A weekday evening in the backroom of a scabby Victorian pub. Grimy, sticky, stinking of warm ale and cold sweat, on a low stage a bunch of surly urchins are bashing away on their battered instruments, the woefully inadequate PA shredding any semblance of tuneage. Within touching distance, twenty or so of their mates are wheeling and flailing around enthusiastically while a handful of casual punters and music press journo’s seeking the next big thing look on aghast, shrinking back against the bar to down their pints before fleeing into the night.
That dear reader is how I spent the first half of the eighties; watching proud, defiantly noisy upstarts at The Fulham Greyhound, The Moonlight, The Starlight, The Trafalgar, The Pinder of Wakefield, The George Robey, The Hope and Anchor, not to mention my hometown’s Paradise Club, Oxford’s Jericho Tavern and other long forgotten pubs and poky dives where it was possible to catch The Membranes sparking a riot for a quid. Forget the fact that the history of the independent underground has been rehashed to become some kind of nightmarish cult of twee, sixties acolytes and their jingle jangle songs. That wasn’t my eighties. In my eighties, barring the brilliantly awkward Pastels, there was no sign of anything so precious, the independent charts just as likely to be filled with one off strokes of genius like The Very Things as a bunch of fey boys and boyish girls in Mothercare anoraks.
Psychobilly at The Clarendon, goth at The Batcave, anarcho punk at The Ambulance Station, southern folk punk, northern soul punk, Australian garage punk, the early eighties threw up a glut of youthful, free spirited mavericks haphazardly cross pollinating music of every hue to create their own peculiar sonic visions. Trapped in the small provincial towns of their birth, yet influenced from afar by the energy and aspirations of PiL, Wire, Gang Of Four, The Fall and The Pop Group, and the belief that Do-It-Yourself was the real Cultural Revolution, the realisation that you could create your own music and release it into the world gave them the all-embracing energy to transform their hometown enclaves into hives of manic activity, and in the process transform themselves.
A feeling that anything could happen reverberated through the early eighties just as it had in the punk seventies except even more so, a keenly felt sense of possibility that resulted in all kinds of avenues being explored; groups were promoted, club nights kick started, record labels launched and new connections forged. Ignored by the weekly music press, spreading the word was limited to the odd Peel play, the ubiquitous fanzine, endless letter writing and the devotion of a small group of knowledgeable enthusiasts driving the whole thing along. A couple of gobshite ego maniacs even made a few million quid out of it!
What made all this activity even more remarkable was how it was played out against the joyless backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain, a country at war with itself as much as a division of teenage Argentinean conscripts squatting a lonely rock in the south Atlantic no-one had ever heard of. Operating in the shadow of fascist violence, mass unemployment, the miner’s strike, the Wapping dispute and the crushing of the unions as an effective force, it was inevitable that the political state of the nation would play a huge part in all our lives and musicians were no different. And yet while the likes of The Mob, Flux Of Pink Indians, The Redskins and New Model Army wore their anarchist or socialist hearts on their sleeves, not everyone felt the need to write songs about it. Then again, they didn’t need to. We all knew which side they were on!
Alongside the raft of names to emerge was a steady stream of similarly minded malcontents known only to the faithful few; The Mekons Jon Langford, The Membranes John Robb, The Nightingales Robert Lloyd, The Mob’s Mark Wilson, The Redskins Chris Dean, New Model Army’s Justin Sullivan, Blyth Power’s Joseph Porter, The Wedding Present’s David Gedge and Stephen Pastel were the personification of individuality, overcoming numerous barriers to reap their own rewards through sheer hard graft, dogged persistence and a strict adherence to their own principles, a rare trait indeed in such a careerist, money mad decade.
The music these characters and their cohorts produced was uncompromising and invariably noisy; from the ramshackle psychedelia of the Blue Orchids to the pastoral, Edwardian, rockabilly of The Dancing Did; from the idealistic diatribes of the Flux Of Pink Indians to the clattering VU pop of The Pastels; from the au-go-go garage goo of The Scientists to the unlikely beauty of The Mob; these were musicians determined to please no-one but themselves, their records an eccentric grab bag of differing styles yet bound together by the belief that it was still possible to create your own culture and change the world, even if it was just your own small part of it.
Running my own Criminal Damage label and promoting shows, I was doing it for myself and changing my world too. Signing on every two weeks I was living the dream, albeit in a rot infested, inner city terraced house with one gas heater, a colony of feral cats and the clothes I stood up in. The Alternative Chartbusters here were an essential part of my soundtrack to all that. The epitome of true independence (even if a few did end up signing to a major label), I bought all the records and caught them live when I could, certainly up to 1986 when there began to be a noticeable shift from ‘independent’ to the desolate wasteland of generic ‘indie’.
As record sales plummeted accordingly, the majority of outfits here didn’t stand a chance, discovering to their cost that by refusing to compromise and play the music industry game they were pushed further and further into the margins, lost and forgotten in the retro mania for indie pop and Creation’s elegantly wasted, ‘genius’ rock’n’roll nonsense. Of course, there was still the occasional, brilliant, idiosyncratic release from The Motorcycle Boy, McCarthy, The Vaselines and the Spacemen 3 but they were few and far between, the age of the true independent well and truly over.
With my old vinyl long gone, I didn’t get to hear these records again until the noughties when the online digital archives opened the flood gates. Even then I had to sift through a whole load of shit and wait a few years before finding them. But I’m glad that I did because having lived through several soul sapping decades of risk averse, security seeking, liberty bashing culture that has resulted in the wholesale closure of pubs and venues and the gentrified, commodified appropriation of leftfield music, they’re a glorious, timely reminder of how joyful, fearless and above all unfettered my independent eighties really were.
01. SWELL MAPS ‘Let’s Build A Car’ (Single A Side January 1980)
The remarkable Swell Maps were jangly art punk, fuzzy post punk, ambient noise and a whole lot more besides during their short lived existence, but ‘Let’s Build A Car’ stands out as a more straightforward albeit scuzzy highlight of the early years of independence.
02. THE MEKONS ‘Snow’ (Single A Side August 1980)
A ramshackle collection of Leeds art school students and activists, ‘Snow’ was the self-effacing and decidedly non-careerist Mekons first release following an aborted liaison with Virgin Records. A typically oddball single that had absolutely nothing to do with the icy white stuff or the sniff it up your nose stuff, it was good to have them back.
03. THE CRAVATS ‘Precinct’ (Single A Side August 1980)
Contrary to popular rumour, a neo-Dadaist outfit from the wilds of Worcestershire was not the most common of occurrences in the immediate post punk era. But as a statement of The Cravats intent it was hard to beat the insanely fast, Orwellian onslaught of ‘Precinct’, a song about the soulless shopping centre of Redditch new town where Robin Dalloway, The Shend and their mates used to hang around.
04. BLUE ORCHIDS ‘Work’ (Single A Side February 1981)
Martin Bramah and his girlfriend Una Baines were ex-Fall members who left to form the wonderful Blue Orchids. A group whose reputation was sullied by rumours of being corrupted by the heroin given to them for free by none other than Nico who in the early eighties could be found living in a flat in Sedgeley Park, Prestwich, 'Work' was their second single and set Baines psychedelic keyboard against a deliberately robotic rhythm with Bramah's voice sounding not unlike that of his old mate Mark E. Smith.
05. BLURT ‘The Fish Needs A Bike’ (Single A Side October 1981)
The wonky genius of Blurt leader Ted Milton has never been acknowledged, possibly because he was near impossible to pigeonhole. An existentialist poet and saxophonist, his songs involved lots of jerky rhythms, a bit of manic squealing and bonkers titles like ‘My Mother Was a Friend of an Enemy of The People’ and ‘The Fish Needs a Bike’.
06. FLUX OF PINK INDIANS ‘Sick Butchers’ (Neu Smell EP July 1981)
Earnest young whippersnappers of the Crass variety, amongst their standard rejections of society, war and the eating of flesh, at least Flux Of Pink Indian’s possessed a modicum of humour, something that was sorely lacking in the grimy, dog on a string world of anarcho punk. I admired their principles but there’s no denying that most of their records stank. Thankfully Neu Smell on the Crass label proved the most tuneful of the lot.
07. RUBELLA BALLET ‘Krak Trak’ (Ballet Bag Cassette January 1982)
Another branch of the anarcho scene, Rubella Ballet didn’t really fit in anywhere, their colourful clothing totally at odds with the black uniform of their peers. Sonically too they steered away from the standard blueprint, going from speedy punk to full on goth with the occasional dash of pop and funk thrown in, often during the same song.
08. THE NIGHTINGALES ‘Paraffin Brain’ (Single A Side April 1982)
John Robb called them ‘the misfits misfits’ and he was right. There were none so cultish as The Nightingales in the first half of the eighties. And yet, I never came across anyone apart from comedian Stewart Lee who actually admitted to liking them that much, not even John Robb. Not that ‘Paraffin Brain’ wasn’t a toe tapper because it was.
09. THE DANCING DID ‘A Fruit Picking Fantasy’ (Single B Side May 1982)
The Dancing Did spun some of the weirdest, wildest and eccentric stories of anyone in the early eighties, their evocative tales of dreadful goings on in the fields and woods surrounding their hometown of Evesham sounding just as peculiar today as they ever did.
10. THE SCIENTISTS ‘Swampland’ (Single B Side August 1982)
There was a lot of gruesome, minimalist, garage punk coming out of Australia in the early eighties on labels with names like Citadel, Au Go Go and Greasy Pop, yet none were quite so gruesome as The Scientists brilliant ‘Swampland’.
11. THE MOB ‘Cry Of The Morning’ (Let The Tribe Increase LP February 1983)
Originally from the tiny village of Stoke-sub-Hamdon just outside Yeovil, Somerset, The Mob were a part of the hippy/punk crossover, spending time on the road in a convoy of buses and lorries before finally settling in a Brougham Road squat in Hackney. Despite becoming actively involved in the Centro Iberico anarchist centre and the wider anarcho punk scene, musically they had nothing in common with the clichéd sloganeering and interminable racket associated with Crass and the rest. In fact, their songs on the remarkable Let The Tribe Increase were significantly slower and more intense, their vision still incredibly bleak as life inevitably was in the early eighties, yet somehow uplifting, inspiring and uniquely personal.
12. THE REDSKINS ‘Lean On Me’ (Single A Side July 1983)
The Mob weren’t the only ones attempting to infuse their music and especially their live shows with the joy of life rather than the fear of death during the hard times. Another group leading the charge to a brighter future were The Redskins from York. Unashamedly Marxist, they endeared themselves to the indie crowd partly because they walked the walk of their political talk but mostly because their heady mix of hard edged punk and Northern Soul were just so good. The shame was that having fully committed themselves to supporting the striking miners during their battle with Thatcher in 1984/85, they were so disillusioned by her subsequent victory that they disbanded a year or so later, never to be heard from again.
13. INCA BABIES ‘The Interior’ (Single A Side November 1983)
As a frontman the Inca Babies Harry Stafford was the real deal. Coming out of the infamous Hulme Crescent flats estate in Manchester, he was someone whose idiosyncratic crooning and wondrous wailing were dramatic, mesmerising and as noisy as fuck. Think early Birthday Party, Cramps and Gun Club and you’ll know what I mean.
14. THE THREE JOHNS ‘AWOL’ (Single A Side November 1983)
An almost forgotten casual trio who included The Mekons Jon Langford, The Three Johns specialised in discordant, socio-political post punk tunes underpinned by a rudimentary drum machine. At 23 years old they were exactly the kind of outfit I thought were incredible. Almost forty years later I’m not quite so convinced although the rockabilly drive of ‘AWOL’ still does the job.
15. THE MEMBRANES ‘Kafka’s Dad’ (Crack House Mini LP December 1983)
A trio of noisy bastards from Blackpool, Crack House was a landmark record signalling a new direction, not only for The Membranes but for the gaggle of like-minded rapscallions inhabiting the murky depths of the independent underground. They would never get the kudos or record sales their unholy racket truly deserved but then nor did most of the other groups here.
16. THE FOLK DEVILS ‘Hank Turns Blue’ (Single A Side March 1984)
Named after a 1972 book on youth subcultures by Stanley Cohen, The Folk Devils were more a blathering wall of devilish punk noise than finger in the ear folk. Grimy, nasty, stinky rock’n’roll, they had a rough edge and untamed wildness to them that seems to have vanished without a trace from the underground of today, that is if such a thing actually exists.
17. NEW MODEL ARMY ‘Christian Militia’ (Vengeance Mini LP April 1984)
No group of the eighties embodied the term ‘outsiders’ more than New Model Army. Never a part of any genre or movement, they stood proud and alone, their mission to improve society, not to destroy it. The Vengeance mini album (a curiously eighties invention of six to eight songs and around twenty minutes long) was their masterpiece, the spine-chillingly vicious title song and my own favourite ‘Christian Militia’ as thrilling today as they were in 1984.
18. SID PRESLEY EXPERIENCE ‘Hup Two Three Four’ (Single A Side May 1984)
I saw this lot once supporting Billy Bragg on a Red Wedge tour. I can’t remember where but I do remember they all wore suits and there was a definite Kray Twins, thuggish element to them which unfortunately extended to their Neanderthal following who spat a lot and fought amongst themselves. A great record though.
19. LIME SPIDERS ‘Slave Girl’ (Single A Side October 1984)
Originally beholden to covers of sixties garage punk nuggets, The Lime Spiders from Western Sydney swapped their influences for equal parts brutality, velocity and unimpaired raw power on ‘Slave Girl’, a single I was introduced to by Lindsay Hutton’s small yet perfectly formed Next Big Thing fanzine.
20. THE JAZZ BUTCHER ‘I Need Meat’ (A Scandal In Bohemia LP November 1984)
A mainstay of the underground for more years than he possibly cared to remember, A Scandal In Bohemia was the one gem in Pat Fish’s catalogue. An irresistible album that displayed his fondness for the more humorous side of life, ‘I Need Meat’ was as close as he ever got to classic, retro rock’n’roll.
21. THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN ‘Vegetable Man’ (Single B Side November 1984)
In 1984 I knew very little about Syd Barrett and even less about ‘Vegetable Man’, an unreleased Pink Floyd B Side from 1967. To be honest I didn’t know that much more about The Jesus and Mary Chain, but what I did know was that their dissonant, fuzzed up version of the madcaps song sounded even more wigged out than the genius A Side ‘Upside Down’.
22. BIG FLAME ‘Debra’ (Rigour EP March 1985)
Big Flame were favourites of The Membranes John Robb, as were most of the groups on Ron Johnson Records. A label with its own definitive sonic identity, most Ron Johnson groups had a Captain Beefheart fixation and Big Flame were no different, their debut EP sounding like the equivalent of Trout Mask Replica with all three members playing different time signatures at high speed. And rather good it was too.
23. THE WOODENTOPS ‘Well Well Well’ (Single A Side August 1985)
The most proficient and certainly the most innovative in independent pop, ‘Well Well Well’ is proof of just how special Peckham’s finest were. During a period when long and lucrative major label deals were being handed out like sweets, it seems inconceivable that apart from couple of American singles, The Woodentops remained true to Rough Trade.
24. THE WEDDING PRESENT ‘Go Out And Get ‘Em Boy!’ (Single A Side August 1985)
‘Go Out And Get ‘Em Boy!’ was my introduction to The Wedding Present, a record I heard for the first time coming out of my tiny portable radio on the John Peel show. A bit rough and ready, David Gedge would go on to write better songs but none of them matched the excitement of their debut.
25. THAT PETROL EMOTION ‘V2’ (Single A Side October 1985)
Built from the foundations of The Undertones by Damian and John O’Neill after their teenage dreams were systematically shattered by their lead singer and the music industry, That Petrol Emotion never got the accolades their brand of articulate, politically aware, Gaelic-conscious, indie rock demanded.
26. THE GODFATHERS ‘This Damn Nation’ (Single A Side April 1986)
When The Sid Presley Experience fell apart the Coyne Brothers reconvened as The Godfathers, honing their original blueprint to earn a highly regarded reputation for their own electrifying brand of edgy rock’n’roll and incendiary live shows. They very nearly made it too, their records for Epic in the late eighties and early nineties never quite doing the business.
27. BLYTH POWER ‘Sordid Tales From The Ffucke Masticke Room’ (Junction Signal EP May 1986)
When The Mob disbanded in 1983 drummer Joseph Porter played briefly with Zounds before forming his own group Blyth Power. Named after a locomotive, their heady appropriation of traditional folk influences and punk was unique in every way. With a love of politics, history, cricket and trainspotting, Porter’s epic tales confused those who refused to move on from the shout-along slogans popularised by Crass, a common problem for anyone from the original anarcho punk scene who wished to progress, including Crass themselves.
28. THE PASTELS ‘Truck Train Tractor’ (Single A Side June 1986)
Walking out on Alan McGee and Creation when The Membranes got the boot at a label showcase, The Pastels went through quite a few record labels in the eighties, Glass, who released ‘Truck Train Tractor’, being their fourth. Far more than just a bunch of twee, C86, indie poppers their often made out to be, the song had a wonderful, falling apart quality to it, ramshackle yet melodic and mesmerising.
29. THE EX ‘They Shall Not Pass’ (1936: The Spanish Revolution EP July 1986)
A typically noble, financially disastrous, eighties attempt to educate the masses, 1936: The Spanish Revolution was released as a double seven inch EP with a beautiful 144 page book of Spanish Civil War photos and music by Dutch group The Ex. It’s extraordinary now to think how packages like this ever got released.
30. THE VERY THINGS ‘This Is Motortown’ (Single A Side June 1986)
One of the many projects to emerge from The Cravats Dadaist organisation DCL were The Very Things. Debuting in 1983 with ‘The Gong Man’ on Crass’s Corpus Christi label, the ebullient, soul energy of ‘Motortown’ was certainly one of their best.
31. THE WOLFHOUNDS ‘Anti Midas Touch’ (Single A Side September 1986)
Formed in Romford as a frantically noisy fusion of sixties garage punk and independent post-punk, The Wolfhounds were one of the many groups to bemoan their appearance on the NME’s notorious C86 cassette which seemed bizarre at the time given how most groups would have happily sold their parents into slavery for the publicity that generated. Anyway, The Wolfhounds needn’t have worried because the one thing I remember them for is not C86 but the spiky pop of their rather great second single ‘Anti Midas Touch’.
32. STUMP ‘Tupperware Stripper’ (Quirk Out Mini LP October 1986)
Stump were another C86 group but unlike The Wolfhounds, one who could never be mistaken for indie poppers in any shape or form. Built around the joyously insane yet highly literate tales of TV extras, low-rent strippers and out of control bodily functions, and a sound that was equal parts Beefheart, Pere Ubu and XTC, Stump’s music never should have worked but it did. A group of misfits who could only have come out of the eighties, incredibly they were picked up by major label Ensign and even flirted with the lower reaches of the UK singles chart before their inevitable death and destruction.
33. BOGSHED ‘Tried And Tested Public Speaker’ (Single A Side January 1987)
An odd group with an odd name, Bogshed’s wonky and surreal tunes veered towards ‘fucking noisy’ and certainly ruffled a few feathers. As the drums buffeted the bass, clattering along nicely behind a guitar that sounded something like an unholy cross between a road drill and Wilko Johnson, the inimitable Phil Hartley sang his absurdist tales with a seemingly infinite and indefatigable energy. At the time no-one else within my social circle were even aware of their existence, my attempt to book them for live shows coming to nowt. They split up later in 1987 yet I still can’t help thinking of them as the epitome of the independent underground.
34. THE CHILLS ‘I Love My Leather Jacket’ (Single A Side March 1987)
Iconic and irresistible, ‘I Love My Leather Jacket’ was Chills leader Martin Phillipps bittersweet tribute to his former drummer Martyn Bull who died of leukaemia at just 22 years old. And what a brilliant tribute it was.
35. THE HEART THROBS ‘Toy’ (Single A Side July 1987)
The very last song on the very last Criminal Damage release (Blast: From The Hip To The Heart, a compilation of the labels finest released in November 1986), the de Freitas sisters ‘Toy’ was picked up by Marc Riley’s In Tape which set them on their way to Rough Trade, their own Profumo label and finally One Little Indian where they recorded three albums of their increasingly idiosyncratic brand of dream pop.
36. THE MOTORCYCLE BOY ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ (Single A Side September 1987)
The Motorcycle Boy were formed from the ashes of teenage Edinburgh upstarts Meat Whiplash and fronted by ex-Shop Assistant Alex Taylor. Unusually for an indie record, the release of their debut ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ led to daytime plays on Radio One and a lucrative record contract but all too soon that was followed by an all too familiar story of infighting, sackings, general mismanagement, an unreleased album and the end.
37. THE VASELINES ‘Teenage Superstars’ (Dying For It EP March 1988)
Initially I had The Vaselines down as nothing more than a bit of a laugh. But on their Dying For It EP they became noticeably more accomplished, with any one of its four songs (‘Dying For It’, ‘Molly’s Lips’, ‘Teenage Superstars’, ‘Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam’) deserving of a place here.
38. McCARTHY ‘We Are All Bourgeois Now’ (Single B Side April 1988)
Barking’s McCarthy were indie pop’s wolves in sheep’s clothing, their jingly jangly tunes laden with overtly political, often provocative and extremist lyrics that reflected their far left leanings. Having said that ‘We Are All Bourgeois Now’ is noticeably calmer in tone, although the titles claim has certainly proved more and more prophetic over the ensuing years.
39. SPACEMEN 3 ‘Revolution’ (Playing With Fire LP February 1989)
Given the nod by Chris Coleman of What A Nice Way To Turn Seventeen fanzine, it must have been 1986 when I heard the Spacemen 3’s influential brew of drone-friendly psychedelia for the first time. Praised to the heavens by all and sundry, they seemed to reside in a class of their own. Deeply suspicious of artists who sought inspiration from the sixties to create a future, initially I approached with caution but found it impossible to resist the noise Jason Pearce and Pete Kember were creating from their immaculate pool of influences.
The Velvets, The Stooges, even John Cage and Kraftwerk all contributed to their high water mark Playing With Fire. An exquisite blend of stuttering guitars and wistful melodies, the album vanquished my fear of revivalism in favour of a new kind of peculiarly British psychedelia that was impossible to ignore, the lyrics of ‘Revolution’ capturing the feelings of pissed off youth better than anything I’d heard in over than a decade. The Spacemen 3 were the sound of something real, their importance to the independent underground and beyond unequivocal. And in 1989 that made a nice change.
40. PRIMAL SCREAM ‘I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have’ (Primal Scream LP September 1989)
The eighties version of Primal Scream were notoriously crap, Bobby Gillespie a shockingly shit singer of the whispering kind. To tell you the truth I fucking hated them with a vengeance. Then something strange happened in the winter of 1989. A mate of mine was replacing his collection of vinyl with CD’s, so he offered me a bundle of stuff for free that happened to include the Primal’s second album. I didn’t rush to play it but when I did, no longer bothered by what was hip and what was not, I rather liked it. At least I liked some of it, in particular ‘I'm Losing More Than I'll Ever Have’. Little did I or anyone else know that just a few months later a bricklayer from Windsor called Andrew Weatherall would transform it into the first great indie dance record of the nineties?