C86 and the Rise of Twee Pop
by Jason Gubbels | August 4, 2014
British music magazine NME (New Musical Express if you want to be formal about it) knew how to throw together cassette collections of up-and-coming acts: The publication lays claim to not just one but two of the most influential compilations in indie rock culture. The first was 1981's C81, a wide-ranging grab bag of early '80s post-punk that included everything from power pop scuzz (Buzzcocks) to vintage industrial (Cabaret Voltaire) and jazz skronk (James Blood Ulmer). Five years later, several NME writers managed to compile a worthy follow-up, although by 1986 the British indie music scene had changed. As a result, C86 focused on a much narrower range of bands, almost all of them guitar outfits and many conforming to a rather specific aesthetic of shambolic arrangements and jangling choruses.
C86 can't be credited with creating a musical genre; the compilation merely reflected one of many ongoing trends inside the ultra-competitive and hype-driven UK scene of the mid-1980s. But the editors knew what they were doing when they cherry-picked tracks from rising indie bands like Primal Scream (way way way before the lads discovered acid house), The Pastels and The Shop Assistants: They were throwing their weight behind a twee pop movement that had been coalescing for years. Early '80s acts like Glasgow's Orange Juice and Edinburgh's Josef K (both part of the Postcard label) and the glazed-over dream pop of Birmingham's Felt helped gently nudge post-punk away from jittery rhythms and toward pop-friendly jangle. And the back-to-back debut albums from Manchester's The Smiths (1984's The Smiths) and East Kilbride's Jesus and Mary Chain (1985's Psychocandy) solidified indie's return to the electric guitar after several years of synthesizer domination.
Twenty-two bands were featured on the original C86 compilation, from outfits familiar to most indie fans (The Wedding Present) to the utterly forgotten (A Witness). In recent years, perhaps taking a nod from Rhino's expansion on the Nuggets collection of vintage U.S. garage rock, U.K. record companies have begun repackaging C86 in multivolume format. They've expanded beyond the nearly two dozen artists to round up similar indie singles from the time period, showcasing just how many bands were waiting for their chance in the indie limelight -- and how many immediately jumped on the bandwagon. Our playlist samples a little bit of both, highlighting many of the tracks that famously first saw light on the NME cassette, while also scooping up precursors to the twee pop scene and a few notable inheritors. As you'll no doubt hear, "twee" remains a bit of a misnomer: Plenty of these bands snarl and roar. But plenty don't -- give a listen to the shambling primitivism of Talulah Gosh or the pretty melodies of the Field Mice, and just try and argue with those sloppy hooks.