Friday, August 16, 2019

We're The C86 Generation And We've Got Nothing To Say

1984 was shaping up to match 1975. Not much going on. No direction. Post-punk, so incredibly influential in the second half of the 21st Century's sophomore decade, passed relatively unnoticed at the time. I heard The Gang of Four, Cabaret Voltaire, A Certain Ratio and the rest but paid little attention.

The Smiths, that seminal force now so blunted by Morrissey's  bizarre and troubling personal journey, never had the impact on me they did on so many of my peers. I think I might have been just a little too old in my mid-twenties. While I liked and admired them I didn't worship them, unlike my then-girlfriend, a few years younger than me.

Nothing really struck me as important or exceptional then. There seemed to be a drifting down all around. Then one day I switched on the radio in the evening and heard a squall of chaos like I'd never heard before: The Jesus and Mary Chain's debut single, Upside Down. As Jarvis Cocker would later say about something entirely unrelated, something changed.

Even though I was deeply involved in punk ten years earlier, and the right age for it, too, in my late teens, it's still the C86 scene that I feel most represents my peak involvement with a musical watershed. I should have been too old for it, too, but I wasn't. Not at all.

Punk was thrilling but the hard edges and nihilism were tough to live with over time. As things moved into pantomime in one direction and hardcore in the other, all the interesting people diverted to other channels. Post punk was hard work. New Romanticism couldn't be taken seriously. C86, lighter, less focused, more fun, was just right.

It was and remains a movement with no confirmed name or credo. The C86 monicker came from a free cassette attached to an issue of The New Musical Express in May 1986. On it were a disparate collection of bands that really had very little in common beyond a ringing guitar sound and a predeliction for songs about relationships and real life.

The Jesus and Mary Chain, outliers and yet scene leaders, didn't even feature but one of my favorite bands of all time, The Shop Assistants, did. I saw the Shoppies by chance, supporting The Pastels, when they were still operating under the name Buba and the Shop Assistants. They were revelatory. Three girls and a guy on guitar, who happened to be a dead ringer for a close friend of mine.

The drummer stood and hammered a floor tom and a snare and not much else. The singer stood center front and didn't move. They made a sound like the crystal chandeliers of heaven falling while angels sang.

From then it was on. My friend and gig-buddy Gary and I went to see every band on the scene that happened to come to town. Our favorites were The Darling Buds, a power-pop outfit from Wales with a dynamite singer. We saw bands from Scotland, the North of England and, of course, our own city, where a vibrant scene was growing around the nexus of The Subway Organization.

Subway, which was also its own indie record company, was spearheaded by The Flatmates, a true shambling band if ever there was one. I can't count how many times we saw them live. I preferred the chaotic line-up with Rocker drumming, out of time, to the tighter version that made most of the records but they were always great live.

1986-87 represented my last fling with live performing. I was writing a lot of songs, some of them pretty good, or so I thought. The themes of what would become known as "twee" suited me; bittersweet, languid tales of lost or languishing love set to surprisingly jangly, cheerful beats. 

For the first and only time I tried to put some people together to play my songs. Gary was a good guitarist, who went on to tour with a couple of successful indie bands. He and I found a bassist from somewhere, who I can't now remember at all, and Gary persuaded Rocker to sit in on a rehearsal and drum for us one time.

In the end, though, putting a band together is hard. A lot harder than putting a group together to do a dungeon in EverQuest, although I didn't know that at the time. We rehearsed and made a tape or two but in the end we never got as far as performing.

Over time the C86 scene morphed and dissipated into what would become known, and still is, as "Twee" or "Tweepop". The wikipedia entry defines it, accurately, as "excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental", which is the pejorative version, but also as " with a spirit of D.I.Y. defiance in the grand tradition of punk, but with a simplicity and innocence not seen or heard since the earliest days of rock & roll", which is exactly how I felt and still feel about it.

C86/twee turned out to be far, far more lasting than anyone could have expected. It was taken up in the States by bands like the wonderful Tiger Trap, by Tullycraft and Beat Happening, and going on into the next century by the likes of The Pains of Being Pure At Heart and The Vivian Girls. Today there are twee festivals and gatherings all over the world and several countries, particularly Spain, have vibrant twee scenes.

In the UK there was a drift towards an acoustic, almost folk take on twee, led by the highly influential Sarah Records. Even though Sarah was based in Bristol, where I was living at the time, I didn't really pay much attention. I liked what I heard of their repertoire on John Peel but I never bought any of the records or went to see any of the bands.

In retrospect, perhaps the most important aspect of C86/twee was the way it brought gender equality to the fore. As you can see from many of these clips, lots of the bands were mixed-gender, much more so than punk. Most importantly, there were no fixed roles, no token female keyboard player or bassist. Anyone could play anything and no-one thought twice about it.

As the nineties rolled in, bringing with them some truly huge and imposing cultural changes in Acid House, Madchester and Baggy I found myself out of the loop. I can't even remember now what I was listening to but it wasn't any of that.

Things fell fallow for a while. And then I met Mrs Bhagpuss and Britpop came running after.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide