Primal Scream and the Whereabouts of the 'C86' Generation



Primal Scream's new album More Light -- perhaps named after the last words of Goethe?-- came out this week. (The video for its nine-minute opening track and first single, "2013," is below.)

Since 1991, they've been building on the sound of their third album, Screamadelica --whooshing, drone-based psychedelic dance-rock. For the near-decade before that, though, they were a very different band. "Velocity Girl," the brief B-side of their first single, reappeared as the opening track of C86, a semi-legendary cassette compilation put together by three editors of the British music newspaper NME in 1986 (and later reissued as an LP). C86 collected 22 songs by 22 then-mostly-unknown bands on independent labels, and outlined a new direction for British pop: terse, sweet, tuneful and guitar-based, privileging spirit over precision, and occasionally augmented by a bracing dash of weirdness.

If you dipped into any music scene in the history of pop and pulled up 22 of its most promising new bands, the odds that more than one of them would be around more than a quarter-century later would be pretty slim. True enough, a lot of C86's acts didn't even make it through the '80s -- Big Flame were the first to go, splitting mere months after the compilation came out, and the Mackenzies, Stump, Miaow, Mighty Mighty, Bogshed, the Shrubs and A Witness didn't last much longer. One of the earliest to break up was the deeply silly, reference-mad quartet Half Man Half Biscuit, who split in late 1986, but they got back together in 1990, and have been playing ever since. "Left Lyrics in the Practice Room," from 2011's 90 Bisodol (Crimond), is a good example of HMHB's sui generis songwriting.

The first of the C86 crew to break through commercially was the Soup Dragons, whose big hit -- their 1990 post-acid-house cover of the Rolling Stones' "I'm Free" -- arguably helped clear a path for Primal Scream. (They stuck around until 1995.)

A handful of other C86 bands scrabbled toward mainstream success, didn't quite get there, and called it a day. McCarthy broke up in 1990, but spawned the excellent, long-running group Stereolab. Age of Chance took a stab at the dance charts with a ridiculous industrial cover of Prince's "Kiss" in late 1986, below, but they were gone by 1991.

A few of the other C86 bands that gave up the ghost in the early '90s have recently gotten back together. After the Wolfhounds broke up in 1990, Dave Callahan formed Moonshake, who made a string of superb records over the course of that decade. The Wolfhounds first reunited in 2005, and a few months ago, they released their first single in 22 years, "Cheer Up"; it's got a hell of a chorus, and a fine Rotoscoped video.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Wolfhounds shared a bill (at NYC Popfest) with the also-reunited Close Lobsters, who had split in 1990 as well, but released a new single, "Steel Love," late last year.

Another C86 band, We've Got a Fuzzbox and We're Gonna Use It!!, subsequently shortened their name to Fuzzbox and got a significantly more "professional" attitude toward music-making. They broke up in 1990, but reunited in 2010, releasing the cover of M's 1979 hit "Pop Muzik" whose video appears below as their comeback single. Sadly, it's probably the last we'll hear from them, since guitarist Jo Dunne died last year.

The one other C86 band besides Primal Scream who never officially broke up are the Pastels, from Glasgow, Scotland, who released a new album of their own, Slow Summits, just a few weeks ago. (The elegant video for its first single, "Check My Heart," is much more about the look of contemporary Glasgow than it is about showing off the remaining Pastels, Stephen McRobbie and Katrina Mitchell.) Admittedly, they hadn't released a new studio album since 1997, but they'd still been sort of active, doing soundtrack and theatre work and recording an album with the Japanese duo Tenniscoats a few years ago.

And, after Primal Scream, the C86 band who've done the best for themselves in the long term have to be the Wedding Present, who had a string of British hit singles in the '90s. They were inactive between 1997 and 2004, while singer/guitarist David Gedge was playing with Cinerama. Eventually, Gedge just changed the name of Cinerama's final lineup to the Wedding Present; they're still recording and touring (often playing their early albums start-to-finish), although Gedge is the only member who's remained with the group since 1986, or indeed since 2008. Here's their performance clip for "You Jane," from last year's album Valentina.

It's worth noting that Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie doesn't exactly feel allied with the C86 moment. "We never had anything in common with all of those bands," he said in a 1989 interview with NME. "They can't play their instruments and they can't write songs ... The dawn of independent music, it's meant anyone can make a record ... and that's a bad thing."