Indie pop is a genre of alternative rock music that originated in the United Kingdom in the mid-1980s, with its roots in Scottish post-punk bands on the Postcard Records label in the early ’80s (Josef K and Orange Juice) and the dominant UK independent band of the mid-’80s, The Smiths. Indie pop was inspired by punk’s DIY ethic and related ideologies, and it generated a thriving fanzine, label, and club and gig circuit.
Indie pop differs from indie rock to the extent that it is more melodic, less abrasive, and relatively angst-free. The term ‘indie’ had been used for some time to describe artists on independent labels (and the labels themselves), but the key moment in the naming of ‘indie pop’ as a genre was the release of NME’s ‘C86’ tape in 1986.
The compilation featured, among other artists, Primal Scream, The Pastels, and The Wedding Present, and ‘indie’ quickly became shorthand for a genre whose defining conventions were identified as jangling guitars, a love of ’60s pop, and melodic power pop song structures (the genre was initially dubbed ‘C86’ after the tape itself). In the mid to late ’80s, indie pop was criticized for its associations with so-called ‘shambling’ (a John Peel-coined description celebrating the self-conscious primitive approach of some of the music) and underachievement, but the ‘C86’ indie pop scene is now recognized as a pivotal moment for independent music in the UK.
The birth of indie pop can be traced back to the post-punk explosion in limited-circulation photocopied fanzines, and small shop-based record labels such as London’s Rough Trade Records and Glasgow’s Postcard Records. The publication in ‘Record Business’ magazine of the first weekly indie singles and album charts in 1980 and the adoption of such charts in the UK music press stimulated activity. In order to reflect this, the British musical weekly ‘New Musical Express’ released an era-defining compilation cassette called ‘C81.’ This cassette featured a wide range of groups, reflecting the different approaches of the immediate post-punk era.
NME followed up ‘C81’ with ‘C86.’ Similarly designed to reflect the new music scene of the time in the UK, it is now seen as the birth of indie pop in the UK. The UK music press was, in 1986, highly competitive, with four weekly papers documenting new bands and trends. The grouping of bands, often artificially, with an overarching label to heighten interest or sell copies, was commonplace. ‘NME’ journalists of the period now agree that ‘C86’ was an example of this, but also a by-product of NME’s ‘hip hop wars,’ a schism in the paper (and among readers) between enthusiasts of contemporary progressive black music (for example, by Public Enemy and Mantronix), and fans of guitar-based music, as represented on ‘C86.’ ‘C86’ featured key early bands of the genre such as Primal Scream and The Pastels, but also included tracks by several more abrasive, ‘shambling’ bands from the Ron Johnson label, who were atypical of the perceived ‘C86’ jangle pop aesthetic (which was reminiscent of pop pop act The Byrds).
A link between ‘C86’ and unifying genre is commonly disputed by critics and the bands actually on the original compilation. Everett True, a writer for ‘NME’ in the ’80s under the name ‘The Legend,’ has argued that ”C86′ didn’t actually exist as a sound, or style. I find it weird, bordering on surreal, that people are starting to use it as a description again.’ Geoff Taylor, a member of the band Age of Chance, agreed: ‘We never considered ourselves part of any scene. I’m not sure that the public at large did either, to be honest. We were just an independent band around at that same time as the others.’ Bob Stanley, a ‘Melody’ Maker journalist in the late 1980s and founding member of pop band Saint Etienne, acknowledges that participants at the time reacted against lazy labelling, but insists they shared an approach: ‘Of course the ‘scene,’ like any scene, barely existed. Like squabbling Marxist factions, groups who had much in common built up petty rivalries. The June Brides and the Jasmine Minks were the biggest names at Alan McGee’s Living Room Club and couldn’t stand the sight of each other. Only when the The Jesus and Mary Chain exploded and stole their two-headed crown did they realize they were basically soulmates.’
Manic Street Preachers bassist Nicky Wire remembers that it was the bands’ very independence that gave the scene coherence: ‘People were doing everything themselves – making their own records, doing the artwork, gluing the sleeves together, releasing them and sending them out, writing fanzines because the music press lost interest really quickly.’ Many of the actual ‘C86’ bands distanced themselves from the scene cultivated around them by the UK music press – in its time, ‘C86’ became a pejorative term for its associations with ‘shambling’ and underachievement.
In his book ‘Time Travel,’ pop historian Jon Savage traced the musical origins of ‘C86’ and indie pop to the Velvet Underground’s eponymous third album. Power pop was a significant influence, as was punk and post-punk. Catchy power pop melodies made the Ramones and the Buzzcocks the most identifiable punk influences. Before the last and main influence on ‘C86’ and indie pop – The Smiths – the bands of Glasgow’s post-punk independent Postcard label had some influence: Josef K and Orange Juice (along with contemporaries The Fire Engines). Other possible musical antecedents included The Television Personalities and the Swell Maps.
The jangle pop indie sensibility with which C86 became synonymous began to be applied to bands who had not appeared on the tape. Some influenced by the compilation and later associated with it had yet to emerge in 1986, such as Talulah Gosh and Razorcuts. The UK label Sarah Records, which released its first record in 1987, embraced the perceived jangly indie pop sensibility in such a way that it – and its most popular bands, The Field Mice and Heavenly – could be seen as typical proponents. The movement continued to hold sway into the 1990s. Scenes developed in the United States, particularly around labels such as K Records and Slumberland Records. Bands of the US riot grrrl movement acknowledged a debt to ‘C86,’ and Scottish band Belle and Sebastian also recognized its influence. In the United States, the terms ‘twee,’ ‘twee pop,’ and ‘cutie’ (all pejorative terms in the UK) have been adopted retrospectively to describe some examples of indie pop, owing to what has been called the genre’s ‘revolt into childhood.’