C87 is a deep dig down a particular acre of the ‘80s pop estate, pulling up dozens of in-between-scene gems that gleam as they reflect off one another.
Cherry Red’s sweeping C87 compilation applies a “what if?” premise to the state of play across the UK’s indie rock dominions in the eighteen months that followed the release of the C86 mail-order cassette. All 74 songs brought together here were released or recorded between the summer of 1986 and the waning days of 1987.
Looking back from the vantage point of thirty years, it is curious that the C86 compilation has so much more notoriety than its older brother, C81. Band for band, the roll call on C81overflows with post punk clout: Buzzcocks, Pere Ubu, the Specials, the Beat (aka the English Beat in the US), Orange Juice, the Raincoats, Aztec Camera, Cabaret Voltaire, Robert Wyatt, and so on. However, as sometimes happens when a scrappy, cobbled-together team of players that compliment one another’s strengths goes up against a side of high profile individual talents, the underdog somehow beat the odds to become the one that rises above.
C86 had its signature stars, of course. Primal Scream’s “Velocity Girl”, a B-side, became shorthand for the jangle pop ideal. Others like the Wedding Present and the Soup Dragons would also go on to different levels of critical and commercial success. Beyond the standout tracks, the tape gave the impression of a coherent vision, one that lay beyond the scope of one label (New Musical Express co-released C81 with Rough Trade), though its curation was ultimately down to a few NME writers, one of whom, Neil Taylor, has written and compiled the detailed booklet for C87.
“For most indie bands in 1987," Taylor writes, “major label money and chart success was still a pipe dream. The majority were happy to remain in the indie world they knew best, with its disciplines and codes and dress sense (the bowl haircuts, stripy tops and Mary Quant-inspired dresses remembered in the pages of Sam Knee’s book A Scene In Between).” Indeed, if one is looking for a glimpse of the set and setting of C87, Knee’s book contains many a captured moment of the postures and profiles of bands included here -- the Sea Urchins, the Vaselines, BMX Bandits, and many others – and makes an engaging visual accompaniment for this compilation. That is, after one has gone through Taylor’s own very thorough track-by-track liner notes, which place each song in succinct capsules of little and big picture context alongside a wealth of band photos and record sleeve art.
C87’s three discs allot the spoils between groups whose debut records were put out in the designated time period, follow-ups by bands who appeared on C86, and other groups from the era whose sensibilities fit the vibe. Disc one posits the Sea Urchins’ “Pristine Christine” as this compilation’s “Velocity Girl”, a tone-setting sugar sweet tumble in the grass flush with spring’s promise. Clutch tunes from the House of Love, the Vaselines, and the Wonder Stuff chase quickly after. Best foot forward aside, there is an admirable absence of much in the way of a success-minded hierarchy in the running order of the discs.
Inspiral Carpets, who nearly had a number one album in the UK charts with their debut, sit right next to the much lesser known Scottish psychedelic scuzz band the Bachelor Pad. The Railway Children, the Wigan group led by Gary Newby who made their mark back in the day but have been a bit overlooked since (hopefully the reunited quartet, who have begun playing shows this year, can begin to remedy that) don’t appear until the back end of disc two with their breakthrough second single, “Brighter”. “In My Room” by the Weather Prophets, Pete Astor’s post-Loft band, occupies roughly the same spot on disc three, between amber pop pleasures from the Siddeleys (“What Went Wrong This Time?”) and the Wishing Stones (“Beat Girl”), two short-lived acts that only released a handful of singles each.
C87 is by design a deep dig down a particular acre of the ‘80s pop estate, but there’s no denying how these dozens of in-between-scene gems gleam as they reflect off one another. Though the no-stone-left-unturned approach may or may not imply an outsized impression of how much of an immediate impact C86 really left in its wake, it is, among other things, a generous act of preservation. Collections like this one are increasingly necessary as the monoculture takes over not only our own time, but falsely imposes itself on our perception of the past. There is unfading life in the rollicking spontaneity of the BMX Bandits’ “The Day Before Tomorrow” and the gearshift in Talulah Gosh’s self-titled theme song, a spirit every bit as crucial to the collective understanding of modern popular music as the hit factories of yesterday and today.