As the sun rises in London, Cherry Red Records releases C90, a three disc compilation rounding up 63 indie rock gems that captures a pivotal moment in underground British music: 1990, the dawn of a new decade, where the Indie scene steadily gave way to Madchester (Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses), Shoegaze (Lush, Slowdive), and the fertile seeds that would later on bloom into BritPop (Pulp, Oasis, Blur). Now, most of the aforementioned big names don’t appear on this compilation, and that’s precisely why it is so awesome. If you’re like me, you already have their catalogs on CD, C90 is your chance to dive deeper and discover a pirate’s booty of incredible bands and their soon-to-be treasured singles. One quick aside: the YouTube videos featured here offer cruddy, and in some cases, different mixes of the sterling-quality original tracks found in the C86-C90 box sets….
C90 is the fifth title in the series that began in 2014 with the 3-disc expanded CD and vinyl reissue of C86, the legendary NME cassette tape that built an international cult following over the years, and in a way, became its own “genre within a genre” music scene. I picked up the cassette you see here in Tampa, Florida in 1986 while on the hunt for my own copy of the 4-track EP by We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It that I was turned onto during a summertime visit to my friend’s college radio show on WRUW-FM (Case Western Reserve University) in Cleveland, Ohio.
On my side of the pond in the late 80s, without much access to print copies of NME or Melody Maker, let alone John Peel’s legendary show on the BBC, discovering international music was an exciting and unpredictable journey into “what the hell, why not?” vinyl purchasing. I would pick up just about anything on certain labels like Factory and Wax Trax because there was a good chance it would tap the same nerve as the bands on those labels I knew and loved. What makes C86 work is the deft combination of bands that soon became world famous (Primal Scream, The Mighty Lemon Drops, The Soup Dragons) and ones that did not, like Bogshed and Stump. The latter’s “Buffalo”, with its rubbery bassline and singer Mick Lynch’s cathartic lament over a confusing fish & chips menu, is maddeningly addictive. Upon first listen, it was the worst song I had ever heard in my life; within weeks it was my favorite track on the cassette and remains a favorite to this day.
Over five 3-disc titles and a whopping 352 tracks to date, Cherry Red’s series — which also includes C87 (2016), C88 (2017) and C89 (2018) — lurches you out of your comfort zone, taking you back to the days of renegade radio where you had no idea what the hell the DJ would play next. I’ll admit, back in my WKSR-AM days (Kent State University), I would often play tracks without listening in advance… if the sleeve looked cool enough. Count it as one of the advantages of having an overnight time slot. These were the types of bands I loved discovering; while I’m some 30 odd years late to this particular party, there’s no time like the present.
Neil Taylor, who compiled the original cassette for NME, signed on to expand it for the original C86 CD release; based on the resounding success of the endeavor, he went on to co-helm and write editorial for the next four editions. Per the winning formula, discs 2 and 3 of each edition revisit some of the bands from previous editions, while introducing the earliest works of bands in the embryonic stages of fame or flame careers to come. C90 introduces the Charlatans, Ocean Colour Scene, Saint Etienne, Lush ,The Sundays, and Manic Street Preachers, but once again, it’s the bands you don’t know that provide many of the essential moments while you listen.
Right off the bat (track 3/disc 1), “Perfume” by Paris Angels became an instant hit in my heart. After reading the editorial, I went online and discovered while the album from which this track is taken is out of print, the band’s official follow-up (that was never formally released), is now officially available for free via their bandcamp.
Like its predecessors, C90 isn’t something any music fan should binge at once, it’s best to let it reveal its colors throughout the year. So while I keep wading deeper, I took a pause to pose a few burning questions to the set’s executive producer, Richard Anderson, and John Reed, head of catalogue for Cherry Red Records.
C90 marks both the start of a new decade, and the 5th entry in the C86 franchise. Do you see the series role as doing for retro British indie rock what the Now That’s What I Call Music! series does for current mainstream pop? Or do your selections act like a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame style induction ceremony to immortalize bands that will never get their proper due in Cleveland? Perhaps a bit of both? Or am I way off?
JOHN REED: The series really tries to extrapolates on the original spirit of C86, albeit retrospectively. So our C86 box set (from 2014) replicated the original NME cassette track listing and added 50 tracks or so by similar acts. But C86 didn’t attempt to reflect in any sense the broader independent music scene. It was quite specifically honing in on certain aspects. As it happens, in that post-Smiths and Jesus and Mary Chain era, that came to be seen as Indie Pop. C90, really, just continues that tradition. It avoids vast swathes of what was happening in 1990. For C90, I guess it focuses on bands associated with “shoegaze” and the Madchester thing – and again, Disc 1 introduces bands who haven’t previously been included in the series.
There’s been some talk about expanding the original NME-C81 cassette and perhaps filling the gap years (82-85) — or was that era already well-covered with Scared to Get Happy and other Cherry Red sets?
John: We’d love to give C81 a similar treatment but unfortunately this wouldn’t be possible due to licensing restrictions. However, we’re thinking about a similar box set (3-CD) which revisits, in essence, Disc 1 of Scared To Get Happy. In other words, the birth of Indie Pop. One maybe for later this year or 2021. The early 80s Indie scene was really dominated by old punks and post-punk bands, lots of bands dressed in black – for better or worse, it all seemed quite miserable. So this would hopefully document the first flowerings of something more joyous.
As the series heads full steam into the 1990’s — eventually it’s going to reach the shores of BritPop. Do you envision it continuing through that era all the way through til the Kaiser Chiefs, Futureheads, and Arctic Monkeys usher in the new millennium?
RICHARD ANDERSON: Well, never say never. It’s becoming easier, as we move further away from it, to look back on the 1990s and see beyond the Britpop tag. There was a lot of great stuff happening all across the independent spectrum, but of course electronic music became a much bigger part of that, and artists who might otherwise have been producing guitar-orientated stuff during that period were working with samplers and electronics instead. You can actually begin to see the electronic side of things creeping in on C90, I think. But we’re already beginning to look at 1991 and 1992, so we intend to continue on into the 1990s and see what we can unearth.
This is the first set in the series without input from founder Neil Taylor. Was the end of the decade a suitable exit point for him? And, Richard, you only go by “RA” now — to add some mystique to the proceedings?
Richard: Ha – I hadn’t thought of my ‘RA’ credit adding mystique, but I like the idea of it. The truth is, I’m in the habit of initialing rather than signing things – emails, letters etc – so it’s crept in from there I guess. And I also do some work in an area which has nothing to do with music and does require anonymity, so there’s some mystique for you!
In 1990, the rise of the CD made everyone to think the vinyl format was dead. And here we are in 2020 with the rise of vinyl signaling the end of CD. Does this series do well on both formats? What is your take on the fate of the CD?
Richard: To paraphrase Mark Twain, I’d say reports of the CD’s death are greatly exaggerated. Vinyl is, of course, back, which is excellent for fans and for labels like Cherry Red, but so much of what we do is based around including a lot of material and excellent value (whether it’s 80-100 artists on a compilation or digging up unreleased recordings and so on) that CD is the perfect format for us, because it allows for an extra half an hour of music per disc compared to an LP. I also find, now I’m a responsible homeowner, that our CD box sets make perfect little time capsules that fit neatly on my shelves and are far more acceptable to my wife than eighty 7” singles scattered across the living room. They’re also far less likely to be discovered and used as frisbees by my young son and his friends. I suspect a fair few of the people who buy them find themselves in similar situations these days.
I’ll be long gone by the time the series gets to C2020 — are the turbulent times of Brexit being reflected in today’s indie rock world? Is there an indie rock scene happening right now that will someday be preserved in the Cherry Red C-Suite?
John: We’re in such a different era now, I don’t know if there’s an analogy with what we’re doing. However, there’s actually a lot of great music happening which gets missed. You could argue that a contemporary C86-type sampler series for modern music would work really well – on vinyl!
Back to where we began, C90, what were one of your favorite discoveries this time around — a song or band you had never heard before — or forgot just how good they were?
Richard: I always enjoy hearing things that Cherry Red released before I was involved, actually, so things like Little Red Schoolhouse (“When I Find You”), Avo-8 (“Out of My Mind”) and Horse Latitudes (“What is More Important Than Life”) were nice to include. And 1990 was something of a watershed year for me personally, in terms of moving away from music I’d grown up with and into discovering things for myself. So things Like Spacemen 3 (“Big City (Waves of Joy demo”), Slowdive (“Avalyn I”) and so on are particular favourites, and being born and raised in the south east I’ll always have a soft spot for Flowered Up’s ‘It’s On’, which was something of an anthem. Daft as it sounds in hindsight, they were perceived as ‘our Happy Mondays’ at the time by my circle of friends. It was much more achievable to get up to New Cross Venue and see them play than it was to get to the Hacienda or G-Mex.
For further reading, check out Popdose’s 2016 interview with John Reed and Richard Anderson when we discussed C86, C87, Scared to Get Happy and Close to the Noise Floor (covering formative UK electronica) in greater detail.
And in breaking news on the original C86 front (courtesy of Slicing Up Eyeballs) , February 28 marks the release of Post Neo Anti: Arte Povera in the Forest of Symbols, the first NEW album by Close Lobsters in 31 years. “Firestation Towers” appeared on the original C86. Cherry Red’s Scared to Get Happy featured the band’s demo for ‘Don’t Stop’.