Critical Mass: A Catholic Education at 30

Talking Teenage Fanclub with Matador Records co-founder Gerard Cosloy about the Scottish pop greats’ debut album

Teenage Fanclub 1990 (Photo: Sharon Fitzgerald)

It’s always interesting to recall how Bandwagonesque was named “Album of the Year” over Nirvana’s Nevermind in SPIN magazine’s 1991 year-end poll.

Now there are myriad reasons for that, not the least that SPIN at the time was the perceived ahead-of-the-curve ying to Rolling Stone’s predictable yang. (Ah, the analog age, where a couple of print magazines could claim zeitgeists!) Big Star rediscovery was all the rage for about 1,347 college DJs. And the cool kids were already looking ahead of grunge’s impending chart dominance to something more melodic and less macho. Some were already looking back to Teenage Fanclub’s 1990 debut as the more interesting album. 

The slacker-to-soaring songwriting was already there on A Catholic Education, but so too was a scraggly, fuzzed-out churn that added lots of early ‘70s Stones, Crazy Horse, and Faces swagger. That churn was a dirty yang to the Big Star-ish melodic ying – a mash that seemed to drift away on later Teenage Fanclub releases.  

Record store chatter brought up rumors A Catholic Education was actually a demo that the band was unsure of, but that Matador Records loved and just couldn’t wait to get out there as their third release. And this alone was a Big Deal, as the fledgling Matador was co-run by Gerard Cosloy, who previously ran the great, highly influential 1980s indie label, Homestead Records. 

A number of sonic elements might’ve swayed you to believe the demo rumor. First off, this 11-song album has two versions of two songs. Neither is supremely different than its twin, but both well worth including, especially the two “Catholic Education”s, with flailing, star-burst guitar licks, jumpy drums, and singalong “bop-bada-bop-bop-bop-ba”s – so exciting and bright amongst mostly disconsolate 1991 indie rock, there was no problem hearing it again. 

 

AUDIO: Teenage Fanclub “A Catholic Education”

The lead vocals, more forward on later albums, droll along here, often mid-mix, sometimes off-key, dripping with sarcasm, but then up into more beautiful depths, and back to droll again. Plus the great, droopy back-up chants that feel like you can see the guys laughing as they’re recording them. “Everybody’s Fool” – with the “I don’t fuckin’ care. I don’t fuckin’ caaaare” chorus – is some kind of defining Generation X ur-anthem. 

The mix, in general, is the kind of scraggly, over-fuzzed and powerfully tousled type that us obsessives always love about our favorite band’s latter day “unmixed” bootlegs, that sometimes have a fire the original album might’ve doused a bit. Here was an album that didn’t futz around, retaining garage band style within future big star (lower case, at least in the UK) pop songwriting prowess. 

Whatever, nevermind. We all know what history decided as the zeitgeist. Though if you want to experience a more energetic, even soulful example of what the gratingly over-simplified Slacker Generation also ironically drank their St. Ides too, A Catholic Education is your best bet.

We tracked down Gerard Cosloy for his memories of that Matador newborn.

 

VIDEO: Teenage Fanclub “Everything Flows”

 

So give us the basic who, how, and whens of discovering Teenage Fanclub.

Stephen McRobbie of the Pastels had sent me a cassette of what would eventually be A Catholic Education. There was some thought about asking them to put it out on Homestead, but my tenure there was coming to a close, and Chris Lombardi had just started Matador during the latter half of 1989. The tape had become a big favorite of ours, and something that was being traded back and forth amongst our friends. 

  

When was the first time you met them and/or saw them live?

They came to NYC for a handful of shows; crashed on the floor of the Matador office in the summer of 1990. 

 

I heard way back that A Catholic Education was essentially a demo the band sent you, and that they didn’t really want to release it. Is there any truth to that?

It might be fair to characterize it as a demo.  I don’t know if they didn’t really want to release it. We certainly didn’t force them to! 

 

Was it tough to get them over to the States to tour? I know it’s an expensive endeavor.

Matador wasn’t involved in their North American touring career. We haphazardly “hosted” them on their first NYC visit, and tried to find borrowed gear, etc., but by the time they were actually doing real tours, they had a booking agent, etc. We were long out of the picture. 

Teenage Fanclub A Catholic Education, Matador 1990

Was Matador in the running for releasing Bandwagonesque, or were they off to Geffen pretty quickly?

Matador had an option for a second album. Teenage Fanclub were negotiating with U.S. majors very shortly after A Catholic Education came out. I think they very quickly reached the decision that we were too small / disorganized an operation for them – or at least we were at the time – and it probably didn’t help that nearly everyone within earshot of the band was encouraging such a move. The Don Fleming-produced EP, The King, was delivered to us, in our estimation, as an attempt to fulfill their contractual obligations, as opposed to say, release a real album. We passed on it. 

It took a little while, but an agreement was reached between Matador and Geffen. I think it’s fair to say there were some hurt feelings on both sides, well, mine anyway. But that was 80,000 years ago, and those guys went onto make some tremendous records for a long time afterwards.  

 

I believe there was a Fire Records vinyl reissue of A Catholic Education in 2010. Did you ever have any sort of plans to reissue it with extra demos, B-sides, that sort of thing? 

North American rights to A Catholic Education reverted to Teenage Fanclub, and I believe Merge is planning a reissue. 

 

Do you still keep in touch with the band?

I low-key stalk Norman (Blake, singer/guitarist) on social media, or he low-key stalks me. One of those things. Chris and Norman exchange email every now and then to catch up on business affairs. I hope things are well in their camp. Recent records and tours would indicate so. 

 

 

 

 

 

Eric Davidson

Eric Davidson is a freelance writer from Queens; singer of New Bomb Turks; author of We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988–2001, and former Managing Editor of CMJ. Follow him @lanceforth.

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