It was the era of Greenham Common, the miners’ strike and venal Yuppies in pastel sports cars busily privatising everything; all of it soundtracked by absurd pop puppets proffering rolled-up jacket sleeves, peroxide mullets and blithe complicity with Thatcherite dogma. Yet even as the ’80s musical mainstream surrendered to ostentation and bombast, under-nourished youths with pre-owned shirts and vintage guitars were crawling from the musical undergrowth to offer an alternative, ad hoc take on musical cool. Covert indie music star Pete Astor and fellow veterans of the 1980s resistance guide us through the ‘shadow decade’ that Stock, Aitken and Waterman never noticed.
It’s July 13 1985; we’re in Joss Cope’s parents’ living room watching Nick Kershaw at Live Aid on the TV. Bob Geldof, punk icon (ha!), is swearing as he demands our money for famine relief. The abiding feeling is a combination of bafflement, irritation and vague guilt that something as ugly as this might actually be helping people.
Thinking back to that era, I remember how it felt like music was divided into two separate, unrelated worlds. Ours was one of shadows, played out in a place far removed from the fluorescent certainty of Live Aid where everyone was happily rockin’ all over the world and Status Quo were the status quo.
On the big day, I and my band, The Loft, were on our way back home from a gig. We’d stopped off at the Copes’ house to have a cup of tea and watch the action from Wembley and Philadelphia. We gazed on as the stars were flown in by helicopter: David Bowie, Wham!, Royal favourites Dire Straits et al. It was another example of events during that decade which felt very far away, not only from famine-blighted Africa but from those of us who’d never had the slightest interest in ‘8os pop’s Club Tropicana flash. These Live Aid people’s brains — let alone their jackets — seemed to be about something far removed from what our lives were about.
Every decade seems to have a written and imagined sense of itself: the BBC’s recent Your ‘8os survey corralled people’s memories of the decade, the quotes said it all. Like this one: “The ‘8os was full of colour and everything was big, the music was more ‘electric’ sounding — every band based their sound on numerous keyboards and all the boy bands had floppy fringes. Men carried huge fat diaries which resembled a handbag. There was Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Human League, Wham!, Frankie, Stock, Aitken and Waterman… big hair, puffball skirts, shoulder pads, Dallas, Dynasty, The A-Team and the Falklands. Around 1985 the country seemed to turn a corner almost overnight; twentysomethings in Porsches wearing flash suits; money everywhere…”
But there was none of that for the June Brides, or The Loft, or an number of other types lurking in the shadows of the zeitgeist; of Thatcher, the City, the mobiles like bricks, etc. The party was taking place on the other side of town, not in Lewisham but in the City, the mythical Square Mile, where we would read and hear about characters like those that would eventually people American Psycho.
Look at the picture of the June Brides above as they peer out of their cold kitchen with the hollow eyes and longing that always belong to the marginalised, the outsiders. The bar fires, the cracked glass windows, the skip furniture, amps and guitars, records piled against the walls are all there in one of the many drafty rooms out of shot. These people are underneath the times; building a myth of their present, one that went largely unnoticed by the decade that spawned them.
In 2009 everyone is busy digging into the ’80s. ‘Indie’ has become 21st century pop’s default sound, a state of affairs unthinkable in 1985. Topshop – twenty years ago the very antithesis of underground rock style – now sponsors indie music compilations and everyone wears the suit jackets and plimsolls they now stock.
Of course, each present remakes its past in order to define itself, mining older times for materials to remake now. ‘The writing and rewriting of history is taking place just as it did in every previous era. Just as The Velvet Underground — rather than Vanilla Fudge — are now prime movers in the history of the ’60s, so the once rained-on June Brides are suddenly beginning to look and sound ‘right’; time is inexorably moving them towards a re-imagined centre, a place where Johnny Hates Jazz hardly existed. The sound, look and feel that they, and we, carved out, completely against the odds and largely unnoticed a quarter of a century ago, is now the stuff of high street culture and teatime telly Britain.
We were right all along!
A selection of ’80s indie pioneers revisit the good old bad old days.
Lawrence: Singer-songwriter with Denim and Go Kart Mozart, his earlier, hugely influential band Felt released an album in every year of the 1980s
Felt were playing a show in Liverpool and I always wanted to spend the whole day in the towns ‘cos it was like a day out for me. We were out in Liverpool city centre and we saw Bananarama in front of us; it was the three girls and we just followed them all around the town ‘cos they were on Top of the Pops and I really loved that Siobhan wotsit . . . I really wanted to speak to them because they were at the top and we were at the bottom. But I thought I was part of the ’80s; I bought all those chart records and Smash Hits and The Face. I didn’t think we were in an underground scene; I thought we were overlooked but one day we would be in The Face and it wouldn’t be a big deal. At the time I thought I was cutting edge. I was wearing the right clothes and seeing the right bands. I wanted to be part of the whole pop scene at the time but I just wanted to do it with guitar music. I thought it could happen in the ’80s and Felt would sit next to Duran Duran and Boy George and could have given them a run for their money.
My favourite article of clothing [in the ‘8os] would have been one of my check shirts. I was always trying to find one like Richard Lloyd’s on the cover of [Television’s 1977 album] Marquee Moon. I used to come down to London to buy shirts on the Kings Road in a shop called Flip. I was always trying to find the ultimate Marquee Moon shirt but I wouldn’t wear them like Television; I’d wear them in an English way, with the top button done up. I used to try and wear it as PIL would wear it; an English edge on an American icon. I actually know which one it would have been . . . this blue one that I wore at Futurama Festival in 1980 and then saved for the ultimate gig which never came. I’ve still got it.
Phil Wilson: Singer-songwriter with the June Brides; after a twenty year sabbatical from music he is making records again
I remember the June Brides meeting Terence Trent D’Arby and his entourage, late at night at a motorway service station. They had just got off their luxury tour coach, we six Junies from our transit van. I think we recognised each other as being from what was nominally a similar species, but realised that there could be no cross-fertilization as we had evolved in totally different worlds. I was going to clubs like The Living Room to see exciting new bands like the Jasmine Minks, The Pastels and The Loft. I thought the bands I was listening to were totally pop. It didn’t feel like any of it was hard music . . . it was the music that should have been popular. I wanted everyone to love that music . . . and my music, too. Why didn’t those idiots realise the mistake they were making and join in with me?! No amount of Culture Club, Simple Minds, Duran Duran and Howard Jones records now residing in charity shops will ever make up for the fact that people actually bought the bloody things rather than my music!
Paul Kelly: Graphic designer, photographer and film director (of the St Etienne movie Finisterre among others), currently preparing a new film, Lawrence of Belgravia, for release.
I spent the entire eighties wishing I was living in another decade. We were big on the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield at that time and longed for the California of the mid-’60s. Our rejection of the times made us very insular and negative; our wildest ambition amounted to scaling the lower reaches of the NME chart. We really felt there was a glass ceiling and didn’t even think about making the real charts or Top of the Pops.
It’s difficult now to imagine how hard it was to find good clothes back then. Nothing was quite what you were after or even the right size and as a result any attempt at replicating the ’60s dandy could have you looking like a cross between a geography teacher and a tramp. Our suede jackets, cord trousers and winkle-picker boots were at odds with ’80s high street chic.
Debsey Wykes: Singer and bassist of influential all-girl group Dolly Mixture, currently the subject of documentary feature Take Three Girls: The Dolly Mixture Story
The only contemporary records I had were a Smiths album and a Pogues album. The rest were ’60s compilations, the Shangri Las, Dusty Springfield and collections by other female artists like Peggy Lee, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. We were immersed in Phil Spector, The Shangri-Las, Bowie, Bacharach & David, the Velvet Underground and Motown. In 1986 I went to a ‘Women Against Violence Against Women’ benefit gig with Anita Dobson as compere. I went dressed as her Eastenders character Angie and was nearly beaten up by some very tough looking punters for presumably failing to show enough respect. Eighties politics weren’t the laugh they’re cracked up to be!
Pete Momtchiloff: founding member of ’80s indie pop band Heavenly, now Senior Commissioning Editor for Philosophy at the Oxford University Press
I think Indie kids owned our little patch of the 1980s, along with the Goths, the Punks, the Soul boys, the New Romantics; it’s just that there were far more of them than us. And perhaps the Indie kids were misfits because we thought the 1980s were uncool, and therefore opposed contemporary culture in favour of 1960s culture. My big hero was [Subway Sect singer] Vic Godard. I really wanted to look like a member of the Subway Sect in 1977. A sort of beat-up ’60s look that you might see in an old Jean-Luc Godard film on BBC2. You couldn’t really buy these clothes in the high street so charity shops were a godsend. Also, like a lot of people, I was discovering the Velvets, Love and the Byrds. Sounds corny now but things like [Victor Bockris’s Velvet Underground tome] Uptight were a revelation.
Phil King: one time member of Lush, Felt, The Jesus and Mary Chain, the John Howard Band and The Servants; currently picture researcher at Uncut magazine.
The ’80s were just a terrible disappointment. I, like some others of my generation, decided instead to look back at the music of the ’60s. I remember getting the Green Line bus across the suburbs of London to rehearsals with my band, listening to Bob Dylan’s Highway 61- Revisited and imagining I was on a Greyhound bus journeying across America. My room: sofa-bed, gas fire, guitars, and shelves full of ’60s annuals bought from jumble sales and charity shops. My wardrobe: black roll-neck pullover, black drainpipe Levi jeans, Chelsea boots, a bowl-cut. My record collection: Felt, The Go-Betweens, Love, the Byrds, ’60s Psychedelia, Syd Barrett, early Creation 45s — The Jesus & Mary Chain, The Loft, Primal Scream…
Pete Astor currently lectures on popular music at Goldsmiths and Westminster University, researching song words and their meanings. He is also preparing the new Ellis Island sound LP, the first to include song lyrics.