Ben Woolhead is witness to an indie-vestigation, or rather the spoils of it, by sleuth of the jangling set Nige Tassell – whose book Whatever Happened To The C86 Kids? tracks down musicians associated who created a vital underground scene nearly 40 years ago. A talk about it in Cardiff, accompanied by fine craft ale, proves informative.
It’s a cold, dark Friday evening in January and, like his heroes, Nige Tassell is performing for a hardy bunch of indie aficionados clad in regulation uniform (Wedding Present or Sarah Records T-shirts). But this is not a gig venue but bottleshop-cum-bar Pop‘n’Hops on Cardiff’s Whitchurch Road; Tassell is not a musician but a writer; and tonight’s set comprises not songs but readings of passages on Primal Scream, The Soup Dragons and Half Man Half Biscuit.
Plenty of musicians live the dream, but Tassell could be said to have done so quite literally. Afflicted with writer’s block and unable to conjure up a concept for a new book, he happened to mention in passing to his agent that he’d had a nocturnal vision of meeting every band featured on NME’s seminal C86 compilation tape. And so Whatever Happened To The C86 Kids? was born.
As Tassell readily admits tonight, though, the spark of the idea would have fizzled out if he hadn’t managed to track down at least one representative from all 22 of the acts. His quest often involved considerable investigative legwork and dogged persistence and didn’t always secure the most obvious interviewees. For instance, for the chapter on Primal Scream, whose Velocity Girl opens the tape, he spoke to John Martin aka Joogs, the band’s self-styled “tambourine rattler” between 1984 and 1987.
Often, Tassell ventures, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Kept in the shadows and denied the opportunity to speak back in the day, supporting cast members such as Joogs and the Pastels’ Bernice Simpson invariably had much to say and were refreshingly unguarded in their comments. Joogs, for instance, skewered Bobby Gillespie’s autobiography Tenement Kid as self-aggrandising fiction and confirmed that the frontman’s socialist principles don’t extend to intra-band financial arrangements.
Gillespie (who never responded to an interview request, presumably because he was too busy promoting Tenement Kid) makes only the briefest of mentions of C86 in its pages. As Tassell concedes in his own book, though, we should perhaps not be surprised that, to Primal Scream, it’s “seen as a mere footnote, a relatively minor event on their path to stadium-conquering glory”.
Yet, for other contributors – and for music in general – the compilation was hugely significant. Tassell points out that the tracks on C86 were specifically commissioned, whereas those on its predecessors in NME’s annual series were simply mined from label back catalogues. As such, it functioned as a bellwether, a succinct (if somewhat arbitrary) snapshot of the nascent indie scene.
Soon after its release, the term “C86” transcended the tape, becoming a byword for jangling, deliberately lo-fi guitar music before acquiring pejorative connotations and morphing (for many) into a dismissive insult. Tassell argues that the compilation’s reputation for a specific stylistic uniformity is somewhat erroneous, based only on the evidence of the first six tracks – by Primal Scream, the Mighty Lemon Drops, the Soup Dragons, the Wolfhounds, the Bodines and Mighty Mighty – plus The Pastels’ Breaking Lines. The likes of Stump and Bogshed were mavericks making much less conventional music, and in reality, he suggests, C86 was not so great a departure from the wild eclecticism of earlier tapes in the series as it’s widely regarded.
Nevertheless, that perceived narrowness explains the reluctance of some key figures to be interviewed. Pastels founder Stephen McRobbie, in particular, was clearly wary of being complicit in pigeonholing his band. As Tassell discovered, others look back on their contributions to the compilation with regret at the choice of song or the recording quality, and indeed some regard the tape as a whole with complete disdain. Ever the contrarian, Nigel Blackwell of Half Man Half Biscuit had never really paid much attention to C86 – but, prompted by the prospect of being interviewed and feeling the need to do some revision, dug it out and was effusive about what he heard.
Whatever Happened To The C86 Kids? is structured and sequenced like the compilation, with every band allocated a chapter. Each one offers a potted history of the band before exploring whether featuring on the tape proved to be (in Tassell’s words) a springboard or a straitjacket. In the vast majority of cases, it was both.
Many of the post-C86 narrative arcs were sadly predictable: from sudden unexpected popularity, to clashes of personalities and musical approaches, and the machinations of unscrupulous record labels (Tassell reveals that some bands weren’t aware that NME had paid £200 for each track, their labels having slyly trousered the cash), to wavering levels of commitment to the cause amid disillusionment and competing priorities, and ultimately to fragmentation.
Some interviewees continue to work within the industry – Keith Curtis of A Witness as a tour/production manager; Stephen McRobbie behind the counter of his record shop Monorail, a Glasgow institution – but few would have anticipated the Wolfhounds’ David Callahan winding up an ornithologist and author or Bogshed’s bassist, the late Mike Bryson, making a living as an illustrator and caricaturist.
Perhaps the most tragic tale in the book is that of Sean Dickson of the Soup Dragons, who told Tassell how sustained and unfair media critiques destroyed his sense of self-worth and culminated in a thankfully thwarted suicide attempt. A counterbalance to the many laments for a lost golden era of music journalism, his story is a reminder that the press could often be cruel rather than kind.
Today, the idea of the music press holding so much sway – whether positive or negative – seems fanciful. Likewise, the concept of clipping out a coupon from a magazine and getting a postal order to receive a mail-order tape is quaint (even if tapes themselves are back in fashion). But C86’s influence continues to resonate, its DNA still detectable in countless bands.
The book has had a positive impact, too – and not only on those gathered in Pop ‘n’ Hops tonight. Talking to its author at length in a freezing cold Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park was enough to make Dickson realise that there was still genuine interest in and affection for the Soup Dragons, inspiring a reunion that Tassell still can’t quite comprehend has actually happened.
And with Pop‘n’Hops proprietor Trev McCabe planning to organise more such events, in collaboration with independent bookshop Shelf Life, this particular leg of Tassell’s book tour may well have a welcome legacy.
Whatever Happened To The C86 Kids? is published by Nine Eight. Info: here
words BEN WOOLHEAD