The C86 indie scene is back!

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Dig out your grandad cardigans, your old-school anoraks and your infant-school plimsolls – the shambling indie scene that was C86 is back. Simon Reynolds, who documented it all 20 years ago, is a little puzzled by this anniversary

  • The C86 indie scene is back!

    C86's wilfully amateur approach has proved surprisingly enduring

  • Ours is a culture gone loco for retro and crazy for commemoration. Anniversaries and ‘Greatest Ever’ lists, remakes and reissues, albums played onstage in their original sequence and retro festivals like this year’s ‘Folk Britannia’… all our yesterdays swarm forth to crowd out the present. What’s freaky, though, is when it’s stuff that you’ve lived through that gets revived or revisited, as with this month’s twentieth anniversary of C86 shows at the ICA. As a rock writer starting out in 1986, this stuff was my journalistic beat. In Melody Maker, I wrote a sort of (uninvited, and not welcomed) manifesto, ‘Younger Than Yesterday’, for the new wave of indie-pop, followed a few months later by a subcultural studies-style analysis of the scene’s asexual, childlike fashion codes.

    C86 has become the tag for this brief moment in British pop history, on account of a mail-order compilation cassette compiled by the NME. But, back then, the talk was of ‘shambling bands’, a John Peel-coined phrase that celebrated the self-conscious amateurism of the music, or of ‘cutie’, a nod to the child-like imagery favoured by the groups, from their band-names (The Pastels, Talulah Gosh, 14 Iced Bears) and record artwork to the clothing (pigtails and plimsolls for girls, buttoned-up birthday-boy shirts and little caps for the lads).

    The style element was the most fascinating thing for me: ‘anoraksia nervosa’, I dubbed it, because most cuties seemed to be skinny and small, and the scene’s signature garment was an anorak of the sort that a child might have worn in 1961. Cutie fashion was so stridently virginal, it had to be some kind of statement. Noting how love songs on the scene were romantic rather than carnal, and that the all-white sources for shambling music (Velvets, Byrds, Buzzcocks, the scratchy-racket post-punkers like Swell Maps) suggested an aversion to the earthy sexuality of funk and soul, I concluded that these kids were staging a revolt against ’80s values. Rejecting hypersexual chartpop and aspirational adulthood alike, the cutie shamblers harked back to both their own lost innocence and to pop’s childhood (the ’60s), creating a new bohemia based around purity rather than debauchery (even though, contrary to this puritanical image, these cuties were actually
    at it like knives).

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