Rock: One more time, let's hear it for the support band

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Indy Lifestyle Online
They may not be quite in the league of labelmates Oasis, but it's been a good year for Teenage Fanclub, now ending with a support slot for Radiohead in the UK. Stephen Dowling joins them for a kick-about warm- up in Manchester.

Manchester's Nynex Arena is big, aircraft factory big. The kind of building where you half expect to see clouds forming under the ceiling when you look up.

Under that lofty roof, the preparations for Radiohead's pre-millennial operatic rock are taking shape, ready to dazzle the night's 16,000-strong crowd. And in front of the stage, support band Teenage Fanclub are doing what any self-respecting group of Celtic fans would do with so much floor space; they're organising a game of football.

As the speakers boom with limbering guitars and drums, singing guitarists Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley, bassist Gerry Love, and drummer Paul Quinn sort out the teams, schoolboy five-a-side-style.

Almost as crafty, in fact, as they are at writing songs. While there may have been a few people scratching their heads over the cheerful Glaswegians' pairing-up with Radiohead, the sight - and sound - of Teenage Fanclub warming up the crowd has made for the best stadium line-up in years.

Oasis labelmates they might be, but Teenage Fanclub won't win many entries in the compendiums of rock 'n' roll excesses this tour. But they'd admit it's never figured in their world very much anyway. The most recent album, Songs From Northern Britain, is their most laid-back, a late Nineties update of The Byrds and Big Star's sunniest moods. While it hasn't reaped the column inches that Oasis, The Verve or indeed Radiohead's last efforts have, it has helped make 1997 one of the Fanclub's better years, along with their first Top Of The Pops appearance in their eight-year history, and stress-free tours with Radiohead in the US as well as the UK.

So what are they to play tonight? "How about `More Than A Feeling'!" giggles Blake, before launching into the song's dodgy middle-eight.

"No, `Living On A Prayer', definitely," decides Paul Quinn, hands held aloft in the stadium-lighter pose alongside McDonald. "Either that or just play 12 Bruce Springsteen songs."

To look at them you'd think they were heading for a Sunday afternoon practice session.

In fact, they open with the chiming, buzzing romanticism of "Start Again", with Blake's voice strong and clear despite a crunching collision with a clumsy opponent during the afternoon's kickabout. Much of the crowd is still filing in, but there's a healthy crush of bodies up the front, with a few voices yelling out for oldies like "Everything Flows".

Despite the massive space, Teenage Fanclub don't lose their personality. Someone yells out for the theme from The Sweeney; "I think we can do that," says Blake, pointing toward McGinley, who belts out the Seventies cop show tune with no hesitation.

There's a hard-edged "Neil Jung", a delightfully scratchy "Speed Of Light" and "Sparky's Dream", Gerry Love's swooping masterstroke off Grand Prix. With the fuzzy guitars and playful abandon, there's a strong whiff of the old Teenage Fanclub, the band that created the feedback-storm-with- tunes of the debut LP A Catholic Education, and the hazy beauty of Bandwagonesque. It's fitting, then, that they end with a glowing version of that album's "The Concept", a lurching, frazzled finale.

In the dressing room, there's a few minutes' quiet reflection ("That seemed to go OK," says Blake with customary nonchalance). Then it's off to eat. As they munch on vegetarian croquettes and salad, the conversation turns to the politics of Celtic (both Quinn and Love are Saturday regulars), Simple Minds and old Seventies cop shows. "How the hell did you know The Sweeney?" asks the band's guitar tech, Keith, to McGinley. "I'm a professional musician, that's how," says the guitarist, straight-faced.

Later in the hotel, Blake is unfailingly positive about both the tour and the group's place in the post-Britpop ranks.

"Only occasionally will we play with people, and that'll be when they ask us and always with groups that we've liked."

The Fannies recently played their most successful solo tour, which culminated at the Brixton Academy. So has it been difficult fitting in to the role of a support band?

"The audiences are there to see Radiohead, and you have to understand that when you're in that slot ... you can't expect them to go crazy. But people tend to watch us. I always think a sign that you're doing OK is that people aren't off buying hamburgers or heckling."

Teenage Fanclub have enjoyed the challenge, and it makes smart business sense to play in front of 50,000-odd people in five days. And despite their self-deprecating spirit, Blake sees no reason why Teenage Fanclub can't get a lot bigger than they are now.

"We have a big catalogue of songs. I think we could handle it ... it's not one of our aims, but if it happens, no problem. It's only a bigger stage."

What Teenage Fanclub do want, in the meantime, is another release. Blake sees no reason why they can't bang out another LP next year, after their Far East tour.

"We'd hope to get back into a studio pretty much a month after we've finished this touring. After New Year, we'll have an intense month-and- a-half of writing at home. For a start we'll get paid quicker!"

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