Various Artists – Scared To Get Happy (A Story Of Indie Pop 1980-1989) (Cherry Red)
5-CD Box set (134 tracks on 5 CDs and a “stylish 54-page booklet with a lengthy sleeve-note detailing each track and illustrations of the records and bands involved”).
You have read the preview and tracklisting, you’ve enjoyed parts one and two of our countdown of the Top Twenty “Indie-Pop” albums, now, finally, a couple of days after release here’s Ged Babeys review of possibly the most important box-set of the year.
A couple of points first…
It’s A Story … not THE Definitive Story OK? The Compiler(s) made a point of not duplicating tracks (bar two) from the CD86 and Indiepop 01 (Rough Trade Shops) compilations so fans don’t feel ripped off.
There are no songs by the Smiths, Orange Juice. The Pastels, Felt, My Bloody Valentine or Half Man Half Biscuit (for whatever reasons, contractual say or sheer obstinacy (& there are indications that the latter applied in the case of Lawrence and Mr Pastel)) which is a shame, but this matters not because there are still masses of gems in the box…
What is and what isn’t indiepop? Well, before it’s release the forums and chatrooms were a-buzz apropos this subject. To my mind, and Cherry Reds, if its Indie-pendent and if its pop (as opposed to rock) its in. Twee / cutie / C86 purists will probably not agree that bands like the Shamen, Pop Will Eat Itself, the Stone Roses etc should not be included herein …. well, read on.
I referred to myself as a “fair-weather indie-pop fan” before because in the 80’s I was still listening to punk, post-punk, gothic and other assorted styles of music. Ironically, spending a few sunny summer days with the contents of this magic box-set on my new I-pod I was amazed how much I absolutely loved 90% of it. The sunshine and the positivity of the tunes really lifted my miserable spirits, I renewed acquaintances with songs I hadn’t heard for years and discovered gems I’d missed out on at the time completely. OK, some of it is naïve, corny and dated but a lot of it retains a real freshness. It really was fantastic to submerge myself in “indiepop”, rather than batter-my-senses with rock.
…. I sketched out a review in my head which declared Scared To Get Happy every bit as good and as important as Nuggets and the 1234 Punk and New Wave Boxed Set Universal brought out about fifteen years back…. I thought about how Indie-pop came into being…. I planned to do a piece called the Top Ten Inspirations for Indie-Pop with accompanying Youtube selections and it would have gone something like this;
Einstein A Go-Go by Landscape.
Dead Cities by the Exploited,
Pride (in the Name of Love) by U2
… you get the idea? Novelty electro-pop, thuggish tuneless punk and bombastic stadium bilge were, to my mind, just as much an inspiration to the aspiring indie-pop musicians as The Byrds as they showed the musical paths to AVOID at all costs, following post-punk & the new waves glory years.
Indie-pop’s players were punk rocks shy younger brothers & sisters. Bookish, nerdy kids who loved the energy and manic-pop-thrill of Buzzcocks and Undertones but wanted something of their own along similar lines.
Another huge influence on the pop kids was their parents record collection; whether it was Astrud Gilberto, Patsy Cline, The Mamas & the Pappa’s or cooler sounds from the Sixties; the Beatles, Kinks or Byrds. The breezy tunes of Sixties Pop were part of a collective memory of childhood. As were TV theme tunes like White Horses and Rupert the Bear. This was real-music loaded with emotional memories and not the plastic, gaudy disposable radio-pollution of Duran, Blancmange or Nik Kershaw.
Add to that the TV repeats of The Monkees series and after some serious music-paper research into punks’ origins the Velvet Underground and Nuggets, the cool, secret history of the sixties which indie-pop in essence harked back to. Perhaps without knowing it at the time Indie kids tried to recreate a magical idealised version of the Sixties, on a budget and in direct opposition to the fake-soul, technology & money-obsessed muzak of the 80’s.
The other thing is the key difference between indie POP and Rock, whether indie or major, Rock was not something to aspire to in the 80’s. Rock meant spandex and poodle-hair, ridiculous lyrics, bloated egos and solos. In pop the vocal is all-important, slightly above the music in the mix. In Rock, the vocal and guitar compete or are on the same level and the sturm and drang overshadow the melody and subtle dexterity of the words and music. So instead of being Rock-star motherfuckers, the Indiepop kids were just plain mummys-boys…
Indiepop, all one word, came to mean eventually a specific, narrow generic, “twee” or “cutie”; Talulah Gosh, any band on Sarah Records, the parody-will-eat-itself of the Pooh Sticks and the Boy Hairdressers.
To my mind though, and as far as I can see the compilers of this wonderful treasure trove of a box-sets opinion, Indie Pop was and is a far wider genre which although centered on C86 takes in a lot more; frantic Velvets 1969 style guitar bands, bossa-nova jazz tinged acts, lovers of 60’s psychedelia. Garage bands, power-pop, art-school politicos, D-I-Y messthetics and all kinds of mavericks and one-offs who play guitars and wanted to make pop-music along the lines of what I’ve been wittering about above.
Disc One establishes what was around in 1980/81. The Nightingales, the Monochrome Set, Blue Orchids all featured players from punk bands the Fall, the Ants and the Prefects but had moved into new territories. Scars too, a punk band with a hint of glam had mutated into a devastating independent pop group (even if they dressed up in New Romantic threads, much to their eternal shame). Nit-picking somewhat though the Pre label was a subsidiary of Charisma records so not really genuinely independent.
The Art Objects set a standard that is near impossible to better by track three. Showing Of To Impress the Girls is an absolute gem and more than makes up for the Wild Swans being used as track one disc one.
Girls At Our Best are the first of seven female-fronted acts on disc one. Everything But the Girl and Weekend flying the flag for the trad jazz influence on indiepop. Dolly Mixture sound great still, timeless pop and Jane’s It’s a Fine Day sounds as twee and sickly as it ever did.
The Higsons Lost and the Lonely stands out with its mariachi trumpet and waywardness, the Fire Engines Candy Skin I could’ve done without as its always grated on my ears.
I am embarrassed to admit I love the Prefab Sprout song and even the Bluebells proves they were a great band prior to bringing out the execrable Young at Heart. Their song Happy Birthday sounds like the Velvets jamming with the Beatles in Hamburg recorded in mono and is sublime.
Another Kitchenware classic by Hurrah! starts off disc 2 in fine style. 1983 songs by Pulp and Del Amitri go by relatively unnoticed and there is no way you would have marked either down as future chart-botherers. Whereas
The Woodentops, the Jazz Butcher and June Brides sound like offbeat stars.
The standout tracks on this disc for me are James ‘Hymn From A Village’ (who I always hated at the time) who sound funky and loopy and way ahead of their time and the Lofts ‘Up the Hill and Down the Slope’ with its fabulously fucked-up guitar solo sounding like Void-oid Robert Quine in his prime.
The heroic Jesus and Mary Chain are represented by a decidedly under whelming demo of Just Like Honey.
The Third disc and we get to the heart of the collection; C85 and C86. Velocity Girl still sounds like perfection and is over before you know it. The Wedding Present and the Primitives are opposite ends of the spectrum. Laddish frantic jangle on a diet of chips and football and Velvets-meet-the Monkees pop with peroxide poise and bowl cut cool.
McCarthy and the Wolfhounds represent the art school politico wing. Chesterfields and Razorcuts define textbook indiepop and the great tunes keep coming with Almost Prayed and an unreleased rarity from the Servants.
A surprisingly ace song I have to mention too is Jimbobs band before Carter USM, Jamie Wednesday who’s Vote For Love is another winner with trumpet and Lets do the show right here vibe.
An early Wonder Stuff track appears and is as chirpy as the Housemartins on speed (another omission!) PWEI sound a tiny bit out of place as they sound like a garage version of Wasted Youth with their cartoon misogyny and feedback.
Disc 4 opens with the majestic grandeur of the House of Love’s Shine On. One of those tracks which just makes you wanna dig out the bands debut LP. Surprisingly the following track is the same, the Shamen in their indie-psych days (the Drop album is now on my list to buy..) A band I’d completely forgotten about who were great live, the Batchelor Pad, despite a Syd Barrett obsession sound blinding all these years on. The Wake’s Gruesome Castle reminds me of the Only Ones and makes me want to check out their old stuff…. This box set is sure to prompt a massive resurgence of interest in the era and hopefully some great reissues will follow.
The Flatmates, Darling Buds and the Siddeleys provide more “girl power” if you pardon the expression, but its the Heart Throbs who’s long lost Toy single tops the lot. Rose Carlotti was one of the most under-rated and under-appreciated songwriters of the decade and I hope she one day starts performing again.
The Waltones and Groovy Little Numbers contribute ace lesser-known gems and my friends Bubblegum Splash are proud to have been selected to represent the South (despite being singled out for abuse by the Guardians review).
The fifth and final disc starts and ends with hints of the Future; Madchester and Grunge / noise-pop represented by the Roses and Inspirals and the Telescopes and Boo Radleys respectively. They sound great and fit in seamlessly but the disc is dominated by four tracks from Sarah records, the label which more than any other personified pure indiepop. Another Sunny Days I’m In Love With A Girl Who Doesn’t Know I Exist is such an archetype its beyond any parody but is still a beautiful piece of pop perfection. The Sea Urchins Solace is my personal pick with its great nasal harmonies and freewheeling melody..
Bradfords sublime Skin Storm (later covered by Moz) makes up for the Smiths absence and the feedbacky yet femnine the Charlottes play understudy to the missing My Bloody Valentine.
The McTells, the Would-Be Goods, the Popguns and (grebos!) the Seers contributions make this disc a really winner
At a rough count around half the of the 134 songs qualify as being generic, textbook indiepop per the usual criteria; jangly guitars, lyrics which mention the sun, the rain, a gentle vocal, melody and hookline and sinker. The other half have something to distinguish them otherwise; synths, electonic drums or piano, a touch of rock, a powerchord here, an obvious hint of 80’s commercialism or future stardom ( Ok its easy in retrospect to say that Lloyd Cole, the Wonder Stuff, the Shamen, the Stone Roses and so on were in it for the long haul and would adapt rather than die in the quest for success). The indie pop cult heroes are the ones who had no plan, no solid ambition, but just had the aim of making a great record or two that people would remember them by when it was inevitably over after a year or two. It’s great to hear them side by side, given equal billing with some later stars, all of whom were part of Indiepops rich tapestry of near-forgotten sounds.
This is a great collection to listen to on shuffle rather than chronologically and despite a ridiculous level of criticism its compiler has received in various other reviews online and in print, it really is an excellent, thoroughly enjoyable collection which really couldn’t have been much better, once you accept that you can’t have everything you’d ideally want in one package. The lack of a narrative in the sleeve notes was also a criticism I read somewhere. Life isn’t like that buddy; Over a hundred and thirty artists over the space of ten years from every corner of the UK creating music on their own terms, outside the mainstream don’t necessarily have a unifying thread of commonality, other than two words; Indie and Pop … and a desire to not be part of the Mainstream and Rock, which is where it differs from 2013’s so-called Indie.
All word by Ged Babey, more of whose writing on Louder Than War is here.