The Glasgow indie band's five classic albums on the Creation label (albeit one that eventually came out on Sony) are reissued today in lavish vinyl editions. Co-frontman Norman Blake talks us through a 10-year period at the far reaches of the grunge and Britpop explosions
Best track: ‘The Concept’
Norman Blake: “It was a good team spirit at Creation Records in those days. My Bloody Valentine were recording ‘Loveless’, Primal Scream were recording ‘Screamadelica’ and we were recording this. I don’t know who submitted their album first, but I’m going to guess that My Bloody Valentine were last because Kevin Shields likes to take his time. Those three records were really the first big successes Creation had. They didn’t really have any money at the time and at least one of [label heads] Alan McGee or Dick Green remortgaged their home to pay for recording sessions. We hadn’t actually signed a contract with them so we could have made those recordings and left, which shows how trusting they were.
‘Bandwagonesque’ did better than any of us expected, and even brought us success in America. We’d been in the US in a couple of times before – [first album] ‘Catholic Education’ was released on Matador so we’d been over there, played CBGBs a couple of times – but this moved us up to another level, and we did two or three tours in the space of six months. We also toured with Nirvana on the European leg of the ‘Nevermind’ tour around this time, and it was amazing to witness that phenomenon. I’d met Kurt when with Eugene Kelly from The Vaselines on the ‘Bleach’ tour – Kurt was a big fan of his. They became the biggest band in the world very, very quickly and we got to watch thousands of people go crazy to them every night. They were really nice people and they still are – we played with Foo Fighters last year cos Dave asked us and he’s still just a lovely, really nice human being.”
Fun fact! Gene Simmons of Kiss threatened to sue the band over the record sleeve. Says Norman: “He claimed he owned the rights to the money bag. It was actually clip art that Raymond found, but Gene Simmons came along and said it was his and threatened to sue us. We ended up giving him a token amount of money. He was trying to have a bit of fun, you know. We haven’t met him and I’ve no desire to meet him.”
The difficult not-quite-second album
Best track: ‘Norman 3’
Norman Blake: “It was difficult to make. We went into the studio and we had 40 fragments of songs. Too much information, you know? We have three songwriters in the group, which makes it easier to write albums because you get the best of each person’s new songs and you’re sharing the load, but we had too much here.
“We spent months making it and it took a long time to get over the line. We were relatively happy with it, but we’d become a bit disillusioned. It wasn’t as well received as ‘Bandwagonesque’, but that’s the way it goes. It did make us determined to approach the next one differently.”
Fun fact! Many of the song titles are working titles. Norman: “Very often what happens is we have working titles that we ended up keeping. That explains ‘Commercial/Alternative’ and ‘Norman 3’ – that’s the third of my songs that we recorded for the album. It would go ‘Gerry 1’, ‘Raymond 1’, and so on.”
The Britpop success
‘Grand Prix’ (1995)
Best track: ‘Sparky’s Dream’
Norman Blake: “After the ‘Thirteen’ debacle, we decided we would write all of the songs before we went into the studio and actually rehearse for this one. We spent a month or two refining the songs, and we brought in a producer we met while visiting Frank Black, a guy called David Bianco who sadly passed away a few weeks ago. He brought a real focus to the whole project, and we recorded it very quickly – six weeks total. I met my wife Christa when we were making that album – she was the housekeeper at The Manor studios where we recorded, so I have very fond memories of that.
“I don’t think we were trying to capitalise on the Britpop thing, just to write better songs. Again, having three songwriters helps: I remember Gerry [Love] coming in with ‘Sparky’s Dream’ and it was really inspiring to myself and Raymond [McGinley].
“There were a lot of good albums at the time – it seemed that ‘indie’ bands could have hits – ‘Common People’ came out around that time, for example. We toured with Radiohead on the ‘OK Computer’ tour off the back of this album. They were incredible, the amount of effort they put into it. Jonny Greenwood ended up doing our lights for us. I think he was bored – he asked if he could. We had a lot of fun with those guys on that tour.”
Fun fact: The racing car on the sleeve really was slugged up with TFC livery – no Photoshop there! “That was the great thing about Creation – you could have a mad idea and they’d just say yes. A week later it’d be happening.”
The biggest hit
‘Songs From Northern Britain’ (1998)
Best track: ‘Ain’t That Enough’
Norman Blake: “I sort of see it as a continuation from ‘Grand Prix’. We had a good break after touring but we were on a bit of a roll. It’s an album I like very much, although I not enough of a masochist to listen to it myself. The name of the album was a bit of a cheeky take on the Britpop thing: no one ever calls Scotland ‘Northern Britain’.
“We started working with David Bianco again on this but we had a bit of a falling out with him so we finished it with George Shilling at Air Studios in London. I remember Oasis were downstairs recording ‘Be Here Now’, maybe. We could hear this dull thud coming through the floor. One afternoon Liam comes up to the studio and invites us down for a playback and a few beers. We walked in the studio and realised why we could hear the thud – they had a full PA system in there. Anyway, Liam sits us all down, Owen Morris presses play and Liam mimes the whole album for us, strutting about singing, mimicking Noel’s guitar solos and stuff like that. It was really funny. He’s a very good host.”
Fun fact! The photographs were taken by Donald Milne, who shot ‘A Different Class’ for Pulp. We went for a little road trip around the highlands for about three days.
The end of an era
Best track: ‘I Need Direction’
Norman Blake: “While we were recording this, Alan McGee came to the studio and said, ‘Look, we’re gonna be folding the label.’ We had maybe two more albums in the deal. He said, ‘Either Sony will want to pick this up, or if not, you can just take it and do what you want with it.’ Sony, who took over Creation’s roster, did decide to release it. It was a transitional period for us, working with a new group of people, and it didn’t quite work. I’m happy with the album and I’m pleased it’s being reissued because I don’t think it had enough exposure the first time around. We’d been very prolific, but after this was tumbleweeds! Partly getting older, and I suppose we did a lot of touring after ‘Howdy’. We consciously took a little break after ‘Howdy’, but we had a great run on Creation.”
Fun fact! Part of the album was recorded at the London Astoria, the much-loved venue lost to London’s Crossrail.