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Article Independence

Gawd help us if there's a war: C86 and where it got us

Some, er, I dunno, 28 years ago, roughly speaking, the NME put together a cassette that readers had to cut out tokens and send off for through the post. It wasn’t their first and it wasn’t the last, although eventually they would become cheap enough to just be sticky-taped to the cover. The bands weren’t a “scene” at the time but by being lumped together became one, and the tape became a bedrock for a particular form of bed-wetting British “indie”.

Former NME staffer Andrew Collins has called C86 “the most indie thing to have ever existed”. It surely seems to have been the high watermark.

I take it you’ve worked out where the “86” in C86 came from, and the “C” (cassette, sheesh), and the bands came from around the country: not a single city scene. It came, they went, but not without leaving a mark. We’re still talking about it nearly 30 years later.

The compilation has just been rereleased - some would say recuperated and monetised - as a three-CD box set. Is this the final pillow over the face of “a certain type of indie”? Is Cherry Red indie’s Dignitas?

I know some of the bands and I know the history, but I’ve not had a cassette player for some years. So it’s a fairly clean sheet for the team of C86 when I unwrap the new box set. It comes with a carefully written booklet containing a more detailed and loving history that I’ve got time to pull the covers back on here. But I slip the CD1 version of the original tape in — not the CD2 or CD3 bolster — and listen to it.

Primal Scream sound nothing like Primal Scream of any other era. They sound crisp, nice, Byrds-y, far fewer sheets to the wind that they would in future years. The Soup Dragons’ Pleasantly Surprised could be a missing Buzzcocks seven-inch. In The Mighty Lemon Drops there’s something that the Inspiral Carpets were able to add an organ to, turning it up to king size, and make successful.

Therese by The Bodines, sounds closer to The Smiths — at the height of their powers as a band, if not an influence in 1986 — than anything else here. They aren’t quite as smart, the production isn’t as tightly well made, the lyrics aren’t quite there, the vocals don’t have Morrissey’s somnambulant delivery but you can place them quite easily in the family tree of indie music. When Johnny Marr did a bunk soon after, they could have stepped in.

The Wedding Present seem almost tucked in at the end (of side two of the original tape). But they’re almost fully formed — they are the C86 band that made it big without changing too much. You can hear the following year’s masterpiece of an LP, George Best, starting to trickle out.

Listening to the tracks individually, it’s clear that these bands aren’t of a musical or lyrical family. There’s a spread, but it’s not what sets them apart from each other that’s surprising. They all say — all of them, in those words, in this blanket-coverage, oral history — that it wasn’t a movement.

Sean Dickson from The Soup Dragons: “There was no big movement called C86.”

Kev Hopper of Stump: “It wasn’t as if we felt part of a movement.”

Vix from Fuzzbox: “we didn’t really think of it as a movement.”

Mick Geoghegan out of Mighty Mighty: “It didn’t feel like a movement”

So, honestly, it wasn’t a movement. But was it a shuffling in the same orientation? If there was even a nod in the same direction it wasn’t musically, it was in independence of spirit. These were the bands that grew out of fanzines, DIY, let’s do the show right here (but without the brash confidence of say, punk or Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney) culture. They were taking the ethos of punk and applying it to many different notions of popular music. This is what jazz, or 60s beat boom, or post-punk, or even The Smiths sounded like when played by people with ideas and inspiration and enthusiasm — but without always the skills or the money.

A band no longer have to find a label to get a record out; as the pages of this website and many others will trumpet, crowdfunding is where it is at. Bands can set their ambitions at the level of their fanbase and produce release after release: without too much risk, albeit also without much chance of it getting any further. It’s a safer form of DIY, the preordering leaves less chance of boxes of CDs hidden around the house, under the mattress and in the ottoman. Unfortunately for us fans, it also means email after email of too much information about vinyl pressing problems and the band’s medical conditions, when we’d probably just rather pop to Swordfish and hand over a tenner.

From 1986 until the advent of Britpop, the C86 bands and their ideological children inspired reams of NME copy and at some point the definition of indie mutated and transformed to meet the music press’s caricature of what C86 meant. Shambling, drippy, pacifist, Walter the Softies, the trope went. The music press would print pictures of them and their ideological children and state: “Gawd help us if there’s a war.” It wasn’t the independence they were writing about. By the mid 90s the idea of indie was changed for good and certainly wasn’t about which label you were on. The music press’s indie chart—which did at that point simply list records released on non-major labels— would be dominated by underground dance vinyl. You could pick up a sparsely recorded, scrappily packaged, limited edition single by SMASH, say and find out they were on Hut Records. If you looked harder it would become clear that Hut was Virgin; everyone was at it.

At this point Thatcherism — which C86 can be seen as a reaction against — found its place in music acceptability. It would be called “aspiration”, this was the Blair era after all, but it was all about being the biggest and the best. Oasis were on Creation, as Primal Scream had been and still were, but boss Alan McGee had long since sold out to Sony. The bands themselves at this point didn’t want to sell out — they wanted to make sure there was always stock of their product on the shelves.

The Shop Assistants, The Shrubs, Bogshed: those names weren’t of bands who really cared how many units they shifted. The look of C86 - the T-shirts and the mumbling down at your plimsolls through a lank fringe - did became a way of life for some of Britain’s finest pop talents. But the bands were important in lots of other ways. Manic Street Preachers bassist, Nicky Wire, was certainly influenced: “McCarthy, probably my favourite band of all time,” he told The Guardian the last time people were looking back at C86. “They were quite fey musically, but their lyrics were so political and erudite: We are all bourgeois now, The procession of popular capitalism.”

You can look more directly at Belle and Sebastian or the twee bands that populate a festival like Indietracks, and see a fashion lineage and even that do-it-yourself spirit. But they seem to be trapped in aspic, cut off from the world of culture in the same way that modern-day teds, psychobillies, punks or northern soul aficionados are. This isn’t really a legacy.

The Wedding Present, today’s Primals and a more laid back Half Man Half Biscuit are all still going. None of them fit into the mould now, as we’ve seen they didn’t really then — you wouldn’t immediately put them all on the same bill. So we don’t now have a collection of bands to look at, just a collection of nearly 20 fantastic records.

At the time, as with punk, C86 must have sounded like anyone could do it — and that would have been the reason that it sounded so wonderful.

Time to get up, turn it over, spool the header to the right place with a pencil, and play it again.

Photo by Libby Bounds

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