Imagining C87: What Might Have Been

A new release compiles the tracklisting should NME have followed up their iconic C86 cassette. The results show a British indie scene on an inexorable rise...
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In 1986, NME’s legendary C86 cassette collected together songs by some of the leading guitar bands on the fledgling indie music scene and became a surprise big seller for the magazine. The tag ‘C86’ became shorthand for a sub-genre of pop music featuring simple melodies, jangly guitars and the influence of the original tape was felt for many years, galvanising the scene and helping to bring it a step closer to the mainstream.

C87 is a new, three-disc set which features indie tunes that might have made it on to a follow-up collection the next year. Compiler, one-time NME writer Neil Taylor, describes 1987 as ‘the calm before the storm’; a time when the indie scene was preparing to break out of its musical ghetto and into the mainstream.

Opening track Pristine Christine by The Sea Urchins demonstrates the increasingly outward-looking attitude bands at the time. The songs sound like a direct descendant of Primal Scream’s C86 classic Velocity Girl, but more polished and with a greater emphasis on musical hooks. Most of the C86 bands had been content (or resigned to) success on strictly limited terms, but singles like this show a growing self-confidence and willingness to embrace better production values that might make the music more accessible to mainstream audiences.

Similarly, This Poison!’s Paused Over The Pause Button borrows heavily from the hundred-mile an hour indie rock of The Wedding Present (another original C86 band) but mixes in flourishes and harmonies which could almost be described as radio-friendly.

The Wedding Present themselves are included - 1987 being the year that they released their classic debut album George Best. The bitter, brilliant My Favourite Dress is the first single from that album and it reveals the big leap forward in David Gedge’s song writing which would make them the biggest indie band in the country for a time.

The archetypal, low-fi, C86 sound is still around in C87. Tracks like Old Joe by The Raw Herbs, Grey Skies Blue by The Submarines, The Day Before Tomorrow by BMX Bandits and Like A Dolphin by 14 Iced Bears showed that there was still life in jangly guitars and twee vocals, while The Vaselines took that sound to a whole new level with Son Of A Gun now of course better known for having been covered by Nirvana.

But that lo-fi, jangle typically associated with C86 was, in reality, only ever part of the story. The original collection was way more diverse than that and a year on, that diversification had continued. Tried And Tested Public Speaker by Bogshed is an enjoyably chaotic burst of post-punk with a resemblance to The Fall, while Edith by The Shrubs is an atmospheric, Nick Cave-style blues affair.

The Nivens’ Room Without A View, The Groove Farm’s Couldn’t Get To Sleep and The Wolfhounds’ Anti-Midas Touch are pure garage rock, while Big Rock Candy Mountain by The Motorcycle Boy sounds like The Jesus and Mary Chain meets Sigue Sigue Sputnik with a female vocalist. There’s plenty of variety here, though admittedly 90% of it is within the classic indie framework identified by John Peel of ‘white boys with guitars’.

Generally, the bands, like The Wedding Present, that transcended the 80s indie scene and survived past the end of the decade and beyond were those that focused on the songs and had the confidence to look forward rather than rehashing 60s pop, punk and new-wave. The Wonder Stuff weren’t exactly ground-breaking musically, but from the start they allied the outsider aesthetic of C86 indie-pop to a cocky, upbeat and celebratory tone that was nowhere to be found in the original scene. They also had great songs, including their first recording It’s Not Truewhich is included on C87.

Other bands on C87 who would survive into the 90s and find some measure of success include Cud, whose demo Mind The Gap is elevated by Carl Puttnam’s powerful expressive vocal and The House Of Love with the upbeat Real Animal. Young Till Yesterday is an interesting, effects-laden guitar pop song by The Shamen - some distance from the chart-dance of Ebenezeer Goode, which would make them huge in 1992. There’s an early Inspiral Carpets demo too; Now You’re Gone is a distinctive Hammond organ-led ballad of the sort that would see them embraced by the Madchester scene.

The tracks on C87 illustrate the indie scene’s growing maturity and confidence. A nationwide network of bands, small labels, independent shops and fans had kept indie music alive in the mid-80s while it was the antithesis of polished and anodyne pop, and now it was getting ready to move out of its ghetto.

Best of C87

David Westlake – The Word Around Town

A bouncy, power-pop tune with intricate lyrics – C86 but souped-up. It even has a guitar solo.

The Wedding Present – My Favourite Dress

Witty, emotional vocals enhanced by a brilliant tune.

BMX Bandits – The Day Before Tomorrow

Sweet, quirky, low-fi ballad

The Brilliant CornersPlease Please Please

Upbeat, hook-laden rockabilly pop.

Bob – What A Performance

Melodic, psychedelic-tinged, indie-pop song.

The Sea Urchins – Pristine Christine

A jangly, pop ballad which updates and evolves the C86 sound.

Rote Kapelle – These Animals Are Dangerous

Raucous art-punk with weird time signatures.

Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter – Don’t Ask My Name

Bluesy, pop-punk with a gothic twist.

The Primitives – We Found A Way To The Sun

A trippy cross between Velvet Underground and Jesus & Mary Chain

The Wonder Stuff – It’s Not True…

The first track from their debut EP - a short burst of energy filled with pop-punk guitars and Miles Hunt’s trademark hooky vocals.


C87 is out now on Cherry Red. You can get it here