They may no longer get many teenagers at their shows spending all their money on merchandise, then throwing up on the way home, though that certainly happened at the end of the 1980s, when they began, but people do love Teenage Fanclub. Their teenage fans are now middle-aged, and have spent the intervening years growing up with the band. They’ve listened as the group started singing about parenthood, long-term relationships, ageing, and they’ve stayed with a group who reflected their own lives back at them.
The music, too, has changed. Where the early Fanclub records were sparky, messy alt-rock, they have spent the decades refining themselves so their songs are now polished miniatures, undramatic at first sight, but filigreed and burnished like tiny masterpieces. They are not a dramatic group, but they are — a word rarely applied to middle-aged male rock bands — lovely.
This show was a curiosity: it was the group’s first appearance in London since their bassist, Gerard Love, left in 2018. Normally, the departure of a bassist is rock’s equivalent of the newspaper industry’s most boring headline— ‘Small earthquake in Peru; not many dead’. But given that Love wrote many of the band’s most beloved songs, carrying on without him and his music wasn’t entirely straightforward.
I wouldn’t say that Love’s songs weren’t missed. They were. But one realised the strength of the group’s catalogue from the songs they could have played, but didn’t: ‘Neil Jung’, ‘Mellow Doubt’, ‘Did I Say’, ‘Planets’, ‘Dumb Dumb Dumb’. Nevertheless, this was a show that could have gone either way. For the first hour or so the sound was awful, a lumpen mass of noise that trampled all over melody. The room was half-full, though those who were there — as I say, this band is loved — compensated for this with the ardour of their response. And the Fanclub themselves — not a band prone to do much more than stand on stage and play the songs — didn’t really bother with stagecraft, so making a connection with a sparse crowd was entirely down to the songs. They got there in the end, but it was an uphill struggle.
Watching a band like Teenage Fanclub one wonders what motivates musicians to continue, year after year, playing in the same rooms to the same people (one musician told me once that the real passion killer is never getting any bigger or any smaller, knowing most people simply don’t care that you even exist). The intriguing thing about Teenage Fanclub is that their path was deliberate: they were as hotly tipped as Nirvana 30 years ago, but made the choice not to pursue success. On the one hand, none of them is dead. On the other, they are still playing the same London venue they were 30 years ago.
Around the time the Fanclub were turning away from fame, Andrew Eldritch was pursuing it. He was all but running after it with open arms, shouting for it to come back and hang around with his band, the Sisters of Mercy. Having been the king of the goths in the early 1980s, he spent the end of the decade spending fortunes on ever more preposterous singles and videos that — and no one would have predicted this at the time — sound better now than they did then. But stardom proved to be fleeting: he hasn’t released a new album since 1990, though he keeps writing new songs and retains enough lustre to play three nights at the Roundhouse.
Again the sound was awful for most of the show. The lights, shining into the audience, were designed to obscure, as was the dry ice. Eldritch, bald and hunched over, slithered through the darkness, sometimes appearing at the intersection of spotlights like Max Schreck in Murnau’s Nosferatu. When it was bad, it was not good: it was just bad metal. But when it got good, it was fantastic. Those singles from the late 1980s and early 1990s — ‘This Corrosion’, ‘Lucretia My Reflection’, ‘Dominion’, ‘More’ — are simply ridiculous and brilliant, the sound of stormtroopers at the rock club, moving forward inexorably like engines: ‘I hear the roar of the big machine…/ Hot metal and methedrine,’ Eldritch croaked, rather describing the sound of the Sisters.
The only mystery was why the biggest songs were cut-and-shut jobs, their centres excised to make them shorter, rather than exaggerated to allow the crowd to celebrate them. Even as he was playing ‘More’, Eldritch was giving us less. Somewhere in the darkness, he was probably laughing at us all.