Saturday 9 January 2016

The DIY revolution is on

When The Clean’s Vehicle hit its 25th anniversary last year, I wondered what might replace it as the most influential album on the indie underground of the last 25 years.

There were two contenders: Belle and Sebastian’s Tigermilk and Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand. I still love both of those albums to distraction, but it’s clear that Bee Thousand’s explosive lo-fi and creative way of fucking up perfectly good pop songs is today’s touchstone.

Indiepop’s decline and fall
What Belle and Sebastian did in 1996 was breathe life into a UK scene that had been pootling along for the best part of a decade. Indiepop’s mid-80s utilitarianism and inclusive ethics had a new figurehead. People who had been into that music returned; a lot more new fans came along and, crucially, a lot of new bands formed.

The flipside of this was a new history was written. I can hardly fault fans’ enthusiasm, but critical control was sacrificed to the fierce protectiveness of anything deemed ‘indiepop’. Bands whose one flexidisc in 1988 was awful at the time reformed and were welcomed back, no questions asked.

Indiepop adopted the same rites as heavy metal - any act from the past was held up in high regard, no matter how woeful they were, no matter that their reformation was more a case of mid-life crisis played out in public than the second coming.

A lot of indiepop gigs have become a closed shop where every band is preaching to the converted. The scene went from inclusive non-conformism to historical re-enactment society where all bands conform to an immoveable ideal.

How could a band like Evans The Death break through when they were playing on these bills? They couldn’t.

One young band recently explained that their ambition wasn’t to play to ‘middle-aged men in a field in Derbyshire’. I’ve not been to Indietracks - many of my friends go every year and I’ve heard great things about it - but I understand the perception that indiepop is now seen as part of the revivalist circuit rather than anything new and exciting.

Carrie Brownstein recognised similar problems in the USA when Sleater-Kinney signed to Kill Rock Stars in 1997:

“A movement [punk] that professed inclusiveness seemed to actually be highly exclusive, as alienating and ungraspable as many of the clubs and institutions that drove us to the fringes in the first place. One set of rules had simply been replaced by new ones, and they were just as difficult to follow."

Scenes need a figurehead
It’s unrealistic to think of Belle and Sebastian as an indiepop band now. Depending on your viewpoint, they moved on after either The Boy With The Arab Strap or Fold Your Hands. I’d never expect a band to make the same record for their entire career. Would The Go-Betweens or Felt have been half as magical if in the 80s they’d repeated the same tricks? Of course not.

The best bands in a genre are usually those with the most ideas. They move on to new styles. You don’t have to go with them, but if you only like one style of music, you’re going to get left behind and no one new will want to join your scene.

There are, I think, two bands who since B&S very nearly transcended indiepop’s scene and crossed over. Firstly, the Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, who wore their C86 influences brightly and boldly on their debut album. Their debut was everything they wanted it to be; they then followed up with something they wanted to be - a 90s crossover alternative rock band.

Allo Darlin’s rise from back-room-of-a-pub beginners to selling out 1,000-capacity venues was a joy to experience. Their mix of romance, insecurity and smart pop tunes brought many new fans. There were no other indie gigs I went to where 16-year-old girls were singing along and watching the band with adoration.

Perhaps it was this increasing support that led Benetton to offer them a lot of money for an advert. The sort of money where you can give up your day job for at least a year. I don’t know why Elizabeth Morris declined the offer - Benetton’s adverts aren’t always that palatable - but I hugely respect her for turning it down.

Major label interest and money
If this was the 1990s, Allo Darlin would have been offered a major label deal. I don’t know if they’ll make another record, but if they do it’ll be on an indie.

In the late 90s the majors signed bands like Hepburn, Madasun and Thunderbugs in a misconceived attempt to package The Spice Girls as Oasis, or mix All Saints with Alanis Morissette, in one commercially successful band.

The Tuts and Colour Me Wednesday would definitely have been picked up by majors if they’d been around in the 90s. The Tuts do have a fancy pants management deal, but the absence of major label cash has freed them from compromise.

Why, though, would The Tuts, for example, call themselves indiepop when they could call themselves punk or DIY? They wouldn’t and they don’t.

Guided By Voices’ 4 Ps
Robert Pollard has made a career out of what he calls the ‘4 Ps’: pop, punk, prog, psych. Bee Thousand’s scattergun approach - lots of short, sharp songs, no compromise - is part of its greatness. Another part is its freedom of expression - you can do punk and prog if you want, in the same 90-second song.

There are dozens of musical subgenres now. There could be 4 subgenres on a gig with 4 bands. That’s DIY. Sure, fame will probably only visit them if they become serial killers, but that’s always been the way.

DIY figurehead
This pretty loosely bound DIY scene will only break through if it has a figurehead, a band that appeals to a much larger audience.

The contender is Sheer Mag, whose gutsy, scratchily recorded punk is anthemic enough and steeped in 70s rock heroics of Free, Thin Lizzy and Lynyrd Skynyrd to appeal to a much larger audience.

I hear the same influences in new British bands like Ay Carmela!, most of what Emma Kupa’s done and is doing, and now you mention it didn’t Belle and Sebastian cover Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back In Town and then rip them off for I’m A Cuckoo? Sure they did.

Indiepop has always been a broader church than some fans will admit.

DIY is another name for indie
Because indie stopped meaning something 20 years ago during Britpop. Because some indie subgenres like indiepop have painted themselves into a corner. Because the major labels can’t even spell DIY.

The thing is, the indie underground is a moveable feast because the old barriers between genres don’t exist. Which is what The Clean foresaw in 1989 when they recorded Vehicle drawing on Flying Nun labelmates like Snapper's krautrock, Straitjacket Fits' garage rock and The Verlaines' chaotic symphonies to make a genius pop record.

DIY doesn’t recognise the many subgenres, new or old. There are so many exciting bands coming through, all of them on tiny labels, releasing small runs of tapes or 7"s, on their own or with bands with the same spirit rather than the same influences. 

This isn't an entirely new situation - see the post-punk scene, or the variety of the C86 compilation - but it's great to see the return of adventure and excitement and potential. If it’s rich with blood and alive and exciting, it’s called DIY. Everyone’s welcome. People look different, nothing sounds the same. And this might be your new anthem:

Dude, it’s all about Weezer
What links bands as disparate as most of the Art Is Hard roster, Allo Darlin’ and The Transistors? All influenced by Weezer. You could say Weezer’s Pinkerton is the most influential album on the indie underground of the last 25 years. You might be right.

You might be even more right if you think there’s no defining album on the indie underground of the last 25 years. But if I’m picking one, I’m picking Bee Thousand.


  1. Interesting. Thank you.

  2. Releasing music based on ethics and quality is indeed a revolution these days. Nice article!