It’s April 1994. Kurt Cobain has already taken a gun to his head, but his body won’t be discovered for two more days. In Glasgow, Radio One-sponsored indie festival Sound City is into its third day. Almost all the bands playing there – among them Pulp, The Boo Radleys and The Wonder Stuff – are staying at the same hotel. On the second floor, the doors of a crowded lift open and Britain’s next rock’n’roll star walks in. No-one speaks to him. With his Burnage pimp roll, Liam Gallagher is more than a little intimidating. Huge things are predicted for Oasis, whose debut single is out this week, but they seem an odd fit for Alan McGee’s Creation imprint. They seem to align themselves more closely to football casuals than any of the art-pop ingenues who once gave a Creation catalogue number such cachet.
But if 20 years of hindsight has taught us anything here, it’s that Oasis had their sights set higher than anyone in that lift could imagine. By the time they shoved gak up its nose and gave it the full Adidas makeover, this version of indie – brash, leery, antagonistic and (thanks to a secret deal struck between McGee and Sony) corporate – had come to represent everything it once stood against. Just as the ubiquitous grey squirrel was to the red, so were Oasis and their lad-rock imitators to their indie predecessors.
From hereon in, term “indie” would be forever freighted with connotations that would change according to the person using it. On Spotify, the first two results yielded by a cursory search for “indiepop” playlists feature Ed Sheeran songs. Egged on by proud dads in Ben Sherman tops, teenage X-Factor contestants stride in with guitars and cite Jake Bugg as their favourite indie artist. Indie implies all the honest-to-goodness authenticity that older generations of music fans would gather under the umbrella of plain old rock. If I sound like I’m slagging that off, I don’t particularly mean to. No genre name can circulate for more than a few weeks without starting to imply a set of values. And these just happen to be the ones attached to “indie” in 2014.
When I first alighted upon the same word in 1981, printed on the pages of my brother’s NME, it sat at the top of the independent charts. I assumed that, in some way, it must have something to do with the Indian subcontinent, and yet it didn’t really seem as though band names such as Crass and The Fall could have very much at all to do with exotic far-away places. At the end of 1985, I had left school and enrolled at a college of further education in order to retake all the O-levels I had failed. A few months previously, I had been to Live Aid and declared it the highlight of my young life. But I was already trying to put a bit of distance between that person – proudly daaaayo-ing at Freddie’s behest along with a stadium full of newly-converted Queen fans – and whatever newer, cooler thing was about to supplant it.
Early in 1986, I noticed that in my Sociology class, a girl called Angela with punky shaved-at-the-sides hair had written three band names on her folder: Primal Scream; The Soup Dragons and The Wedding Present. I hadn’t heard of any of them. Where could I find this music? It was a Thursday. She told me that if I listened to the Andy Kershaw show that night, I stood a good chance of hearing all of those bands. This being before Kershaw gave over himself entirely to overseas music, Angela was right. Well, not exactly. That night, Kershaw played one of those three bands. The song was Once More by The Wedding Present and it sounded unbelievable to me. A scintillating citrus shower of youthful longing played with finger-shredding abandon. That night, for the first time, I also heard Spring Rain by The Go-Betweens, Rolling Moon by The Chills and Somewhere In China by The Shop Assistants. As well as these, Kershaw played two American songs about remembering childhood that somehow also resonated with this new sense of imminent change: The Backyard by Miracle Legion and The Byrds’ version of Going Back. I taped the entire show and, the following day, on the Aiwa imitation Walkman I got for Christmas, listened to it on the one hour bus ride from Acocks Green to Bournville and back. Until the next Andy Kershaw show, it was all I listened to.
In pre-internet times, I’m not entirely sure how we amassed so much knowledge so quickly. I remember several key moments: my brother Aki coming back from Manchester where he was doing a fine art degree and pulling two records out of his bag. Both were on a label I had never heard of: Creation. The Bodines’ Therese was and remains a landslide of longing with a record sleeve that looks as perfect now as it did 28 years ago: an austere-fringed indie girl in black top and leggings, flat shoes and obligatory cigarette – “Therese” written to the left of her in lipstick. Alas, I had no idea what was on the outer sleeve of Different For Domeheads – the budget-priced sampler which featured The Loft’s Why Does The Rain, Biff Bang Pow’s Love & Hate and Primal Scream’s It Happens – because Aki had already lost it. Nevertheless, he placed it on the turntable. Every day, I felt like I was recruiting a team of trusty allies to help me through the existential no-mans-land between this place and adulthood. All these songs would be coming with me.
Within two months, I had decided I was going to start a fanzine – and, it turns out across all of Britain, in one of those strange spells of cultural psychic attunement that are necessary for any subcultural movement to gather pace, dozens of other people were doing the same. Kvatch. Are You Scared To Get Happy? Bleating. Ridiculous Boyfriend. Caff. Perturbed. We all sent off for each other’s fanzines and then we all started writing to each other, exchanging C90s, playing each other songs by all the new bands who seemed to be forming on a weekly basis. The upshot of all this was that throughout 1986, indie music seemed to undergo an aesthetic software update. The inclusiveness of its newest practitioners assumed an almost political dimension. The de facto uniform of the bands that rose to prominence in the wake of NME’s C86 compilation – Soup Dragons, The Primitives, Mighty Mighty, The Sea Urchins, Razorcuts – was the unisex anorak, accompanied by similarly non-gender-specific haircuts. Certain fanzines such as Are You Scared To Get Happy? and releases by Talulah Gosh and The Pastels were rendered in childlike handwriting. Originally a b-side, Velocity Girl’s sweet brevity seemed like an emphatic statement in the climate of post-Live Aid pop. With just three chords and a lyric of defiant loneliness, the 82 seconds of Primal Scream’s Velocity Girl encapsulated the fundamentals of indie music in the 80s. This was a curiously asexual movement. Singing about love was ok. Singing about sex was crass and rockist – and standout songs like The Clouds’ Get Out Of My Dream, Talulah Gosh’s Talulah Gosh, Razorcuts’ I’ll Still Be There and My Bloody Valentine’s Sunny Sundae Smile observed that distinction. These were preconditions seemed to take root in the early heyday of labels like Cherry Red and Postcard, the first album (released through Chrysalis) by the pre-sideburns Del Amitri and even in the music of The Smiths, where sex was referenced but in terms so problematic that it seemed to explain Morrissey’s ongoing celibacy.
It wasn’t that everyone had stopped having sex. It was about eschewing a vernacular that seemed ugly, predatory and anachronistic. In the indiepop bubble, men stopped singing about what they wanted to do to women. By a strange unspoken consensus, the vernacular of girl groups, early Motown and teen-pop became the language of indie pop. “In love or in despair, you know I’ll still be there,” sang Razorcuts. “Let’s fall in love, it’s exciting,” went the chorus of My Bloody Valentine’s Sunny Sundae Smile. When The Lightning Seeds appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, on Top Of The Pops with Pure – an actual proper hit! – it felt like the drafting of an eleventh-hour manifesto for this nationwide agglomeration of kindred musical souls: “Lying smiling in the dark/Shooting stars around your heart/Dreams come bouncing in your head/Pure and simple everytime/Now you're crying in your sleep/I wish you'd never learnt to weep/Don’t sell the dreams you should be keeping/Pure and simple everytime.” More than anything, this music was in love with the idea of being in love.
Some of those early 80s releases were important precursors. Fantastic Something’s If She Doesn’t Smile (It’ll Rain), a folksy paean to new love that could penetrate the most heavily armoured heart; Jane’s a cappella single It’s A Fine Day is a fleetingly perfect memory detailed with all the aching stillness of John Berry’s Ladybird Book illustrations. As far back as 1978, The Go-Betweens had written a song about a librarian called Karen. Had they gone on to do nothing else, this much alone would have given them the keys to the city. Orange Juice’s first album You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever was already mythical enough to prompt an awed cover of Felicity by from The Wedding Present. In Birmingham where I lived Tuesdays at a city centre club called Burberries were given over to an indie night called The Click Club. This was where all my new friends went; where I interviewed bands for my fanzine; and where, once the fanzines were printed and stapled, where I would sell my fanzine. One September night, in the toilets behind the cordoned-off backstage area, I interviewed Primal Scream and their support band Pop Will Eat Itself. Another night it was Edwyn Collins. I didn’t know what a press officer was. I didn’t need to. When you’re 17, you have no idea that the mere fact of being 17 endows you with some measure of charm. No band I approached ever refused me an interview. I thought it was this easy for everyone.
At this point, independence was still a precondition of being indie. This wasn’t straight-ahead anti-corporate snobbery. Aztec Camera, The Go-Betweens and Pale Fountains had all attracted the overtures of major labels who had no clear idea how to nurture them. And even the groups that went on to make great records on majors did so by reversing the ratio of naive gusto to virtuosity. After signing to Fontana, The House Of Love re-recorded Shine On to within an inch of its life, in the process jettisoning its bloodthirsty attack. James’ Hymn From A Village is a savage evisceration of pop in a post-Thatcher climate that sounds just as startling in 2014. It got them a deal with Sire which plunged them into such poverty that Tim Booth had to volunteer for medical experiments in order to keep the band going. The Soup Dragons fared little better when they signed to Sire. As with James, they would only save themselves by jumping onto the indie-dance juggernaut – and who, at this point, would have held it against them? Adapting to survive was also Del Amitri’s big idea. After the rhapsodic romantic idealism of their self-titled first album, they returned at the end of the 80s with a sound that was retooled to break America. The Bodines reissued Therese on Magnet – home to Chris Rea and Matchbox – in a heartbreakingly horrible sleeve, released one underwhelming album and fell off the face of the earth. Alan McGee signed Edwyn Collins to Elevation – his Warner-funded fake indie – and moved Primal Scream and The Weather Prophets there too, but the sleeves were made of paper, not lovely Creation cardboard and, caught between non-eligibility for the indie chart and invisibility in the proper chart, every one of their records stiffed. Only The Jesus & Mary Chain managed to cross the border (to Geoff Travis’s WEA-funded Blanco Y Negro) and stay intact, thanks to the support of Smash Hits and the value-packed release of the five-track double seven-inch release of Some Candy Talking.
As major label limbo beckoned for most of the aforesaid artists, newer adherents rushed in to take their place. In Birmingham, The Sea Urchins were something of a local joke. They were terrible live and habitually paraded around The Click Club like superstars. We were surprised when a new label called Sarah, run by two fanzine editors called Clare and Matt, decided to release one of their songs as its first single. And then, when we heard the resulting song, we were flabbergasted. Produced by a pseudonymous Hugh Harkin from Mighty Mighty, Pristine Christine set the standard which all future Sarah releases had to try and meet. And, of those releases, it was the singles released by Bobby Wratten’s group The Field Mice which came closest to matching Pristine Christine’s melodic sunburst. Sensitive (1989) was a guilty-as-charged declaration of defiant wetness spiralling upwards into a squall of distorted guitar noise over an impassively crude programmed rhythm. Two years later, Wratten bested it with Missing The Moon an arpeggiating autumnal electro-pop monster which sits as singularly in his canon as pearlescently as, say, Primitive Painters does in Felt’s back catalogue.
After Manchester reasserted its supremacy with Happy Mondays and The Stones Roses, a new, more boorish orthodoxy supplanted the post C86 indiepop wave. For those who didn’t want to play that game, My Bloody Valentine’s evolution presented an alternative route forward: FX pedals and gauzy atmospherics seemed a logical progression from indiepop. Both subgenres, in their way, were an opting out, retreat from hoary rock phallocentricity. In the ensuing decades, a steady scattering of releases has kept the indiepop aesthetic alive. I’ve included some – among them, Mirrorball by Australia’s Crayon Fields, Velocette’s Bitterscene and Orange Juice by Stanley Brinks & The Wave Pictures – in the playlists that accompany this piece. Some bands, in particular, Belle & Sebastian, Camera Obscura and Butcher Boy, have consciously placed themselves at the end of a lineage that takes in Orange Juice, The Go-Betweens, Felt and The Smiths. There have even been a couple of number one hits from musicians whose own outlook was forged in the positivism of post-C86 independent music: White Town’s Your Woman and Cornershop’s Brimful Of Asha. Then as now, the very quaities to which detractors take exception, are the foundation stones of indiepop’s aesthetic. Either you’re in or you’re not. And for what it’s worth, this uncompromisingly fey, militantly lily-livered movement seems every bit as radical to me as it did 28 years ago.
This Sunday from 3pm-7.30pm at Spiritland, I'll be hosting a session of indiepop tunes. More details here.