepared. It was bloated and over-extended and I feel that by the time we got to the end of it, there wasn’t a great deal of satisfaction.
The summer before we made Grand Prix, we met a guy called David Bianco. We liked the way he worked so we made above a plan and asked David to produce the record. Then we limited ourselves to recording 12 or 14 songs, maximum. And we decided to do some pre-production or at least try and arrange things before going to the studio. That made the whole thing more cohesive. We went to the Manor studio in Oxfordshire to record and we were in for maybe five weeks and the whole thing was completed. David took it back to Los Angeles to mix it but all of the recording was done.
We were much happier with the way things turned out. And I think you can hear it on the record. It was quite exciting being in the studio, just this intense period of work. But we weren’t sure how it was going to be received, so we sent it out. I remember the very first thing we got was from Jim Irwin at Mojo, who’d written to the label and said “This album is amazing.”
Nine out of 10 cats
People of a certain vintage – like myself – will remember the Whiskas commercials on television: “Nine out of 10 cats prefer Whiskas”. I think it was Gerry who came up with the idea. Grand Prix had gotten some great reviews, but someone at Melody Maker hated us. They’d written something like, “This band should be resigned to the dustbin of history.” Gerry’s idea was to take out the full back page of Melody Maker and put nine great quotes in there, the choicest ones, like “Album of the Year: Teenage Fanclub” and then in there you have that one: “Teenage Fanclub should be resigned to the dustbin of history” and at the bottom: “Nine out of 10 cats prefer Teenage Fanclub”. It cost about three grand, which at the time was a lot of money.
Meeting Little Richard
That was amazing. He lived at the Hyatt Hotel in Los Angeles and we used to stay there. All the bands used to stay there. It’s where they filmed the rooftop pool scene in Spinal Tap. Around the same time, we worked for a very short period with an American manager called Jim Grant and Jim had worked with a band called Living Color. And so we were in the foyer of the hotel, and Little Richard comes out of the the elevator. I nudged Jim like, “Look, there’s Little Richard” and he says, “Oh yes, I know him. Do you want to meet him?” We go over and Jim says, “Mr. Richard? Jim Grant, I used to work with Living Color. I’m working with these guys Teenage Fanclub from Scotland.” And Little Richard turned around and grabbed my hand, shaking it vigorously and said, “Teenage Fanclub from Scotland? Cooooool.” It was amazing. Classic “I’m never washing this hand”.
Forming The New Mendicants with Joe Pernice and Mike Belitsky from The Sadies
Joe’s a great guy. I lived in Canada for about 10 years. I moved to Kitchener, which is about an hour west of Toronto, and someone got in touch to tell me that Joe had moved to Toronto. Every Friday, we’d go into Toronto and have a few beers and just through conversation decided to make a record. Mike and Joe would come over to my place and we’d record a few songs. Mike couldn’t really tour with us but me and Joe toured a lot. He’s a great guy and really amazingly talented. It’s always great working with other people because everyone’s got a different approach to making music. You always learn something. Joe’s obviously heavy on lyrics, that’s a big thing for him. He’s a real anglophile and I sort of grew up being fascinated by American music, so it was a good pairing.
Teenage Fanclub come to 3Olympia Theatre, Dublin on 2 November and Mandela Hall, Belfast on 3 November 2023. Get tickets for Teenage Fanclub HERE.
(main photo by Jordi Vidal/Redferns)