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Neil Taylor - C86 & All That: The Creation of Indie in Difficult Times (Ink Monkey Editions)

Who better to write a history of C86 and its precursors than one of the co-compilers of NME's C86 tape? Several years in the making, and beset by delays that led many of its Kickstarter backers to assume the project had been abandoned, the book now sees the light of day. It is an extensive book over 500 pages long, in a smartly produced format with very apt cover art inspired by 1980s fanzine artwork. Rather than focusing on the C86 tape itself and the indiepop scene that evolved out of that, the book gives us an in-depth look at the independent music genres and subgenres from earlier in the 1980s that led up to the formation of that scene, giving some essential context to where C86 came from and why.

Oft-cited influences on later indiepop, such as the Television Personalities, The June Brides, Felt, McCarthy, the Subway Organization, and Creation Records' early and genuinely independent incarnation, are profiled here alongside those surreal and angular bands like Stump and Bog-Shed, who people often conveniently forget were just as much a part of the C86 tape as the janglepop and noisepop the term C86 has become lazy shorthand for. Space is also given to other genres contemporaneous with (proto-)indiepop, such as positive punk (aka goth), anarcho-punk, garage, rockabilly, and neo-psychedelia. Underground music was less compartmentalised in the 1980s and there was more overlap between some of these genres than may be expected. Neo-psychedelia in particular crossed over with indiepop far more than purists would care to admit, some of the bands who were originally a part of the neo-psychedelic scene being later embraced by an indiepop crowd who tend not to draw much attention to these bands' psychedelic influences. The chapter on anarchist protests and the miners' strike may seem out of place until you realise that many of the important indie bands of the 1980s were firm supporters of these issues. 1980s indie music was in many cases far more political than is often assumed.

There are a few typos dotted about the book which my inner perfectionist would rather were not there, but I'm not going to dwell on this as the book is otherwise an in-depth, well researched, well written and well presented history of early indie music that anyone with even the vaguest interest in this topic can't afford to miss. It is meticulously sourced, with interview quotes always attributed to the publication they appeared in, no matter how obscure the fanzine, showing a laudable wish to give underground writers the credit they deserve. Such a champion of fanzines is Neil Taylor that he devotes an entire chapter to the zine scene of the 1980s. Kevin Pearce of Hungry Beat had me nodding in agreement when speaking of the slapdash cut 'n' paste fanzine style. He states that whilst there was common ground between this kind of fanzine and his own, he "hated that contrived scruffiness and bad-handwriting approach" and "found it terribly conservative". Indeed. When I got into the zine scene, a few years later than the era documented here, the messy look was still de rigueur. It was as though there was an unspoken rule that this is what fanzines were supposed to look like, and few people were prepared to deviate from that trend. A chaotic approach may have the intention of suggesting non-conformity, but when everyone's zine looks the same, this makes a mockery of such an idea. I had deliberately set out to challenge the formulaic cut 'n' paste look when starting the paper version of Aquamarine in the early 1990s, so I'm pleased to see that there had been others from a previous wave of fanzines thinking similarly.

Another division in the fanzine world was the zines full of vitriolic and often somewhat puerile rants versus those with a more informative and well-reasoned yet enthusiastic writing style. Again, whilst the ranty and brash approach appears non-conformist on the surface, more often than not this type of zine stuck to the same old rules about which bands and labels were cool to like and which were cool to hate, whereas the second group were more likely to think for themselves and dig up the real underground gems that few other zines were covering. It was the second type of zine I much preferred; these zines were a true musical education for me. Kevin Pearce also states his motivation for writing a fanzine was to share his passion for music. I completely agree that this is precisely the right reason for writing a fanzine, and I felt the vitriolic rant zines were missing the point as they rarely had anything positive to say. Fanzines, as their name suggests, are supposed to be written by and for fans, so why write about music if you are not a fan? Positivity was another thing that drew me to the fanzines I enjoyed reading the most, and is something I tried where possible to carry on with my own fanzine.

As well as fanzines, tape labels are another integral part of underground music culture, and these are also not overlooked in this book. Tape labels are mentioned in the neo-psychedelia chapter which lists Acid Tapes among the important labels from this scene. I came to Acid Tapes later on, when it was run by Steve Lines of Stormclouds, but it was founded in 1983 by Alan Duffy and featured early works by the likes of Cleaners from Venus and Paul Roland. Neil Taylor states Acid Tapes was part of the "then burgeoning cassette culture that the Home Taping Is Killing Music industry campaign of the time did nothing to halt". This is an interesting perspective that I had not previously considered. I had always thought that was an anti-piracy campaign, intended to clamp down on bootlegs, taping songs off the radio instead of buying the records, and so on. I had never considered that the mainstream music industry was also trying to put a stop to the non-bootleg sort of DIY tape labels, which rather than selling pirated copies of mainstream releases, operated outside of the mainstream entirely, with tapes by underground bands being released with the artists' permission. Such tape labels were so obscure and uncommercial that I would have thought they were hardly a threat to the mainstream music industry, whose representatives must surely have mostly been blissfully aware that such labels even existed. Was I wrong, and early tape labels really were seen as serious rivals to the orthodox music business? That was certainly not the case when I was involved in the tape label community in the 1990s, but perhaps things were different a decade earlier.

Neil Taylor is far more switched-on about the realities of indiepop than many other commentators in the world of journalism. He gives short shrift to the supposedly asexual and childlike stereotype of the genre, including the dreaded 'twee' moniker, and I was also particularly glad to see his observation that "for a period, the music of C86 went underground, but it never disappeared". I have noticed a pattern of shocking ignorance from other journalists who proclaim with much arrogance and bluster that indiepop was dead and buried before the 1980s were out, it was killed by [insert some flavour-of-the-month media-generated scene here], etc etc. As any real indiepop aficionado will tell you, the genre never actually went away, but like all underground genres, you needed to know where to look for it.

While the book was still in progress, Neil Taylor informed Kickstarter backers of updates to its content. We were shown an early contents page which listed Talulah Gosh and Mighty Mighty, neither of whom made it into the final book. Another newsletter sent to the book's backers suggested that there were plans to feature The Sea Urchins, but they too are not covered in any depth. As The Sea Urchins were my favourite band from this era, I was very much looking forward to reading about them in this book and was initially disappointed to find they were not included. However, Neil does acknowledge the importance of those three bands and various others who "emerged right on the cusp of C86 and moved the aesthetic forward" and "whose work demands further analysis elsewhere". I was hopeful that Neil would write a sequel detailing the music that grew out of C86, with in-depth coverage of bands such as these. For me, indiepop got the most interesting in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the formation of Sarah Records and the hordes of bands and labels that followed with a similar aesthetic. Whilst a book on Sarah Records has already been written, a book that places Sarah in context alongside other contemporary independent music, and gives coverage to all-too-often ignored labels like Tea Time, Heaven, Bring On Bull, A Turntable Friend, Summershine, Sunday and so on would be sorely needed. I was therefore excited to read right at the end of the book that it is the first of a planned trilogy, the second part covering 1986-1989 and the third 1989-1992. It seems safe to assume that the bands missing from the first volume will appear in the second one. There is also a list of other titles by Neil Taylor in the present book, including C86 & All That: Artefacts and Ephemera from the Creation of Indie, which seems from its name to be a pictorial accompaniment to the series. This promises to be a monumental series essential for understanding independent music, and I am very keen to see what comes next. Find out more at www.inkmonkeyeditions.co.uk and www.facebook.com/c86andallthat


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Text Kim Harten, 2018.