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Cheat Sheet: '80s Indie Pop

by Annie Zaleski

Cheat Sheet: '80s Indie Pop


In June, Cherry Red Records plans to release a five-CD box set called Scared to Get Happy. Subtitled A Story of Indie-Pop 1980-1989, the compilation is an Anglophile's dream, a treasure trove of lost gems from the decade's U.K.-based guitar-loving bands, ranging from obscurities to early tunes from such future stars as Primal Scream, The Stone Roses and The Jesus and Mary Chain.

But while Scared to Get Happy acknowledges that indie pop began (and flourished) in the U.K. during the '80s, the collection also reinforces the genre's diverse origins. For example, during the early part of the decade, "indie" referred simply to any band that recorded for an independent label. These DIY groups didn't hew to a particular sound or aesthetic: In Scotland, Postcard Records' roster had a band that loved soul and funk (Orange Juice, fronted by Edwyn Collins); another fond of gloomy, danceable post-punk (Josef K); and still another with a soft spot for heavenly hooks (Aztec Camera). London-based Rough Trade, meanwhile, made room for primitive twee-punks Television Personalities and jangly perma-mopers The Smiths.

Other indie labels released music from the minimalist Marine Girls (which featured future Everything But the Girl member Tracey Thorn) and the Lou Reed-inspired chime-pop band Felt. Still other groups -- notably lush, literate sophisticates Prefab Sprout and strummy Smiths acolytes James -- jumped to major labels after indie releases, despite their sonic kinship with the underground.

Informed and inspired by these different sounds, the idea of indie pop started to solidify around a specific sonic aesthetic by the mid-'80s: jangly or wobbly riffs, unpolished rhythms and vocals, and deliberately naïve lyrics. A love of girl groups and the psych-tinged innocence of the '60s, as well as nostalgia for childhood's charming simplicity, were other hallmarks of the burgeoning genre. If the New Wave and mainstream rock scenes were music's über-polished popular kids, then the indie pop scene was a cozy haven for ragtag misfits, the socially awkward and other offbeat souls.

However, the scene's niche-like nature changed in 1986 with the release of NME's groundbreaking cassette compilation, C86. Widely considered to be indie pop's official coming-out party, it featured 22 bands indebted in varying degrees to the above sonic touchstones. Many of these bands went on to greater things, including askew lo-fi rockers The Pastels, tuneful popsmiths Close Lobsters, Nico worshippers The Shop Assistants and frantic wiry-punks The Wedding Present.

"It's hard to remember how underground guitar music and fanzines were in the mid-'80s," Saint Etienne's Bob Stanley said in the liner notes to CD86, a 2006 compilation of bands from that era. "DIY ethics and any residual punk attitudes were in isolated pockets around the country, and the C86 comp and gigs brought them together."

From there, indie pop's influence spread beyond its core audience and musicians. On the bright side, this opened the door for some worthy bands to get noticed, including noisy distortion-mongers 14 Iced Bears, enthusiastic shimmy-rockers Talulah Gosh, glossy girl-pop groups Darling Buds and The Primitives, and dream-pop icons House of Love. More and more indie pop-sympathizing bands (including The Wild Swans and C86 denizens Mighty Lemon Drops) recorded for major labels, which further spread the genre's vision.

Still, indie pop's DIY spirit continued to live on (and evolve) via several U.K. independent record labels. The Subway Organization was based in Bristol, and featured bands such as Flatmates, Razorcuts and The Chesterfields, whose rambunctious jangle sounded more confident than that of their predecessors. The beloved Sarah Records, which formed in 1987, grew into a respected label known for a certain shade of vulnerable but elegant indie pop -- one that favored plush atmospheres, ringing guitars and melancholic sentiments. Over the course of eight years, Sarah pressed high-quality releases from bands such as Heavenly, Another Sunny Day, East River Pipe and, most notably, keyboard-burnished act Field Mice.

By the end of the '80s, elements of indie pop had worked their way into other, trendier scenes (the Madchester rave/electronic scene, shoegaze) in the U.K. But incredibly, indie pop didn't become a force in the U.S. until the '90s, although the scenes that eventually arose from the genre -- from riot grrrl to lo-fi indie -- were massively influential. The major exception to this rule in the '80s was Calvin Johnson, the founder of both proto-garage/punk group Beat Happening and the indie pop-welcoming K Records; the latter released albums by The Go! Team, Girl Trouble and The Cannanes.

Today, the term "indie pop" has little to do with its quaint origins; more or less, it's a catchall description for music that's accessible and catchy, but still a little quirky. Yet this anything-goes attitude is very much in the spirit of indie pop's founding mothers and fathers, who were determined to march to their own beat -- and made the rules up as they went along.

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