independent – of what?


TV “List programmes” are always annoying and the recent BBC4 effort “The Seven Ages of Rock” was no exception. The usual array of self-serving industry talkingheads rubbed shoulders with “I was there” merchants, which left very little scope for anything fresh or current or subversive to leak through. I guess there is so much commercial mileage in ROCK that experimentation with the narrative or format is out of the question. Hell, some of the audience might even head down to a record shop or fire up Amazon afterwards to reacquire that long lost album! You don’t want to scare them off, right?

I found the final episode about “indie” particularly galling. I hate the current usage of the term with a vengeance. Situationist one-upmanship aside, this has to be one of the most frustrating (and inevitable) examples of something experimental and open being clawed back by corporations.

Indie used to mean… anything! When I first saw a copy of the indie chart in one of the inkie music papers in the mid-80s it took me ages to figure out what it meant. Initially I thought it was about Indian music, possibly because it was alongside charts for soul, reggae and/or african music. But those titles – everything from Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel to Bogshed to The Sisters of Mercy to… whatever.

Rob Young - Rough Trade (Black Dog Publishing)

Reading Rob Young’s book on Rough Trade recently, I was reminded again of the sheer diversity of sounds that the post-punk scene threw up, and also of the ideology behind it all. A certain commitment to experimentation, subversion, of being in some way distinct from and opposed to the mainstream (whilst being obssessed with it). An admiration of other ‘outsider’ cultures such as reggae (Rough Trade releasing some great records by Augustus Pablo and Horace Andy, for example) and hip hop. Maybe even internationalism.

The BBC prog didn’t try to tackle this. Instead it simply dived in at Oasis’ massive Knebworth gig and back-filled from there.


So according to the programme, “Indie” sprang into the world with The Smiths and then proceeded via Madchester to Britpop. There were some slightly embarrassed asides about this then leading to Coldplay and Jamie Oliver’s “Music To Cook By” CD. Of course, everyone knows that “indie” is all basically about white blokes with guitars now, but y’know, some people take the bland stadium thing too far, yeah?

Even on its own terms the programme failed to cover the great female bands of the period adequately. But y’know – “indie” is about lads, innit? Lads and beers and guitars. Keep repeating that mantra and all the other music will vanish…

A more honest look at “indie” could have started with the NME C86 compilation, or maybe even with the Postcard Label. Now, that may have complicated things because there might be acts which varied from the “indie” template and y’know some of them might have slightly radical ideas about music or politics (another timeline to draw is how the opposition to Thatcherism changed into support for New Labour and visits to Downing Street), but hey, worth a shot? No?

John Peel reppin’ Headbutt

OK, then. Simply start with one radio presenter.

The spectre haunting “indie” is John Peel. He barely got a look in on the programme. Perhaps because the connections with Oasis were somewhat tenuous. But perhaps also because there is a whole weight of post punk and other music lurking in the Peel wardrobe that can’t be let out in case it ruins the “indie” game. I mean, you wouldn’t want The Bundhu Boys and The Sewer Zombies showing up and spoiling the party, would you?

This narrowing is what really annoys me. More, I think, than the idea that independent can become “indie”. There is something truly radical in the idea that you would get shoe gazers talking about Peel playing Fela Kuti and Bolt-thrower. That Peel could play happy hardcore and jungle and The Fall and Duane Eddy. Of course, there was a lot wrong there as well, but the idea that Peel can now be nicely repackaged as an avuncular eccentric uncle is enraging for people like me who actually listened to his shows for years – originally on headphones under the bedclothes, in the dark, with the tape on pause.

And it wasn’t just Peel – people actually bought all these mad records. Because they were looking for something, because they meant something.

This is not, I hasten to add, to take anything away from people who like a beer and a laugh and a singalong. The kids are (as ever) alright. Seeing The Smiths on Top of The Pops was great at the time and great to be reminded of. The Stone Roses and Suede still sound fantastic. The whole acid house crossover with Madchester is a fine example of, well, all sorts of things. The strings in “Wonderwall” still do it for me – stuff like that will stand the test of time.


But… what really fucks me off is a bunch of commentators and journalists packaging history for everyone. Again. That ROCK needs to be documented, again, above other things. That the central image of the programme needed to be Noel Gallagher driving a Rolls Royce into Knebworth to check it out. And don’t get me started on all that shit about people having “lost their way” and the music being a wonderful example of people being able to be “essentially British again” – at a time when jungle was kicking off!

Here are some Indie Charts for you. They are just from the back issues of the New Musical Express I couldn’t flog on ebay, but will probably explain the above much better than I ever could. Click on the thumbnails for the image.

ind1.jpgNME January 1984

ind2.jpgNME November 1984

ind3.jpgNME July 1985

With thanks to:


  1. One of the most nauseating consequences of the ‘Peel legacy’ is the sheer tedium of the tribute comps – a few punk tracks, a bit of indie, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and the inevitable Fall and Undertones tracks. Yeah, great, but what about Bastard Kestrel, Cornershop (mk 1), Sylford Walker, Drain, LSD Technology, Keuhkot, The Fondled, Machine Gun TV, Extreme Noise Terror, Prolapse, Simbleton & Quincy Bones, Fad, Tuff to the Bone, Anhrefen (sp?) and the myriad other nutters, chancers and genius lunatics he unleashed on the airwaves like a phalanx of flying monkeys? Mind you, I’m still a bit miffed he never replied to a letter I sent him 13 years ago asking about a recording of some girls pouring water over an African drum while thumping it and giggling in the background…

  2. Hey Jon

    I first started listening to Peel when I was 16, after buying NME for the Hip Hop and finding his charts in the back. I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of his shows, they kind of reminded me of a bit in Rap Attack where David Toop talks about Bambaata mixing up Kraftwerk and Malcolm X speeches at parties – well, not really but … sort of. That eclectism has always been a big musical template for me. Coldcut’s Kiss FM were the other big ones for this.

    Anyway here’s something I wrote on Barbelith about all this historification that you might find interesting:

  3. This reminds me of a Japanese TV special on On U Sound a while back that spent far too much time on New Age Steppers and Ari Up and barely touched the rest of the spectrum of the label.

  4. Ah, Prolapse (drifts off… )

    actually, the only part of your otherwise pretty much note-perfect post i’d take issue with is your blanket condemnation of these sorts of programmes. You only have to look back to last year’s (or 2005’s?) Soul Deep series to find intelligence, subject-empathy, depth, range, engagement and a story not often told. True, it rushed the end a bit but those initial episodes about Ray Charles, about the birth of Motown and Stax and the like, stand amongst the best television I’ve ever seen. The slightly less recent Lost Highway was also pretty good on country – although perhaps a little more hurried, and the 90s gave us the excellent Dancing In The Streets.

    This kind of TV can be done well, and usually by the BBC. Sadly, this recent series did, as you correctly point out, suck balls

  5. Martin – yes, John Peel has come to mean cosyness and “Teenage Kicks” by The Undertones, basically. That *collision* of stuff on his show was amazing tho, formative stuff for loads of people.

    Danny – yeah I remember Peel playing pretty obscure hip hop himself before it got massive with I guess the Def Jam stuff. Will check that link but I can never figure out who is you on there. 😉

    Mr Pressor – I’m impressed there was an On-U docu, but yeah that sounds like the exact same thing!

    Dub – I agree, there was also a great reggae thing on a few years back too! But I think I was trying to demean “7 stages” by sitting it alongside those “100 things about 1983” list programmes that get churned out, not the proper stuff 🙂

  6. these charts and most of the better, less pigeon holed stuff i think yre talking about was what we had stateside as “college rock”. back when college stations here were a force to recon with, they played a lot of great stuff. i don’t remember ever hearing the term indie, other than as a label. i think. it was a long time ago. 🙂

  7. well the indie thing was such a UK phenomenon, to the the extent that bands – US and UK – would sign major label deals quite happily in the US but made sure they stayed on labels at least nominally indie in the UK as if it were some kind of article of faith, but really they simply wanted to accrue any remaining credibility ‘indiedom’ offered

  8. Good column John, good analysis, and reading about all of these ( absolutely horrible ) bands reminds me why I more or less stopped listening to rock of any description around 1982.

  9. I think that’s a shame Greg – ‘rock’ (if by rock you mean guitar based music) still has a huge amount to offer, at least on the fringes. Such year zeros always strike me as a little odd.

  10. I can’t watch anymore of these documentaries – I saw this one and some of the earlier episodes as well as a Don Letts one on the spirit of punk. Sometimes you see a few moments of footage that makes it almost worthwhile but mostly its same old talking heads retelling the same narrative. It reminds me of being a kid and having to watch endless people going on about the war – its taken me 30 years to recover and to finally begin to empathise with what it must have been like to live in London in the Blitz. If I was 14 now I am sure I would be equally sick of the punk wars, let alone the Blur/Oasis marketing spat. Yes and where were the women? Elastica were loads better than most of the other Britpop outfits let alone all the riot grrl stuff that was going on elsewere.

  11. I agree Dubversion — You are right — perhaps I was expresing my self in too broad “brushstrokes” — I am indeed, a major fan of almost all sub genres of rock/blues/jazz right from the 1900’s up until say, 1982, and very occasionally, I still hear something after that period I like, but I just find most of it so derivative and trapped in the mainstream consciousness, which tends to draw the life bloood out of it, and sap creativity.

    All IMHO/FWIW of course.

    But yes, you are right, I take on board what you say about my sweeping statement.

    But truth be known, I’d far rather listen to almost any genuine stab at creativity and originality, however flawed and fumbled, than listen to what passes for blues based/guitar based/post punk related “rock” of the last 25 years.


    PS Transpotine, you are spot on.

  12. Re Transpontine’s ‘blitz comment’ – ha ha, that’s exactly what it’s like. I remember some punk doc, maybe 10 years ago, possibly an Arena show, which had Jordan in a taxi, wearing a flowing white robe (looked like a kaftan), tutting about young people ‘today’ having no style or sense of rebellion – you just thought, “Even Mary Whitehouse wasn’t this po-faced”.

  13. Greg –

    “But truth be known, I’d far rather listen to almost any genuine stab at creativity and originality, however flawed and fumbled, than listen to what passes for blues based/guitar based/post punk related “rock” of the last 25 years.”

    but again, you’re implying that guitar based ‘rock’ is devoid of such qualities – you’ve substituted one sweeping statement for another…

    but perhaps this is the wrong thread 🙂

    anyway – Prolapse 🙂

  14. excellent post and top notch comments (it’ll never catch on)
    strangely enough was having a very similar discussion in the last 24 hours, down here on the other side of the world (NZ), re the homogenisation of indie as a term, and the oversimplification of the peel ‘legacy industry’. briefly, it came about after interviewing stuart moxham for the YMG re-issue on Domino and that had set me back to thinking about how open minded and gloriously un-fettered by genre considerations and other trivialities, a lot of music buyers were back then. I think you hit the nail on the head John when you say that people were actually looking for something, which is why they bought those mad records. Nowadays they aren’t looking but expecting, and they generally get what they deserve, which is rarely a surprise or short, sharp shock to the sensibilities.
    documentary revisionism and (to a lesser extent) re-issue culture have a lot to answer for, they have commodified and classified everything to the point where the most fertile and important parts, the fringes, have been written out. we haven’t had the 7 ages of rockasaurus or whatever it’s called down here yet, but it sounds like they have managed to marginalise a lot more than just the interesting edges.

  15. ///but again, you’re implying that guitar based ‘rock’ is devoid of such qualities – you’ve substituted one sweeping statement for another…///

    Well, I guess I will just have to come out of the closet and admit, I hate post 1982 rock music! That’s the truth of it, sweeping statement or not! I’d rather listen to anything than guitar music post very early 80’s. That doesn’t mean I am limited to reggae/dub/funk though — I listen to anything and everything else — except rock music. I have to be honest, and say I haven’t heard anything which would change my mind on that point.

  16. You lucky sod (Dub), I never got round to seeing them live – I heard Rhythmic Doorstep Bloc for the first time in yonks the other day (on their myspace site) and got a right lump in the larynx – how can anyone lionise Sonic Youth but ignore this classic?

  17. Or Doorstep Rhythmic Bloc even…sorry, bit hungover, was drinking with John last night (he was trying to get me drunk enough to lend him money)

  18. Still, we met the Stoke Newington rastaman and his white spiv mate, trying to flog us ‘crucial’ CD-Rs outside the Butchers (the white bloke hadn’t heard of Ninjaman)

  19. I can vaguely remember turning the tables on that bloke so that suddenly I was boring HIM about Jah Shaka.

  20. no, no, no – back to Prolapse.

    Must have seen them 12 times. To me, they were what speed sounded like – a monotonous drone with a fractious argument on top. 🙂

    A truly legendary band who jacked it all in to go back to archaelogy 🙁

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