It doesn’t happen that often – and now in the winter of the album format, it could happen even less – but occasionally a song compilation can give shape to something unique and nameless. It has to pull together strains of music that are emerging or are bubbling below the surface and give it a narrative thread. Put together, the songs show a similar focus or sound, similar lyrical themes or vocal delivery, some series of events that lock onto one another. Movements are born this way; moments are documented.
In the thick of 1986, the New Musical Express magazine (NME), one of Britain’s older pop music magazines, was foundering in direction. Pulled apart by some writers who were interested in covering the emerging genre of hip-hop and readers who apparently weren’t interested in rap and showed it by buying fewer issues, the magazine dug back to a trick it had used in 1981: a new music compilation put together and released in conjunction with Rough Trade records. The 1981 compilation, C81, was an amazing snapshot of music at the time – Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, Scritti Politti, the Buzzcocks, Ian Dury and even American artists like Pere Ubu. But while remembered for the breadth of talented and memorable artists involved, the C81 album wouldn’t spawn its own genre. Leave that to its successor, the NME’s C86 compilation.
In a lot of ways, C86 is credited (or saddled, depending on your view) with the charge of creating British ‘indie’ music as a genre. In comparison to its predecessor, C86 would feature very few bands that would go on to have lasting legacies – Primal Scream is easily its most recognizable artist, followed by the Wedding Present, the Mighty Lemon Drops, the Soup Dragons and Close Lobsters. But even in those last few names are bands that are only recognizable to people who really love this style of music. Primal Scream would even abandon the genre a few years later for more successful stylistic pastures. C86 is in a unique position for having inspired more well known bands than it ever had in the first place, despite the genre being named after it. It truly is a turning point in modern rock and roll.
The compilation, however, might not be what you’d expect. The C86 label has been trotted out a lot in recent years (this year, especially, for the magnificent The Pains of Being Pure At Heart , one of the genre’s best disciples in some time), so if you’ve never heard the compilation, it may be surprising just how little of the music fits the style associated with the compilation. Of the twenty-two songs, only ten really sound like “C86.” Two more seem to owe at least an equally large debt to Orange Juice and their sprightly, jangly, jittery, Scottish guitar pop. The other half wander off in directions that run from sounding like a poor man’s Wire or Swell Maps (Half Man Half Biscuit and Age of Chance, respectively), to out and out weird and fractured psychotic rock (Stump, Bogshed, Mackenzies), to one song that sounds like someone got the memo about the ‘Burundi beat’ about five years too late (A Witness).
So why did such a disparate collection of songs seem to tap into something really vital and seem to inspire a bevy of bands for years to come? The secret probably lies in the quality of the songs that seem to have a coherent, or at least complimentary, feel to them. The album opens with a run of five of the C86 defining songs: Primal Scream’s “Velocity Girl” (yes, that is where the band got their name), the Mighty Lemon Drops’ “Happy Head,” the Soup Dragons’ “Pleasantly Surprised,” the Wolfhounds’ “Feeling So Strange Again” and the Bodines’ “Therese.” Each of these exhibits various tenets of the C86 sound, whether it’s the willowy twee, the melodic bass, or the mix of fuzzy guitars and riotous pop solos.
C86 channels a classic feeling of pop music – that it isn’t so much about the band itself, but the song. In that way, it’s almost appropriate that the bands on the compilation didn’t gain much notoriety outside of inner indie circles. It is the flash in the pan feeling of some of these songs, figures who disappeared just as soon as they had arrived. There is probably no finer example of this than the Shop Assistants. Forming in 1984 and disbanding in 1987, the band only released three singles, an EP (from which their C86 song originates) and a full length. Yet the song, “It’s Up To You,” which leads off the second side of the compilation, is a gorgeous and haunting song. It’s one of the truly great songs of the collection and its existence is made all the more mysterious and enticing by the band’s brief tenure.
The compilation closes, after a bizarre and noisy second side, with the Wedding Present’s “This Boy Can Wait (A Bit Longer!),” a ripping song that soars through its nearly four minutes with guitar strumming that sounds almost inhuman in its speed. This roaring, frantic approximation of pop music is the antithesis of side two’s opener in the Shop Assistants, yet the two are obviously from the same world, the same understanding. And it’s this exact connection that countless people heard over the years. The more you listen to C86, the more its charms and influence become obvious. This is a mash note from music lovers, tucked away in the folds of your coat. When you finally find it, no matter how long it takes, the world feels like a smaller place. words/ j neas
In The Comments: What other compilations can you think of that ‘defined’ a genre the way C86 has? No New York comes immediately to mind. Sound off in the comments below.
MP3: Primal Scream :: Velocity Girl
MP3: The Wolfhounds :: Feeling So Strange Again
MP3: The Shop Assistants :: It’s Up To You
MP3: Close Lobsters :: Firestation Towers
MP3: The Wedding Present :: This Boy Can Wait (A Bit Longer!)