Tapeheads: how one lowly cassette defined a musical movement
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