Diverse “C 87”
I can’t help getting sentimental while listening to this compilation – and at the same time it shows me how tricky these memories can be.
No other music besides that of the many, many bands on the most recent Cherry Red Sampler “C87” reminds me of my adolescence, although I probably didn’t actually know most of them in 1987: maybe Talulah Gosh, The Vaselines, Gaye Bikers on Acid, Pop Will Eat Itself, Soup Dragons – but did I really listen to them? Or did I just read about them in exciting English music magazines and wonder what they might sound like? Ok, I had cassettes from The Primitives, The Darling Buds and The Wedding Present and one LP from The Jesus and Mary Chain. The “Indie sound” or Twee or Shoegaze or whatever-Post-Dark-Wave-Pop (= strummy guitars, sweet melodies, sweet female or rough male vocals) spoke directly to my heart. But 1987/88 was also them time in which students from small towns, like me, mainly listened to Madonna, Prince and Die Ärzte. Names like BMX Bandits and Brilliant Corners spilled over from the British Isle, but didn’t manifest in sound & vision at the Hessian countryside until years later. But it seems nonetheless as if the soundtrack to all those miserable broken heart stories, crowned with embarrassment and shyness, and bungled French tests, would have sounded like “C 87” (but in reality it came from Elton John: “Sad Songs Say So Much”, “I’m Still Standing”).
Around two years ago Cherry Red released the compilation “C 86”, an expanded reissue of the cassette sampler from that year. The New Musical Express attached such cassettes to their magazine in loose sequence between 1981 and 1988. The compilations “C 81” and “C 86” gained the most fame, as they compiled the respective most important, newest bands from the independent sector, just like anthologies. For example Cabaret Voltaire, Aztec Camera and Josef K could be heard on “C 81”, and Shop Assistants, The Pastels or Primal Scream on “C 86”. C 87 didn’t exist – a realization I wouldn’t have had without help from the internet. You could have sold it to me, such an original C 87 cassette…Cherry Red just invented C 87 as tie-in after “C 86” did so well and since all the aged pop writers had been so enthused and had filled pages with homages – which is completely fine by me. The packaging is as opulent as that of its predecessor: Three-CD-boxset with a big booklet with information on all the bands. CD 1 and 2 are filled with popular songs like The Shamen, The Bodines, Biff Bang Pow!, The Wonderstuff, The Heart Throbs and my most favorite favorite song of all times, namely “Big Rock Candy Mountain” from The Motorcycle Boy: The always perfectly styled Scottish band was founded by Alex Taylor, the former singer of Shop Assistants, but incomprehensibly remained very unsuccessful. They released only one album (“Scarlet” from 1989) and disbanded immediately afterwards. It’s so much fun to read the band stories in the booklet by the way…yeah, spirals of memories, I know.
CD 3 presents slightly leftfield, less poppy-approachable, even more impermanent music: The Hepburns, The Wishing Stones, The Desert Wolves – yes, that’s exactly what it sounded like, back in 1987, when I was young and unhappy in love. Or didn’t it?
This is the successor to the now legendary “C 86” compilation, that was put together by the New Musical Express in the summer of 1986 on the occasion of the ICA Music Week in London. The fact, that the sampler on hand has been released with a delay of almost 30 years already tells us something about the ephemerality of the musical trend C 86/87, which was subsumed as “Noisepop” (or sometimes “Popnoise”) back then. The term can be traced back to John Robb, who was the singer and bass player of the band The Membranes, who back then released on Constrictor, the label that was founded by the Indie hero Phillip Boa.
„Noisepop“ nicely summarizes what many of the bands collected here are about: a simple melody, more or less hook-heavy is played with decidedly bad produced “shambling guitars” (John Peel on the sound of Wedding Present).
In principle many of the Noisepop representatives were emulating the classic punk rock model, with the difference that C 86/87 was hardly accompanied by a distinct attitude. I remember a great Spex article on that subject from September 1986, in which Michael Ruff (where is he now?) alleges that the Noisepop scene was to preoccupied with itself and was shaped by excessive self-sufficiency. C 87 can in this regard actually pass for the epitome of attack-weary Indie-innocuousness (although the innocuousness can also be seen as an anti-attitude denying itself the success-order of the prevailing charts culture. In that regard C 87 would equate the counter programme of Madonna and Michael Jackson, who were seen in certain circles as concepts of the enemy. More on the relationship of mainstream and subculture later). Musically this translates in an intimidated delivery which sounds as if the vocals came from underneath a blanket (for example the completely pampered Emily, who sound as if they would collapse when you give them the evil eye). This is not only about reprimanding the wimp-wing of C 87 as an impasse per se. The songs of the outstanding BMX Bandits or Brilliant Corners, who also tend to make jungle-jangle-twee-pop, are some of my favorites. The problem is, that slathered on fragility tends to be horribly annoying.
On the other hand we got bands like Weather Prophets, who practice blues with regard to dandyism, or the brilliant Motorcycle Boy, who know how to structure song so that you won’t forget it immediately again. Especially the latter, a project of former Shop Assistants singer Alex Taylor, created with “Big Rock Candy Mountain” a forgotten classic of awesomely trashy bubblegum-pop that sounds like the indie version of Sigue Sigue Sputnik.
Other bands who deviate from the traditional wimp-scheme are A Witness or Bog-Shed, who orient themselves to the monotony of The Fall and play dissonant self-made funk-patterns in which a singer who stands alone annoyingly declaims himself inside. Similarly, but less cubist, act I, Ludicrous, whose “My Baby’s Got Jet Lag” is one of the highlights of the compilation. The song is characterized by the fact that the singer creates space for articulation instead of drowning in the sound sludge like many others on the compilation (although the lyrics are slightly dumb/silly).
1987 was probably the last year in which British indie-pop mattered – even when it was only considering the expression of musical subculture. The liner notes of this compilation rightly indicate that the end of The Smith in the late summer of the year led to substantial changes. After the dissolution of the band one of the formative models on which the bands of the C 87 scene referred to, ceased. The second model, that has to be named, is represented by The Jesus & Marry Chain, who disappeared into relative insignificance after their second record. From 1988 indie-pop was replaces by the hegemony of electronic music in the context of rave-culture. More than ever did here the close connection between subculture and mainstream come to light, which discharged the old demarcation mechanisms of classic indie-pop. A process that was further accelerated in the mid 90s with brit-pop.
This compilation helps to remember who big the gap between indie and mainstream used to be. Contact zones between the two spheres were only punctually established (for example in the form of New Order, who’s orientation on synthesizers helped them to be compatible with the charts). Nowadays the dissolution tendencies of the music industry destabilize the difference between “underground” and charts, but you might wonder if the price that has to be paid for this development isn’t too high.
(Translation by Denise Oemcke)