Various Artists: C88

Back in 1981 the NME – when it was still a music publication of some importance – put together the compilation cassette C81, a diverse set of tracks running the gamut from punk and post-punk (Pere Ubu, Virgin Prunes) to ska (The Beat, The Specials) and the “new pop” of acts such as Aztec Camera and Orange Juice. Five years later this broad spectrum of genres was distilled into mainly jangly guitar pop on the sequel C86, a compilation celebrated and lamented in equal measure as “the birth of indie music”. Bringing the music of Primal Scream, The Wedding Present and Half Man Half Biscuit to a wider audience, the reputation earned by C86 was such that it was afforded “deluxe edition” status by Cherry Red in 2014, expanded from its original twenty-two tracks to a mammoth seventy-two selections over three CDs. The CD release was followed in 2016 by an all-new sequel C87 compiling tracks of a similar nature from 1987; now the sequence continues with C88.

While understandable in the context of C86 and C87, in many ways C88′s continued fixation on guitar-based music – be it ethereal, jangly or very very noisy – is quite out of step with what was actually happening in the indie charts of 1988. In just a few years technology had advanced to a position where samplers and professional quality recording equipment were no longer the preserve of Trevor Horn and his ilk. Noise merchants A.R. Kane and alt-poppers Colourbox, both signed to indie stalwarts 4AD, had kick-started the DIY sampling craze the previous summer when they merged into M/A/R/R/S to record Pump Up The Volume, and by the spring of 1988 every wannabe pop star and his or her cat were making their own cut-and-paste House records in their bedrooms. The list of indie number one singles of 1988 is largely indistinguishable from the dance chart, with Bomb The Bass, S-Express and arch art terrorists The Timelords (aka The KLF, who even wrote an instruction manual detailing their formula for scoring a number one hit single) blurring the line between true “indie” music and mainstream pop that just happened to be on an independently distributed label (Erasure, Yazz, even Kylie Minogue for crying out loud).

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C88 bypasses the bedroom samplers who dominated the upper reaches of the indie chart in 1988, but it does take in a number of acts who would feature in pop’s next wave, the indie-dance crossover of 1989-1991. Amongst its 71 tracks the only top forty hit on offer is the Stone Roses’ Elephant Stone, even that only achieving a belated number eight position in 1990 as the band’s label Silvertone cast around for anything they could throw into the shops to capitalise on the success of Fools Gold. Elsewhere we eavesdrop on early releases by the Mock Turtles, the House of Love, Cud, Inspiral Carpets and the Shamen, all of whom would achieve mainstream success in the early 1990s, either by embracing dance music or riding the coattails of their indie contemporaries who did.

Fittingly, the vast majority of C88 is taken up with bands you’ve most likely never heard of. It’s a cascade of guitar pop, but over the course of four hours it becomes difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff and to understand why the bands you’re vaguely familiar with – let’s say Kitchens Of Distinction, Baby Lemonade and the Bridewell Taxis – are any better or more worthy of note than, say, Bradford, the Holidaymakers or Annie & the Aeroplanes. C88 is a great concept, giving legitimacy to dozens of bands who would otherwise have fallen down the cracks of history and offering CD débuts to numerous tracks, but it needs the context of being spread over a month or so of Radio 1 evening shows amongst all of 1988’s other “alternative” music. Still, if it wins the Pooh Sticks some new fans, that can’t be bad.


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