Music history holds that nothing much happened in British rock between the rise of the Smiths (early 1980s) and the rise of the Stone Roses (early 1990s), but something did. For want of a better name, it gets called C86, after a compilation tape the NME put out that year. It was iconoclastic and human, and so fiercely independent it was kind of beyond authenticity. Some people have called it the true birth of indie, in which case this year marks its 20th anniversary.I suspect Simon Reynolds (who is on record as dismissing the time between post-punk being assimilated into "new pop" and the rise of acid-house/rave culture—i.e., the C86 era—as a wasteland) would disagree about the "true birth of indie", placing it back in the post-punk era. Though the two aren't disconnected; there are probably threads running from post-punk (in particular DIY mail-order cassette labels and provincial garage bands like The Homosexuals, not to mention obvious influences like Orange Juice) into C86.
Even at the time, being into C86 bands felt like being part of a secret society. The scene was snobbish and elitist - although in a really good way. If the bands had icons, they always seemed to be slightly under the radar: record sleeves wouldn't have a picture of Andy Warhol on them, but of some girl who had hung around the Factory for a couple of days in 1966. It forced you to think a bit - to discover things.
A couple of the bands went on to lasting success, including Primal Scream - who now seem really embarrassed about that era in their history. But most C86 bands had a lack of ambition in a really good way. There seemed no desire to make any money. Today's indie artists are well-groomed; in the C86 era, every band member had holes in their jumpers. It wasn't a punk thing, it was a poor thing. You also got the impression, looking at a C86 band, that a lot of these musicians were living at home with their parents. This was totally inspirational: here were people who were in a band and just like you.
The ICA in London is marking the 20th anniversary of the C86 era with a weekend of live shows, exhibitions and film screenings. I'm not sure if we need these gigs to remember it. The thing I loved about C86 was the romance and doomed elitism: it felt like nostalgia even as it was happening. It's telling that none of the original bands have actually reformed to play at the ICA, and that none of the individual records have been re-released. That somehow makes it more special, more precious. Some things are meant to be rare.Ah yes, the ICA's C86 commemoration, with a headline gig by The Magic Numbers, who were presumably chosen because they play old-fashioned pop on guitars and aren't particularly macho. (Perhaps Coldplay and Blandly Drawn Boy were otherwise engaged?) Never mind that their brand of guitar-pop has a genteel, approachable smoothness and Spectoresque studio polish to it that's as far away from the naïve, ramshackle enthusiasm of C86 as it is from thrash-metal or Tuvan throat singing. It could well be that today's vaguely indie-ish commercial music, from the Arctic Monkeys to Coldplay, couldn't have existed in its present form without C86, but it is a different species, one more polished, more tastefully conservative and better adapted to commercial niches which C86 couldn't survive in. (Could you imagine, for example, the Wolfhounds or McCarthy being played in chic Notting Hill eateries full of designer-attired yummy-mummies and media types?)
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