❉ Cherry Red’s 3CD prequel to ‘C86’ remembers to be noisy and bothersome, writes Chris Browning.
There are many ways to get into indie. By which I mean the jangly not quite good enough to be the Smiths types that peppered the NME for much of the mid to late eighties. The stuff that went through the awkward changes of baggy, shoegaze and eventually Britpop before fracturing completely by the turn of the century. There’s been many contemporaneous like label compilations and those Indie Top 20/ Indie Scene compilations of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. But more recently you’ve had stuff like Bob Stanley’s CD86 or the Rough Trade Indie Pop compilation from a few years back. But really, unless you’re happy just dabbling in the world of indie you’ll eventually have to deal with C86.
C86 was a cassette compilation released by the NME in 1986, which quickly became synonymous/ lazy shorthand for a certain kind of feckless jangly amateurism. Which is a shame, because the tape itself is a lot more diverse than the shorthand would suggest. Half Man Half Biscuit are there, for example, as well as various scrappy, noisy bands from the Ron Johnson label like Stump, Big Flame and Bogshed. The first time I heard a copy – I kind of “permanently borrowed” my ex-brother in law’s copy – I was wildly surprised that half of it was not just pale, introverted types mumbling over jangly guitars. Cherry Red reissued an extended box of C86 a few years ago, remembering to make at least one disc boast the noisy kin of the original weirder bands. Since then, Cherry Red have been releasing box sets of what would have fitted on imaginary future volumes (C87, C88 and beyond). The later ones have tended towards mostly the jangly side of things but it pleases me no end that C85 completely remembers to be noisy and bothersome, at least in part.
Whereas C86 opened with Primal Scream at their jangliest (they start the second disc on C85, also at their jangliest – the only way I can enjoy them to be honest), C85 kicks off with the Jesus and Mary Chain at their noisiest and most feedback-driven. It’s a bit of a noisy statement of intent really, and thankfully the first disc kind of keeps up in this vein with highlights from That Petrol Emotion (a nice nod to the genre’s punk origins, via the Undertone’s O’Neill brothers), the Mighty Lemon Drops (always a frustrated sixties garage band in indie pop clothing) and the rackety ramshackle pop of the Loft.
Already there are outliers here: I’m no fan of James, but something about their early years where they combine a sort of winsome naivete (the African rhythms on Uprising don’t really work but are charming in what they’re trying for) with giddy enthusiasm always wins me over. Similarly, the DIY Dexy’s approach of the June Brides is always great, there’s the Medway geniuses that are the Dentists (such a great, great band) and the uniquely odd vision of the Woodentops, sounding not quite like anything but a bit like a lot of things (a difficult trick to pull off but one they always seem to do well with).
The ones that really stand out for me on the first disc are The Shop Assistants, who manage to take the sixties influenced feedback noise of the JAMC but make it more personal (and to me far more interesting), pointing towards the dominance of the scrappier Scottish bands to come. Similarly, The Housemartins already completely sound like a band with a far more cohesive idea of what they want to do than their contemporaries, with Heaton’s political anger and pop sensibilities balanced perfectly (and which would get a bit out of whack by the time the Beautiful South came along).
Elsewhere on disc one, The Wedding Present also completely shows why they will dominate the genre, with the scrappy, fidgety pop music and personal lyrics already sounding hugely confident (and yet also, somehow, very nervy). And Microdisney, bless them, with the late and very great Cathal Coughlan at his most biting and blacky funny. Horse Overboard starts one of my favourite albums of the eighties and is exactly why Microdisney are such a brilliant band: a great pop song, a bit absurd (those steel drums!) and Coughlan at his most darkly witty. If this box set does nothing else, please make it get you to track down their records because they’re glorious.
The second disc is more of the same as the first , and to be honest with you even as someone whose fondness for the jangly genre extends to the Sounds of Leamington Spa compilations of records so obscure even the band members probably have forgotten they recorded them, it does become a bit of hard work by the end of it. There’s still some great stuff here including a couple of Sarah Records bands prior to signing to said label: Sarah is probably the archetypal indie label of the period and it’s nice to hear St Christopher and the Wake on this disc (and the Hit Parade on disc one) almost sounding like the label as we know it (wistful, Factory Records-influenced, quietly political, introspective) but not quite getting there yet. It was nice to have my favourite indie label El represented by the quietly subversive Always.
There’s also a fair bit of forgettable indie here and a few bits of the vocal style that will eventually dominate the genre – but my favourite subgenre of indie is here a lot on this second disc. That sort of female-led indie, owing a great deal to the post-punk pioneers of the Raincoats, Dolly Mixture and the Marine Girls. The sublime Grab Grab The Haddock were in fact two-thirds of the Marine Girls, after Tracey Thorn left for fame and fortune. There’s also the beautifully subversive Sarah Goes Shopping, Kamikaze Pilots’ Sharon Signs To Cherry Red (also the name of a perfect Cherry Red compilation of this subgenre), the very funny Sedgemorons (whose backstory in the booklet is almost worth the box set alone) and Go! Service (what is it with indie bands and putting an exclamation mark after the word Go!?)
I have to say though, I was completely ready for the squonk and noise of the third disc by the end of the second disc. And reader, I adored it. The most conventional bands here (aside from the last one, of whom I will write more in a bit) are Brilliant Corners, who always managed to scruff up nervy pop songs with generous heaps of noise, and Yeah Yeah Noh, who also embrace a good dirge while trying to do something a bit poppy. But mostly it’s increasingly noisy wonk, starting with A Witness (who always embraced their post punk origins), the brilliantly named Stitched Back Foot Airman, the very recognisably Nightingales-related band Pig Bros, the subversive punk dizziness of the Membranes and, of course, the mighty Big Flame who would scare several C86 listeners in a few short months.
My favourites here were the Beefheart-esque folk blues of Nose Flutes, the mighty Bog Shed (a box set is imminent!), the amazingly named Sinister Cleaners (whose album i immediately bought on just one listen of this), Splat! (who sound EXACTLY how a band called Splat! should sound) and Palookas (a TVPs/ Swell Maps related band, taking a show tune and battering the shit out of it). Also of note are the perfectly named Bob Hope To Die (who just end up embracing pure noise by the end of the record and are clearly a huge influence on Stump; also their debut record was the brilliantly named Shite) and Five Go Down To The Sea. Which is more subversive? The snorting, noisy, dirgy racket they make or them taking the archetypal twee indie pop band name and dashing it several times against the cliff?
It’s probably ungenerous of me, but part of me wondered whether they put the bloody Stone Roses at the end of this disc to 1. tempt the more conservative fans to get through the weirder stuff or 2. reframe the Roses as another band with a lead singer who can’t carry a tune (seriously, Brown is never in any danger of getting close to the melody on this). I’ve never understood the appeal of the Stone Roses and this song is not going to change my mind. They also are the band who have had the least interesting influence of everyone on this box set. But I can imagine a lot of fans will be glad to hear it after some of the madness on the final disc.
In short: come for the jangles, stay for the noise. A great set, with a few somewhat conservative detours, but generally speaking an excellent statement of what was going on in independent music before the NME decided to do their tape. If it makes anyone want to listen to the wonkier sound of the independent eighties scene it’ll have done its job well.
❉ Various Artists: ‘C85’ -3CD Clamshell Box (CRCDBOX130) was released 21 October 2022 by Cherry Red Group, RRP £22.99. Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.
❉ Chris Browning is a librarian but writes and draws comics and other strange things to keep himself out of trouble: he can be found on Twitter as @commonswings but be warned he does spend a lot of time posting photos of his cats.