C86: The myths about the NME's indie cassette debunked

A new edition of the influential NME C86 compilation will surely lead to sneers about bedwetting wimps. But there was more to it than that …

So, C86, you are back! The news that Cherry Red is re-releasing the influential 1986 NME tape, now as a three-CD set with the original 22 tracks augmented by loads more music of often startling obscurity, will cause those who had bowl haircuts at the time to rejoice. But equally, there will be an awful lot of sneering from those who believed the cassette was what, in the end, caused indie to stultify, changing it from the term given to music produced and distributed independently to the name given to pallid guitar music made by middle-class students. Rarely has a compilation of largely unsuccessful groups aroused so much ire. So let’s take this opportunity to debunk some myths about C86.

1 The C86 bands were boring jangle-poppers

The original cassette wasn’t actually a parade of fey, anorak-wearing wimps moaning about how no one liked them. It would become identified with those groups because the term C86 became easy shorthand, but they were only one strand. C86 was actually a successor to C81, the NME cassette of five years before that rounded up some of the more interesting music of that year (Orange Juice sat alongside Cabaret Voltaire; James Blood Ulmer was followed by Ian Dury), but set itself up for criticism by being far more limited in scope: it was, in its entirety, white guitar bands. However, let’s not forget it captured what was a genuinely exciting scene of bands around the country who were put on bills by fanzine writers running local club nights. And they did not all sound the same. In fact, there’s a clear division between the pop groups (Primal Scream, the Pastels, Shop Assistants et al.) and those were anything but pop – the surrealist Beefheartsisms of Stump, the angry dissonance of Big Flame (who boasted in interviews about playing jazz funk riffs) and McKenzies, the churning of Age of Chance and Bogshed.

2 The C86 bands were boring solipsists

Not true. Now, there was a certain amount of mumbling into one’s shoes about feeling sad. But two of the groups on the C86 cassette were fiercely political. McCarthy mixed Marxism with Rickenbackers, playing sweet Byrdsy pop with lyrics dripping with vitriol – not for nothing does Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers still name check them frequently. Big Flame took their name from a revolutionary socialist group founded in Liverpool in 1970, and also took on political themes in a postmodern collision of slogans, catchphrases and jokes. After they split, their successor group, the Great Leap Forward, became one of the few indie bands to address the problems of the common agricultural policy with the song If the CAP Fits, Wear It.

3 That‘s two political groups. The rest had no political commitment whatsoever

Politics doesn’t have to be about policy. It’s also about what you do and how you do it. The C86 bands, and the scene that thrived in the mid-80s, were far more political than the countless groups who talked the talk in interviews. First, it was a feminist-friendly movement. Lots of these bands featured women, and often in roles women were rarely seen in: bassists, drummers. “The political aspect has been neglected,” Amelia Fletcher, late of Talulah Gosh, told me in 2004. “It was very, very open to women. Although it wasn’t overtly political, women felt involved because musicianship wasn’t at a premium: you could make the music you wanted to the extent you were able.” It was also regionalist: “It was very much a non-London thing,” Matt Haynes, who co-ran Sarah Records, told me. “There were scenes outside London, with people who had been exchanging letters and fanzines. People didn’t feel the need to go to London to make things happen.” So Scotland had the scene around the Splash One club, with bands including the Pastels, the Jesus and Mary Chain and Primal Scream, and Stephen Pastel’s 53rd and 3rd label. Bristol had the Subway Organization and Sarah. Birmingham had Vindaloo. Nottingham had Ron Johnson. C86 and the associated scene was democratic.

4 But, really, it was just conservative old rock music at heart, wasn’t it?

No! That’s 20-20 hindsight, based on tracing the route from these bands to, say, the Pigeon Detectives, and assuming that if the latter is rubbish, the former must have been. For many of the groups associated with C86, the whole point was that they were not rock groups. They did not celebrate rock’n’roll, they did not plant their feet on the monitors. They were pop groups, taking the lineage of Phil Spector, the Byrds and the Ramones, sometimes all at the same time. Being as incompetent as many of these groups were was a radical statement. It was music of its time and its place. Though whether it will sound as good now is, of course, another matter entirely.


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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