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How an NME cassette launched indie music

C86, the unassuming mail-order cassette compiled by NME, through which the indie sound and scene first coalesced, will have its 20th anniversary celebrated tonight with the first of two gigs at London's ICA, the venue where many of the tape's bands performed.

A double-CD released this week, CD86, sets out the wider scene these bands were part of, and a documentary, Hungry Beat, will be released next year. It is a remarkable upsurge of interest in a scene that self-consciously kept itself on the fringe of the mainstream, but nevertheless became hugely influential.

Of the 22 bands on the original tape, only Wedding Present and Primal Scream went on to make a lasting mark, but the sound and look that C86 captured still characterises a section of British music culture: it is a world of jangly Rickenbacker guitars, defiantly asexual feyness, DIY fanzines and seven-inch singles, bowl-cuts, hair-clips, and childlike innocence.

"It was the beginning of indie music," Saint Etienne's Bob Stanley, the man behind much of the present activity, says in CD86's sleevenote. "It's hard to remember how underground guitar music and fanzines were in the mid-80s. DIY ethics and any residual punk attitudes were in isolated pockets around the country, and the C86 comp and gigs brought them together."

Club nights such as Alan McGee's The Living Room in London and fanzines such as Are You Scared to Get Happy? fed a network of micro-scenes and bedroom labels, much as MySpace and live acts with devoted followings below the media radar continue to do so today.

NME intended its compilation (a sequel to C81) to stake out a new independent scene, 10 years after punk. Technical expertise was not an issue, as wonky time-signatures and raw singing on most releases proved. The music had obvious antecedents in the jangly funk of early 1980s Glasgow bands Josef K, Orange Juice and Aztec Camera (whose Roddy Frame plays the ICA tomorrow), the Rickenbacker miserablism of The Smiths, and the Spector-meets-Velvet Underground splicing of The Jesus And Mary Chain (initially signed to Alan McGee's Creation Records, and habitués of The Living Room). The Velvet Underground's softer side and 1960s girl groups were common ground for them all.

After punk's Year Zero attitude, and early 1980s' synth-pop, this return to the past is one of C86's defining legacies. Primal Scream's "Velocity Girl" began the tape, and inspired The Stone Roses, in turn sparking Oasis, who would be signed alongside Primal Scream by McGee, shortly before conquering the world with their fuzzed Beatles riffs. From The Living Room to Knebworth was not such a long trip.

C86's gentle image seemed a calculated insult to the raw rock of punk's original DIYers. But if, as pop theorist Simon Reynolds contends, C86 was "post-punk with its most radical elements ... purged", its sexual politics also made a mark that can still be seen. This anti-macho, chaste music made women feel welcome as musicians, not sex objects. "We thought it was wrong to use pictures of women to sell records," Matt Haynes said of his Sarah Records, the ultimate post-C86 label. "So we used pictures of Bristol."

The Riot Grrrl bands of the 1990s (Huggy Bear in Britain, Bikini Kill in the US) were influenced by C86, and the equal gender balance at most gigs today may be one, slowly ripened fruit of its feminist attitudes. The year 1986 was also the year of The Queen is Dead, the grand crowning glory of The Smiths and Rough Trade, a band and label who took jangly guitars and the independent ethic to heights C86's motley crew could never match.

There were also landmark albums that year from artists as diverse as Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg, Miles Davis and Prince (whose "Kiss" was cheekily covered by C86's Age of Chance, breaking ranks from a scene largely mystified by black music).

The bands NME brought together were never meant to last that well, as their penchant for releasing ephemeral flexi-discs and tapes shows, and much of CD86 is indistinguishable and anaemic. But the rough absurdity of Liverpool's Half Man Half Biscuit (who combined children's TV and 1980s politics on The Trumpton Riots), the wobbly tempoed, joyfully pop-fixated Tallulah Gosh, and British pop's most eccentric near-genius, Lawrence of Felt (at the ICA under present alias Go-kart Mozart tomorrow) are among the odd, unclassifiable characters this wilfully unworldly scene had room for.

It is unlikely this weekend's gigs will match C86's original week at the ICA, which Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie fondly recalls as a time when "it felt like anything could happen" even today making him "proud", (althoughNME's review at the time found the gigs patchy at best). But, from the very C86 Belle and Sebastien to the Arctic Monkeys and the Mystery Jets, British indie's stubborn eccentricity remains in rude health.

Back to the 80s

Side One

* Primal Scream - 'Velocity Girl'

* The Mighty Lemon Drops - 'Happy Head'

* The Soup Dragons - 'Pleasantly Surprised'

* The Wolfhounds - 'Feeling So Strange Again'

* The Bodines - 'Therese'

* Mighty Mighty - 'Law'

* Stump - 'Buffalo'

* Bogshed - 'Run To The Temple'

* A Witness - 'Sharpened Sticks'

* The Pastels - 'Breaking Lines'

* Age of Chance - 'From Now On, This Will Be Your God'

Side Two

* The Shop Assistants - 'It's Up To You'

* Close Lobsters - 'Firestation Towers'

* Miaow - 'Sport Most Royal'

* Half Man Half Biscuit - 'I Hate Nerys Hughes'

* The Servants - 'Transparent'

* The Mackenzies - 'Big Jim (There's no pubs in Heaven)'

* bIG fLAME - 'New Way'

* Fuzzbox - 'Console Me'

* McCarthy - 'Celestial City'

* The Shrubs - 'Bullfighter's Bones'

* The Wedding Present - 'This Boy Can Wait'