How NME magazine’s C86 cassette helped shape Britain’s indie music scene

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On May 3, 1986, an advertisement appeared in the New Musical Express for a cassette tape which the musical newspaper would sell from the following week. “Watch out, popkids! ran the excited blurb. “You are hereby notified that this is truly a fabulous, fabulous, fabulous world! . excellence featuring 22 of the year’s most crucial contenders on a single reel of utter splendor.

The mail order strip, which cost £2.95, was called C86 (short for Class of 1986) and it ended up being a lot bigger than the list of featured bands suggests. While a few of them endured – Primal Scream became genre pioneers, The Wedding Present had a spell as the big thing in indie rock, then a long career, Half Man Half Biscuit became a cult beloved – most of them quickly disappeared from view. But these 22 titles came to codify the notion of “indie music” in Great Britain. In the first half of the 1980s, indie meant “independently produced and distributed”; in the second half, that meant, basically, “slightly alternative white kids playing guitar” because that’s what C86 offered as his summary of “the independent music scene“. In 1987 you could be an independent band without being on an independent label – it had become a genre.

“It amazed me that it seemed to represent something that was never part of its intention,” says Neil Taylor, one of three NME writers who compiled the tape, which was simply trying to reflect the emergence of alternative music from the gloom of the afternoon. punk years. “The definition of it is an afterthought, by people looking back and seeing the similar narrowness of focus that emerged in the music press coming out of the 80s.”

The Wedding Present, one of the groups whose career lasted, photographed in 1988 © Getty Images

Now C86 is celebrated in a new book. In What happened to the C86 Kids? An indie odysseyauthor Nige Tassell tracks down and interviews at least one member of each group who appeared on the tape.

Tassell identifies its significance as “a second coming of the punk ethos” for people too young to have been to London’s Roxy in 1977. “It was the days of Dire Straits and the CD launch and everything was pristine and perfect,” he says when we talk. “But with C86, all you had to do was pick up a guitar and make music full of enthusiasm. Like punk, these bands appeared together on posters, with their names spread through a network of fanzines and a handful of independent labels releasing the records.

Certain themes recur in Tassell’s book. First, many bands failed to offer their best songs to NME, not realizing that the tape (which sold 40,000 copies when first released) would be far more popular than any of their songs. individual. Second, some ambivalence about the tape emerged among those featured in it. While it raised the profile of nearly everyone and led to major label deals for several, including the incredibly unlikely Stump (whose contribution, “Buffalo”, sounded like Captain Beefheart playing country and featured the refrain “How much does the fish cost? Does the fish have fries?”), C86 came to be associated with a single strand of the music it contained. A foodie amateur pop indebted to Buzzcocks and The Byrds, she was represented by Primal Scream, The Soup Dragons, Shop Assistants and The Pastels. C86 became associated with a set of adjectives – “shambling”, “twee” – that few bands wanted each other. And that year, the title of the tape turned out to be a bit of a grindstone.

Mick Lynch, wearing a white T-shirt, sings into a microphone on stage

Mick Lynch and Kev Hopper of Stump in concert in 1987 © Avalon

“At first it was great – we were everywhere,” says David Callahan, lead singer of The Wolfhounds (“Feeling So Strange Again”). “We had just left school, so as far as we were concerned, we were discovered when we were still only partially formed, but it became very difficult to attract attention after that. . . was discouraging, because people took it as a fad.

In Bellshill, near Glasgow, Sean Dickson of The Soup Dragons (“Pleasantly Surprised”) was part of a scene that ended up producing dozens of memorable records – his group of teenage friends included Norman Blake, later of Teenage Fanclub, Joe McAlinden of Superstar (covered by Rod Stewart) and Duglas T Stewart of BMX Bandits. The Soup Dragons themselves ended up having worldwide success with their cover of the Rolling Stones’ “I’m Free.”

“The Jesus and Mary chain lived a few miles down the road and they were a huge influence on me when I was 15 and 16,” Dickson says. “Norman and Duglas and I entered the world of Glasgow – we would go around town and sing Velvet Underground and Talking Heads songs in front of M&S.” When Dickson and other friends later formed The Soup Dragons, they started making waves before they even made a record.

A 1989 photo of The Soup Dragons, sitting on the ground and looking towards the camera

The Soup Dragons in 1989, with Sean Dickson far right © Redferns

“We made a flexidisc for a fanzine and it was ‘Single of the Week’ in the NME”, he says, still amazed. “For a song that cost £25 to record. NME asked us to come to London to do an interview. We went home, and two weeks later there was a three-page interview. And we still hadn’t made any records.

C86 inspired, almost immediately, a second wave of bands less diverse in their musical outlook—clattering, shambolic, melodic bands with a seemingly childlike vision—and gave the new style an ideological backbone. Women were at the heart of this scene, both as musicians and behind the scenes with fanzines and labels.

For all the apparent sweetness, the music was deliberately opposed to the mainstream. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain got a huge boost from (and later took over) Glasgow band The Vaselines, which emerged in the immediate aftermathC86 time. And this style – generally known now as “indie pop” – continues to thrive in the underground, occasionally creating a band that catches mainstream attention.

Members of Half Man Half Biscuit, wearing 1980s clothing and facing the camera, stand in a glass walkway

‘Beloved cult’ Half man half cookie mid 1980s © Ronnie Randall/Retna

So why does a tape he compiled 36 years ago continue to cast a shadow? “I wish I had the answer to that question,” Taylor says. “None of this was done for posterity. Maybe it lives on because of the honesty and integrity of the bands. Once you get to bands like The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays. . . they were more than happy to accept what the man wanted and become part of the establishment. It was always possible that these groups were anti-establishment [in 1986]but after that, you couldn’t do that anymore.

“A lot of majors have looked C86 and dove on the tapes,” Tassell says. “That’s when the biggest music industry realized the commercialization of middle-class white kids with guitars that had done their thing and weren’t going to spit when they were on TV.”

If these bands were to later be mocked for this perceived cuteness, or sucked into the mainstream, it’s worth remembering that there’s still something revolutionary about C86. There are still bands that take his purity of spirit and his refusal to accept stereotypes of guitar music and are inspired to present something true to themselves. More power for them.

‘What happened to the C86 Kids? An Indie Odyssey’ is published by Nine Eight Books on August 18

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