You’ll remember, I’m sure, the episode of Friends where Ross is being indecisive, unable to decide between the two girls who are inexplicably crazy about him. In his hour of need, he enlists the help of his geeky buddy - you know, the one with the computer (or should I say “compuper”) with all its RAM and megabytes and whatnot. So you’ll also remember that the problem with Julie was that she was not “rachum”. Or possibly “rachem”. It’s hard to be sure because we never see the printout that contains the comic potential energy driving the episode, but I’m pretty sure it’s one of those two options. Either way, it’s a hilarious technology-based misunderstanding that seems in no way forced or stretched. Nuh-uh.
Do you have a point?
You know, you’d think I would.
The point is this: one thing you might feel about Grand Prix - perhaps the first thing you might feel about it - is that it is not Thirteen. Or in the style of the Friends scriptwriting team, you might say it’s not “Thurston”.
I know that doesn’t really work, because that was truer of A Catholic Education than Thirteen, but hopefully you get the gist…
There is no choice
What I must do
Nothing is greater
Than to be with you
And it also doesn’t really work because Grand Prix’s fundamental un-Thirteen-ness is what makes it work, not what drags it down. Thirteen wasn’t Bandwagonesque 2, and that was partly its downfall, but come Grand Prix it’s as if the band members have had their crisis talks, been through the awkward raising of issues, bickered about who trod on whose toes, and found their collective happy place where all the chief song-writers can contribute a few songs to the album, while still keeping the consistency levels high.
The result is the first of two giant steps into melodic rock that Teenage Fanclub took after the failure and critical backlash that they endured with Thirteen. Gone almost entirely are the rumbling guitar undertones, replaced by a full and total confidence in the melody to carry the day. Right from the opening chords of About You it’s clear that the vibe has changed: as much as Bandwagonesque was criticised for exhuming the Big Star body of work, surely Grand Prix pulls the same trick, albeit with a different sound. And it’s a sound that’s familiar and comforting while at the same time bringing its own verve and style. It’s a sound of fun, happiness, and eternal timeless bliss. Drum fills and harmonies and bright sunny guitars abound; underrated gems like Don’t Look Back are better than almost anything on Thirteen, but here they all slot in next to each other so effortlessly you could start to take them for granted. The whole album evokes a freewheelin’ summer of love feeling.
If I could find the words to say
The sun shines in your eyes
So brighten up my city sky
It’s another in the growing line of Gerard Love classic compositions, joined on Grand Prix by Going Places, Discolite, and the endless pool of pop joy that is Sparky’s Dream, a song so matchlessly brilliant that it spent two weeks in the singles chart, peaking at #40. Either side of it, Mellow Doubt led the way by soaring up to #34, while the puntastic Neil Jung only reached #62.
couldn’t take the pain
and left it there
Hats off once again also to Norman Blake, for the perfection that was Neil Jung (quoted above) and I’ll Make it Clear - two songs that continued to show him to be a crafter of timeless songs.
The fallout from Thirteen was brutal and wrong-headed. It’s a classic example of “you had your chance…”, the pop phenomenon whereby you get rapidly built up and have precisely the same arbitrary amount of time to prove yourself to be something other than a one-hit or one-album wonder. There’s also a hint of the “you didn’t sound like this when I fell in love with you - I’m not sure I know how to feel about you any more” about it. We’ve all been there - when bands we adore skirt awkwardly close to genres we abhor. But trust me: it’s ok.
That Friends episode, by the way, was called “The one with the list”. It originally aired on November 16th, 1995. A few weeks later, Teenage Fanclub released an EP called Teenage Fanclub Have Lost It. Could that title **be** any less accurate?