"You know that album you wanted for Christmas? Well, I have to say, I've been round and round looking for it. HMV, Our Price, Woolworths... I went everywhere, and nobody's heard of Indie Top. And your brother's been looking, he can't find anything by that band either. You don't half listen to some obscure things, we couldn't even get any albums by Indie Top in on order. Who the bloody hell are they?" - My Mum, sometime around 1987.
If you're a millennial who has been through your teenage years having access to music on demand online, it's going to be very difficult to understand just how tough things were in the eighties and early nineties if you wanted to hear anything other than chart music.
If you lived outside a major city in Britain, chances are you only had a few choices open to you on the radiogram for pop and rock - Radio One or BBC/ Independent Local Radio. All of these stations had very conservative playlists, and while daytime Radio One often got short shrift in the mid-eighties for playing more MOR and AOR than a youth-orientated station should have done, its choices were downright anarchic compared to most of the local stations. Their playlists were not only shorter and blander, they also appeared to change very infrequently, meaning on Essex Radio in particular (my hometown favourite) you seemingly had to wait for nearly a year for Boy Meets Girl's "Waiting For A Star To Fall" to budge an inch from your daily airplay diet. Now, I've nothing particularly against "Waiting For A Star To Fall" - it's frothy, joyous pop, and it probably sounded good the first thirty times I heard it. I just can't help it if the next two hundred plays pushed me over the edge. Familiarity breeds distress.
Nor would I really want to dismiss all pop music of the period, but if you wanted to hear something of a different flavour, you had only a few choices. One was to wait for evening Radio One when Janice Long or John Peel would come on air (and Peel was often shunted around the schedules and on LATE in the week for a lot of this period, which was a shitter if you had school in the morning and your parents used to check you actually had gone to bed - and mine were wise to my behaviour. I can't help but think that most of the people who claimed to listen to Peel religiously as teenage schoolchildren were perhaps more restricted than they're letting on). Another was to try and catch "The Tube" or the indie chart rundowns on "The Chart Show", or "Snub TV" for the brief period it existed. If you were really daring, you could actually read about non-mainstream bands in the music press and gamble some money on them if they sounded particularly good. Apart from that? Nothing.
And even when you did manage to hear some material that lit up your world, not only could the records be difficult to find in small-town Britain, when you did find them you couldn't possibly afford them all. Not on that paltry paper-round money you'd earned during the week. This was precisely the dilemma I regularly found myself in, until one day in the eighties I was fumbling through the indie compilations rack at my local HMV, and I stumbled on volume four of the "Indie Top 20" series. There, on one single slab on vinyl, sat a whole run of singles which had been on my wants list for some time (Wire's "Kidney Bingos", The Wedding Present's "Nobody's Twisting Your Arm", The Cardiacs "Is This The Life", The Shamen's "Knature of A Girl") plus some others I at least liked or was curious to hear. It retailed comparatively cheaply, and I rushed to the checkout with it under my arms. It started an addiction which would last until the mid-nineties.
This became problematic and faintly socially unacceptable after a time. The "Indie Top 20" series ended up being seen (certainly in my town, and judging by the letters pages of the music mags, beyond) as being a prissy and puritanical thing, the reserve of indie snobs who insisted that their primarily guitar-based alternative music was better than any other being made at that time. The run-out grooves of the albums frequently featured messages such as "Now... THAT'S... What... I Call Music!" across the four sides, cocking a very deliberate snook at the more affectionately remembered (and certainly more popular) mainstream compilation series on Virgin/ EMI. When Telstar issued an indie compilation LP in 1990 confusingly entitled "Rave", the windows of their offices became filled with bill-stickered Indie Top 20 posters in some kind of anti-major label protest. Series co-owner Chet Selwood insisted that it wasn't anything to do with him, and it was probably the actions of an irate fan of the albums who felt Telstar were encroaching on their territory (not a terribly convincing story, I have to say. Where would the fan have got all those advertising bills from? Robbed them from Selwood's offices without him noticing?)
It's important to remember that such hardline snobbery, ridiculous as it seems now, didn't emerge in a vacuum. People become entrenched and territorial in increasingly silly ways the more marginalised they feel their tastes are, until the battle lines become drawn along lines of "us versus the mainstream". It's an age-old story. Naturally, music historians are keen to point out that British indie during this period was actually often reactionary, retrograde and conservative compared to a lot of emerging Dance music, but it's important to remember that initially, a lot of that music also formed part of the indie chart and some of the earliest Indie Top 20 albums, not to mention the evening radio playlists. In fact, an entire volume entitled "Indie Top 20: House" emerged in the mid-eighties, though for reasons I found problematic at the time, and still find iffy now - we'll come on to that subject eventually on this blog.
If you were a real indie snob, of course, you bought all the records on vinyl with the allowance your lawyer/ accountant/ doctor/ dentist/ architect/ "quality stock" parents gave you, and had no truck with cut-price compilations. If you didn't come from that kind of background but still fancied having an elitist outlook, you could tell yourself that the "Indie Top 20" series dripped with authenticity anyway. If only you had known who was behind them. "Indie Top 20" initially seemed to present itself as a series created and compiled by enthusiasts, with its scruffy minimal sleeves and the liner note sign-off "compiled by Chet and Bee", two individuals too matey to bother with surnames. Chet and Bee, I always imagined, were probably a couple in their early twenties, maybe also ran a fanzine, were almost certainly students, and pulled together these albums with little more than a phone line and a notebook and pen, dealing with tiny indie labels around the country in a co-operative way. In reality, Chet and Bee were the son and daughter of music industry "mover and shaker" Clive Selwood, a man who had been a highly successful Marketing Director at CBS and Pye in the seventies. Selwood did have alternative kudos as well, acting as John Peel's manager and owner of Strange Fruit records, and also having had a history at the UK branch of Elektra Records and co-owner of the well-meaning Dandelion Records. Nonetheless, it's safe to say that Chet and Bee had a friendly ear to call on to give them marketing and sales advice and introduce them to key people, and perhaps weren't operating on the same level as some of the naive young hopefuls who ran the labels who featured on the series. Bee had even had her own Pye distributed single out in 1978, a cover of Sandie Shaw's "Girl Don't Come", which is now almost impossible to find.
Whatever our perceptions of the series now or the people behind it, it felt like one of very few lifelines to another world for me as a teenager, and while my fondness for it depleted with age - the older I got and the more money I had in the bank, the less important it became as a guide to alternative music - I still get a Proustian rush when I pull some of the earliest Indie Top 20 albums out of my record collection. I can remember exactly where I was when I bought most of them, sometimes even what I was wearing, and what I was looking forward to hearing at home. They were as big a part of my childhood as the Now albums are to some other people and as there's no blog available for them online, I thought I should make a start.
The rules will be simple. Each blog entry will either be one side of an Indie Top 20 vinyl LP, or, for ones which weren't issued on vinyl, five tracks taken in order. Any more than that and I'll get tired very quickly and you'll get bored. Each album will be taken in order of release, and there will be no illegal downloads up for offer here, with us falling back on YouTube or Spotify instead. Almost all of these tracks are still commercially available, so there seems to be no real point in offering them up to download for nothing.
Are you with me? Or am I talking to myself?