ME’s C86 cassette was promoted with a week-long series of gigs at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, spawned a genre of the same name, and is feted on a regular basis by blogs such as Indie MP3 – Keeping C86 Alive! Twenty years later, the compilation remains firmly entrenched in the indie pop enthusiast’s consciousness.
But C86’s predecessor has never reaped such rewards—quite an injustice too, since NME’s less-heralded, oft-forgotten C81 compilation is more catholic in reach and gleaned from a coterie of far more influential artists.
Like an ancient amphora unearthed during an excavation, the 24-song cassette brilliantly captures the aesthetics of its bygone era: the unfettered boldness, the challenging complexity, and the earnest self-consciousness of post-punk. The comp’s provenance is fairly basic: it was borne out of a conversation between an NME journalist, Roy Carr, and a promotions department employee from Rough Trade Records, Christopher Rose. At the time, Rose was working at Rough Trade with, as he put it, “one of the best-ever PR teams”: one-time Smiths manager Scott Piering and former Slash patriarch Claude Bessy.
“On one of my regular trips to the NME, I was talking with Roy, and during the convo came up with the idea. Obviously I loved it—it was my idea!—and he did too, so we spoke to our respective people and everybody liked it.”The decision to release the compilation on cassette was Rough Trade and NME’s way of acknowledging the then-prosperous cassette culture. (American and U.K. artists were avidly selling or exchanging music on cassette through a loose network of other artists, as well as fanzine readers.) The compilation was also expected to build on the relative momentum generated by Elvis Costello’s Ten Bloody Marys and Ten How’s Your Fathers (released Nov. 6, 1980) and Bow Wow Wow's Your Cassette Pet (released one week later)—the U.K.’s first cassette-only releases.
“Cassette culture was very important then,” said Rose, who now runs a vacation villa in Spain. “People had been taping stuff for years, first on reel-to-reel and then on cassettes. I've still got loads of tapes of the John Peel show and other stuff. Scott and I—mostly Scott—used to tape loads of gigs by bands we worked with. This was for our own pleasure; I seem to recall some of the recordings were even released. Obviously this trend lives on in the whole bootleg, pirate CD, file-sharing culture of today.”
It’s also important to note C81’s influence upon pop music’s great egress in the late 70s/early 80s. Twenty-five years ago, personal music portability was an unknown concept. However, thanks to releases like C81 and a revolutionary piece of technology introduced in 1979 known as the Sony Walkman (previously dubbed the Stowaway, the Soundabout, and the Freestyle), pop music began to leave the bedroom. It became more disposable, an accessory: “Something that your Pakistani tobacconist will be able to sell under the counter,” as Malcolm McLaren once said.
Just as importantly, C81 also lionized the nascent independent movement, showcasing acts from fledgling labels that had sprouted up in the previous five years: Postcard, 2 Tone, Industrial, and New Hormones.
“It was just another phenomenon that weakened the control of the music industry by the six major labels that existed then,” Rose explained. “We used to say that before the arrival of independent labels and, crucially, independent distributors, six people actually controlled whether you could be in the music industry or not. The independent labels and distributors completely broke that control, although it's obviously regressed somewhat since then.”
Of course, C81’s status as a landmark release was solidified by its tracklist, which was unparalleled in scope. The cassette cut a wide swath across the post-punk landscape—from industrial and free jazz, to The Sound of Young Scotland and conceptual pop, to DIYers and pre-post-punk luminaries such as Pere Ubu and The Red Krayola.
Compilations with such grandiose ambitions typically spur derision in some listeners, but any Icarusian tendencies on C81’s part are bridled by the inclusion of tracks like the barmy “The Day My Pad Went Mad” by mad Manc John Cooper Clarke, as well as cookie-cutter (but catchy, nonetheless) pop fare from Essential Logic and Linx.
Simply put, the collection delivers highlight after highlight: the volcanic opening crescendo to Orange Juice’s “Blue Boy,” and its lyrics detailing a lad stricken with lovesick schoolboy disease; the saccharine-y pop bliss of Scritti Politti’s “The ‘Sweetest Girl’”; “Kebab Traume Live” by D.A.F. and its garrote-around-the-throat sound; the tribal rhythms, gypsy violins, and plucky guitars in “Shouting Out Loud” by The Raincoats; “The Milkmaid” by The Red Krayola, and its siren-like vocals, lulling the listener into a trance; the humorous vitriol in the lyrics of The Specials’ “Raquel”; Josef K’s “Endless Soul” and its sharp, clean riffing; the chest-constricting tension of Cabaret Voltaire’s “Raising The Count”; and the compilation’s closer—the epic, breathless “Parallel Lines” by Subway Sect.
According to Rose, accumulating such a pop bonanza wasn’t particularly difficult. “Rough Trade was also a distributor of other labels, so we had a huge amount of contacts,” he said. “Getting material really wasn't a problem; everybody was keen to be involved. I'm pretty sure that there was way more material than space available.”
Upon its release, C81 did have its naysayers, particularly those who felt the compilation was about profit, and was not a true crystallization of cassette culture and the independent label movement. However, such negativity was atypical, as C81 ended up being a massive hit for Rough Trade and NME; thousands of readers ordered the cassette (complete with its dowdy colors and a campy illustration) by doing the necessary busywork: clipping two coupons from the magazine and mailing in £1.50.
“If memory serves,” Rose said, “the C81 compilation sold over 15,000 copies, giving a response rate of way over 10 percent. Normal response rates are typically around the one to four percent range, so this was a big commercial success, as well as a great slice of culture.”
That success led to subsequent compilations offered by NME: the follow-ups, Jive Wire and Mighty Reel, which were released in 1982; Mad Mix II (1983); Raging Spool (1984); Tapeworm and Department of Enjoyment (both in 1985). And, of course, C86.
And what were Rose’s thoughts regarding that particular comp?
“C81 was way better than C86, which was much more about the NME trying to shape and control indie music, and keep itself relevant. It failed!”