Various Artists - C86

by Rob Taylor Rating:9.5 Release Date:2014-06-09

As in the evolution of all living things, the evolution of music involves chance, invention, inspiration and a little bit of chaos theory. All is in evidence in this re-issue of the groundbreaking 1986 NME C86 cassette release, extended to three discs jam-packed with indie scrumptiousness. The C86 compendium is more than just a snapshot of a great phase in British music, it is also cultural and musicological artifact.

Some judicious cherry-picking and genuine affection by the compilers have ensured that the legacy of the original not only lives on, but lays testament to what surely should be regarded as another golden age of pop. That is, one penniless and disenfranchised from corporate support, but sincerely great in spite of it.

The late 1970s saw the birth of punk with its narcissism and political self-consciousness. It was a shot of adrenaline to the veins of a music industry anesthetized by overblown ‘progressive’ or ‘concept’ rock and yet, in the end, its impact was limited by a tendency to patriarchal bluster and self-parody.

In 1984, I had just hit the nightclubs of Sydney. The new romantic movement of Simple Minds, Duran Duran, Visage, Ultravox dominated, as did the trendier clutch of 12in mixes popping up everywhere (see New Order’s 'Blue Monday', Echo & the Bunnymen’s 'The Cutter', and Blancmange’s 'Living on the Ceiling'). For me, it was puffy shirts, baggy pants and pointy shoes. I was, if you like, taken with this new self-conscious glam, and I am eternally grateful that no photographic evidence of my sins can be located.

A friend of mine at the time had adopted a far more nihilistic look than me, with his grey and black attire, cropped hair, black overcoat, and mysterious disposition. He was a Smiths fan, and scornful of us uni-sexual urchins. Needless to add, he was better at attracting the girls, and also the guys because, you know, everything was more androgynous then. 

The move towards altogether cheerier sounds became evident to me when The Cure evolved from singing gloomy songs about cats being grey, to gaily throwing pillows at each other while singing about going to bed. Being from the sullen inner city crowd, I thought my world had collapsed, but of course now I see it was a perfectly rational response to the eternal gloaming of gothic post-punk. Or was it the amyl nitrate.

It was around this time that the whole 'indie' thing surfaced in Great Britain, as anathema to the over-produced alternative music being sprouted by the majors. Little did I know at that time that the NME had released the original C86 cassette tape, or that there was a whole indie movement in its embryonic phase. A whole generation of young British bands were establishing a kind of shambolic pop, full of hooks, chiming guitars and lo-fi recording standards.

The movement was multifarious, borrowing Byrdsian musical ideas from the 60s, and re-introducing the world to fey love songs and glib observations, which the punks had eschewed. They adopted a kind of sexless or anti-macho fashion.

In the United States there was of course a parallel movement in college radio, with altogether shinier, happy and better produced people such as R.E.M., but the C86 thing was more grounded in low-profile live performance and regional exposure, with little regard for chart success. Or little result anyway.

There's some fantastic stuff on this re-issue. I already had the Rough Trade compilation Indiepop 1, which has a lot of crossover. Evidently, Rough Trade re-issued C86 in 1987 to try and garner wider exposure to the market.

In the liner notes to Indiepop 1, mention was made of the exclusions from that compilation of The Soup Dragons, BMX Bandits, The Mighty Lemon Drops, The Primitives, The Wolfhounds, Jasmine Minks - the list goes on. The wrongs perpetrated by that compilation, or at least the limitations, are put right here with the inclusion of all the said artists.

The highlights of C86 re-issued are almost too numerous to mention: you get Bobby Gillespie’s twee mop-top moment with ‘Velocity Girl’; The Pastels; The Wolfhounds; Miaow; the frenetic jangle pop of The Wedding Present; The Mighty Lemon Drops, reminding me a lot of Sunnyboys; the African drumming rhythms, growling bass and snarling vocals of Half Man Half Biscuit; a great track from Kilgour Trout which sounds like it was recorded in the bogs, but is a perfect storm of working class British underground thrash-rock; the funky Caribbean rhythms of Happy Mondays; a lovely, catchy love song by Pop Will Eat Itself; white noise bliss courtesy of Turncoats; unfettered pop joy from BMX Bandits, and it goes on and on. 

It is an embarrassment of riches, and virtually all killer, little filler. I've had it on rotation constantly, and in my view, it's the best compilation of the last 10 years.

In 1989 I was at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark, and one of the highlights for me was The Jesus & Mary Chain. It felt like the end of an era, such was the crowd's lust for other mainstream rock acts like INXS. After that concert I returned to Copenhagen, arriving too late to find hostel accommodation.

Sleeping at the railway station that night, a fellow traveller from England was spinning some club tunes on his boom box. I took to the insurgent rave culture with real vigor, and managed to avoid a whole new era of rock excess, at least until grunge came around. Oasis, Suede anyone? Forget it. This was the era of great, unadulterated indie music.

C86. If you’re a fan of real alternative music, you must have it.

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