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C86 And All That: The 25th Anniversary
Jim Keoghan , March 9th, 2011 03:36

Jim Keoghan explains why the C86 cassette compilation has a far more important legacy in independent music than just giving rise to jangly indie-pop

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As soon as a jingly-jangly indie band appears today, the C86 tag isn't far behind. And yet, this wasn't always the case. Over time we seem to have diminished a scene that was far more musically and culturally complex that is often assumed. For all its janglyness, C86 was about much more than just that.

Looking back 25 years to the original C86 era, the Britain of then might be unrecognisable to us today. Unemployment into the millions, rising inflation, an unrepentant Tory Government; it's difficult to comprehend, but that's what life really was like. Musically, Live Aid (which had taken place a year earlier) perfectly exemplified the landscape of the time with a rosta of bands so irredeemably anodyne they managed to make Queen look interesting.

Against this background, a musical rebellion was fermenting. At first it began in isolated pockets around the country, in places like Bristol and Glasgow but would soon coalesce to produce one of the most eclectic scenes in the short history of independent music.

One of the earliest people to really pick up on this change was Roy Carr, then a journalist with the NME.

"During the mid 80s, a few of us at the paper were starting to hear and see a load of bands coming through with a different sound to that which had dominated the independent scene for much of the earlier part of the decade. You got the feeling that something was happening, like the ground was shifting slightly."

At the time, the NME was fond of putting together and releasing mix-tapes covering any number of different genres. It might sound quaint today in an age of unfettered access to anything ever recorded, but in those far off days a simple mix-tape could be one of the best chances for its readers to get hold of something new.

"We thought we'd do one of these for what was happening in indie music at the time. I'd done it for the paper before in 1981 - the imaginatively titled C81 - and that had been quite popular. So a few of us got together and started picking the bands we wanted to go on the tape."

The tape did well, selling thousands of copies via mail order and eventually being released as an LP a year later by Rough Trade. According to Sean Dickson, former lead singer with The Soup Dragons, this success acted as something of a catalyst - not just on the 22 bands featured, but on the scene as a whole.

"The tape was the key to the whole C86 thing taking off," he says. "Aside from its impact on our profile, which was big, its release threw a spotlight on everything. I think what you can say is that it made what was underground suddenly over-ground. It took all these little scenes from around the country and pushed them together into the limelight - scenes like mine in Glasgow, where bands like us and Primal Scream had been knocking around for a few years; going to the same gigs, enjoying the same taste in music and sharing a similar attitude in the way that we made music."

What's striking about the bands both on the tape and those associated with the scene is the lack of a defining sound. If you listen to it today, the NME tape alone sounds like a load of bands with very little in common.

"We sounded nothing like a lot of the groups," says Kev Hopper, bassist at the time with Stump. "Our song, 'Buffalo', is totally different to something like 'Breaking Lines' by The Pastels. When people today think of C86 it's the bands with the fey melodies and jangly guitars that come to mind. But there were many other groups that were loud and energetic, such as Big Flame and The Wedding Present, and then people like us and Bogshed who were quite experimental. Listen to the tape today and it's clear that the scene was about much more than just indie-pop."

It is possible to pick your way through C86 and find several bands whose music did share bits in common. Many of those from Glasgow, such as The Pastels and Primal Scream, indulged in the more classically fey sound normally associated with C86, whereas on the Ron Johnson label, acts like The Shrubs, Big Flame and A Witness released songs that were fast and furious. But these connections were limited, and overall there is little to unite all the groups together, beyond a certain under-produced quality that characterised much of what was released during this period.

"The thing about music round then is that the people making it were drawing their influences from so many different places," says John Robb, whose book Death to Trad Rock catalogues many of the bands around at the time. "Yes, there were bands that were heavily into the Velvet Underground and producing jangly pop, but there were others who were taking ideas from punk, blues, jazz, funk, rock & roll, ska, dub and anything else they could get their hands on and then twisting it all into something new."

And yet to say that these groups had nothing at all to unite them would be wrong. One of the strongest shared characteristics evident in the scene was the rediscovery of punk's DIY ethic. "This was all about bands doing it for themselves," says John Robb. "This aspect of the scene isn't always appreciated. There was no grovelling to major labels. Bands pressed their own records, put on their own gigs, designed their own record sleeves and published their own fanzines. It could often come across as quite amateurish but most of the time that was because those involved didn't care about being slick. This wasn't corporate rock; these bands didn't have to sell millions. They were making music their own way. This was independent music in the truest sense of the word. Anti-establishment and everything that trad-rock wasn't."

Yet despite its obvious musical and cultural complexity, over time C86 has been reduced to just one thing: journalistic short-hand for indie-pop. Its role in the creation of this genre is certainly an important one; the jingly-jangly sound we all know so well was formed during the mid-to-late 80s. C86 bands played a huge part in this, building on the foundations laid by Postcard Records at the beginning of the decade. Indie pop, in all its various forms since, owes a debt to bands such as The Pastels, The Shop Assistants and The Bodines.

But this shouldn't be the only recognised legacy of C86. Some of its more abrasive groups have been quoted as influences by bands as diverse as the Manic Street Preachers, Lambchop and Franz Ferdinand. What's more, its success stories included groups like The Wedding Present, who reflected the energetic side of the scene. And a few years after C86 had fizzled out, its cultural dimension was also a clear spiritual influence on Riot Grrrl - something acknowledged by bands who possessed the same DIY ethic, such as Bikini Kill and Bratmobile.

C86 as a scene and a tag is a more complex beast than we give it credit for. In the spirit of the DIY ethic this is my attempt to get off my arse and do something to right the wrong that has been done to C86 over the last thirty years. Spread the word dear reader; C86 was jangly, C86 was fey but C86 was also about much more than that too.

Track Listing

Side One

Primal Scream - 'Velocity Girl'
The Mighty Lemon Drops - 'Happy Head'
The Soup Dragons - 'Pleasantly Surprised'
The Wolfhounds - 'Feeling So Strange Again'
The Bodines - 'Therese'
Mighty Mighty - 'Law'
Stump - 'Buffalo'
Bogshed - 'Run to the Temple'
A Witness - 'Sharpened Sticks'
The Pastels - 'Breaking Lines'
Age of Chance - 'From Now On, This Will Be Your God'

Side Two

The Shop Assistants - 'It's Up to You'
Close Lobsters - 'Firestation Towers'
Miaow - 'Sport Most Royal'
Half Man Half Biscuit - 'I Hate Nerys Hughes (From The Heart)'
The Servants - 'Transparent'
The Mackenzies - 'Big Jim (There's No Pubs In Heaven)'
Big Flame - 'New Way (Quick Wash And Brush Up With Liberation Theology)'
Fuzzbox - 'Console Me'
McCarthy - 'Celestial City'
The Shrubs - 'Bullfighter's Bones'
The Wedding Present - 'This Boy Can Wait'

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Johnny Nothing
Mar 9, 2011 10:53am

And yet only two of the bands featured went on to any major success: Fuzzbox with a short-lived pop career and Primal Scream with a sound very removed from the one on this comp. The first time I heard that jangly indie pop sound was Altered Images doing Happy Birthday on Top Of The Pops in 1981. And then the Smiths came along a year later.

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Stavros P. Leibowitz
Mar 9, 2011 11:41am

"Looking back 30 years to the original C86 era" - 25 years, shurely? Clue's in the title after all...

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John Doran
Mar 9, 2011 11:41am

In reply to Johnny Nothing:

I'd say that The Wedding Present did go on to have success. They were a mainstage at Reading band for about five or six years and Bizarro and Sea Monsters both sold well. Also, Age Of Chance had a brief dalliance with fame.

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Mar 9, 2011 12:20pm

In reply to John Doran:

The Soup "There's always been a dance element to our music" Dragons hit paydirt and we're pretty popular in the US too. And Half Man Half Biscuit are still at it.

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Chris Sables
Mar 9, 2011 2:58pm

It doesn't really matter who went on to do what...these were very different times and breaking through into any kind of mainstream success was pretty much impossible for many many reasons. And why would you want to anyway? Not really the point I would think.

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Guy not from Bury
Mar 9, 2011 3:11pm

The majority of these bands did have some small scale success at the time, and some endured for ages on their own term (Pastels). Sadly some i.e. the Lemon Drops, Bodines, Shop Assistants & Stump signed to major labels as I recall, but failed to storm the charts or break the rigid Radio 1 daytime formula, leaving their discs languishing in the 10p clearance bin of my local record store... Bargains I was glad of, while also sad it seemed guitar bands just couldn't compete with Rick Astley and Europe, even when over produced and lavishly plugged.

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Mar 9, 2011 3:23pm

The trouble with concentrating with on C86 is that it misses the whole scene. Bands like the Membranes were pioneering the whole noisenik sound in 1983/84 and by 1985 the whole thing had peaked. Lots of packed gigs and a whole fanzine network (should have been mentioned).
The NME typically arrived late and chose a lot of the wrong bands and changed the focus on the whole scene and re-wrote history to suit themselves.
Thank fuck John Robb did the Death To Trad Rock book last year.

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tophat and tails!
Mar 9, 2011 3:27pm

Wot! no Three Johns, Nightingales, Membranes! the NME, as ever, got it wrong.

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John Doran
Mar 9, 2011 5:06pm

In reply to :

The fanzines are mentioned. By John Robb. Who is in the piece.

You forget that there were younger people like me who found this invaluable. Speaking as someone who was 14 and 15 and living in St Helens and not able through youth/skintness to live the glamourous lifestyle of going to The Bull And Gate to see Bogshed, this was an essential glimpse into something different.

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Mar 9, 2011 6:08pm

As always, gotta hand it to you guys for digging a bit deeper with your features. Sending our readers over here now. And if you want to hear the whole comp, it's streaming here:

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Mar 10, 2011 1:14pm

Glad to see Stump get a mention here.

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Nottingham's 'Mr Sex'
Mar 10, 2011 2:24pm

In reply to :

God yeah, Stump. The sound of Friday tea-times of the mid-80s, trying to see how long your Dad would let you watch The Tube until his patience snapped.

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Ronan P
Mar 11, 2011 9:12am

Big Flame were one of the best British bands of the 80s, full stop.

P.S. "How much is this fish?"

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Mar 11, 2011 10:27am

Live Aid... with a rosta of bands so irredeemably anodyne they managed to make Queen look interesting.

Yeah, Queen, worst live band ever...

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John Doran
Mar 11, 2011 10:31am

In reply to Ronan P:


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Paddy Forwood
Mar 11, 2011 11:49am

excellent piece - as well as John Robb's 'Death To Trad Rock' compilation, the 'Commercially Unfriendly' compilation on gott Discs is well worth checking out, featuring amongst others A Witness, Nightingales, Inca Babies, the Shrubs, Pigbros, Membranes and Big Flame.

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Ronan P
Mar 11, 2011 9:38pm

Shrubs / Noseflutes / Jackdaw With Crowbar. If they hadn't existed I'd probably have made them up anyway... TOTAL DOLE/BEDSIT BRILLIANCE.

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Michael Loulie'
Mar 17, 2011 6:33pm

Love it still got the vinyl, and always will.

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Barthold Pelzer
Mar 21, 2011 6:42pm

The Mackenzies did record one great Peel session in the spring of 1986 with "Give me a very thing" as the standout track. Never heard of them since then. Their output on Ron Jonson Records was not that thrilling.
I fondly remember their existence.

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Fat Latch
Mar 22, 2011 12:56pm

biggest selling indie LP of 1985/86, Half Man Half Biscuit...not a mention...well done that man!

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Mar 23, 2011 2:01am

Maybe it was because I was 19, but this remains my favourite phase of indie far. The Wedding Present (or at least David Gedge) remains my favourite act to emerge from that decade.

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George King
Mar 24, 2011 4:29am

some great stuff. let's not forget that mccarthy were great social commentators with excellent albums before morphing into the delightful stereolab

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A Certain Romance
Mar 24, 2011 10:02pm

Downloadable here:

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Alex Canning
Mar 28, 2011 4:27pm

In reply to Johnny Nothing:

McCarthy kinda did, not as McCarthy obviously but Stereolab have had a long career

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sean dickson
Mar 28, 2011 9:38pm

In reply to :

the classic quote that was never said by us and carried through our life
what is most pathetic about it is why would someone say that in the first place ?

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Clarissa Wrightson-Dick
Apr 4, 2011 11:30am

In reply to sean dickson :

I always remember round about the time of Madchester some NME reporter 0pointing out that "Soup Dragon" rhymed with "Bandwagon". Said it all, really.

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Across The Pond
Apr 4, 2011 3:32pm

Close Lobsters' , 'Headache Rhetoric' needs to be certified a classic;musically, lyrically and also just for its shear 'weight'.

Pull it out and listen to 'Nature Thing' or 'Knee Trembler'; MSP could only wish they produced something this grand. ;)

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Apr 8, 2011 4:35am

The Servants (well, one of them) went on to become successful, Luke Haines of The Auteurs, Black Box Recorder, Baader-Meinhof and solo fame. He said the years spent after the intial burst of interest in The Servants following C86 taught him everything he needed to know about when The Autuers began to create a buzz in mid 1993.

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Apr 12, 2011 10:08am

That Stump song sounds like a StSanders redub.

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Apr 26, 2011 5:34pm

In reply to Johnny Nothing:

ay bleeve the "Mighty" Lemon Drops had a US career of sorts. several albums on SONY
I like their debut album. It is good. Like An Angel should still be revered. So let's.

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Gary Lineker
May 28, 2012 4:37am

c86 mon

shite today like foster the people pumped up kicks is a direct rip off of this

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udah enak aja
Mar 3, 2013 8:53pm

Permisi, ada yg mau beli macan?

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