Reel lives: how I tracked down the class of NME’s C86 album | indian – Michmutters

Reel lives: how I tracked down the class of NME’s C86 album | indian

Yot was in the last box I looked in. I reached in and there was the treasure I sought: a cassette tape, battered and scratched, but its gold cover nonetheless shining through the murk of the attic. The cassette – called C86 – was one of three dozen compiled by NME during the 1980s, sold to eager readers in exchange for a £2.95 postal order to cover post and packing. It was money well spent. Several of the bands included on C86 would subsequently gallop forward in their careers – the likes of Primal Scream, the Soup Dragons, the Wedding Present and Half Man Half Biscuit.

But, by including tracks by shorter-lived lesser lights such as Miaow, the Servants and the Mackenzies, it became a reliable barometer reading of the bands in NME’s orbit in the spring of 1986. These groups laid the foundations for later outfits such as the Stone Roses, Oasis and Arctic Monkeys who took indie “overground”, swapping upstairs rooms in pubs for headline slots at the biggest festivals.

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Although conceived to be simply the latest of NME’s cassettes, C86’s immediate impact was to accidentally give birth to a subgenre of indie music – imaginatively titled C86. Quickly reduced to a sneering, single-line stereotype that described such bands as either jangly, fey or shambling (or a combination of all three), any scene that may or may not have existed was quickly dismissed. Some bands managed to sidestep the C86 tag and carry on their way; these were the less jangly, more discordant outfits such as Stump, Bogshed and Big Flame. Others that fitted the stereotype would forever feel confined by its straitjacket.

The Soup Dragons
Striking a chord … the Soup Dragons. Photograph: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

The cassette’s rediscovery in the attic set in motion the idea of ​​a book: to hunt down members of all of its 22 bands more than 35 years on. I was fascinated to find out what cards life had dealt them. As several months of subsequent detective work would uncover, his alumni had taken many and varied paths through life. Some became pop stars: Primal Scream’s Screamadelica won the first ever Mercury prize in 1992, the Soup Dragons played to 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden and the Wedding Present scored 18 Top 40 hits. But most of the other 19 bands could only watch on in envy at these successes as they headed back to Civvy Street.

In the age of social media, there was a danger that these musicians would be too easy to find – a message sent in 10 seconds flat, an answer received within the hour. But, thankfully, a fair proportion of the class of C86 had gone to ground, requiring an old-fashioned means of detection: trawling through phone directories. This was my main tactic for tracking down the four elusive members of Glossop’s most famous musical sons, the Bodines. Similarly, the lead “He runs a bike shop in the Highlands” was the dangling carrot that led me to pinpoint the whereabouts of Shop Assistants guitarist David Keegan.

One by one they agreed to be interviewed. Invariably, they would ask who else had confirmed. If, say, members of the Pastels or Age of Chance or the Mighty Lemon Drops were on board, that was enough for them. Some would tend old phone numbers of their former bandmates, keen for each of these missing persons cases to be solved. In the end, no band wanted to be left out, for their story not to be told. When I secured an interview with the drummer from the 22nd and last band to respond, I punched the air in delight. Relief, too.

Where possible, I aimed to interview each person in the context of their life now, ideally before the backdrop of some aspect of their everyday existence. So Keegan was lightly grilled over the counter of that shop in Kingussie as he advised customers about obscure bike parts, while former A Witness singer Keith Curtis, now tour manager for PiL, was interviewed during the din of a soundcheck in Manchester. In Lancaster, I spoke to the Bogshed bassist who became a caricaturist at weddings, while down in Croydon I found the ex-member of the Shrubs who later trained as an actor and found gainful employment as Jeremy Irons’s body double.

I was happy to go the extra mile, often at unsociable hours. I spoke to the Wolfhounds’ frontman David Callahan, now a noted ornithologist, when we went birdwatching on Rainham Marshes at the crack of dawn. At other times, for other people, a cuppa in a sitting room or a pint in a saloon bar sufficed. The book has a tremendously varied cast, with those still able to make their living through music by joining teachers, shopkeepers, scientists, novelists, social workers, security guards, academics, radio producers and more in my time machine.

Whatever the vocation, I heard stories told with warmth, candour and, fairly frequently, regret. There were many such of “could haves” and “should haves”, of wrong turns taken in the flush of floppy-fringed youth. But most had now made peace with those times. They showed a middle-aged, mellowing pride at how far they had traveled along the road to whatever promised land they were aiming at, be it a big record deal, appearing on Top of the Pops or even just securing another session for John Peel. As the former Wedding Present guitarist Peter Solowka, sacked from the band in 1991 but holding no grudge, told me: “It’s not what might have been. It’s what was.”

A few interviewees’ reminiscences were initially hazy, requiring some encouragement to bring them into focus. Others were instantly pin-sharp in their memories as they recalled precise details from back in the day. The names of long-lost venues and recording studios. Verbatim quotes from a precious live review. The amount of Enterprise Allowance cash they received each week that allowed them to keep dreaming their musical dreams.

the Mighty Lemon Drops
On the up…the Mighty Lemon Drops. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

Traveling from Hove to the Highlands, from Whitstable to Wirral, the quest became – as the book’s subtitle suggests – something of an odyssey. An overblown description? Possibly. But I did at least have an encounter with a cyclops – namely Fred, the one-eyed pooch belonging to ex-Soup Dragon Sean Dickson, which we took for a walk in the local cemetery.

There were, though, no sirens trying to lure me to my death through song. The nearest I came was when sitting in on the first rehearsal since pre-pandemic times of the Birmingham five-piece Mighty Mighty, reconvened to play to an audience of just me. But five follicly challenged men on, or just over, the brink of turning 60 do not make seductive sirens. Still, they sounded just as sprightly and glorious as they had several decades earlier, even if they now needed to take fistfuls of painkillers afterwards to ward off the effects of a four-hour rehearsal.

I zigzagged my way up and down the country, supping decaf hot beverages in the West Midlands with the still-lively pop-punks We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It, and perusing the wares of the vintage/retro shop in Harrogate run by Steve Elvidge, the ex-singer of Age of Chance. The plans for a bike ride with Nigel Blackwell, Half Man Half Biscuit’s resident sage, were scuppered when a monsoon-like downpour fell on Birkenhead. We stayed indoors instead.

Others were found farther afield. The Mighty Lemon Drops’ guitarist Dave Newton was hunted down to California where he’s a record producer for hire, operating out of his studio in his double garage. He even formed a covers band – the C86 All Stars – to play the indie hits of the mid-to-late 80s. Dave was clearly still happy to be associated with C86. For many of the bands, the cassette provided their careers with a springboard, often involving signing for a major label. For others, it was a millstone that was hard to shed, a pigeonhole impossible to escape.

“There was an upside as well as a downside,” concludes Stephen McRobbie, of the Pastels. “There’s no doubt that it helped us to reach a larger audience. We probably benefited. But it became more of a signifier than any of us imagined…”

Whatever Happened to the C86 Kids? An Indie Odyssey is published by Nine Eight Books on 18 August. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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