Life Elsewhere Music Vol 304 – 1985 Was A Fantastic Year

“1985 had seen a real upswing in the fortunes of indie with new bands, new clubs, and new fanzines seemingly appearing every week. To capitalize on this Roy Carr, the NME’s Special Projects Editor, proposed putting together a new NME mix tape of largely guitar-driven indie bands to be called C86. Of the twenty-two bands that would eventually make it on to C86, sixteen had either formed or released their first record in the previous year. 1985 was indeed an annus mirabilis for indie.

Yet the year hadn’t started like that. 1984 had always been a tricky year to follow. At the end of 1983, Pete Shelley had quipped, ‘Most people spent 1983 waiting for 1984 to happen’, and sure enough an Orwellian nightmare fell into place in the spring of 1984 when the Miners’ Strike erupted and ‘civil war without guns’ was played out on the village greens of England. The unrest spread to the music press with NME and Melody Maker unavailable for most of the summer. When NME returned in the autumn it declared ‘WAR ON POP!’ offering up a diagnosis on, and possible treatment for, ‘the state of pop’. In order to cure the banal malaise of pop more bands like Frankie Goes To Hollywood and post-Disco rock band Was Not Was were needed, according to the article. This street-deaf approach all but ignored indie. The Smiths’ Morrissey and Marr may have looked to the likes of Goffin/King and Bacharach/David for songwriting inspiration but throughout 1984 had also consolidated their pre-eminent position in the ranks of indie. Creation Records, which got going fully in the spring of 1984 thanks to the proceeds of Alan McGee’s Living Room club, offered a vision of the future refracted through the past. Indeed, Creation’s release of The Jesus & Mary Chain’s ‘Upside Down’ threatened that 1985 would potentially tear up the rule book or at least drastically reshape future indie. Of course, as 1984 rolled into 1985, Punk still cast its long shadow. Even The Jesus & Mary Chain fell under it: ‘They [looked like] punk rockers from East Kilbride, six years too late,’ claimed Alan McGee later. An ever-present albatross around the neck of indie, seven or eight years on from its glory days, there seemed little genuine development in punk as could be evidenced by the endless array of second and third-generation copyists. The legacy at this point was firmly entrenched; masculine and ‘rock’, best epitomized by one of punk’s totemic icons, the Clash, and by the average punk who still wore black leather and had spiky hair. But there was an alternative.

Labels like Creation and bands like The Television Personalities (who were a major influence on McGee) had been attempting to meld the bubble-wheel optimism of the 1960s with the dynamism of punk. Pop didn’t have to be macho, nor be a never-ending production line of increasingly shinier product (à la Frankie) but could be something more organic. These indie pioneers took from punk’s more sophisticated practitioners such as Buzzcocks, Jonathan Richman, and Vic Godard, and were also influenced by the ‘Quiet as the New Loud’ stream of post-punk bands – Young Marble Giants, Marine Girls, The Raincoats, etc, – that featured key female members and an anti-macho approach. 

Indie, even as it opposes it, has always been magnetically aligned to the mainstream, and 1985 threw up some mega moments in the world of mainstream pop. Madonna cemented the success of her previous year’s ‘Like A Virgin’ album with the Virgin Tour, Bruce Springsteen played five mammoth open-air shows in the UK and Dire Straits released ‘Brothers in Arms’ which, allegedly, was not only the first record to be recorded completely digitally but also the first where the CD version outsold its vinyl counterpart. And, of course, following on from Band Aid, there was Live Aid, which perhaps more than anything helped galvanize indie. Although well-intentioned, for many indie kids seeing glossy popstars cavorting in a way that would do no harm to those popstars’ careers was a bridge too far – Margaret Thatcher’s free market mantra that we were, or were about to become, what we buy incarnate. So how did indie react? At the NME I’d already adopted the role of championing a certain kind of indie band and was virtually given carte blanche to write about what I saw fit. And crucially whilst those Living Room bands of 1983 and 1984 had received one or two-paragraph reviews in the live section, and a quarter-page profile in Thrills, I was able to push that up to more like a page. Bands that received significant coverage included not only The Jesus & Mary Chain (who were all but impossible to ignore) but also fellow travelers such as The June Brides, Primal Scream, Bog-Shed, The Wedding Present, Meat Whiplash, Big Flame, The Weather Prophets, Felt, Half Man Half Biscuit and others. We even devoted a front cover to fanzines, many of which covered the above bands. There emerged a club scene to process the new music, staffed by people that understood and were passionate about it. Dan Treacy and Emily Brown opened Room at The Top in Chalk Farm at the start of the year. Towards the end of the year, there was Bay 63, near Ladbroke Grove. In between, mainstays like Thames Polytechnic (where a staggering 55 bands appeared in the 1984–5 academic year), and pubs the Pindar of Wakefield, the Crown & Mitre, the Old Tigers Head, and others carried the flame. And that was just in London. Notable venues to emerge around the time outside the capital included Glasgow’s legendary Splash One! and Plymouth’s Ziggys. The C86 cassette inevitably ended up a pared-down entity, its focus honed. At the time, its 22 tracks were considered a luxury (NME cassettes rarely featured more than 12). Had we been allowed more resources at the time, the tape might have looked somewhat different. However, looking at the 70-odd tracks on this Cherry Red compilation, all of whom are contenders, I wouldn’t fancy the job of reconfiguring it into a 22-track cassette. Back then, we moved forward with blind determination and no exact idea of what we would achieve. The only thing we knew for certain was that 1985 had been a fantastic year.”

Neil Taylor, Co-Compiler of C86 and author of C86 & All That: The Creation of Indie In Difficult Times. From the C85 booklet, courtesy of Cherry Red Records

John Reed, director of Catalogue at Cherry Red Records joins Norman B to talk about the creation of C85 and play selected tracks.