Nine Songs: Teenage Fanclub
Before music existed in a physical format, before radio, vinyl, cassettes, CD’s, downloads or streaming, songs were shared by word of mouth.
A similar theme of sharing exists in the nine songs Norman Blake has chosen. At the end of our conversation I ask if there’s a theme to them and he says ‘I didn’t think of a link, they’re all just beautiful songs that mean a lot to me, that’s the best way to sum them up. There could be so many songs, it’s the funny thing about music isn’t it? So I picked nine things that I like a lot.”
The songs here not only continue the age-old tradition of passing music on, they also get to the heart of the enduring love for his band Teenage Fanclub, with their albums for Creation getting a welcome reissue. “It’s amazing they’ve finally been made available again. With a lot of them you’d have to go to Discogs, I think Grand Prix is £70 or something like that, but now people can have the vinyl and we’ve put a 7” in each of them, so there’s some extra material in there.”
When we put it to him that people would perhaps expect him to choose songs by The Byrds, Big Star or The Beach Boys, Blake says “I didn’t pick any of them. Of course they’ve got amazing songs too, unbelievable songs, but I’ve read quite a few of these pieces and I always like it when people go for something a bit more unusual, something I may not have heard before, that gives me something new to discover. It’s always great to hear music you don’t know, where you find something you like that you’ve never heard before.”
From finding unexpected delights in boxsets, to the mastery of pop outsiders Julian Cope and Lawrence of Felt and Denim and playing a song with his late, lamented friend Mark Linkous, Blake’s choices not only reflect his catholic taste, but an ongoing love of musical discovery. “All of these songs have had some kind of influence on the music that I make.”
“Sugluk released two singles and they were recorded by the CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. They were first nations, so it was like the CBC was trying to catalogue the music being made in these small communities up north in Canada. I think Sugluk were based in Northern Quebec and that’s pretty far North.
“I heard this song on the Native North America boxset that came out on Light in the Attic. I live in Canada now, so I wanted to get a taste of this mostly folk music that was being made in these small communities in the ‘60s through to the ’80s. This song is from 1975 and what I love about it is that it’s a like punk rock record; it’s really not what I was expecting. After the first verse this Velvet Underground drumming starts happening and it’s got tons and tons of energy.
“I had no idea what was going to be on the boxset, but I had my eye on it. We did an instore at Rough Trade in London and they said I could take a record, I saw they had the boxset and maybe it was a bit cheeky of me asking for it, but they very kindly gave it to me. When I put it on I loved everything on it but this song really jumped out, it was so different from the other songs, which were folky and covered the harsh life of the people in those communities. There’s a lot alcoholism, drug use and poverty and a lot of it is quite dark, but this song has so much energy, it’s incredible.
“I’d love to get my hands on a copy of the 7” but I think it’d be hard to find - if anyone reading this has it then let me know!”
“I played on some of this album and I helped to prepare the samples at my home studio, but the reason I picked ‘Permanent Dream’ was because I wanted to reference Bill Wells. I think people know Bill for the albums he’s made with Aidan Moffat and they maybe know him for the Bill Wells Trio records, which are all instrumental, but people probably don’t know him for his songwriting and he’s a great songwriter.
“Kate Sugden sings on this and it’s a beautiful little circular song. It’s quite short, but I love the circular nature of it, it really gets into your head. I keep going back to this song and I love Kate’s voice, it’s so plaintive.
“Another reason I’ve picked this is that I’d really love people to go and check out the albums Bill’s made with Lorna, Aby, Gerard and Kate, as The National Jazz Trio Of Scotland, because they’re really lovely, concise albums. The albums’ came out on Karaoke Kalk and I guess there wouldn’t have been much promotion, I don’t think Bill does social media or anything like that. Bill won the Scottish Album of the Year with the first album he made with Aiden, so it’s kind of unusual that he had success with that, but people are unaware of this other thing that he does.
“Bill’s very prolific, he’s always working on different projects. He’s a very good friend and he’s totally consumed by music. Bill dreams of music every night and he wakes up and records the music in his dreams, he does it all the time, he’s an amazing talent.”
“I’m a big fan of Julian’s, he’s a really interesting character. I’ll always check out when he’s got something new, there’s always something good on it and he’s written some brilliant songs. He had his real pop period, World Shut Your Mouth is a great album and going back before that Fried is great, with that sleeve where he’s curled up in a giant shell, it’s amazing.
“I like the popular period of his music, but I also like the wilful self-indulgence of this record. The album title is Citizen Cain'd - he’s good at titles is Julian - and the song title ‘I'm Living In The Room They Found Saddam In’ is brilliant. The production is really over the top and it has this really loud acoustic guitar that comes banging in. It reminds me a bit my favourite Stooges album Raw Power with that cranked, compressed acoustic driven feel.
“I think a lot of people have lost touch with Julian’s music but he still comes out with little gems and this is one of them. Julian had that period of fame, but inevitably things tail off for most bands and I suppose it happened for him. He came out of his deal with Island and set up on his own, but again, he’s very prolific and he wrote those amazing books like Krautrocksampler.
“He’s a great songwriter, but with this song it’s the groove and the sound of it. Everything is really pushed to the max, it feels like it’s jumping out of the speaker; it’s just loud and the tonality of it really appeals to me.”
“Most people will probably know Link Wray for his guitar records like ‘Rumble.’ Those songs are really amazing, but there’s a real melancholy in his record Link Wray and I love this album.
"I picked it up in a thrift store in Canada years and years ago and I really didn’t know what to expect, but when I put it on I loved the sound of it. I think him and his brother recorded it in a barn with very basic recording equipment, they just set all the stuff up in a barn and laid down the tracks. It’s got that real kind of rootsy, Stonesy element to it and his voice is beautiful.
“The lyric is quite dark and sad. The album came out in 1971, so it was the time of the Vietnam War; the US was falling apart and all these young men were going off and being killed in this war and he’s reflecting on that; it’s also a reflection on street violence and stabbings, where he sees men crying on the street. It’s a pretty dark lyric, but the feel of it is beautiful.
“I love the whole album, it wasn’t well-received when it came out, which is amazing to me because there are so many great songs on it. It’s really about the voice with ‘Fallin’ Rain’, a lot of people are unaware that he sang, but I’m really glad that he did because he had these great songs. It’s a great record and people should definitely check out the whole album.”
“This is from her last record Rendezvous, which again was a poorly received album, but the version that I really like of this song is on the boxset A Box Full of Treasures. There’s an amazing demo of it with just her at the piano.
“I quite like the album version with all the orchestration, I know a lot of people don’t, but I think she was trying to go for it and have a hit record, she covered ‘Candle in the Wind’ on that album too. I got the boxset because I was a big fan of her work with Fairport Convention and I knew some of the early stuff. There’s maybe a hundred songs on it but when I got to ‘No More Sad Refrains’ my ears pricked up, it’s one of those songs that when I heard it I played it fifty times. It’s that amazing, especially the demo, it’s incredible.
“I have a band with Joe Pernice called The New Mendicants. We made an album and covered ‘By the Time It Gets Dark’, which was recorded around the same time as this was. The reason we covered that was we found was a demo version of it on A Box Full of Treasures, which is also incredible.
“Sandy Denny was a really talented songwriter but I don’t think people are that aware of her. She’s kind of been lost a bit and it’s been forty years since she died, so hopefully people might have another look at this. It’s sad she didn’t really have success, she was an amazing singer, but it just didn’t quite happen for her.
“Shortly after she died, her husband Trevor Lucas, who was the producer, died as well and they had a kind of difficult relationship. There’s loads of sadness attached to the Sandy Denny story, it’s a melancholic song and ‘No More Sad Refrains’ kind of sums up her life and her as well.”
“Lawrence is a great guy and I’ve known him for a few years now. I’ve loved Felt since way back and I think my favourite Britpop period band was Denim. Britpop was invented as a genre so that people would have something to talk and write about, it was a London-centric thing, it was Blur and Oasis, Menswear and Suede and all that kind of stuff, to me Britpop meant music from London.
“The records that Lawrence made as Denim were amazing though. They were really brilliant, with clever lyrics and amazing arrangements. He was really on form then and post-Felt, it wasn’t what you would have expected him to do.
“I’m of a similar vintage to Lawrence, so I can really relate to the lyrics in ‘The Osmonds’ and all of the imagery. What’s amazing about this song is the way it starts out, he’s talking about hippies, flares and choppers and then it’s skinheads and bovver boots and then he takes a turn into the Birmingham pub bombings and its like ‘Fucking hell!’ It goes really dark and it’s brilliant how he does that. Then he goes back into the lightness, with bands like Paper Lace and Candlewick Green and then he starts singing about Lesley Whittle and the black panther and I remember that too, that was the girl he held in a sewer, in some kind of drainage system and she died.
“Again, sadly for Lawrence, Denim didn’t really do that well. I think people maybe saw them as a jokey band, but there was much more to them than that. He had a great sense of humour and there were comedic elements in it, but this song is just awesome. Even that image of ‘all the little Osmonds’; I can remember all the kids walking around with Jimmy Osmond haircuts.
“It brought back so many memories of my childhood and musically it’s absolutely brilliant. This to me is the best song of the Britpop period. Pulp get pretty close with ‘Common People’ which is an amazing song, but for me ‘The Osmonds’ trumps it, it’s just brilliant, it’s amazing writing.”
“I heard this song for the first time in a movie called Desperate Man Blues, which is about an incredible guy called Joe Bussard. He’s a 78” collector and he’s got the biggest collection in the world, it’s a great documentary.
“The movie follows him around looking for records, he goes to little towns in the US, walks into stores and asks “Do you know anyone with old records?” and they tell him “That guy up there has a barn full of them” and he finds these little gems. There’s a story in the movie where he goes to a garage sale and he sees a record, it’s the only known copy of a record that had been thought to be lost. It’s in an auction, they start bidding on the box of records but he waits and then says “Five dollars”, and he gets it for five dollars, he’s something else.
“Joe Bussard released a compilation album called Down in the Basement and this track is on it. Charley Jordan’s story was crazy, he was shot and died of pneumonia in the ‘50s, which is tragic isn’t it? I love this song because it’s got a really abstract lyric, it’s like a Bob Dylan lyric, only it was written thirty years before. The imagery is really funny - “Give him Coca-Cola, Lemon soda, saucer of ice cream / Take soap and water to keep it clean,” and then its “Up she jumped, down she fell / Her mouth flew open like a mussel shell / Your sister was a teddy, your daddy was a bear / Put the muzzle on your mama 'cause she had bad hair.” It’s just amazing. “If you want to hear that elephant laugh / Take him down to the river and wash his yas-yas-yas.” He doesn’t say ‘ass’, it’s “wash his yas-yas-yas.”
“It’s an amazing song and again it’s one that when you play it, you want to play it again and again. It’s brilliant and it’s so simple. The album is brilliant as well, it’s an amazing album, but this is my favourite song on it. The song just jumped out at me as soon as I heard it.”
“This is a beautiful song. The reason I picked it is that I toured with Mark Linkous; myself, Mark, Jad Fair, James McNew and Scout Niblett toured as Daniel Johnston’s band. I got to know Mark quite well on that tour, he was a really nice and brilliant guy and we hit it off.
“For the first couple of nights we all did solo sets before we played with Daniel and Mark played ‘Most Beautiful Widow in Town.’ I kind of knew the song, but the way he was playing it was so beautiful. He had a little bit of trouble playing the guitar, because of what happened to him, so I said “Mark, would you be cool if I came up and joined you on this song? I’d love to play it” and he said “That’d be amazing.” So I got to play guitar with Mark on this song. It’s beautiful and it’s so Mark, the song and the lyric is so tragic.
“He was a kind of a tragic guy but he was a lovely, lovely guy. We planned to meet up and then the news came that he shot himself, which I believe was in the heart, which didn’t surprise me at all, that’s where he would shoot himself you know? He was brilliant and I think it’s a really beautiful song, it’s so simple, but it’s gorgeous, it’s really sad and it’s heart-breaking. The lyric where he’s in the wife’s mothers house and they’re looking at the picture on the wall, it’s really, really sad.
“He told me about the incident in London where he collapsed; he’d taken heroin and alcohol and he was found the next morning on his knees in this hotel room by the housemaid. I think when the paramedics lifted him up he had a heart attack, some fluid had built up in his legs and it went to his heart and he nearly died. He was in hospital for a few months in London, it was totally tragic.
“We really hit it off and he became a good friend, it’s so sad that he’s gone now.”
“Evie’s a friend of mine and I met her quite a long time ago. The last time we toured the US Britta Phillips toured with us, Britta recorded a brilliant version of this song and was playing it on the tour. It’s such a great song, it’s on the Any Way That You Want Me album that Evie made.
“Unbeknownst to Britta, Evie came to our show in LA, so Britta was playing the song and Evie was in the audience. Britta was unaware that Evie was there and Evie was unaware Britta was going to sing it. It was brilliant, because Britta does a great version of it. I knew it was going to be a nice moment and they met afterwards and that was a brilliant bit of serendipity. For some reason I was thinking about that the other day when I was putting these songs together and I thought “I’ll put that one in.”
“Evie’s still a really great performer, I think she was fifteen when she made her first record, she’s maybe in her late sixties now and she’s still a very vital person. Her voice is amazing and her version of ‘Any Way That You Want Me’ is really worth checking out too. Chip Taylor actually wrote that song for her, obviously The Troggs had a big hit with it, but it was written for Evie. I suppose she never quite made it to the top, but she was on the Johnny Cash show, there’s still a lot of videos of her in YouTube on that and that’s quite something to have done that.
“Joe Foster reissued it on Rev-Ola a few years back, although it’s probably out of print now. Joe lives in Glasgow now and ten years ago I was helping him compile some of the Rev-Ola reissues, just because I had the technology, I had a computer and some software. People should check out this album and any of Evie’s music that they can find because it’s all really good.”