Back in the real world there was, of course, a far more serious rupture in the shape of The Miners’ strike, which lasted from March 1984 to March 1985, and effectively amounted to civil war without guns. The stark political dividing lines became even more pronounced with many indie bands stepping up to play benefits for the miners and their families. In some instances the connection was personal, as in the case of Alan Brown from Big Flame. ‘These gigs were weird for me,’ he later recounted in John Robb’s excellent book, Death To Trad Rock. ‘I was bought up in a mining area… Watching on the telly as southern police ran riot in Goldthorpe was unbelievable. Surely this wasn’t happening in the UK…?’
The country never recovered from the shock of the Miners’ Strike, but coming out the other side of the IPC dispute felt for me like the crossing of the Rubicon. I’d started to write more about bands that were recognisably ‘indie’ (in modern terms) – bands like the June Brides – and was gearing up for the moment when I’d be venting spleen in much the same way that Mick Mercer had (and had continued to do) the year before. It was suddenly clear that there was a line be crossed and that it should be crossed.
The weight of history is a burden for any artist. Three bands whose names were constantly on the lips of those at gigs I went to at the time and featured prominently in the fanzines that were being sold at those gigs were The Membranes, The Three Johns and The Nightingales. These were part of a group of elder statesmen bands spat out of the punk maelstrom but still knocking on the door – the genuine, talented and more interesting links between the influenced and the influencers. I wasn’t alone in finding that trying to get coverage for them in the paper usually ran into the criticism that they (and just about any other new dissonant band) were ‘Fall copyists’. (In co-forming with Derek Hammond the band Yeah, Yeah, Noh, guitarist John Grayland, had made a virtue of this, recording a demo called ‘Backing Tape For Mark E Smith Impersonators’.) The Fall were a massive influence, but in truth, by the end of 1984, their best work was long behind them.
The Nightingales, The Three Johns and The Membranes created the kind of noise that perfectly epitomised the discordant side of indie – scratchy guitars with overloaded treble pumped through catalogue store amps, bass cranked up really high and prominent, warbled vocals scrambling to keep up, no guitar solo. And, in time-honoured fashion, the song usually sped up at the end. Elements of this sound emerged in the music of C86-era bands like A Witness, Bogshed, The Wolfhounds, Big Flame, Stump, Noseflutes, Pigbros, and The Wedding Present.
This discordant, hard-edged aspect of indie has been largely overlooked by those who have sought to dismiss C86 as nothing more than a wimpy, washed-out imitation of what Josef K’s Paul Haig once referred to as ‘our jangly noise’, or the sound of Postcard Records. More recent revivalists have tended to overlook it as well, preferring a nostalgic view of the time, focusing on a look and culturally positioning the indie 80s in a similar way to how the Pop artists of the time positioned that other cultural myth, Swinging London.
The ‘Sound of Young Scotland’ in the shape of Postcard Records was undeniably a major influence on a particular kind of indie band that emerged in the time leading up to C86, but another equally as non-discordant influence, and arguably a greater one, was the group of bands and artists clustered around the activities of The Television Personalities, the band that had punctured the pretentions of the weekend-punks back in 1978 with ‘Part-Time Punks’, and had gone on, importantly, to play shows in the early months of The Living Room.
Stripped down to its essence (as it tended to be) Dan Treacy’s work reflected an unpretentious, often spontaneous, and usually straightforward approach to the craft of song writing, creating work that was sometimes naïve but equally as often charming. Its simplicity and honesty was disarming, an antidote to the endless sophisticates claiming to be ‘the new Motown’. There was methodology as well in Dan Treacy’s madness, and rugged determination. His approach was DIY in action rather than as just a clichéd punk slogan. The same can be said for other pioneers such as Young Marble Giants, Marine Girls and Swell Maps, all of whose influence was enormous. This far-from-twee antecedent sound took in the more noisy and devil-may-care attitude and approach of The Raincoats, the abrasive honesty of Patrik Fitzgerald’s punk poetry, and the textural guitar sounds of Durutti Column and early Felt.
The journey from punk parodists to the moment in 1984 when The Television Personalities released their dark masterpiece The Painted Word had reflected another influence, that of the 60s’ garage underground bands like The Creation who had motivated not just The Television Personalities (and later Creation Records) but also mainstream acts like The Jam, who by the end of their career were openly looking over the shoulder to such cult acts. The Television Personalities had become involved in the New Psychedelic scene that had sprung up at the start of the 1980s that looked set to cross over into the mainstream. Clubs like The Groovy Cellar and The Clinic, and fashion outlets like The Regal and Sweet Charity, were the focal point for a motley assemblage of revivalists which included Mood Six, High Tide, Miles Over Matter, The Times, The Marble Staircase, Dr & The Medics and The Barracudas. Regency jackets and crepe de chine shirts were the order of the day. The brief bubble of popularity was such that WEA, having signed with high hopes Mood Six, hastily released a compilation album, A Splash Of Colour, in 1982, and the moment was immortalised in the film The Groovy Movie, before fizzling out.
Just before Christmas 1984, a band appeared that would simultaneously give the new indie a much needed shot in the arm and inspire hundreds of bands to form and in so doing spawn a whole host of imitators. In the autumn, the NME had still been playing catch up in terms of printing its backlog of copy following the end of the strike. One of the best and most popular bands on the circuit was The Loft who in September had released their debut single, ‘Why Does The Rain’, which showcased not just their superior technical virtuosity (they made most of the bands who played alongside them look like the amateurs they were) but also the tremendous song-writing talent of frontman, Pete Astor. The band had played The Living Room back in June and on the bill had been a support band from Glasgow that Alan McGee was checking out on Bobby Gillespie’s recommendation called The Jesus & Mary Chain.
Of the few people present that night, many cheerfully admit to not having bothered going upstairs to check out the support act, whose sound, according to David Quantick’s review, was that of a ‘giant bee in a ventilation shaft’. It had been immediately clear that they were capable of creating a racket: less clear as to what that racket signified. But Alan McGee – ever a man sure of himself – knew that he had got his men. Prior to the show, he’d been thinking of including them on a compilation album of unsigned bands to be called Are You In Love Or Are You A Car?, but he instantly changed his mind and offered instead to make an album with them. Many who considered themselves to be part of the Creation inner sanctum, were bemused at this point, less so later when their position in the pecking order began to be usurped by the new upstarts.
The Jesus and Mary Chain toiled on for the next month or two, making a lot of noise on the few occasions they played live but little headway as autumn rolled on. They were a work in progress: it would take Bobby Gillespie joining to make the individual elements click properly. As Geoff Stoddart, a postman moonlighting at the time as an unpaid Creation Records driver points out: ‘the difference between Bobby in and out of the band was like the difference between The Rolling Stones with and without Brian Jones.’
One night in October, I went to see The Jesus & Mary Chain play The Three Johns pub in Islington. The pub was used as an occasional location for The Living Room and had a tiny side area – a pool room – which could be turned into a makeshift, if small, venue. Alan McGee had earlier given me a white label of the band’s debut single, ‘Upside Down’, which would be the twelfth Creation single and was due to be released in November. He had told me that they were the greatest thing since sliced bread, and the saviours of rock ’n’ roll, but then he said that about every band he was promoting. I hadn’t had time to play the record before watching the show.
Very few people were present, although McGee had clearly worked the room at his distributor, whose offices were literally just around the corner, since many of the 40 or so people who turned up were people I knew who worked for Rough Trade. The band played a short set which included a handful of original songs and a couple of covers – Vic Goddard’s ‘Ambition’ and Syd Barrett’s ‘Vegetable Man’. The quintessence of their sound was instantly and recognisably apparent at this point – a dark noise overladen with a glorious if submerged melody (something that would be reversed when they started releasing records on a mainstream label). I watched the short set then went home to write up my review, in the process stealing a phrase from Simon Down, who had lent over my shoulder during the show and whispered to me that The Jesus & Mary Chain were like ‘The Ramones meets the Devil’.
Those early, feedback-drenched shows polarised opinion to snapping point, as, to a lesser extent, did the single which Creation formally released two weeks later. The band’s antics – a lit match just before it hits a powder keg – could be a distraction. Foul-mouthed on-stage tirades sometimes lasted longer than the shorter songs. The drunkenness could be a spectacle in itself (band and audience). The brief sets were seen as a rip-off (in truth, they didn’t know enough songs to play any longer) and the inevitable prompt for some industrial banter between punter and band. Reviewing the Three Johns gig, Sounds called The Jesus & Mary Chain ‘an exercise in gullibility’ and this tended to be the stock anti- response to them, not least by those who tended to write about them before seeing them live. Reviewing the single in Monitor fanzine at the start of 1985, Simon Reynolds called the band ‘a con being touted’ peddling songs ‘devoid of dynamic or content’.
After the Three Johns, the band went on a short Creation Records package tour to Germany, playing with Biff Bang Pow and The Jasmine Minks, where they were oblivious of the stir their London show had caused. Their next gig was at a squat venue, the (disused) Ambulance Station in London’s Old Kent Road, where considerably more people showed up than had been the case in Islington. Chinese whispers having circulated for the best part of two weeks, there was a sense of anticipation on the night, a genuine belief that something new and different was about to unfold. There was menace in the air, as well. As I later found out, the more sensible observers had instinctively positioned themselves handily near the exit.
Inevitably, too many people got in to the gig and the first intimations of the mayhem that would dog the band when they played live surfaced. Following a support set from The June Brides, which was itself disrupted by catcalls and drunken wisecracks from the floor, The Jesus & Mary Chain took to the stage and played for around 30 minutes. The evening ended with Jim Reid screaming abuse and shrieking at the audience, ‘Where were you six months ago?’ None of which seemed to bother the wall-to-wall row of major label A&R men waving cheque books in the hope that the band would sign with them.
The impact of The Jesus & Mary Chain was impossible to ignore and their success had a knock-on effect for indie. ‘Upside Down’ quickly sold 40,000 copies, or 100 times the number of that of some of the earlier Creation Records singles. The June Brides album which came out in autumn 1985 sold a similar amount. Even the lowliest indie release could guarantee sales pushing close towards 2000. In turn this led to greater press coverage. What had once been the obligatory half-page interview with a band suddenly crept up to the more expected and usually willingly-given full page (or more). The Shop Assistants and The June Brides suddenly found themselves cover stars, something that was unthinkable a few months before.