Home / NME C86: An Introduction to 80s Indie

NME C86: An Introduction to 80s Indie

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C-86, the latest controversial Canadian legislation bill? No, that’s C-38.


C86 is a genre of music. That and a famous NME (New Musical Express) cassette. The genre is indie. More precisely, it refers to mid to late 80s and early 90s British indie pop that was generally”twee” (think Scottish group Belle & Sebastian for definitive twee). Although most tweepop groups grow from c86, the c86 genre is arguably identified as jangle pop. This was a British movement, but there were many American and Canadian bands that were also c86 like Velocity Girl (Which takes its name from an original C86 track) or Jale. The original movement is now almost as old as a lot of the people reading this, yet it still holds a place of importance in contemporary music beyond being mere reference fodder for indie elitists. Its pop-culture relevance has only become more apparent in the last year. Look for the influences of all those bands you or your little brother is rocking out to on the OC, and you’ll invariably find yourself back at C86.

But wait, didn’t I say something about a tape? You got me. C86 is a literal abbreviation for Cassette 86, which refers to a tape given away with the then 34- year-old NME magazine in, unsurprisingly, 1986. NME was perhaps beginning to feel old and listless but, rather than focusing only on the biggest possible bands and celebrity gossip as with its (then 24 year old) cousin, Rolling Stone, NME decided to try something new.

“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.”

The Cassette featured exclusively independent artists, most of whom were not hugely popular at the time. While C86 came to be a genre rather than a literal tape, some of the bands on the original compilation were neither janglepop nor twee (ie. not all the bands on C86 were C86). Examples being Primal Scream’s Velocity Girl or Stump’s “Buffalo”. Regardless, C86 was the cassette that launched a genre (rather than just recognizing one).

The Famous C-86

Says the freakishly well-informed uao of Freeway Jam, “C-86 was an extraordinary release; most of the bands had been unknown prior to its issuance, but taken together they resembled a scene. Almost every one of the groups that appeared on C-86 were short-lived, but in their wake, newer indie bands on both sides of the Atlantic began experimenting with this airy, tuneful style.”

Tom of Indie-mp3 whose tag-line is “Keeping the c86 alive” points out another distinction between the current twee pop and indie music scene and the c86 scene: politics. Unlike many of the C86 groups, indie music right now is rarely political. Personally, I prefer my music sans politik. Politics and music make for sloganeering, good protest chants, and propaganda, but not intelligent debate. That said, music remains the perfect visceral outlet for frustration, anger, or apathy born of perceived political disenfranchisement. “At this time, the NME was a socialist music paper in all but name,” Tom explains in his C86 overview. He goes on to further link the politicization to Thatcherism, but I’d argue that there is as many, if not more, reasons for a band to be political today. Though that’s likely every generation’s claim.

In writing this, I’ve relied on more than a few quoted references. Hopefully this makes me look credible and journalistic, and not confused and lazy. I’ve also avoided actually describing the music. This was intentional. I’m no good at it. This sometimes makes having a blog with a primary purpose of music description a bit tricky. I’ve never claimed it was a useful blog.

Essentially, c86 is poppy but underproduced. Doesn’t that describe all indie pop? Well, yes, but.. um . . . this stuff is, uh, jangly too. And old.


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  • “this stuff is, uh, jangly too. And old”

    Love that description. Jangly is good. Great writing here, and really interesting article.

    Mmm, the Pastels!

  • I dunno if it’s interesting but some may already know that C86 was in fact only the latest in a whole series of NME Cassettes which started back in 1981 with the cleverly titled C81, can’t quite recall now if it was 81 minutes long but wouldn’t be at all surprised.

    The whole series of NME tapes was born out of a conversation between myself and then NME journalist Roy Carr back when I was working for Rough Trade Records in London’s then ultra-cool Ladbroke Grove area.

    I was the second of three members of what turned into one of the best ever PR teams, led by my immediate boss, the legendary late Scott Piering, originally from San Francisco and backed up by the inspired mania of the sadly also late French-American genius Claude Bessey.

    Really can’t imagine why I’m the only one left alive now, as we were all living pretty much out there lifestyles, the one BIG difference I can think of is that Scott and Claude both smoked cigarettes heavily; Scott tried to get by on low tar brands but was occasionally tempted by the hideous beauty of Claude’s seemingly ever-present Gauloises. Personally, I’d given up the killer weed one crazy night in Antwerp, Belgium, where I’d lived for a couple of years back in the mid 70s, but that’s another story.

    C81 was made available by mail order and broke records for reader response, so both the record company and the music paper, then edited by the excellent Neal Spencer, possibly the NME’s last great Editor, were delighted to keep the series going.

    A quick search turned up this link, which seems to be a Young Marble Giants fansite, the link leads to a photo of the artwork (it seems funny now to think that cassettes were actually hip and trendy then, all that tape!) and an artist listing that includes such greats as Scritti Politti, The Beat, Pere Ubu, Orange Juice, Cabaret Voltaire, D.A.F., the Specials, the Buzzcocks, the Raincoats, Josef K, Virgin Prunes, Aztec Camera, Red Crayola and Subway Sect amongst many more.