The back story is so absurd it almost defies belief: A cassette compilation, assembled by a magazine, comprised of 22 little-known bands and available only via mail order, became so influential that its title became shorthand for an entire genre of music. But that’s exactly what happened with C86, a collection released nearly 30 years ago that continues to be rediscovered at an alarmingly regular rate. It’s routinely described as “the birth of indie,” and its name is synonymous with bashful, guitar-based bands who write earnest, melodic songs characterized by loose, jangling chords. It’s also more than the sum of its attendant parts: Few of its bands ever went on to anything like an actual musical career (save the Wedding Present and Primal Scream, who radically reconfigured their sound before experiencing any success), but taken together, they made a profound, unlikely impact on independent music. On the advent of its second reissue by Cherry Red Records, we talked with 18 of the compilation’s original 22 bands to discuss their memories and impressions of the movement. — J. Edward Keyes, Douglas Wolk and John Everhart
“NEW WAY”: THE INDIE SCENE PRE-86:
Greg Keeffe (Big Flame): Punk happened, and then there was this incredible accelerated culture. ’78 was new wave, in ’79 you had the Specials, by ’80 you had Postcard [Records] and Gang of Four and the Slits. It was an incredible period of time. And then this goth thing happened, and I absolutely hated goth. I thought it was like heavy metal — a return to the bad old days. We were the antithesis of goth. Our raison d’être was to kill goth.
Kev Hopper (Stump): In London, there were lots of bands that were very Lou Reed-y. Lots of bands wearing leather jackets and shades, trying to look cool. They used to present their music in a very dull sort of way — just a set of chords and a fairly ordinary beat. And then there was another section of musicians, who were quite fey and sort of bedroom-y and sang about their feelings and had jangly guitars. I don’t really think that Stump were either of those. We had very unfashionable influences. I was influenced by jazz-rock, you know, Brand X, Return to Forever, that sort of thing, and [vocalist] Mick [Lynch] was influenced by country and western.
David Westlake (the Servants): It seemed difficult to believe, after punk and post-punk, that the masses were lapping up vapid slop from Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Wham! and their halfwit ilk. The standard of music journalism was in decline, too.
The NME and Sounds no longer possessed the integrity and thought which had made them essential reading in the late ’70s. They became desperate for new trends and gimmicks. In the late ’70s, the NME’s Paul Morley and Sounds’ Dave McCullough’s deliberations on aesthetics, and their edicts against histrionics and “rockism” and so on played a part in influencing the young readers who went on to form the C86 bands.
“RUN TO THE TEMPLE”: ENLISTING THE BANDS
Stephen Pastel (the Pastels): The C86 cassette was curated by Neil Taylor, who worked for the NME, and Cerne Canning, who went on to manage Franz Ferdinand. I think it was [mostly made up of] groups that they liked, or that they perceived maybe [had enough in] common to bring everything together.
Sean Dickson (the Soup Dragons): If I remember right, we had just released a flexidisc. We put it in a fanzine which our bass player had called Pure Popcorn. We’d been a band for about three weeks when we made that, and the next minute John Peel was playing it all the time. The next thing we knew, we got asked to do this cassette that NME was doing. We didn’t know what it was going to be — nobody did. There was no big movement called C86. It was them who invented it.
David Newton (the Mighty Lemon Drops): The NME had done a cassette called C81 [in 1981], which is great — all kind of weird dub mixes and stuff, and we thought C86 would be like that.
Stephen Pastel (the Pastels): C81 was a more satisfying mixture that represented more things. It seemed to have this kind of openness that I recognized in people I knew of — wanting to do different things and bring [different ideas] together. C86 seemed quite narrow. Even now it seems too narrow.
Paul Turnbull (the Mackenzies): For us, C81 the predecessor to C86, was the benchmark. That was the tape that was in constant play in the tape decks when we were 17 and 18 years old. Postcard Records featured heavily in that compilation, and Orange Juice, Aztec Camera and especially Josef K were an inspiration for our sound. C81 set a high bar. We were delighted to be asked to contribute to its successor.
Andrew Burnett (Close Lobsters): We were very young at the time. We didn’t have much time to plan it. [Our contribution] was one of our earliest tracks, about a deceased fire station in Paisley, Scotland. A lot of the lyrical references are to Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, so that’ll tell you something about where our heads were at. We recorded in Glasgow in a really short session. It captured where we were then: very much influenced by things like Orange Juice and the sound of young Scotland.
Nikolai Galen (the Shrubs): At the time, it didn’t seem like a big deal. We were on other compilations, but they’ve all been forgotten. We were not at the stage where we realized that our little bit of fame was going to be short-lived, and wasn’t going to translate into being able to earning a living making wild and crazy music.
Greg Keeffe (Big Flame): The NME rang us up and said, “There’s going to be a C86 [compilation],” which we were really pleased about, because C81 was a classic. I think they offered us 150 quid to record. We all used to live in squats in Manchester, we had no money — all our recordings were made at studios where friends sneaked us in. So we booked ourselves into a studio in Manchester, Pluto Studios. We’d never used it before, but it was where the Clash recorded “Bankrobber,” so we thought, “Oooh!” The only thing we could afford at that price was two nights, and when we packed the gear up the second night, we noticed there were two guys sitting in the front of the van, trying to hotwire it. So we had this fight on the side of the road with the guys trying to steal our van. I think, also, I had the flu, so my memories are quite blurry.
David Newton (the Mighty Lemon Drops): We didn’t really want to give the NME something we’d already put out; we thought, “Can we record something new?” They gave us something like 100 pounds, and we went into a studio in Wolverhampton and recorded three songs in a day.
Neil Howson (Age of Chance): We’d been listening to a lot of Glenn Branca’s Symphony No. 9, which is this orchestral piece for electric guitars that builds to big crescendos and uses string collision to create huge chords. The idea was to try and get that feeling — the anticipation and release — into about three minutes. As I recall, we were also thinking about an electronic approach. Geoff [Taylor, bassist] had an idea of using a variant on Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” but in his own style.
David Gedge (the Wedding Present): When we were in the studio recording our third single, we ended up with two versions of a song called “This Boy Can Wait” — a short version and an “extended” version. There was some discussion as to which version to use on the single. The C86 invitation actually came at the perfect time, because it meant that we could use both. I think it was our drummer, Shaun, who came up with the idea of calling the extended version “This Boy Can Wait (A Bit Longer).”
David Westlake (the Servants): The NME asked for the A-side of the Servants’ first single, “She’s Always Hiding.” I was glad to be asked, but I was ambivalent about the prospect of being included. Initially, the NME‘s readers were going to have to send away for the cassette. No one anticipated the tape would sell more than a few copies, and no one expected C86 would be remembered in 1987, let alone 2014. Because of my reservations, I instead gave them the single’s B-side, “Transparent.” I always hated “Transparent,” so there seemed less potentially to lose.
Kev Hopper (Stump): For “Buffalo,” I came up with a bass line that was full of discords and slides. Mick had this silly idea that Americans were buffalo reincarnated, and ["Buffalo"] was a satire about Americans in London: “How do I get off the bus,” “Does the fish have chips.” I remember David Thomas from Pere Ubu disliking it.
Victoria “Vix” Perks (Fuzzbox): I initially wrote “Console Me” as a poem. I always said I wrote it when was when I was eight years old, but realistically I think I must have been about 10 or 11. The lyrics are so dark, and I wonder where that came from. It seems so unlike me — I’m such a positive person!
Stephen Pastel (the Pastels): We had [more traditional-sounding] singles, like “Crawl Babies,” but we didn’t put them on the compilation — even though it might’ve been more instant in some ways. I don’t think we took it all that seriously. I don’t think we thought it would have the weight that it’s had.
John Williamson (McCarthy): We were acutely aware of how different we were [from the other bands in the scene]. We steered away from the straight love song right from the start, and this decision set us apart. Part of the reasoning was simple: Could we ever match a love song like “Tears of a Clown” or “I Saw Her Standing There”? The answer is no. But could we have a great song about how the wheels of capitalism are oiled by the blood of the workers? Well, we could at least try that!
Sean Dickson (the Soup Dragons): They made a special limited-edition run on vinyl, just for the artists. I never actually got the cassette.
“IT’S UP TO YOU”: C86 AS MUSICAL MOVEMENT
Andrew Burnett (Close Lobsters): The love of punk rock sort of unified the C86 bands, at least in Glasgow. I saw Jesus and Mary Chain in 1984, and it was very inspirational. They were on stage for maybe 25 minutes and never played any songs and fell over drunk [at the end]. But they were punk rock. I’ll always remember that gig. I never saw the Sex Pistols — that was my Sex Pistols.
David Keegan (Shop Assistants): The Pastels were most definitely our mentors. The Shop Assistants wouldn’t have existed without them. They were our Sex Pistols. You saw the Pastels and formed a group. We played support to the Jesus and Mary Chain as well. Although they weren’t on the tape, they were the big band of the time. It was a really friendly time, but it didn’t feel like a scene in any way.
Kev Hopper (Stump): We were grouped in with a load of other bands by the NME. It wasn’t as if we felt part of a movement. They put this compilation together and called it C86, and tried to sum up the times. You know how music magazines like to create a so-called “movement.”
Neil Howson (Age of Chance): Our influences were very different from a lot of those bands — Motown, disco and industrial music. I don’t think we knew many bands on it apart from the Wedding Present.
David Westlate (Servants): I was conscious at the time of there being a scene centered on a number of disparate bands, but if it was a movement, it was characterized by disunity. There are precedents for different people in a movement having antipathy to each other, be it artistically or personally, and I think that went to the heart of C86. If the bands on C86 shared anything, it was possibly a residual punk ideology. John Lydon would always say that punk wasn’t about wearing a uniform. So, if the look had changed, the ethic and the intent survived. That said, I remember being surprised that bands that weren’t connected to the original compilation were happy to embrace, and even become, the caricature of a “movement” that C86 was fashioned into: the so-called “twee” and “fey” thing. I didn’t want anything to do with that.
Victoria “Vix” Perks (Fuzzbox): We were certainly aware of a “scene,” but we didn’t really think of it as a “movement.” We were more aware of being female, mainly because this fact was pointed out frequently by oh-so-observant journalists. There were a lot of ultra-serious, gloomy male bands around, whereas we were bright, colorful and not so serious. We probably didn’t fit in with the shoegazers.
Neil Howson (Age of Chance): John Peel called the sound “shambling,” but we never shambled. We committed to everything. I don’t think I’ve ever believed in something that deeply before or since. Our self-belief and collective drive made the difference. Other bands promoted the slack side, scruffy and accidental. We thought a lot about our sound, how we looked, how we communicated, the record sleeves. In terms of outlook and approach, we were probably closer to Dexy’s Midnight Runners than to the other C86 bands.
Vince Hunt (A Witness): All that shambling and shoegazing stuff I can live without. That was insulting. We wore Doc Martens and we didn’t shamble. We strode purposefully.
Geoff Taylor (Age of Chance): The very term “indie” had turned into something quite different by 1986. At the turn of the ’80s, the scene generally was a lot more musically eclectic. “Indie” was soon to become a guitar-based musical style, and this compilation was the beginning of that process. That “style” became set in stone in the years following C86.
Vince Hunt (A Witness): My interest was at the awkward, angular end. I didn’t care too much for jangly guitar pop and still don’t. I’ve always maintained that C86 was more than jangly guitars — that’s a trite, easy pigeonhole that ignores 50 percent of the music on there. If you look beyond that, there’s some great writing, distinctive music and innovative takes on the bass, guitar, drums format.
Mick Geoghegan (Mighty Mighty): It didn’t feel like a movement, and I don’t think it was identified by the press at the time as movement. I think it was just a generation of kids who had lived through punk and post-punk realizing they could join in the fun. There probably were a lot of common musical influences, but the scene was more identifiable through the bands’ approach: Rather than waiting around to be “discovered,” we were all getting records out there. That more direct approach to the audience — cutting out the middle-man — may not seem a big deal now, but at the time it was quite radical and exciting. It was probably this feature that set it apart from the punk and post-punk scenes, which had still largely depended on someone turning up at your gig with a checkbook and a contract.
Nikolai Galen (the Shrubs): It was great to have the energy of punk without actually having to be punks.
Stephen Pastel (the Pastels): The timing of C86 was important. It probably did catch something that was going on. Things changed after that: 1987 found people becoming influenced by the house music that was coming out of Chicago and American bands like Dinosaur and Sonic Youth. C86 is almost like the final flourish of something that had been going on. It caught the tail end of a moment.
David Callahan (Wolfhounds): Back between 1984 and 1988, you could go out every night to a gig and see amazing bands — some of the best gigs you’d see all year. And that was it. You’d see them, and they’d put out one or two singles, and that was it. It was just like the mid ’60s, with garage rock — “cottage industry punk rock.” In the right hands, it could’ve gone overground.
“PLEASANTLY SURPRISED”: THE REACTION
David Gedge (the Wedding Present): It did feel like something was happening, I suppose. I mean, I don’t think it felt like the punk revolution in the late ’70s or anything, but I do remember feeling that the compilation was mainstream critical recognition of an exciting new assortment of underground alternative guitar bands. I also think it was a time when female musicians were starting to be seen as something other than eye candy, and so it probably deserves some credit for promoting that, too.
David Newton (the Mighty Lemon Drops): The only frustrating thing was that once we started getting better as a band and started learning to play our instruments a bit better, we started to see possibilities beyond that [simple sound]. A lot of the bands were content to sell 500 flexidiscs in a fanzine — which is great, but we were four working-class kinds of people. We were all unemployed, we didn’t have jobs or anything, and we just wanted to do the best we could and take it as far as we could. I think that was when we started to feel a little bit of inverse snobbery from some people.
There was a week of gigs that they did for C86 at the ICA in London [in July of 1986]. We actually headlined the final night, which was a Friday night — it was us, the Pastels and a band called Mighty Mighty. On the night of that show, our bass player’s guitar stopped working. So one of us ran backstage and asked both the Pastels and Mighty Mighty if they’d lend us a bass guitar, and neither of them would do it. I think by the time we did that show, we’d actually signed our UK record deal. The Shop Assistants signed the same day, and we had a joint signing party. We all got really drunk, and the Shop Assistants just sat there being miserable.
Russell Burton (Mighty Mighty): We managed to upset [the label] Chapter 22 at one point by emphasizing our mainstream pop ambitions, and by inference being dismissive of their independent efforts. The truth was that we were writing songs to be heard by as many people as possible — we weren’t actually aiming to be “indie.” If anything bound us together with the other bands, it was that punk had told us you could make your own choices, and you could decide to write catchy pop songs rather than be unlistenable. No disrespect to the “noise” bands on C86.
Stephen Pastel (the Pastels): The tape had a really big impact. It was quite a big event, and it crystallized a certain moment, but that moment had almost passed. The NME joined belatedly. When I looked at the tape, I despaired the lack of black music. C81 just felt far more eclectic — Linx was on it, the Specials were on it. C86 is very white, early-20s music, without much female representation. And Television Personalities weren’t on the tape, either. I pushed hard for the Television Personalities, and was told that they were “too old.” They were in their mid 20s.
Mick Geoghegan (Mighty Mighty): I was very bitter at the time about the way we were treated. Unfortunately back then, the music press — NME in particular — were the tastemakers, and any bad review or snide remark could have major repercussions. I remember being completely outraged by NME‘s review of “Built Like a Car,” which implied it was sexist. It was pretty obvious the reviewer didn’t really believe this, but they were making mischief because they could. You almost felt that people were waiting to be told what they could like. I have no nostalgia for that.
Victoria “Vix” Perks (Fuzzbox): We only formed [the band] for a laugh, so it was just one big rollercoaster ride. 1986 was great because we’d only just started out, really, and were starting to get known. It was really exciting times — no expectations, just taking life as it came.
David Keegan (Shop Assistants): I don’t think the cassette made much difference to us at the time. It didn’t seem like a particularly important thing, just something the NME had cobbled together. The big thing for us was [that our] “Safety Net”/”Somewhere in China” single doing so well. After that, we tended to be the main band when we played, and it felt like there was a lot more pressure. It lost that “pioneering” feel, and wasn’t as much fun. I remember feeling really low at the C86 concert at the ICA. It was a pretty horrible event. The bands seemed more competitive.
“FROM NOW ON, THIS WILL BE YOUR GOD”: THE LEGACY
David Newton (the Mighty Lemon Drops): C86 has become kind of synonymous with indie-pop and twee pop, but if you look at what’s on it, it’s really diverse — you’ve got bands like Big Flame, bands like Bogshed, bands like Half Man Half Biscuit, you know? And then you’ve got bands that were like the Shop Assistants, the Pastels — the ones people think of today when you say C86.
Neil Howson (Age of Chance): How can you sum up 20, 30 or 40 bands? Merseybeat? New Wave? Ironically, the variety of bands was limited compared to the C81 collection — no electronic groups, no jazz — but it was a vibrant time with a strong fanzine culture. It was one of the most exciting years I can recall, full of possibilities, like something good was going to happen.
Vince Hunt (A Witness): If you take that running order and compare it with what was actually happening, it is a pretty accurate reflection of what was going on. That’s undeniable. I don’t think C86 is necessarily a great record, but it’s an interesting snapshot of the time. If you were looking for a document to [help] research that time, it’d be a good place to start. It includes bands that went on to become significant players, but also the ones that didn’t but were important. Bogshed, for instance, were a brilliantly quirky, witty, musically inventive and original outfit. And great people.
David Gedge (the Wedding Present): It’s undoubtedly an interesting document of the times, good or bad. I think the coming together of so many like-minded people — musicians, writers, artists, record labels, fanzine editors, concert promoters — was always going to be an event. So a major release that complements and supports that must have some cultural significance. And it does showcase some really great bands, too, though I always thought it curious that the term “C86″ went on to describe a certain type of “jangly” guitar music. Half the stuff on there was anything but jangly.
Kev Hopper (Stump): I occasionally go to YouTube and read the comments [for our contribution]. It’s not always advisable, is it? It’s full of people going “This is shit! This sucks!” “Buffalo” just completely divides opinion. The demo that appeared on C86, I find unlistenable. It’s so badly recorded. The other thing [that's common] in YouTube comments is people assuming that we’re some retro band that came out last year.
Greg Keeffe (Big Flame): Looking back on it, I was amazed at how intense it all was. I lived for the band in a way that only kids can do. I spent hours and hours playing stupid guitar riffs, making them so different that nobody else would even know how to play them. And I look at it now, and it seems the antithesis of everything that music’s become, really — because it was political and meaningful. I work at a university [now], and I teach architecture. I’m quite close to a lot of young people, and obviously the first thing they do when they’re in your class is Google you, and they find out you were in a band, and they all think it’s absolutely unlistenable. I think it’s interesting that there was a popular culture that was so far from the mainstream.
Mike Bryson (Bogshed): I think that era set a marker for Britpop some 10 or so years later, and perhaps influenced bands like the Libertines another 10 years after that. I’m not sure what the current interest is all about. I noticed a few of the bands of the time have reformed. Bogshed will never do that.
David Westlate (Servants): I’m 49 now. I confess I’m not aware of C86 being cited often, or at all. Although the reissues of the compilation tell me it must mean something to a few people somewhere.
Nikolai Galen (the Shrubs): Every generation is unique, and every generation is less unique than it thinks it is.
Paul Turnbull (the Mackenzies): I only recently became aware of the compilation’s legendary status. I saw on the web that some guy had done his university thesis on the C86 scene.
Vince Hunt (A Witness): Because A Witness ended so suddenly and tragically with Rick’s death [guitarist Rick Aitken was killed in an accident in Scotland in 1989 –ed.], I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to music until perhaps the mid-to-late ’90s. Then I read somewhere that a student in Sweden was writing a PhD about C86 being the birth certificate for jangly pop. It may be to some, but not to me. I’d say the Velvet Underground would have to be on it if it was.
John Williamson (McCarthy): I have not asked the others, but I am pretty sure we all think [Primal Scream's] “Velocity Girl” is the best song on C86, by a mile.
David Callahan (Wolfhounds): So much music these days is well produced and bland and commodified. But there’s stuff that’s raw, that has quality and depth to it — it’s more exciting, and something that’s your own, and not something you’ve been told to listen to. There are a lot opportunities now to unearth more great underground bands and literature.
Stephen Pastel (the Pastels): You should have a look at the C81 tracklisting. It’s much wider, and to me, more amazing and more inspiring.