The Greatest Gig I Ever Saw: Teenage Fanclub, Rough Trade Shop, 1990

How my life was changed in a stinking London basement by a few lads from Scotland...
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How my life was changed in a stinking London basement by a few lads from Scotland...

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Back in 1990, when things were black and white...

If, like me, you’ve spent your entire adult life in a Zen-like state of blundering ignorance, forever clattering through doors both metaphorical and real, never bothering to ascertain what lies ahead before charging underbite-first into the next room, chances are, by now, you too will have walked in on a few things you really wish you hadn’t: your father’s inaugural dalliance with a thundering great rubber dong, perhaps, or an emotionally fraught spouse attempting to breastfeed the abortion you forced her into.

Wrong place, wrong time.

Luckily, though, not every spectacle we stumble across by accident will involve a once-respected family elder deliberately skewering himself on a prosthetic cock. No. Sometimes, if fate’s in the mood for a rebate, we’ll get lucky and happened upon something nice for a change.

Starting any story about your teenage years with the phrase “21 years ago” is always going to hurt. That’s why pride had me wait two paragraphs before finally admitting I’m middle-aged. But now the geriatric feline has finally dragged its prolapsed hindquarters out the bag, on with the rose-tinted bullshit…

Nineteen, I was. Ah, nineteen. All the best things happen when you’re nineteen. A statement I make knowing full well none of them did. Not for me, at least. Half the time I even had trouble convincing myself to touch it.

Regardless, there I was, a loping tower of warring hormones, trawling the record shops of central London with my mate Mark (everybody should have one), midday Saturday June 16, 1990; idly wasting the few hours that stood between us and the evening’s entertainment: England’s second World Cup group game. Against the Dutch, in case you’re too young to recall. And for those of an age: ITALIA ‘90, DEAR! I WAS JUST TELLING THE NICE MAN ABOUT ITALIA ‘90.

Having tired of Camden Town’s smug self-importance, we hopped on the tube where even in Thatcher’s Britain I was asked to pay no extra charge for the sprawling colony of puss-filled goitres hitching a ride on my already over-crowded face, and made a beeline for the now defunct Rough Trade shop in Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden.

Having tired of Camden Town’s smug self-importance, we hopped on the tube and made a beeline for the now defunct Rough Trade shop in Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden.

To my peers this was a hallowed place, venerated by legions for its impeccable collection of rare treasures. To me, however, it was simply a squalid subterranean tramp’s lung frequented by mould spores, pet smells and hapless twats like me who mistakenly assumed proximity to albums no-one had heard of would somehow make them more appealing. To what, I have no idea. Stray animals, possibly.

Nonetheless, amongst their number I stood, hell-bent on spunking whatever remained of my miniscule wage on the latest 12-inch testament to artless futility. Christ, the shit I used to buy. And all because some cloth-eared gonk at the NME had taken leave of his senses and awarded Single of the Week to the Frank & Walters.

Anyway, the gig, the life-changing gig…

As anyone who ever teetered down the tiny spiral staircase that led from Slam City Skates to Rough Trade below will testify, manoeuvring a 22-inch bass drum down said steps would be a task equivalent in difficulty to coaxing a distressed racehorse up a gecko’s urethra. But that’s what the lank-haired ginger boob in front of me was trying to do when we entered the shop that day. What a flid! And if that wasn’t daft enough, his goofball mates were trailing in his wake with a battle-scarred 4x12 and an Ampeg bass cab the size of a Volvo. Clearly some kind of care-in-the-community team-building exercise. PC gone mad, if you ask me.

Anyhoo, this raggle-taggle gaggle of daytripping Scopers had an admirable purpose about them, so we hung around to find out what exactly they were planning on doing next. Could be spectacular. Fancy I might help things along; goad old Four-eyes ‘til he flies off his axis and takes a big tempestuous shit on some over-priced Hüsker Dü imports.

Alas, ‘Norman’ wasn’t playing ball. Pity. With a name like that I thought he’d be on a hair-trigger as far as dropping trou was concerned. No matter... Oh bless! He’s got his guitar out now. Fucking hell, they’ve all got guitars! What do they think they’re doing? Guys! Guys! Music Therapy’s at the Civic Centre, third Tuesday of every month. Jesus, is no-one going to stop them?

But no-one did. They tuned up, plugged in, and then it happened. Everything changed.

For context sake, at the turn of the 90s, aside from the parochial honking of a few Madchester troglodytes, Shoegazing was the favoured mode of mass distraction and you really couldn’t listen to a British Indie band without being fucked in the ear by a hyperventilating delay pedal. Effects and fringes – that’s what we paid for and that’s what we got. Moping corpse-skinned fops who spent the entire duration of the ‘show’ you’d just paid a tenner for channelling the party atmosphere of Auschwitz and forcing it through a stereo flanger; never moving, never smiling, never engaging with the audience.

Moping corpse-skinned fops who spent the entire duration of the ‘show’ you’d just paid a tenner for channelling the party atmosphere of Auschwitz and forcing it through a stereo flanger...In stark contrast, Teenage Fanclub bounded on stage with a two-pint shine, some banter and a setlist full of actual songs.

In stark contrast, Teenage Fanclub bounded on stage with a two-pint shine, some banter and a setlist full of actual songs. They broke the first rule of cool by daring to look like they were having fun, and the joy was infectious, turning every show into an honest to goodness celebration of the here and now (I went to one particularly exuberant Fanclub gig at ULU – ’91, I think – and rather than risk missing anything by nipping off to the loo, I took my jumper off, balled it up, pissed in it, and dumped it on the floor near a Goth. I can think of no higher accolade for a band).

It may read like over-romanticised bum-squirts but hand on heart, stood there in Rough Trade’s stinking basement bazaar, I had a genuine epiphany. Who are those guys? The self-deprecating demeanour, the music’s laidback swagger, the guitars that sounded like guitars rather than your mum hoovering upstairs – the most accurate analogy my mind can muster is imagine the Hole-in-the-Wall gang had broken into Crazy Horse’s rehearsal space and twocked their mojo.

By the time they’d finished their 20-minute set (one minute for every person in the audience, pretty much), I was in. All the way. Balls-deep. A convert. A disciple. I’d have smashed my lips off with a house brick if they’d asked. Buying a copy of A Catholic Education, their debut album, there and then was a no-brainer. Having them sign it was a privilege. When guitarist and resident hayfever sufferer Ray McGinley (I’d never seen a man blow his nose during a guitar solo before) offered me a free “I’m a Teenage Fanny” badge, anointed with gobs of warm mucus though it was, I took careful custody of it as if it were a religious relic and, overcome with evangelical zeal, immediately invited him to have a bath with me. [Raymond, if you’re out there, the offer still stands.]

I’ve been to longer gigs. I’ve been to more iconic gigs. And with one shitty vocal mic plugged into a bronchial PA, I’ve certainly been to better appointed gigs. But no other musical outpouring has ever inspired me more. The first chord of the first song – that was the moment a band I’d never even heard of before became the reason to buy a guitar, start a band and, ultimately, the reason I got to fulfil the only ambition I’ve ever really held: sign a record deal of my own.

It’s faintly ridiculous to have your life changed at lunchtime, but there you go – my Road to Damascus moment came free with a Meal Deal, and that night I celebrated in appropriately biblical fashion: overdoing the poppers and weed after a routinely disappointing game of football and dry-barfing in a Halls of Residence toilet ‘til a bit of poo came out. One hell of an aftershow.

I may not be a teenager anymore, thank fuck, but I’ll always – always – be a Fanny.

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