Come Together Adventures on the Indie Dancefloor 1989-1992

‘Come Together: Adventures on the Indie Dancefloor 1989-1992’ Celebrates Madchester

Full of gems from the Happy Mondays, the Charlatans, the Stone Roses, and many lesser-known acts, this massive Madchester retrospective leaves surprisingly few holes.

Come Together: Adventures on the Indie Dancefloor 1989-1992
Various Artists
Cherry Red
28 July 2023

While Seattle-based grunge unfolded in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a much different movement was playing out in the UK, centered in another big city. Alternately known as “Baggy” (based on its adherents’ sartorial preferences), “Madchester” (an appropriate take on its Northern English epicenter), or, more literally, “indie dance”, the scene was all that grunge was not, and vice-versa.

Both grunge and Madchester were, at heart, reactions to the new wave, synthpop, and New Romantic movements that dominated the 1980s. By 1988 or so, this music had lost most of whatever edge or cultural influence it had ever had. In an inevitable swing of the historical pendulum, many young musicians on both sides of the Atlantic turned back to the “classic rock” that most of their predecessors had so reviled. In the 1970s, the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten had famously worn a T-shirt that proclaimed, “I Hate Pink Floyd”. One listen to Come Together: Adventures on the Indie Dancefloor 1989–1992 clarifies that Baggy had no issue with the Floyd—or their 1960s-vintage ilk.

A crucial area where grunge and Madchester diverged, though, was in which of these classic influences held sway. At the risk of overgeneralizing, and notwithstanding the voracious musical appetite of individuals such as Kurt Cobain, grunge tended to favor the hard-rocking, rough-around-the-edges likes of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Alternately, a glance at the spate of cover versions on Come Together reveals Baggy’s forbears: The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Neil Young of Buffalo Springfield.

Madchester was unique in that it also intersected with the concurrent rise of house and techno and its attendant drug culture in the UK. Therefore, while the genre most definitely looked back, it also looked forward—or at least embraced the leading edge of the present.

This combination of traditional rock values like melody and groove with the beat-driven, ecstasy (both emotional and chemical)-fueled dance movement resulted in some special music. The four-disc, 56-track Come Together collects an impressive amount of that. These “comprehensive” multi-disc retrospectives are often woefully incomplete, with licensing issues leading to glaring holes and compromised choices. While it certainly leaves room for quibbles, such as the absence of Primal Scream’s epochal “Loaded”, Come Together contains more than a few hands-down classics and does an excellent job documenting the lesser-knowns and also-rans as well. If listeners can live without EMF, they will get at least a taste of every other notable name of the era.  

The major players loom large over Come Together and for good reason. Primal Scream’s title track is rapturous and pastoral. The Stone Roses‘ “Fools Gold” may be the most stoned-out song ever recorded, while Happy Mondays’ brand of dance-funk is represented by “W.F.L.” and “Step On”—the former invoking the unlikely description “effortlessly hedonistic” and the latter effortlessly sneaking in elements of piano house music. Even in remixed form, typical for this collection, these songs will elicit instant good vibes from anyone who lived through the era; they are almost immune to overexposure. For newcomers, they set the bar nearly impossibly high for the rest of the set. The Charlatans and Inspiral Carpets are the other A-listers from the era. While the two Charlatans’ selections are not among their best or most iconic, “Opportunity Three” is agreeably spacy and cool. Conversely, “Joe” and “Commercial Reign” were the best of the Inspirals, but they haven’t aged all that well, proving that, as far as retro organs go, Hammond trumps Farfisa every time.

Even bands not explicitly associated with Madchester got in on the fun. If there is a “baggy template”, it involves thick, chunky breakbeats, polyrhythmic percussion, and a hissing, tinny high end without much in the middle. But this relatively simple prescription can be applied to a variety of styles with much success, including motoric krautrock (Spacemen 3’s “Big City”), snarling post-punk (The Wendys’ “The Sun’s Going to Shine For Me Soon”), fey art-pop (Saint Etienne’s cover of the Field Mice’s “Kiss and Make Up”), conscious hip-hop (Ruthless Rap Assassins’ “And It Wasn’t a Dream”), and streamlined techno (808 State’s “Pacific State”). “Pearl” from the shoegaze act Chapterhouse is a classic but may seem like a stretch for Come Together until one realizes “Pearl” is the only shoegaze track to employ the Schooly D TR-909 rhythm.

 A good deal of the sonic alchemy on display is performed by the producers and remixers. In another intersection with DJ culture and hip-hop, some of these knob-twiddlers became just as famous as the bands they worked with. Witness the likes of Terry Farley, Paul Oakenfold, and the late Andrew Weatherall, all of whose work is featured here.   

As they do with most any “trend”, the UK music press and record labels juiced baggy for all they could, so Come Together does not offer much in the way of hidden gems or lost treasures. One exception is the sublime remix of the Primitives’ “You Are the Way”, which went unreleased due to an uncleared sample. However, a fair number of tracks also amount to lackluster imitations of the big-name acts or failed attempts at expanding the baggy tent. The Mock Turtles’ “Can You Dig It?”, for example, is what Teenage Fanclub would have sounded like had they tried to make a Baggy track. Thankfully, they never did.

Unlike grunge, the Baggy or Madchester phenomenon didn’t extend far beyond its native shores. Only one of Come Together’s 56 tracks, Jesus Jones’ flaccid “Real Real Real”, made the US Top Ten. Furthermore, the scene and many of its musicians were incredibly self-destructive. Mainly for this reason, baggy did not leave much of a legacy. By the mid-1990s, British indie was utterly in thrall to the sounds of Britpop. Of the primary Madchester bands, only the Charlatans went on to have a lengthy, continuously successful career. Most of the others burned out rather quickly. Maybe they were big Neil Young fans, after all.  

RATING 7 / 10