Monday, November 17, 2014

C86 and all that

An interview I did with Mario Lopes for the magazine Publico on C86 and all that. 

- “C86” was not the first or the last of its kind. Five years before, we’ve had “C81” which, in some aspects, represented indie pop in a more accurate, diverse way, than “C86”. Ten years afterwards came “C96”, following the Britpop craze. Why is it then that “C86” is the one we always look up to, the one that came to stand through time has an important artefact in pop culture?

Well, it depends who you’re talking to, I suppose!

C81 is a much more significant compilation to me, both personally and I think as a document of the music scene at that time – although limited mostly to bands on Rough Trade or loosely linked to it through distribution, it’s a really good survey of what was going on in postpunk at that time.  Everything from the harmolodic jazzpunk of James Blood Ulmer to Cabaret Voltaire’s sinister electronics to the weirdo vocal music of Furious Pig to fierce jangle of Josef K and Orange Juice.  So to me C81 represents a high point of the era that I wrote about in Rip It Up and Start Again. The diversity, the ambition, the talent on C81 dwarf what is on C86. Equally, C81 represents the NME at its highpoint as a music paper.  The NME in 1986 was not the paper it had been from 1974 to 1983.

But C86 does capture a moment in the codification of indie music – the shift from “independent” to “indie”. Independent refers to a means of production, it’s not a musically limited term. But “indie” refers to a rather narrow genre of sound.  So along with the Jesus & Mary Chain, The Smiths, and Creation Records, you could say that C86 represents a key moment in the evolution of indie. Or devolution, if you want to be bitchy!

Did “C86” documented a scene or created a scene?

It documented. What it included had existed for a good couple of years, or at least had been emerging for a good couple of years. Really these bands on the cassette are the children of the Jesus & Mary Chain, The Smiths, and The Fall. You have the noise-pop, the jangly dreamers, and the grating abrasive bands like the Membranes and Bogshed.  That was all developing from about 1984 onwards and by 1986 it had come into consciousness as a scene, a sound, and a style, by which I mean a clothing look (anoraks, etc).

- You once wrote that the most important thing to come out of punk was the post-punk that came afterwards. Can we say that the most important thing to come out of C86 was what came after?

Well, in so far as C86 is a fairly dreary compilation, in my opinion, and the wider movement it describes was not exactly bursting with innovators or major talents, then you would have to say that the legacy was more interesting than the music on the tape!  

The legacy is in fact surprisingly rich - much larger than I would ever have imagined at the time when I was writing about this scene for Melody MakerBirthed by shambling diehards like the Sarah label, there’s the international network of “twee-pop”  that encompasses the likes of Belle & Sebastian. Riot Grrrl and its UK counterpart (the “Huggy Nation” bands clustered around Huggy Bear) was the politicized, overtly feminist offshoot of C86. Kurt Cobain was a huge fan of the Pastels, the Vaselines, K Records et al.  Manic Street Preachers revered two shambling bands that had an unusual political consciousness, Big Flame and McCarthy, and the latter group evolved into the great Stereolab.  Saint Etienne and Primal Scream, meanwhile, fused C86 with house music.

 The fact is that it was not only jingle-jangle pop – Stump or Bogshed, for instance, are closer to Pere Ubu than the Byrds. Why did people stuck with that jangling sound as representing everything that was there? Because those bands had the stronger imagery, both in terms of style and sound?

It’s prettier, more accessible music, maybe. And it deals with real-life emotions of love, longing, sadness, etc. Also, it’s probably easier to play than the Pere Ubu/Captain Beefheart strain. You have to be pretty proficient to play Ubu.  Jingle-jangle is much more reachable for the averagely talented.  Well the shambers like Bogshed and Pig Bros weren’t particularly skilled either, I don’t think. I thought of them as a lumpen, bastardised version of Ubu and Beefheart.  Stump had some good musicians in them, though, and I guess it took talent to make music as abstruse as The Shrubs did. 

- The compilation came amidst the so-called hip hop wars (it’s almost funny to think of “hip hop wars”, of a time when hip hop was viewed as a menace to the glorious guitar bands). Was C86, considering the two worlds at “war”, a conservative stance in a period of change, or a revelation of something that was bubbling in the underground and therefore, as hip hop, represented something new, a change in the pop word of the day?

The hip hop wars was just something internal to NME, it really had little relevance to the scene itself. Although on the indie scene, it was quite common to be dismissive of dance music and mainstream pop in general. But at Melody Maker, where I wrote, most of the writers were as excited by new noisy rock groups as we were by Public Enemy or Schoolly D or the Def Jam groups. In fact they seemed to have more in common with each other than not: noise, aggression,  a political edge.  Husker Du and Public Enemy, to me, were part of the same anti-mainstream spirit. Even though Public Enemy had hits and Husker Du were melodic and signed to a major label and would have liked to have hits, I’m sure.

Most of the C86 music seemed feeble either compared to the best underground rock bands of the time (mostly from America) or the rap music of that time. A lot of which hip hop actually sampled rock riffs at that time.

At NME you had a camp of diehard indie supporters on the staff, editors and writers who wanted to put The Go Betweens and The Shop Assistants on the cover. And there was a very vociferous, ideologically determined camp of “soul boys”—also editors and writers--who thought that only black music was valid, relevant, and progressive. They were very scornful of indie music and regarded it as retrogressive, even crypto-racist in so far as it didn’t engage with black culture. But to me the irony was that your indie fans, tending to be college educated, were more likely to have anti-racist, left-wing, progressive beliefs and attitudes than many of the white fans of black pop. It’s just that rap and R&B didn’t speak to them, it didn’t describe their lives. Being middle class, bookish, shy types, they didn’t like the overt sexuality, the materialism, and in rap’s case, the sexism.

The indie faction at NME were more in touch with the magazine’s readership, but they didn’t have the strong ideological drive and discipline of the black music faction, so the latter were able to dominate the paper for a while. But eventually they were all ousted, probably I suspect because the owners of NME could see that pushing hip hop through front covers would alienate the readership and lose sales. 

At Melody Maker we just loved the fact that NME was tearing itself apart. We wanted to cover everything that we thought was exciting. We covered indie, noise, industrial/EBM, Goth, rap, club music, later on house and R&B, experimental.

- When you go back to this music, what do you hear there? Does the music still resonate in its youthful abandon, its carefully constructed innocence?

It gives me a small tingle of nostalgic pleasure because I associate it with my first year as a music writer and the excitement of working at Melody Maker. I wrote quite a bit about this scene, usually with some ambivalence, but taking it seriously.  NME owned C86 but they had not been able to say why it was significant. None of their indie-faction writers had that theoretical or sociological approach. (Some of the soul-boy writers did have the ability, but they despised the music too much!). So I wrote this piece “Younger Than Yesterday” to locate the buried manifesto within the music and the clothes. It was the opening salvo of a period during which Melody Maker beat the New Musical Express at its own game.

But as music, some of it captures a certain kind of wistful, delicate poignancy. The Bodines’ “Therese”, Shop Assistant’s “Somewhere in China”, a few other tunes. I think many of these bands had one really great tune.  Maybe two.  I also really liked some of the groups on the edge of the scene, like James, Fuzzbox, The Chills, Felt.

 Many point out the fact that the C86 cassette and the music that came afterwards, influenced by it, showcased women that were “just” band members like the boys, not “the beautiful face for the boys to look at”. There was none of the misogyny that rock culture embraced before. Is this a fact? Was it something that was evident by hearing and seeing these bands, by reading their interviews?

I think that was the continuation of postpunk. That was one of the good things that it did preserve from postpunk.  C86 was all about wimpy, shy boys and girls who were either a bit tomboyish, or, even if they looked schoolgirl-like and innocent, they were tough,  opinonated and often the leaders of the band. As was the case with Talulah Gosh.  Amelia Fletcher and Elizabeth Price were forthright feminists.

The lyrics  of the C86 bands weren’t misogynist, although  the love songs, when written by boys, often tended to idealise women in this mystical sort of way. Etherealise them.
I think there is something perennial in indie culture, in so far as it’s largely white collegiate bourgeois culture, that expresses itself through nostalgia for childhood and this kind of innocence. Can’t remember the name of the song but one tune by Looper, the offshoot of Belle & Sebastian, is all about a love story where it takes years for the girl and the boy to even hold hands.  That sensibility carried on with Saint Etienne, who have an excessive number of songs about holding hands. You couldn’t imagine them ever doing a song about shagging, a Chris Brown type explicitly sexual song.

- Have you heard the new 3CD compilation? What do you make of it? Does it shed a new light on what was happening in the indie music of the time or is it merely a time capsule of its time, belonging to its time only?

I haven’t heard it. On my blog, I quipped that the idea of improving C86 by enlarging or elongating just didn’t compute with me. Seemed like a contradiction in terms! But it’s certainly a period of music that deserves to be documented. Quite a few groups were left off the original C86.

I haven’t looked at the line-up of the 3CD thing but I hope there’s some Beat Happening on there. They were one of my favourites.

- One of the most interesting things is that this indie scene was not centered around one band, as the punk explosion that, in a way, sprung out of the Ramones british craze, or around one city, as with Factory’s Manchester or Postcard’s Glasgow in the late 70s. These bands were scattered all over the country, and London didn’t seem of bigger importance than Wolverhampton. It was happening underground, everywhere. Was that geographic democracy something new and of great relevance? If so, why? Because it showed kids everywhere that they could make music regardless of where they were?

I don’t really see this, because punk started in New York and London, yes, but it also had strong outposts in Cleveland and Manchester, and even things happening in parallel in Australia like The Saints and Radio Birdman. It was also a concept that existed in critical parlance for about five years before The Ramones album. So punk could be said to have been invented, over an extended period, all over the place.  Same with the postpunk period, it’s very decentralised, cities like Akron, Sheffield, Liverpool, Leeds, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Coventry, Bristol, Brisbane, Melbourne,  Berlin, San Francisco, Athens Georgia, are very important at particular points.  So I think C86 is the continuation of that.

London is always going to be a dominant force in British music because its about ten million people and lots of young people move their after graduating college. It’s the cultural centre of the country and of the music industry. But from punk onwards British music becomes multipolar, there are regional and provincial scenes, and people in the middle of nowhere too, small towns, thanks to the spread of small cheap studios and also the rise of home studio recording.  Fanzines, the distribution network of Rough Trade and other big independents, and the role of John Peel as a nationwide broadcaster who nonetheless supported locally produced music that was sent to him - -all these help to make UK independent music  a widely dispersed scene. And one with increasingly strong ties to what’s going on in America at that time, or Europe.  During the Eighties you start to get scenes that are trans-national, like hardcore punk. 

 Nikolai Galen of The Shrubs had this sentence about the bands in C86: “It was great to have the energy of punk without actually having to be punks”. Do you think that’s the shortest way to accurately describe what that music was about? In a way it echoes what Edwyn Collins said was his idea behind Orange Juice – its sweetness, the soul love songs, the androgyny, were a punk attitude against what punk had become: stale, macho, violent.

Not really. Because a lot of the C86 era  music didn’t have the energy of punk, or the force.  It was quite abrasive on the surface , but underneath, weak as rock music.  Certainly compared to Bad Brains

It depends what you define as the essence of punk. There are a hundred different versions of this, it’s an endless argument, an undecidable argument. Almost the point of punk was that everyone disagreed about what it stood for and how it should develop!

C86 was one interpretation of punk – in my mind, quite a reduced version, a narrow version
Some of it picked up on the DIY aspect, the not having to be very good at your instruments. The fast tunes, the singalong melodies.  Like the Buzzcocks, but not as good.   Or they’d be picking up on Swell Maps, but never their more experimental Krautrock-influenced stuff, just the pure racket.

Then there was the Sixties influenced stuff  --  mostly sounded like The Velvet Underground, without the edge of Lou Reed’s lyrics or the more sonically expansive element brought by John Cale.  Either that, or it sounded like the Byrds, but without the ambition. Nobody would attempt something like “Eight Miles High”.
Finally, then there was the shambling end of things, the Bogsheds, which was based around this idea of ungainliness and abrasiveness as a refusal of pop, a dissident act.  A dead end, as far as I was concerned.  

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