How NME magazine’s C86 cassette helped create the British indie music scene

On May 3 1986, an advertisement appeared in the New Musical Express for a cassette that the music paper would be selling from the next week. “Attention pop kids!” ran the excited blurb. “You are hereby given notice that it truly is a fab, fab, fab world! . . . With the independent music scene in its finest artistic fettle for aeons, your caring NME collective have assembled a quintessential cast starring 22 of the year’s most crucial contenders on one single spool of utter splendor.”

The mail-order tape, which cost £2.95, was called C86 (short for the class of 1986) and it ended up being far more important than the list of bands featured would suggest. While a few of them have endured — Primal Scream went on to become genre-busting pioneers, The Wedding Present had a spell as the big thing in indie rock and then a long career, Half Man Half Biscuit evolved into a beloved cult — most of them quickly disappeared from view. But those 22 tracks came to codify the notion of “indie music” in Britain. In the first half of the 1980s, indie had meant “independently produced and distributed”; in the second half it meant, by and large, “slightly alternative white kids playing guitars”, for that was what C86 offered as its summation of “the independent music scene”. By 1987 you could be an indie band without being on an indie label — it had become a genre.

“It astonished me that it seemed to represent something that was never part of its intention,” says Neil Taylor, one of the three NME writers who compiled the tape, which was simply trying to reflect alternative music’s emergence from the gloom of the post- punk years. “The definition of it is after the fact, by people who look back and see the similar narrowness of focus that emerged in the music press as it exited the ’80s.”

Members of The Wedding Present, wearing casual clothes, stand smiling/laughing in front of a green wall

The Wedding Present, one of the bands whose career lasted, photographed in 1988 © Getty Images

now C86 is being celebrated in a new book. In Whatever Happened to the C86 Kids? An Indie Odysseyauthor Nige Tassell tracks down and interviews at least one member of each group who appeared on the tape.

Tassell identifies its importance as “a second coming of the punk ethos” for people too young to have been at London’s Roxy in 1977. “This was the time of Dire Straits and the launch of the CD and everything being pristine and perfect,” he says when we speak. “But with C86, you just had to pick up a guitar and make music imbued with enthusiasm.” Like punk, these bands appeared together on bills, with their names spread via a network of fanzines and a handful of indie labels putting out the records.

Certain themes recur in Tassell’s book. First, many of the bands didn’t offer their best songs to NME, not realizing that the cassette (which reputedly sold 40,000 in its first run) would be far more popular than any of their individual songs. Second, a certain ambivalence about the tape arose among those who featured on it. For while it raised the profile of almost all of them, and led to major label deals for several, including the staggeringly unlikely Stump (whose contribution, “Buffalo”, sounded like Captain Beefheart playing country and featured the refrain “How much is the fish ? Does the fish have chips?”), C86 came to be associated with only one strand of the music it contained. A sweet-toothed, amateurish pop indebted to Buzzcocks and The Byrds, it was represented by Primal Scream, The Soup Dragons, Shop Assistants and The Pastels. C86 became associated with a set of adjectives — “shambling”, “two” — that few of the bands wished on themselves. And that year in the tape’s title proved to be a bit of a millstone.

Mick Lynch, wearing a white T-shirt, sings into a microphone on stage

Mick Lynch and Kev Hopper of Stump performing in 1987 © Avalon

“Initially it was great — we were everywhere,” says David Callahan, singer of The Wolfhounds (“Feeling So Strange Again”). “We had just left school, so as far as we were concerned we were discovered when we were still only partly formed, but it became very hard to get attention after that . . . It was dispiriting, because people took it as a fad.”

In Bellshill, near Glasgow, Sean Dickson of The Soup Dragons (“Pleasantly Surprised”) was part of a scene that ended up producing scores of memorable records — his teenage gang of friends included Norman Blake, later of Teenage Fanclub, Joe McAlinden of Superstar (covered by Rod Stewart) and Duglas T Stewart of BMX Bandits. The Soup Dragons themselves ended up having a worldwide hit with their cover of The Rolling Stones’ “I’m Free”.

“The Jesus and Mary Chain lived a few miles up the road and they were a huge influence on me as a 15- and 16-year-old,” Dickson says. “Norman and Duglas and I entered into the world of Glasgow — we’d go into the city and busk Velvet Underground and Talking Heads songs outside M&S.” When Dickson and other friends later formed The Soup Dragons, they started making waves before they had even made a record.

A 1989 photo of The Soup Dragons, sitting on the floor and looking towards the camera

The Soup Dragons in 1989, with Sean Dickson on the far right © Redferns

“We did a flexidisc for a fanzine and it got ‘Single of the Week’ in the NME,” he says, still astonished. “For a song that costs 25 quid to record. NME asked us to come to London to do an interview. We went back home, and two weeks later there was a three-page interview. And we still hadn’t made any records.”

C86 inspired, almost immediately, a second wave of bands who were less diverse in musical outlook — jangling, shambolic, melodic bands with a seemingly childlike outlook — and gave the new style some ideological backbone. Women were central to this scene, both as musicians and in the back rooms, with the fanzines and labels.

For all the apparent sweetness, the music was deliberately oppositional to the mainstream. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana was hugely stimulated by (and then covered) the Glasgow band The Vaselines, who emerged in the immediate post-C86 era. And this style — usually known now as “indie pop” — continues to thrive in the underground, every so often throwing up a band that attracts mainstream attention.

Members of Half Man Half Biscuit, wearing 1980s clothes and facing the camera, stand in a glass-covered walkway

‘Beloved cult’ Half Man Half Biscuit in the mid-1980s © Ronnie Randall/Retna

So why does a tape he compiled 36 years ago continue to cast a shadow? “I wish I had the answer to that,” Taylor says. “None of it was done for posterity. Maybe it endures because of the honesty and integrity of the bands. Once you got to groups like The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays . . . they were more than happy to go along with what the man wanted and become part of the establishment. It was still possible for those bands to be anti-establishment [in 1986]but after it you couldn’t do that.”

“A lot of the majors looked at C86 and swooped on the bands,” Tassell says. “That’s the time the bigger music industry realized the marketability of middle-class white kids with guitars who had done their A-levels and weren’t going to spit when they were on TV.”

If those bands would later be mocked for that perceived niceness, or sucked into the mainstream, it’s worth remembering that there remains something revolutionary about C86. There are still bands that take its purity of spirit and its refusal to accept the stereotypes of guitar music and are inspired to present something true to themselves. More power to them.

‘Whatever Happened to the C86 Kids? An Indie Odyssey’ is published by Nine Eight Books on August 18

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