96 Tears

I felt a rush of nostalgically bad haircuts and Proustian army surplus anoraks while reading Alistair's consideration of C86. Nostalgia also for the days when a music magazine compilation could define a moment, rather than crawl out of the offices of a major record company with the MD's bodily fluids all over it.

Of course C86 was slagged and derided and mocked and despised. Maybe it had too many expectations loaded on its Close-Lobsters-tee-shirt-wearing shoulders. It didn't represent a scene, it wasn't a call to arms. It denoted very little, but had connotations (imposed on it by others) of a hell of a lot. "C86" became shorthand for... well, pretty much the sort of thing that many tangents contributors (and readers?) tend to get excited about quite often, to be honest. You know the words. Fey. Twee. Shambling. But, following Oscar Wilde's dictum that there's something worse than being talked about, surely the Shop Assistants and the Wolfhounds and Stump had a more worthwhile experience than the bands that appeared on the NME C96 compilation?

There, that's pulled a few of you up short, innit? NME sold an indie compilation in 1996? Wa'ah? This wasn't a cover-mount, mind you. It was a real live comp, sold by mail order, intended to encapsulate what was going on in the rock underground. And nobody remembers. I did a search for "C86" on E-bay this morning. Not only were two people trying to auction their copies of the original tape, but the phrase was used in the description fields for dozens of albums and singles, an easy literary device to communicate a feel, a sound, a time.

Then I tried the same for "C96". Nothing.

Again, this cultural blindspot may be a reflection on the declining fortunes of the weekly inkies. In the 80s, the NME pretty much knew its constituency, Caucasian, studenty, disaffected, bookish, leftist, mostly straight but gay-friendly. Forget the legendary Black Music Wars that exercised the journalists - the annual readers' poll was essentially a battle for second place behind The Smiths. Ten years later, post-baggy, in the maw of the Oasis/Loaded concept, lagerlagerlager-necking lathe-operators were fisting the air to "indie" guitars, while the paper's once-natural constituency was sampling its belly-button fluff and making Aphex Twin b-sides out of it. In that fractured, heterogenous enviroNMEnt, it was a risky move for the paper to try define the progress of post-Britpop pop.

As Alistair pointed out, the only copper-bottomed groundbreakers to come out of C86 were Primal Scream. The Wedding Present chuntered on for a few more loveable years, notching up Steve Albini associations, Ukrainian spin-offs, and a mention in the Guinness Book of Records. The Soup Dragons, Fuzzbox and the Age Of Chance had late blasts of mainstream fame; the Pastels and HMHB retain their fond fanbase to this day.

The class of 1996 can't boast any stadium love gods of Gillespie's credentials, but weren't entirely unsuccessful either. The closest to hugeness are Mogwai, who were a more generically ROCK beast six years ago. "A-70" is all bombast guitars, incongruously mixed with vocals so flat and fey they wouldn't have been out of place on an early-80s Cherry Red compilation. Baby Bird, soon to be an unlikely one-hit wonder, offers "Bad Shave (ii)" and future Mercury nominees The Delgados come up with "Fourth Channel".

C96 is stronger in nearly-weres. Tiger, nervous, mullet-sporting Fall fans from Buckinghamshire, ended up supporting the Manics at their commercial peak; Urusei Yatsura brushed the inside of the Top 40 with their ramshackle, endearing hymns to Sonic Youth. Comet Gain and Quickspace (then with the Supersport suffix) both continue to follow their critically-lauded paths, without excessive attention from the punters. There's even a variant on the earlier compilation's unserious inclusion of Fuzzbox - Dweeb were, to all intents and purposes, a Bis tribute band, who somehow wangled a contract with Blanco y Negro. Magoo, Broadcast, Backwater; all decent second-division names.


So, in terms of fulfilled potential, and critical and/or commercial success, C96 was certainly more than a pale shadow of its predecessor. Why doesn't it have the cultural import (positive or negative) of C86?

Part of the problem, as already discussed, is the fragmentation of the "indie" constituency. In 1986, punk wasn't yet filleted and nuggeted for Top 10/I Love consumption by Stuart Maconie and his catamites. The corpses of Buzzcocks and the Undertones were still fresh enough for their friendly stench to permeate the dank, crappy record shops and basement clubs where we hung out. Doc Martens and cheap effects pedals stood in conscious, contented opposition to Chris de Burgh, Nick Berry, and "The Chicken Song". There were no major-managed schmindie labels, because you didn't do it for the money, did you? Fleeting fame, a few pints of snakebite, and the chance to snog damaged girls called Emma was enough. C86, like Nuggets and Woodstock before it, defines a moment, and an extended family well beyond the 22 bands that actually took part. It's a critical cliché if you like - but clichés work because they were once fresh, and once meant something.

C96 works as a compilation album, because it contains quite a lot of decent music. Some other contemporary compilations (such as the Camden Crawl CDs, the Snakebite City series on Bluefire, and the early Fierce Panda best-ofs) also gave us an idea that there was something fresh and vital going on. They contain funny, snotty sounds, that promised to poke their way through the rapidly-congealing crust of superannuated Paul Weller groupies who were watching London swing again through Union Jack specs and a grubby cloud of cocaine.

But these albums will never bring a nostalgic tear to the eye, or a cause a doleful catch in the throat, the way C86 still does. Britpop didn't deliver - it formed the final death-throes of chart-friendly guitars, not their next incarnation. The likes of Mogwai and Magoo had nowhere to go in a mainstream media world that suckled happily, albeit "ironically", on the Spice Girls' perky boobies. Nobody claims to be of the C96 generation, because nobody uses "C96" as a pejorative, so nobody denies it. Back to Wilde: in historical terms, the one thing worse than being beaten up by fat, pissed neds is being totally and utterly ignored. Whereas bowlcutted social retards with Shop Assistants badges on their satchel straps were held to be a suitable target of abuse in the 80s, who can be arsed to pick on fans of Backwater or Ligament?

And, by the same token, who these days gives a flying Bogshed b-side about what the NME thinks either?

© 2002 Tim Footman