[sic] Magazine

Various Artists – C86; Deluxe 3-CD Edition.

Cherry Red Records are fast becoming the kings of the reissue. Their efforts on recent re-releases have been admirable, particularly the House Of Love debut album and the various Boo Radleys albums. Then there are the compilations. I suppose everybody picked up Scared To Get Happy, the 5 disc ‘story of indie’? If not, don’t hesitate. It’s in the ‘essential’ bracket. C86 cannot be called a reissue though. This is a celebration, and a lavish one at that. The original C86 was one of the most important objects in British alternative music history. If C86 didn’t give rise to a genre it certainly gave it its name.

‘C86’ though? What did it mean? I’m reminded that a generation of readers will have never experienced the joy (or otherwise) of the cassette. Back in 1986 cassettes probably outsold vinyl records. They were cheaper. They often had extra tracks (I must have been a marketing man’s dream) and they were certainly easier to give away on the cover of music papers. That’s essentially what C86 was, a compilation made available, mail order by the New Musical Express (NME) and it tapped into something that was happening within the UK music scene, – transition. The Smiths, the leading alternative act of the time, were about to split up. We didn’t know it, but we felt it, subconsciously. And despite The Smiths having made guitars credible again in UK pop charts the gulf between them and the competition was vast. Finding a successor to The Smiths within the class of 86 was like looking for a successor to Manchester United within League Two.

Cassettes though, they were rubbish folks. At least the official album releases were. Blank tapes had their uses of course. We could record stuff. ‘Home taping is killing music’ they used to say. Yeah right, like video killed cinema! Blank cassettes allowed us to tape the John Peel show! Need I say more? You had your C60, (sixty minutes) and C90 (you guessed it, ninety minutes. C90s were great because a whole album would normally fit on one side. At least now you can see why C86 was such a terrific little title.

As to the music on C86 it was a lot like the Peel Show that I just mentioned. Jangle pop and ‘shambling’ bands accounted for much of it but it was never just one style. I think the bands were united more by values than style. I do not want to say ‘amateurish’ per se but the production values were certainly at the lower end of the scale. Guitars? Well they were all high end – tinny and abrasive. Bass certainly didn’t have a big role to play. There’s good humour as well. Despite being political nobody took themselves too seriously. (Maybe one or two did, but you’ll always get that) Sometimes the music set out to deliberately annoy and provoke. At other times it was very tuneful.

The term ‘C86’ came to signify that whole late 80s music scene. The Smiths may have been the catalyst, but they weren’t really the inspiration. The C86 bands looked back to Postcard (Orange Juice, Joseph K etc) and then further still to the sixties. C86 therefore became the sound of Britain searching for something. Where Melody Maker focused more on introverted (but beautiful) music like 4AD and shoegaze, NME always had a strong student bedrock. Whilst that readership could be ‘right on’, pretentious or even militant, in the end they were still kids, spotty, bad haired kids, looking for a good time. Yes dear reader, this is what counted as fun back then! Here within C86 are the seeds of the ‘baggy’, Madchester period, and the germ of an idea that would eventually emerge as Britpop. The Creation label probably owes a tremendous debt to the C86 cassette.

Here is what the NME said about C86:

“The album, first released on a cassette with NME in 1986, went on to inspire a generation of indie bands and features music by Primal Scream, The Pastels, Shop Assistants and The Wedding Present among many others.”

What Cherry Red have done is re-press the C86 album on CD in full, as well as adding two further discs of music from the same period and from bands of a similar ilk. Some of these songs are available on CD for the first time ever. There is a forty eight page booklet with photos and notes by Neil Taylor who wrote for NME at the time and annotated the original cassette release. It all comes in a neat box.


This three disk set will be fondly appreciated by those who were around ‘at the time’ and who maybe owned C86 originally. For others it serves as document and eyewitness to a time when the British music landscape altered. ‘Indie’ went from signifying labels to being a style of music in its own right. More regional labels and circuits emerged. There also seemed, to be more opportunities for women within guitar based pop, not only fronting bands but playing the instruments too, however cack-handed that may have been (and that applied to both sexes). Alternative music would go on to feature far less in mainstream UK radio, at least for a while. Radio, television and the charts diverged widely at this point with daytime airplay highly regulated (playlisted) and populated by awful manufactured acts. Britain was still in the grip of Thatcherism and all of these factors in combination gave rise to an ‘us or them’ dynamic. Ours was the underground scene, John Peel, the NME, and pokey independent record shops. We wouldn’t have one, clear, leading iconic band to champion until the Stone Roses would emerge three years later.

1986 was the era of the ‘also-rans’

And it was absolutely glorious.

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Scared to get happy