C86 :: A Moment, A Movement


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!)

+ Download DRM free digital music via eMusic’s 25 free MP3 no risk trial offer

22 thoughts on “C86 :: A Moment, A Movement

  1. Great post — and great nod to the Shop Assistants, a truly inspired, if all too brief, band.

    I’ve always wondered why nobody — NME, Rough Trade, least of all Rhino — has bothered to reissue this thing as an expanded edition.

    Surely if Rhino can turn the ‘Nuggets’ compilation — and there’s another answer to your question — into a series of four box sets, then C86 is deserving of at least a 2CD expanded reissue, if not more.

  2. Slicing – Agreed. This comp isn’t readily available anywhere except through the various internet means that aren’t traditional. What I wouldn’t give to own a vinyl or cassette copy of the original, though.

    Tippos – I thought about Smith’s anthology when I was thinking on the question myself. I sort of ruled it out because it wasn’t really defining an existing movement, but then again it became so influential on movements to come, that it really could count in that way. I was a bit torn.

  3. Sub Pop’s excellent Never Mind the Molluscs has always been a favourite of mine. Just wish it was more than a 2×7″/CDEP.

  4. Devendra Banhart curated Golden Apples of the Sun for Arthur Mag, God bless its soul is the definitive “freak-psych-folk, whatever” comp. Ethan Miller’s Beard Bread and Bear’s Prayers for Arthur is pretty tasty as well, though not as complete.

  5. Well, there was that CD86 compilation that came out in 2006 as a 20th anniversary tribute to the tape


    Only three of the songs that were on the original tape made it on there “This Boy Can Wait…” “Therese” and “Velocity Girl.” Most of the bands are represented though with a different song, though oddly, nothing from Stump, nothing from Miaow… The compilation seems to be focused far more on the bands that were referred to as C86 either leading up to the tape even if they weren’t on the tape (June Brides, Razorcuts, BMX Bandits…) or bands that were around at the time, or came about after. Sarah Records didn’t release it’s first single until 1987 for example, but that single The Sea Urchins’ “Pristine Christine” is on there as is Sarah 3, the deliciously fuzzy tongue planted directly to cheek anthem “Anorak City,” from Another Sunny Day. In the fanzine (Sarah Four) that it coincided with Matt Haynes (one half of the Sarah label team) remarked that the was called “Anorak City”… “Because some people are incredibly stupid.”

    There’s also plenty from the Subway Organisation, 53rd & 3rd, and all manner of other great labels that deserve more of your attention. The weirder, noisier bands seem to be limited to only a few that were on the tape… I suppose it makes sense though, as that’s not really what the genre term came to represent…

    Also check out the excellent Sound of Leamington Spa Series for some far too often overlooked bands:


    You can buy a few of the volumes from Tonevendor:


    I think there is a new one on the way also…

    Oh yeah, and here is a link to download a really good comp that was originally out as a cassette called Something’s Burning in Paradise!



  6. Great post, great blog. Defining a genre? I’m old enough, yawn, to remember great samplers such as CBS’s Rock Machine I Love You ’68, Fill Your Head With Rock ’70, Island’s You Can All Join In ’69, Nice Enough To Eat ’69, Bumpers ’70 et al. These were also enormously representative of amazing, gorgeous, life-changing music, in their day. Check ’em out.

  7. other essential comps which helped define at least a localized scene:

    This is Boston, Not LA (bawston hahdcoah)
    xpressway pile=up (xpressway tape comp, later given a reissue by drag city, of the noiser/more avant side of the new zealand music scene)
    in love with these times (killer comp of Flying Nun bands…it wasn’t the first, nor the last comp that the label did, but it was the best)
    doing it for the kids pretty essential Creation records comp
    Endangered Species nice box of 7″ singles from Glitterhouse, capturing a lot of the noise rock/grunge scene of the US from the early ’90s.
    Sub Pop 100 and 200

  8. I’ve got a vinyl copy I sent away for at the time – trust me you’re fine with your mp3’s or whatever. Despite the brevity of some of the tracks it’s really groove crammed making some very cheaply recorded music sound even thinner and the cover was some lovely gold finish that retains every fingerprint or breath ever to touch it. a lot of the bands are represented by far from their best efforts (Velocity girl and Therese being notable exceptions) but it was still once a treasured album in my world, so thanks for posting this. The Shop Assistants, God they were just perfect, but I’m sad to see the lack of love for the more angular and odd stuff on there – the great breadth of stuff on it was its strength at the time and the fact the term just came to mean wishy washy jangly twee-ness something of a shame. I guess those other guys never got heard so much but your comparisons are amusingly wide of the mark – Age Of Chance as The Swell Maps heh, heh – and you’re unfair to A Witness, who were more interesting than you’d guess having so little to go on…blah bleh time i stopped grumbling, – cheers

  9. I’d would go to an earlier collection that defined an older style, that I don’t think had really been named until then, and which also helped kickstart the punk movement: The Nuggets two lp collection put together by Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith’s future guitarist. Most of the songs were somewhat hits from years past that most had forgotten about or never heard and which Lenny saw as garage rock. The songs held together, though they actually ranged quite a bit, and were copied & covered by many bands later. It also spawned a huge series of other compilations (bootleg & legit) collecting similar stuff and probably influenced the more recent old lost soul compilations (such as the Numero Uno group’s great collections).

  10. I thought the “Wanna Buy A Bridge” compilation that Rough Trade put out in 1980 was quite influential and summed up the post-punk scene in the UK quite nicely.

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