cd86 – “48 Tracks From The Birth Of Indie-Pop” (Sanctuary) 2006
1984 was, like 1960 and 1975 before it, a black hole for pop music. The boom that had created New Pop (ABC, Human league, Soft Cell, and other post-punk subversives) had inadvertently borne us Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw and Paul Young. The totemic Rough Trade label had already crossed to the glossy side with The Smiths and Scritti Politti; Postcard was dead; Lloyd Cole, in these desperate times, looked a genuine contender.
The major labels must have felt they had lost the punk battle but won the rock war. Sanitisation was everywhere, embodied in the new compact disc format – clean and expensive. Chuck out your grubby vinyl and celebrate the brave new, pink and grey world. Recycle, repackage, double yer money.
A few persevered as all around was devoured by Phil Collins’ gated snare sound. The Nightingales, The Membranes and The Three Johns were gruff and tuneless, second cousins to The Fall one and all.
But people clung to them like debris on the ocean; they were the last remnants of what had been a thriving ever-mutating underground pop scene just three years previously.
Alan McGee was one of those who persevered. He had moved to London from Glasgow and started The Living Room – upstairs at The Adams Arms in Fitzrovia in 1983, putting on surviving punk-era heroes like Television Personalities, The Mekons, and Mark Perry’s ATV. Half poet, half dancing freak-show The legend! was one of the few regulars, and he soon became the first act on McGee’s fledgling Creation label.
Soon though, new acts appeared: from London came The Loft, The June Brides; from Scotland The Pastels, The Jasmine Minks. All shared a scratchiness, an air of solidarity, an ear for a great tune.
Relocating to Chalk Farm, in 1984 The Living Room became the hottest venue in town overnight when a quartet of East Kilbride miscreants called the Jesus And Mary Chain made their messy, deafeningly loud debut. The fire in their belly, unleashed that November on the “Upside Down” 45, kick-started a nationwide underground movement.
The sound was raw, the influences were Warhol’s Factory, Pebbles albums, The Byrds, Buzzcocks, Ronettes and Shangri-La’s. Creation led the way and by the mid ’80s we were in the midst of a true-pop, anti-rockist revolution. It was under-produced and under-nourished, but it felt vital. We needed it.
The following spring, the NME corralled the new sound on a cassette compilation called C86 and the emerging, hungry beat groups had themselves a tag.
C86 was DIY out of necessity. The mid eighties were the peak of Thatcher’s Britain. The 100% consumerist society she envisaged was only a reality for the chosen few: most were on the receiving end of the decline of heavy industry. No jobs, no cash, no choice but to do everything yourself within your means. The look of C86, then, was second-hand charm.
Johnnie Johnson of The Siddeleys aspired to look like Marlene Dietrich. Other girls opted for the Leslie Caren look in the L Shaped Room, kinda beatnik Audrey Hepburn. Boys sported the quiff – part Morrissey, part Albert Finney – or the fringe moptop pioneered by Edwyn Collins, taken to it’s pudding bowl extreme by Stephen Pastel.
The ultimate role model, for boys and girls, was Jesus And Mary Chain drummer Bobby Gillespie. Truly, it was an asexual scene. This goes some way to explaining how girls in groups were suddenly accepted without any conditions. Just three or four years earlier, a political stance was a necessity for groups like The Raincoats, Slits and Au Pairs to be taken seriously (or just a sexy French accent in the case of The Mo-dettes).
The likes of Dolly Mixture – a fabulous pop group with melodies to melt – were belittled and patronised horribly. They duly became a touchstone for C86 acts, musically and sartorially.
Of course the “scene”, like any scene, barely existed. Like squabbling Marxist factions, groups who had much in common built up petty rivalries. The June Brides and The Jasmine Minks were the biggest names at Alan McGee’s Living Room club and couldn’t stand the sight of each other.
Only when The Jesus And Mary Chain exploded and stole their two-headed crown did they realise they were basically soulmates. Some found The Wedding Present too macho, others considered The Pastels too fey.
Some groups on the NME compilation (The McKenzies, A Witness, Stump) were genuinely dire, but attitude over ability often won the day. This was a generation weened on punk ethics without the ‘year zero’ albatross. If they couldn’t capture that Phil Spector thunder in the confines of Alaska Studios, they were happy to try.
Politics may not have appeared high on the agenda of C86 groups, but they could afford to sing love songs when their existence and way of life – their way of distributing information through fanzines, and music through utilitarian cassettes, placcy-bagged 45s and (most ruthlessly DIY) flexi-discs – clearly stated their socialist creed.
Around the country a series of non-profiteering venues and promoters to feed this network: Paul Metcalfe at Lincoln’s In-Psychlopedia; Jeff Barrett at The Black Horse and later The Falcon in Camden Town; places like the grandly named Hull Adelphi which was no more than a hastily converted terraced house.
Some of the best 45s of the era were made by the more atypical acts, or one-or-two single wonders. Leeds group This Poison‘s rickety, relentless “Poised Over The Pause Button” (a nod to home-taping) and Meat Whiplash‘s head-cleaving “Don’t Slip Up”, the best of many Mary Chain clones, fit into the latter category.
Workers Revolutionary Party members McCarthy, described by Nicky Wire as the great lost group of all time, and fellow Barking-ites The Wolfhounds were both hard to pin down, and sounded all the stronger for it.
The classic sound was airy, ringing, and effervescent. Most would concur that Primal Scream‘s “Velocity Girl” takes the cake. But then there’s The Sea Urchins “Pristine Christine” which, at the time, seemed a couple of years out of ate. Now it chimes in with a claim to be the era’s definitive 45.
By the time it was released, at the tail end of ’87, a lot of the impetus was gone. What had seemed like something that could challenge the majors as punk had done ten years earlier, dissipated when these same majors signed up and de-balled some of the bigger names. The immediate future of pop turned out to be nothing to do with C86, or even guitars, but had been brewing in Detroit and Chicago’s bedrooms and nite clubs.
With 20 years distance, C86 feels like a great British DIY boom in the tradition of skiffle, or Merseybeat. Like it’s predecessors it was in the vanguard of a revolution rather than the revolution itself. For the longest time thereafter, C86 was almost a term of abuse, synonymous with tweeness and under-achievement. The fact that dance heroes like Andrew Weatherall and Paul Van Dyk had been camp followers, was irrelevant.
More obvious with the passing time is that, with the honourable exception of the Postcard label, it was the starting point for indie music. It lit the touch paper for The Stone Roses, then Oasis, and eventually all manner of million selling acts.
The sound – buffetted and no longer sounding like it was recorded in a garden shed – has become the mainstream. Back then it was the underground, it was socialism in practice, it was people shouting out loud to prove they were alive.
(Bob Stanley, September 2006)
- “Velocity Girl” – Primal Scream
- “The Sun, A Small Star” – The Servants
- “Around And Around” – Hurrah!
- “Why Does The Rain?” – The Loft
- “Vibrato” – East Village
- “Pristine Christine” – The Sea Urchins
- “What Went Wrong This Time” – The Siddeleys
- “Anorak City” – Another Sunny Day
- “Get Out Of My Dream” – Clouds
- “Golden Shower” – The Boy Hairdressers
- “Ask Johnny Dee” – The Chesterfields
- “He Blows In” – The Raw Herbs
- “Paul McCartney” – Laugh
- “You Didn’t Love Me Then” – The Hit Parade
- “Like Frankie Lymon” – The Weather Prophets
- “Sunday To Saturday” – The June Brides
- “I Had An Excellent Dream” – The Dentists
- “Everybody Knows the Monkey” – Mighty Mighty
- “E102” – BMX Bandits
- “Talulah Gosh” – Talulah Gosh
- “Cut Me Deep” – The Jasmine Minks
- “I’ll Still Be There” – Razorcuts
- “Therese” – The Bodines
- “Paradise Estate” – Television Personalities
- “Upside Down” – The Jesus And Mary Chain
- “Really Stupid” – The Primitives
- “It Always Rains On Sunday” – The Groove Farm
- “Black Country Chainsaw Massacre” – Pop Will Eat Itself
- “Come Get Me” – 14 Iced Bears
- “Sign On The Line” – Fizzbombs
- “Anti-Midas Touch” – The Wolfhounds
- “This Boy Can Wait” – The Wedding Present
- “Bible of the Beats” – Age Of Chance
- “Safety Net” – The Shop Assistants
- “Just Too Bloody Stupid” – Close Lobsters
- “Dukla Prague Away Kit” – Half Man Half Biscuit
- “Don’t Slip Up” – Meat Whiplash
- “I Could Be in Heaven” – The Flatmates
- “If I Said” – The Darling Buds
- “Poised Over the Pause Button” – This Poison
- “Jack and Julian” – The Bachelor Pad
- “On Tape” – The Pooh Sticks
- “Flowers Are in The Sky” – Revolving Paint Dream
- “Whole Wide World” – The Soup Dragons
- “Frans Hals” – McCarthy
- “Like An Angel” – The Mighty Lemon Drops
- “Why Popstars Can’t Dance” – Big Flame
- “Baby Honey” – The Pastels