Tape­heads: how one lowly cas­sette de­fined a mu­si­cal move­ment

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

IT’S THE 25th an­niver­sary of a cas­sette tape. A sin­gle cas­sette tape that was to spawn a se­ries of leg­endary ac­com­pa­ny­ing gigs, with a later up­grade to vinyl that would come to de­fine a whole new genre of mu­sic. C86 was also a po­lit­i­cal man­i­festo, a blood pact against The Man. On a lesser level it was also a fash­ion state­ment.

Mor­ris­sey will proudly tell you that The Smiths’ great­est achieve­ment was that they were the first “in­de­pen­dent” band to have their al­bums stocked in high street shops. Be­fore the mid 1980s there was no “in­die” mu­sic – or, if there was, it was only found in dank clubs and in the pages of er­ratic and ex­citable fanzines. Af­ter punk and post-punk had slouched off wav­ing two fin­gers at all con­cerned, early 1980s mu­sic was all about Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw and Paul Young. MTV was just about to mon­e­tise pop cul­ture and it was if 1977 had never hap­pened.

But there were still some bol­shy voices shout­ing from out­side mu­sic’s “big tent”. Tiny la­bels such as Kitchen­ware, Post­card, One Lit­tle In­dian and Cre­ation were all draw­ing from the same well of dis­con­tent, and the acts on the mar­gins were fash­ion­ing a new gui­tar-rock sound that es­chewed “rock­ist” ten­den­cies and had arty pre­ten­sions.

At a time when the UK had three weekly mu­sic news­pa­pers (Melody Maker, Sounds and NME) and broad­sheets were still re­fer­ring to “beat com­bos”, there was huge competition for pub­li­ca­tions to con­trive their own “scenes”, which is what the NME did with C86. Com­piled by a bunch of NME writers, C86 was meant as a “right here, right now” re­flec­tion of stil­lun­der­ground mu­sic. It was only avail­able on mail or­der, and the for­mat was seen as a pre-emp­tive strike against the “cor­po­rate” CD for­mat.

Fea­tur­ing name acts of the time (The Bodines, The Pas­tels, Fuzzbox, Mc­Carthy), C86 ush­ered in in­die mu­sic as we know it to­day. It had a strong DIY feel, was anti-cor­po­rate and had an al­most Marx­ist po­lit­i­cal un­der­tow. It doesn’t mat­ter that the only acts on the tape who are still go­ing to­day are Pri­mal Scream, The Wed­ding Present and Half Man Half Bis­cuit. C86 was a ral­ly­ing call, a gather­ing of mu­si­cians, la­bels, distrib­u­tors, fanzine writers and scen­esters. “It was the most in­die thing to have ever ex­isted,” re­calls jour­nal­ist Andrew Collins, who worked at NME at the time.

C86 ar­guably reached its apoth­e­o­sis when The Stone Roses’ in­de­pen­dently re­leased al­bum made it into the top five of the al­bum charts in 1989. Like all mu­sic scenes, how­ever, C86 was to wither on the vine, be­set by fac­tion­al­ism and its big­gest names se­duced by the ma­jor la­bels they once de­spised. But its legacy can still be felt to­day, not least in the clas­sic C86 jing­ly­jan­gly gui­tar pop sound that rears its head on a re­vival trip ev­ery few years.

Bands such as Manic Street Preach­ers and Franz Fer­di­nand ac­knowl­edge how much they’ve taken from C86, but what re­ally strikes lis­ten­ing back to it now is how earnest and po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated these bands were. House and techno from Chicago and Detroit would soon dom­i­nate the charts, and the next time gui­tar pop got a look in was dur­ing the daft Brit­pop move­ment – when Spare Rib and So­cial­ist Worker were re­placed by Loaded. Now we have Si­mon Cow­ell and Ant & Dec. Oh, well.

Mean­while, be sure to check out the C86 app for your iPad.

Last C86 man stand­ing: Bobby Gille­spie of Pri­mal Scream in Dublin, 2004

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