Music

'C89' Documents a Creatively Fertile Period in British Rock Music

The fourth in Cherry Red's ongoing exploration of NME's influential C86 compilation and its aftermath, this Neil Taylor-curated collection mines the indie forbearers of the 90's Britpop explosion.

C89
Various Artists

Cherry Red

3 August 2018

C86 was a compilation of UK indie bands given away with the July 1986 issue of NME, and although its collection of performers demonstrated a wide swath of the assorted scenes brewing the time, the dominant impression was one of power pop, leaning heavily towards jangling, light psychedelia, or pastoral folk-rock. Its influence was immediate, and the title of the tape became shorthand for the large proportion of guitar-based bands cropping up during the second half of that decade, influenced in equal part by the American underground explosion (led by R.E.M. and similar acts) and the recent dominance of the Smiths in the UK scene. Not unlike Lenny Kaye's Nuggets anthology, the C86 compilation has grown over time to take on something of a mythic significance.

Nuggets was, of course, retrospective at the time of its release, but its influence on the performers who heard it was instantaneous, with elements heard during both America's punk explosion of the 1970s and its college-radio scene of the 1980s. C86, spotlighting not just a sound but a collection of new performers making it, had an immediate impact upon British independent music, and it can be considered something of a bridge between the UK's 1960s-inspired, eclectic and often-underrated "new wave" acts of the early 1980s (XTC, Aztec Camera, Lilac Time) and the commercial explosion that would become "Britpop" by the early 1990s. Like Nuggets, C86 deserves re-examination and deeper contextualization.

Nuggets received this through Rhino Records' 1998 box set, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968, which expanded the original collection of 28 tracks to 118 cuts spanning four CDs. 2001 saw further expansion with Rhino's equally successful Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts From the British Empire and Beyond, 1964-1969, though a third anthology, 2005's Children of Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the Second Psychedelic Era, 1976-1995, which leaned heavily upon 1980's college radio playlists was, despite the excellent music collected thereon, widely viewed as spreading the formula too thin.

Cherry Red Records, working with Neil Taylor, one of the co-producers of the original C86 compilation, has followed the Rhino model, expanding that first anthology to a three-CD collection in 2014 and continuing on with a like-minded compilation of UK indie pop from each succeeding year of the decade with C87 appearing in 2016 and C88 in 2017. The just-released C89 collects three CDs of UK indie pop released during the decade's closing year.

Following the Nuggets example, it is a fair question to ponder whether, with this fourth compilation, the broth has grown thin, and there is some validation for that concern. As a start-to-finish listening experience, these 72 tracks spanning nearly four hours can start to sound repetitive, even derivative, which is to be expected, frankly, in any given scene with time. The importance of and more importantly, the joy to be found in C89 and its previous collections is its making available many of the peripheral bands during the period's wild and rushed maturation.

A band like A Riot of Colour, for instance, whose potential to break bigger was thwarted by an unstable record label, would be lost to history, and we'd never hear their sublime track "Swallow". Similarly, Brighter's pastoral masterpiece "Inside Out" is unearthed here for new listeners. The collection demonstrates just how vibrant and varied the UK indie scene of the time was, despite the inclination to gather everything under one convenient moniker. The Telescopes' "Nothing" opens with an intensity that instantly calls to mind My Bloody Valentine and demonstrates the wide influence of shoegaze.

One hears the influence of America's Paisley Underground in the DaVincis while the Mock Turtles rock like R.E.M. Jane Pow's "That's My Girl" tries and pretty much succeeds in matching Them, evoking the power of "Gloria" in all its garage-rock bluster, while Sunflowers' "Bubble Bus" rattles and buzzes like the Damned doing flower-punk. And, of course, Morrissey's languid phrasing and crooning ennui echo through many of these cuts (see Newsflash, Big Red Bus, and Ruth Ellis Swing Band).

By 1989, the majors were already more openly pilfering bands away from the independents in the buildup to what would be the damn burst of 1991 and beyond, but as this collection makes clear, there was still a vibrant independent music scene in the UK at the cusp of the Britpop explosion. C89 is an enjoyable and sometimes surprising collection that anthologizes a year that is not going to go down as groundbreaking but during which many significant elements that would lead to the next wave of groundbreaking performances were already well established on the fringes. Fans of the late 1980s and early 1990s guitar pop will find much to enjoy here.

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