Last time out on this site, without too much success, we attempted to dig a little deeper into notions of goth. Scratching around for a definition, some route straight through all that dry ice.
Which kind of got me thinking; is it any easier to agree the characteristics of something wider? Indie, perhaps? Indie-pop, indie-rock, indie disco, indie-schmindie (the latter very much the pejorative). For whilst goth, I think it’s fair say, is a subset – a reference point arrived at by working through the tangibles whilst discarding all else – teasing out the detail constituting indie feels decidedly more challenging.
This despite a formal definition lurking within the margins of how such terminology arrived at. If punk has a legacy, then it’s less to do with the records (many of which were terrible) than an almost ideological rejection of music industry as corporate device. The development of an independent, do-it-yourself culture, outside (at least in principal) the machinations of a major label system long since dismissed as bloated, decadent, and unrepresentative.
Circumventing conventional music biz institutions is as old as the music biz itself, but the late-70’s witnessed a proliferation in organic intent; aesthetics that thrived well into the 80’s, and have waxed and waned as the industry’s evolved ever since. The tales are oft-told, and don’t particularly need reheating here – go look up Sniffin’ Glue, Geoff Travis, Spiral Scratch, Postcard Records, ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’, Wilson, Gretton, bloody McGee (etc), should all this read as the irrelevant gibberish of a lost civilisation; the point being that disenfranchised youth became way less dependent upon the mainstream to deliver a hit record or that musical fix.
Also – initially at least – indie (née independent) was far more to do with how that fix was distributed, rather than our (music press) overlords defining the specifics of sound. ‘Where’s Captain Kirk?’ by Spizzenergi may have been the first #1 single on the emergent UK Independent Chart (Jan 1980) – broadly indie in sound and very much independent in how the vinyl journeyed to record store – but when I reveal UB40 to be the second chart topper, you’ll get a taste of how far definitions have since shifted.
(And yes; I’m aware that early UB40 were a very different proposition from the anodyne musak shit-cans they subsequently became, but that’s not the point).
My naïve, teenage revolutionary self remains quite smitten with the concept that signing to a major label equates to selling out. And as the ’80’s unravelled, the Independent Chart becoming increasingly synonymous with the guitar-based rackets comprising many of its entries, so (I imagine) did the the major labels themselves; it never takes long for capital to sniff out a quick buck, just as it wasn’t a shock when those music conglomerates started using the independent scene as a nursery – signing up acts to long-term deals once they’d broken through, establishing imprints that looked and smelled independent (but were anything but), and waving their chequebooks at those Anarcho-syndicalist impresarios who operated from bedrooms instead of boardrooms (especially when the financial gloom descended, and the big boys got to pounce on remaining flesh).
In other words, channelling concepts of indie is as much about permutations of time as anything else. Beyond anoraks and puritans, I doubt that many of us care about the provenance of studio costs, marketing budgets, the intern sent out to score the coke – and the big record companies always knew this. Hence muscling in on independent territory became a logical step, to the point where those idealistic notions of alternatively-delivered and alternately-intentioned sounds became so blurred, indie as definition became all about characteristic styling, rather than the shareholders (or lack of them) eager to see a return on investments. After all, there are reasons why the Manic Street Preachers circa Generation Terrorists received far less flak regarding their paymasters than The Clash, despite both being signed to CBS/Columbia.
(For the sake of balance, I should also point out that the indie label scene had and has its fair share of shysters, hoodlums and flibbertigibbets lurking in the background. People being highly proficient at being arseholes, no matter the context).
And so much for the history lesson. There would have been a tipping point, of course – the day that indie became defined by what it sounded like rather than origins of source – but I’ve no idea when that was. That’s the trouble with indie; in the genre politik it’s become something of an umbrella term. Synonymous with “alternative”, but alternative to what? Just for fun, I typed in the words “indie” and “bands” into my search engine of choice; I was hoping for names such as Talulah Gosh, Young Marble Giants, Arab Strap, Ride…
Instead, the first acts mentioned were Arctic Monkeys, Arcade Fire, The Strokes, The Black Keys, and (almost inevitably) the risible Mumford & Sons – very much a cavalcade of what I’d imagine Jools Holland considers to be indie when he’s not busy flogging us festive shit in his discount supermarket adverts.
Were you to strip out the folk, the electronica, the odd slice of classic rock (mostly Bowie and late 60’s Rolling Stones) and the all-out pop from my record collection, you’d still be left with a good 85%/90% I’d consider as indie. None of whom sell out stadia when on tour (Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails don’t count, yeah?). Hence the disconnect, I guess; a problematic nature behind classification, and how such a bastardised Dewey Decimal has been shanghaied by planetary notions that can’t help but hurtle unremittingly into the future. To define indie falls prey to the subjective; the terminology feels hollow, somehow, as if my application of the word differs profusely from many others.
So; if indie functions as anything, then perhaps it does so as spirit rather than a rigid formulation of jangly guitars and fey lyrics. A way of explaining shared attributes amidst the flux of fashions. Bedrooms, not boardrooms…
And a phrase such as bedrooms, not boardrooms appeals – specifically because it implies a democratisation of what it is we listen to. Kids the world over are making music in their dens and boltholes, and once again its the method of distribution that’s the telling factor (even if I’ll save the argument that the internet is the twentieth century’s greatest invention for another time). The new independent; and good luck to the spotty oiks; I hope they craft something as fine as ‘Drive’ by The Primitives (a band who first appeared on an indie label, then experienced their greatest success when picked up by just another evil corporation). As magnificent as anything by Prolapse (indie to major imprint, then back to indie). The Wedding Present, The Pastels, Camera Obscura, Beirut – you catch my drift. The sounds of new indie may be very, very different to that played at the indie discos of my own wasted youth – but you can guarantee they’ll be equally as vital.
Below the words: ‘All of a Tremble’ by St Christopher. Sarah Records, 1989, and very much an indie archetype as I see it. Wear fringes floppy…