The Null Device

What is C86?

A blog named Mocking Music has a primer on what "C86" is, both the original NME DIY-indie cassette and the genre (jangly and/or twee pop) it has, rightly or wrongly, become synonymous with:
C86 is a type of music, but what it describes is a contentious point. Its original meaning can be agreed upon at least. What it began as was a free cassette that came with issues of the British magazine NME in 1986 (hence, cassette 1986), later available for purchase as an LP through Rough Trade. Like its predecessor, C81, it featured a slew of up and coming indie acts. Unlike C81, this cassette's indie acts were far more indie and less established.
Says NME's website: "We [tried] to invent an alternative scene - our own version of punk you could say - by forcing a coterie of new bands onto a cassette called C86. It's not entirely convincing and you should get out more if you remember The Shop Assistants - but it nails our colours to the mast. We, it said, for better or worse, are indie."
Of course, NME is no longer indie, but twenty years of popularity will do that. Were C86 a cassette alone, it wouldn't merit much note now. But it became more than that. Although not all the bands featured on the compilation were stylistically similar, enough of them shared the same shambolic sound for C86 to quickly become identified as a particular genre, a movement, in independent rock. That sound is arguably twee, and definitively Jangly. Although many tweepop groups do grow from C86, the genre is, strictly speaking, jangle pop. Some have argued that, like Krautrock, C86 is more a time and place thing: late 80's British DIY indie, rather than a genre, but listen to the compilation, or any of the bands that became linked to C86 afterward, and you'll find that most of the artists have a shared, distinct sound (i.e. discordant feed-back laden guitars mixed with almost child-like vocalization of mostly cheery, sometimes political lyrics).
(Of course, the statement "NME is no longer indie" is only valid if one uses the word "indie" in the purist sense, rather than the popular sense. In the other sense, NME remains the bible of "indie", but "indie" is no longer indie; instead, "indie" these days is the next generation of "alternative", a fashion-conscious, highly commercial and formulaic genre of music, upbeat, stylishly-distressed football-terrace anthems, sponsored by Carling and Clear Channel, and comprised of simple riffs and the catchier bits lifted from the underground music of yesterday, streamlined for mass consumption. But I digress.)

Mocking Music goes on to examine each track on the NME cassette (side A and side B); the descriptions are somewhat brief and in some cases cursory to the extreme (and contain a few mistakes, for example, "Bullfighter's Bones" is named in one place as "Bullfighter Blues"), though they do include MP3 links, and does explain who Nerys Hughes was.

IMHO, C86 is an interesting historical document, and worth a listen, though it is far from a list of either the best or most significant exponents of the zeitgeist that became known as C86. A handful of the tracks merit repeated listening (in my opinion, the highlights include Primal Scream's Velocity Girl, The Bodines' Therese, Stump's Buffalo, The Shop Assistants' It's Up To You and the abovementioned Half Man Half Biscuit song, (even though it's arguable nobody who hasn't lived in England during the 1980s has a chance of truly understanding HMHB, however, collecting their works and cribbing up on the soap actors and second-division football managers mentioned from online cheat sheets could be useful for Anglophilic oneupmanship); much of the rest is somewhat forgettable. On the other hand, I suspect that more recent NME compilations (Britpack anyone?) won't stand the test of time to anywhere near the same extent as C86 did.

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