Preview: Franz Ferdinand, Japan, 2006

Franz Ferdinand put Glasgow on rock's world map

Franz Ferdinand's arrival on the music scene last year was hard to miss. Not only did the quirky and infectious dance rock of their debut album stand out, but the video for their breakthrough single Take Me Out – a frenetic collage of Dadaist and Constructivist art – created an image that cut through the amnesia-inducing blandness of most music videos.

With the ambitions revealed in that first album confirmed by the quality of their recently released second album You Could Have It So Much Better, Franz are now one of the biggest acts on the planet with a worldwide network of fans to tour, including three dates here in Japan in February.

Initially the band wanted to give their second album the same title and sleeve as their eponymous debut but in different colors, a practical joke that was inevitably vetoed by their record company, but which reveals the band's sense of irony and gallusness, a Scottish word that best translates as a willingness to try something wild and risky, without worrying too much about the consequences – an attitude that can only help rock n' roll creativity.

Although none of the four members were actually born in Glasgow – singer Alex Kapranos, guitarist Nick McCarthy, and bassist Bob Hardy were all born in the North of England, while drummer Paul Thomson was born in Edinburgh – Franz Ferdinand are very much a Glasgow band, reflecting the city's unique mix of high-brow culture with the hard-headed working class attitude of a post-industrial city. An important aspect of this is the legendary character of Glaswegian audiences that are reputed to be both brutally unforgiving but also incredibly enthusiastic once won over.

"Glasgow is always the gig that people look forward to," drummer Thomson told the Glasgow Evening Times earlier this year. "Everybody wants to do it . . . Some people take offence at having a few plastic pint pots thrown at the stage, but that's how the audience reaches out to you!"

Such audiences are the perfect stick-and-carrot, forcing bands to quickly improve or ditch unsuccessful musical styles by providing 'tough love' and frank critical feedback. Both Kapranos and Thomson had been on the Glasgow music scene for years in below-the-radar bands, trying a wide variety of musical styles, and learning what worked, much of which seems to have to found its way into the final winning formula. Before Franz, Kapranos was in Karelia, a band with a predominantly jazz-based sound, heavily influenced by cult 80s band The Monochrome Set, but he also had a stint in ska outfit The Amphetameanies, and experimental rock outfit The Yummy Fur, where he first met Thomson.

"It makes me feel like laughing whenever people ask me about the pressure of my second album, because this feels like my seventeenth," Kapranos recently told Rolling Stone, referring to his long career before becoming famous.

Guitarist McCarthy, who grew up in Bavaria, was a latecomer to the artistic discipline of the Glasgow scene, arriving in 2002, after training as a classical musician and touring in a group that served up a cocktail of jazz, rock and ethnic world music.

With an indulgent and tolerant music public like Tokyo's or an insouciant and aloof one like London's, the extensive musical influences of the group members would probably have produced a pretentious loose eclectic fusion, but under the blowtorch of Glasgow's demanding and involved audiences, the four musicians have melded these rich ingredients into a tight and distinctive sound that continues to improve on the new album.

The biggest change from their debut is that they have moved beyond the sparse, sometimes harsh-sounding production of their debut to a more textured sound, courtesy of Mars Volta producer Rich Costey. This extends their musical palette without diluting their trademark sound. The first single Do You Want To has all the swagger and impact that Take Me Out had 18 months ago, helped in no small measure by hanging its glam-inflected disco punk on a riff apparently ripped off from one of the catchiest rock songs ever, The Knack's My Sharona.

Where the new production really tells, however, is with the quieter songs, like the affecting Walk Away, with its Smiths-like mood of hollow nonchalance, or the intimate sounding Eleanor Put Your Boots On, a song addressed to Kapranos' present American girlfriend.

Just as Glasgow has helped Franz Ferdinand, so the band has returned the favor by giving the city the musical profile it has long deserved. Last year, on the back of Franz's breakthrough, Time magazine called Glasgow one of Europe's 'secret capitals' because of its contribution to rock music, pointing out its long history as an underground incubator of musical talent. To fans of Simple Minds, Orange Juice, and Primal Scream, this won't come as a surprise, but in recent years the city's musical output has noticeably increased with a glut of bands, like Travis, Belle and Sebastian, Teenage Fanclub, and Snow Patrol all making their mark alongside Franz Ferdinand.

Colin Liddell
International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun
2nd December, 2005
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