C88 review – rock stars and no-hit wonders

In 1986, NME magazine’s legendary C86 cassette collected together songs by some of the leading guitar bands on the fledgling UK indie music scene – a kind of mix tape compiled by the magazine’s staff, featuring contemporary acts like The Wedding Present, Primal Scream and The Pastels. Demand for the mail-order tape outstripped all expectations and the tag ‘C86’ became shorthand for a sub-genre of pop music featuring simple melodies and jangly guitars. The influence of the original tape helped to galvanise the scene and bring it a step closer to the mainstream.

After re-releasing an expanded, 72-track three-CD version of the original C86 in 2015, Cherry Red Records followed this up last year with another three-disc boxset, C87 which featured indie tunes that might have been included if NME had produced a sequel tape the following year.

On the back of the positive reception of those releases, Cherry Red have released C88, another extensive collection devoted to notable UK indie releases from 1988. One-time NME writer Neil Taylor, co-compiler of the original tape, has once again been called on to select the contents. Some of the bands featured would go on to mainstream success when indie music went over ground. Others are barely-remembered or completely unknown bands – their contributions to the collection culled from the give-away flexi-discs and fanzine cassettes that were the lifeblood of underground music at the time. It makes for as complete a snapshot of the genre in 1988 as you could hope to get.

Disc 1 is devoted to artists who haven’t been included previously in this series and who first began to make an impact in 1988. The Pooh Sticks’ On Tape, The Popguns’ Where Do You Go, The Charlottes’ Are You Happy Now? and Pale Saints’ Colours And Shapes epitomize the C86 sound with their chiming guitars and sunny melodies, while others – notably The Snapdragons with The Thing You Want, The Man From Delmonte with (Will Nobody Save) Louise and The Groovy Little Numbers (featuring a pre-Teenage Fanclub Gerard Love) with Happy Like Yesterday – enhance the jangly pop with brass sections.

As with the previous compilations in the series, there’s more than just twee guitar pop here though. One Summer by Moss Poles sounds like Morrissey singing a Ramones song backed by The Jesus & Mary Chain, Blow Up’s Forever Holiday and Thrilled Skinny’s So Happy to be Alive are laced with garage punk attitude, Sister Goodbye by The Prayers has psychedelic leanings and High by Choo Choo Train could be an early Replacements tune.

In his sleeve notes, compiler Neil Taylor identifies two ends of the indie spectrum that were starting to emerge in 1988 – one ready to gate-crash into the mainstream, the other retreating into the production of resolutely anti-commercial, lo-fi singles. Two inclusions on the first disc illustrate this split perfectly. The brilliant musicianship, danceable rhythms and downright swagger on The Stone Roses’ Elephant Stone are in stark contrast to the mumbled vocals and cheap synthesizers on Defy the Law by The Orchids. Both are great tunes in their own right, but while The Stone Roses became huge rock stars with all the complications that brought, The Orchids stayed on the miniscule and highly-regarded Sarah Records label, where no doubt they were very happy.

 

Disc 2 includes the further adventures and continued development of many of the bands who appeared on C87. Consequently we get the insanely catchy Kirsty by Bob, The Vaselines’ Dying For It, the flip-side to their Molly’s Lips, now of course famous for being covered by Nirvana and the beautifully sinister alt-rock of The Hill by The House of Love.

Curiosities on this CD include the danceable psychedelia of What’s Going Down by The Shamen – four years before they hired a rapper and hit the big time with Ebeneezer Goode, their infamous ode to ecstasy – and the early-R.E.M. folk of Giving Way to Trains by Murrumbidgee Whalers; their one and only single. There’s also the energetic, Hammond organ-infused pop of Inspiral Carpets. Theme From Cow is taken from their first demo tape. But the highlight of Disc Two is Too Many Shadows, a slow building, upbeat piece of post-punk fun by The Heart Throbs, fronted by Rose Carlotti and Rachel DeFreitas, sisters of Echo & The Bunnymen drummer Pete DeFreitas. It’s kind of reminiscent of Kim Wilde’s Kids in America – which is meant to be a compliment. Apparently The Heart Throbs had a US college radio hit with Dreamtime in 1990, but that’s not as good.

Disc 3 features some of the most obscure tracks in the collection. For example, it includes the bouncy, indie-jangle of Plaster Saint by The Church Grims, which has only ever previously been released on the one demo tape they recorded and which sadly failed to get them a record contract – indie or otherwise. The energetic Crush the Flowers was on the demo tape that did get The Wake a contract with Sarah Records while the Smiths-like, laid-back pop of Remember Fun’s Apple Of My Eye was only ever previously released on a cassette compilation. The incredible A Million Zillion Miles was Annie & The Aeroplanes’ only ever single. Annie had spent the 1970s busking around the world and this piece of blissful, bubblegum, pop-punk represents the one time she recorded with a band.

Other highlights include the epic, Nick Cave/Creedence-influenced The Old Road Out Of Town by The Wishing Stones, indie-surf-rock with Surfaround by The Fizzbombs, the ethereal pop or Sun, Sea, Sand by The Revolving Paint Dream and Curry Crazy by Bad Dream Fancy Dress, a truly bizarre comedy punk tribute to Indian food.

With C88, Cherry Red Records have once again trawled up some forgotten and hardly-ever-heard delights from the British underground music scene of yesteryear and packaged them up in a time capsule for a new generation. It’s a collection that pays tribute to bands that blazed a trail for Britpop a few years later while acknowledging the subversive scene of tiny labels, fanzines, cassette compilations and flexi-discs that allowed these bands to develop in the first place.

C88 is available now from Cherry Red Records.

                     

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Nick Perry

Nick writes fact, fiction and opinion in various places including
his music blog noisecrumbs.com. His musical tastes cover indie, grunge, golden-era hip hop, punk, funk, psychedelia and a big portion of distortion. You can and should follow him on Twitter @NoiseCrumbs.

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