1985 was the year when I started attending gigs regularly. It was a time of fervent excitement where with teenage obsessiveness and excitability every few weeks I would be discovering a new Best Band in the World Ever! It was hard to understand why the whole world was not falling in love with the bands I was hearing on John Peel’s night-time Radio One show and seeing at Preston’s Twang Clubbe who sounded so different and more alive than the over-produced chart fodder of that era. Cherry Red’s newly issued 3CD selection of tracks from 73 acts offers an opportunity to review the year with hindsight.

Due to the NME compilation of that name, C86 has become a sub-genre of music to which two books (including Nige Tassell’s excellent ‘Whatever Happened to the C86 Kids?) have been devoted. There are large overlaps with 14 of the 22 groups who featured on the C86 compilation included here. Some bands featured on the NME compilation have subsequently admitted their regret at cursorily submitting inferior tracks; this Cherry Red collection features songs which offer a greater reflection of the groups’ qualities.

Each CD has a different slant. Disc One has plenty of acts who placed high in the independent charts (That Petrol Emotion, The Woodentops, The Mighty Lemon Drops) and some who went on to achieve mainstream chart success. The Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘Never Understand’ still sounds thrilling even if the screeching feedback does serve as a reminder of my intermittent tinnitus. The James of 1985 was a gloriously oddball proposition, ‘Uprising’ with its Afrobeat guitars and folk leanings is a million miles from ‘Sit Down’. The Wedding Present’s ‘(The Moment Before) Everything’s Spoiled Again’ sees them at their most frenetic, the guitars surprisingly trebly. The Housemartins were the first of the groups featured to hit the Top Ten and early single ‘Flag Day’ showed how they were already polishing their gently infiltrating political songs. In 1985, with the bubbling ramshackle pop of ‘If You Were The Only Girl in the World’, The Soup Dragons had far more in common with fellow contributors The Jasmine Minks than the indie dance band who would see chart action in the early 1990s. On ‘Delightful’, Happy Mondays get an impressive guitar groove going but it would have been hard to foresee them becoming a phenomenon. The plodding production to The Primitives’ ‘Across My Shoulder’ demo keeps their chart potential submerged.

The Loft’s ‘Your Door Shines Like Gold’ is a slice of classic 1960s inflected guitar pop and however much the rhetoric of 1985 was post-punk and refusing to acknowledge that music history started before 1977, the sounds of the sixties hang over much of this compilation. The Shop Assistants were early favourites for wider success, ‘All Day Long’ representing their buzzsaw pop guitars, stand-up drums and Alex Taylor’s reverb-laden vocals. It is striking how most groups relied on the standard guitar/bass/drums line-up so, along with the quality of their songs (here represented by ‘Josef’s Gone’), The June Brides stood out for prominently incorporating viola and trumpet into their sound. McCarthy and Microdisney were preeminent among those whose mission statement might have been to bring down Thatcher and support the miners by the most oblique means possible; their respective contributions, ‘In Purgatory’ and ‘Horse Overboard’ have aged like fine wines. Miaow’s ‘Fate’ has also cruised the intervening years smoothly, endowed with cheeky organ and Cath Carroll’s lush voice.

Disc Two has less heralded acts except for Primal Scream who were to swap the twee leanings of ‘All Fall Down’ for Rolling Stones impressions and Del Amitri who already sounded very conventional. There are stand-out tracks courtesy of The Snakes of Shake, the superior indie pop of The Passmore Sisters and Benny Profane who in taking their name from Thomas Pynchon’s novel ‘V’ indicated their literary leanings. ‘Shopping City’ by Headhunters sees ex-Swell Map, Jowe Head, up to mischief with sprawling sax and piano jostling a wayward pop song. The Band of Holy Joy provide welcome stylistic variety with the kitchen-sink, urban-folk of ‘Consumption’. There is amusement to be gained from The Kamikaze Pilots’ simultaneously lovelorn and jokey ‘Sharon Signs To Cherry Red’ ending up on the label all these years later.

Disc Three sounds by far the most startling featuring abrasive, angular acts, often from the Ron Johnson or In Tape labels, who would be categorised as Death To Trad Rock bands in John Robb’s book of that title. Appropriately, Robb’s band, The Membranes and their growling bass, are featured with ‘I Am Fish Eye’. Pig Bros, who went on to collaborate with the Membranes on a cover of Cameo’s ’Word Up’ here offer ‘Excessive’, one of the most rhythmic tracks, a tale of religion and alcohol. Age of Chance’s ‘Bible of the Beats’ still leaps from the speakers with its crashing Motown beat, trebly and twangy guitars and mob orator, Steve Elvidge’s, loudhailer vocals. Big Flame epitomised the best qualities of the period: a trio taking their name from a feminist movement, they released 3 track 7” EPs of scratchy guitars, manic rhythms and cryptic but pointed lyrics. Their songs rarely lasted much over 2 minutes and their career likewise felt like a short, sharp series of revolutionary strikes. They burnt brightly and ‘All the Irish (Must Go To Heaven)’ encapsulates their charms, a band that still inspire the desire to cavort with abandon. Bogshed prompted Peel to coin the term ‘shambling’ and regret it, Mike Bryson’s scampering bassline and Phil Hartley’s peculiar vocals and unusual song topics put them at the scene’s pinnacle; ‘Fat Lad Exam Failure’ sounds comical yet raises the issue of fat-shaming in a pre-Lizzo body positivity era. The Janitors’ ‘Chicken Stew’ is propelled by slide guitar and drum machine to produce a nourishing serving of goodness. Nose Flutes felt like one of the more impenetrable acts of the era but now the Beefheart guitar and violin loops of ‘Girth’ reveal themselves as an impressive proposition. There are also excellent tracks by A Witness, Yeah Yeah Noh’s Joe Orton referencing ‘Prick Up Your Ears’ and Stitched-Back Foot Airman. In contrast, Bob Hope To Die’s name lingered longer in the memory than their sub-Birthday Party rumblings. Unexpectedly, The Stone Roses close the compilation. They were not on my radar in 1985 with good reason as the band’s psychedelia-tinged rock was shambolic and karaoke howling anti-vaxxer buffoon Ian Brown was as ever showing only passing acquaintance with a tune.

As a representation of 1985, C85 is predominantly white, male and guitar dominated, the instrumentation probably limited by the economics of the time and the expense of accessing technology. Within those confines, many groups were pushing the limits of sound to create thrilling music which fed into my manic and slightly unhinged adolescent connection with music.  C85 sparks those memories but also the acknowledgement that 1985 was not a unique time for music and that 2022 offers easier access to a wider variety of exciting sounds.

Various Artists: C85 – Out 21st October 2022 (Cherry Red Records)

I was editor of the long-running fanzine, Plane Truth, and have subsequently written for a number of publications. While the zine was known for championing the most angular independent sounds, performing in recent years with a community samba percussion band helped to broaden my tastes so that in 2021 I am far more likely to be celebrating an eclectic mix of sounds and enthusing about Made Kuti, Anthony Joseph, Little Simz and the Soul Jazz Cuban compilations as well as Pom Poko and Richard Dawson.