Imagine, if you will, a compilation that became so well-regarded that a whole subgenre was named after it. As in, instead of calling it disco, you actually named songs from that era part of the Saturday Night Fever movement.
This is the fate that has been bestowed upon C86, a mail-order cassette compilation that New Musical Express released in 1986, and so overwhelming was the response, the bands that were featured on it actually went on to do bigger and better things. These groups suddenly became spokespeople for a movement that they didn’t even realize had existed, and soon led numerous acts since then to trace their influence lines right back to that simple 22-song compilation.
Of course, as is the case of any time a magazine tries to draw-and-quarter their own influence on history (much less one as prone to hyperbole as NME), context is everything. C86 wasn’t the first cassette compilation that NME had put out (it was, in fact, their 23rd), but it was the one that ended up giving the best definition to a scene that was in need of one. C86 featured early works from Primal Scream, the Wedding Present, and the Mighty Lemon Drops; five years earlier, the magazine’s C81 compilation featured everyone from Orange Juice to Cabaret Voltaire to the Buzzcocks to Ian Dury. C81 was a noble summation of all things indie at the time, but it lacked the somewhat tighter conceptual unity that its brother C86 had.
That being said, there is a problem in putting so weighty a burden on C86 as a subgenre, something which is highlighted here by this three-CD deluxe edition, which pegs on no less than 50 bonus tracks, all of which are basically one-offs and aesthetically-similar tracks that could have very well fit on the original C86: as a subgenre, C86 is more defined by what it represented, not what it actually sounded like.
There are people who would reduce C86, the subgenre, down to a somewhat indie-fied form of jangle-pop, but, that definition lacks specifics. The Smiths emerged in 1983 as a gigantic cultural and musical force, and there are numerous bands here that pull directly from the Morrissey/Marr playbook (The Bodines’ “Therese”, ), as well as those who worship at the altar of the avant-rock stylings of the Residents (Stump’s “Buffalo”), and even those who tried to find some sort of fusion between surf and punk (Age of Chance’s excellently-titled “From Now On, This Will Be Your God”). Although gritty guitar sounds, rough production, and barely-there vocals typified a lot of what could be found in the compilation, as a subgenre, the only requirement seemed to be that the song, regardless of genre, had to sound like it sounded a specific way from a specific time, regardless of actual genre classification.
This idea somewhat gets touched on in original compiler Neil Taylor’s exhaustive liner-notes, which traces the idea of the C86 scene as a direct counterbalance to what he dubs “New Romanticism”, itself a somewhat classy take on the 1983 wave of what he calls “New Pop”, a joyous new mainstream sound that was born out of early ‘80s UK club culture and lead to groups like Culture Club finding success. New Romanticism, according to Taylor, was an even more gussied-up version of that, sophisticated and sleek, with groups like Spandau Ballet and ABC giving a pleasant, inoffensive soundtrack to what was already a politically tumultuous time for a Thatcher-lead Britain. For the youth of the time especially, one can only hear “True” so many times before driven to madness, and enough boys and girls wound up picking up guitars to create songs and sounds that directly opposed the mainstream at the time. While C86 isn’t punk outright (the Sex Pistols’ last big single came out 1981, and even that failed to chart), a lot of the energy and rage articulated by bands on this compilation is usually given some more formal pop leniencies, a couple decent production flourishes, and an overall sense that even with their gritty studio surroundings, sometimes capital-A “Art” could still be made.
Taylor also discusses how when he and fellow staffers Adrian Thrills and Roy Carr began putting together the compilation, they were very much trying to capture not just “the scene” at the time, but also the independent ethos, as a lot of bands actually made their first-ever appearances on that original C86 spool (and for some, it was their only significant appearance of note). Taylor notes how big an influence the Jesus and Mary Chain were at the time, selling their early Creation Records singles in huge amounts while also selling out shows, but by the time the C86 compilation started coming together, they had already signed to Warners, meaning they no longer qualified for the “indie” aspect of things (their labelmates Primal Scream and the Bondies were different stories altogether).
Yet, given that Taylor basically had free-reign to pick up whatever obscurities he wanted for the C86 Deluxe Edition’s bonus tracks, the Jesus and Mary Chain manage to work their way into here with the cut “Inside Me”, but he also pulls tracks from all across the spectrum, but not without some slightly unusual influence copping. You see, in some corners, C86 became so influential that when its anniversary came out in 2006, some labels tried to capitalize on its success with compilations of their own, perhaps none more prominent than Sanctuary Records’ own CD86: 48 Tracks from the Birth of Indie Pop, compiled by Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley. While it too opens with Primal Scream’s “Velocity Girl”, contains the Wedding Present’s “The Boy Can Wait”, and features tracks from original C86 acts like Mighty Mighty, the Mighty Lemon Drops, McCarthy, the Soup Dragons, the Shop Assistants, the Close Lobsters, the Wolfhounds, and Half Man Half Biscuit (none of these acts were under exclusive license one gathers), Taylor himself seems to do some cherry-picking from Stanley’s compilation, grabbing up tracks from 14 Iced Bears, Meat Whiplash, Pop Will Eat Itself, and in the cases of the Hit Parade and BMX Bandits, actually culls the exact same songs from that Sanctuary comp.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with two compilations featuring a great majority of the same tracks, the peril here is that between the expanded C86 and Stanley’s own indebted compilation, all these sources paint an increasingly narrow definition of what qualifies as part of this supposed subgenre. It’s a shame too, because as eager as journalists are to paint themselves as champions/inventors of this specific movement, all of the historical hype-hooplah can make one tune out of just how great some of the songs are here. Yes, “Velocity Girl” is a hell of an opening number, and the Servants’ “Transparent” is basically the template for every song that Blur ever wrote, but the number of songs here from bands that time has all but forgotten is nothing short of a joy to go through: there’s the aggressive strut of the Dentists’ “Peppermint Dreams”, the lush mid-tempo ballad that is the Railway Children’s “Darkness & Colour”, the obtuse dance-rock tune “Outback Jazz” by Blue Aeroplanes, the in-the-red insanity of Noseflutes’ “Perfect Cockney Hard-On”, an early wah-experiment by Happy Mondays (“Freaky Dancin’”), and perhaps one of the most atypically British pop melodies ever composed in the form of St Christopher’s lush indie-pop “Go Ahead Cry”. The list could go on for days, as there are enough gems in here that hold up to repeat listens time and time again.
Certainly, with a three-CD compilation that stretches across 72 tracks, there are a few questionable inclusions (the 97-seconds of lo-fi lounge-pop by the Love Act seems like it could’ve been cut with no tears shed), but overall, C86 isn’t so much a celebration of a self-proclaimed subgenre as it is a snapshot of a scene, one that existed more as aggressive alternative to the homogenized sounds that were pouring out of radios across the land. Of course, NME being NME, they tried their darndest to recreate such indie-rock kingmaking by doing the same thing in 1996 with, of course C96. Although two bands from that compilation did go on to acclaim all their own (Mogwai and Broadcast), the rest of the compilation was self-indulgent pablum, ending with a terrible song by the band Quickspace (then billed as Quickspace Supersport) called “Song for NME”. By the time you start congratulating yourself, that’s when you know the party is over. At least with C86‘s Deluxe Edition, it’s comforting to know that there are still several reasons to celebrate.