1. The Beatmasters Featuring The Cookie Crew - Rok Da House (Rhythm King)
If it feels far too early to be talking about "Rok Da House", you're not completely mistaken - it was originally issued in July 1987 but only became a proper chart hit in January 1988 after constant club exposure kept the track alive and growing in popularity. So effectively, the Indie Top 20 series was getting access to a bona fide proper chart hit a few months early. I have no idea whether its presence had a knock-on effect on the compilation's sales during the dying months of 1987 before the track became properly commercially available again, but it surely can't have hurt.
Anyway, "Rok Da House" was considered quite unusual at the time in that it took the London Hip-Hop duo Cookie Crew and got them to front a House single. At that time, neither House nor Hip-Hop purists were usually favourable about the streams being crossed, and it was occasionally referenced as either a bold and brilliant move or an incredibly stupid one.
Indeed, whether it was actually fortuitous or damning for The Cookie Crew is open to debate. They had won a national rap championship and appeared in session on John Peel's show prior to this, and had a certain underground kudos - once "Rok Da House" became a massive Top 5 hit, though, they were pushed by record labels in an increasingly poppy direction they felt uncomfortable with, and they eventually quit in frustration.
From a purely selfish point of view, "Rok Da House" was an enormously uplifting single at the time, and still sounds like huge fun even today. The Beatmasters fill the track with endless dramatic effects, from stomping beats to synthetic fanfares and processed vocals, as well as a killer piano hook. It sounds attention-grabbing and engineered for success, which is why it's so surprising it sat underground for so long. While House music was becoming big chart news in 1987, a lot of it did bubble away for months before rising into the consciousness of the mainstream.
2. The Beloved - Forever Dancing (Flim Flam)
Arguably, The Beloved were unbelievably ahead of the curve here. By accident or design, many of the elements of "Forever Dancing" sound like the beginnings of Indie Dance, and when this was later compiled on to the first "Best of Indie Top 20" compilation LP sandwiched between The Soup Dragons "Mother Universe" and a New Order club remix, it sounded at home despite having been recorded years before either of them. Everything about the sound of "Forever Dancing" screams major-label-indie-dance-signings-of-1989... which, quite naturally, The Beloved later became.
In reality, Jon Marsh probably wasn't a seer so much as a person who drank from the same electronic dance pool as New Order, and was almost certainly looking to create dancefloor friendly pop hits, not cult indie tunes. "Forever Dancing", for all its foresightedness (accidental or otherwise) really isn't The Beloved at their finest, either - some of their later singles were rich with atmosphere or had tons of pop smarts, whereas this is a moody groove which sulks and struts along without really making any firm impression. Their sound is identifiably in place, though, and it would put them in very good stead in a couple of years time... just not in 1987. And for an indication of their early struggles, it's worth noting that absolutely none of their indie singles made the top ten of the indie charts, with "Forever Dancing" peaking at number 15, and the two singles preceding it only getting as far as number 22.
3. The Chesterfields - Ask Johnny Dee (Subway)
I can never decide if the opening lyrics to this song are pure genius or the most John Shuttleworthesque words ever committed to a modern release. "If you'd like to know what pop stars have for tea/ ask Johnny Dee!" trill the group, singing about the not-particularly-famous (and still active) music journalist of the same name. Certainly from Johnny Dee's point of view, the lyrics are probably marvellous, so that's one critic they had on side straight away. One would imagine a conflict of interests prevented him from reviewing the single.
"Ask Johnny Dee" is a gleeful piece of indiepop, and while you could easily imagine it occupying a key space in an early sixties British teen flick (doubtless with The Chesterfields playing in a kitchen or living room after declaring "Hey! I've got an idea for a song!" while Johnny Dee smiles and nods approvingly with a cup of tea in the background) it's so irrepressible that it's impossible not to love. And inevitably, with lines like "Do you want to know who's number one in our hearts, Johnny Dee?/ Yes Mr Pop at the top of our charts!" it's pretty damn certain that they weren't trying to get us to take them seriously.
Johnny Dee is also noteworthy to me personally for being the first music critic to write about my other music blog "Left and to the Back" in "The Guardian". It was a brief and fleeting mention which led to an enormous surge in its readership - so it's slightly odd to be writing about him in this context, but perhaps only right that I too doff my cap to the man.
As for the girl who plays the tambourine, please do get in touch if you're her. We've been waiting decades for an answer to her identity.
4. Voice of the Beehive - Just A City (Food)
Another David Balfe signing to Food Records, which only existed as an indie label for the briefest point in its history, and with its slogan of "Let Us Prey!" almost certainly never had ambitions to operate as an artist's co-operative.
Voice of The Beehive were formed by Californian ex-pats Tracey Bryn and Melissa Brook Belland, and also featured ex-Madness stars Mark Bedford and Daniel Woodgate in their ranks, so neither were they entirely fresh young naive faces coming to an independent label with a few tunes and no clues whatsoever. Not that any of this really matters in the grand scheme of things, and "Just A City" sounds like a convincing addition to the Paisley Underground fray, though I doubt it was ever referred to as such.
As soon as Food Records got what they really wanted, which was a major label marketing budget and distribution, Voice of the Beehive became much bigger players, scoring five Top 40 hits between 1988-91. I always got the sense that the general public and music critics alike didn't know quite where to place them - too pop to be truly alternative, too retro sounding and guitar-based to be eighties pop, they seemed to occupy an ill-defined and moderately popular space in the record racks alongside the likes of River City People and Del Amitri; fellow faintly retro guitar based acts who were neither particularly fashionable for the era nor remotely underground, but mantained solid enough fanbases to keep their heads above water for years without scoring any major top ten hits.
5. All About Eve - Our Summer (Eden)
And Side Three of Volume Two bows out having offered us four future Top of the Pops stars out of five possible tracks. From the moment All About Eve began putting out vinyl, though, there was a sense that they were never going to be underground for terribly long, and the only surprise to me is that they weren't bigger. Appealing to goths, hippies, twee indie-kids and Q readers alike with their earliest, paisley-patterned and carefree material, they grabbed hearts left, right and centre. In fact, when my Mum first heard me playing this from the very slab of vinyl I'm now staring at, she declared "Who's this? They sound really good!" and I ended up taping the track for her. She offered no opinions at all on The Chesterfields or Voice of the Beehive beforehand, who simply didn't pass the old grey whistle test (even The Chesterfields! For shame).
Having a lead singer like Julianne Regan harmed matters none. Her impressive voice harked back to long-lost warm folk rock stylings, a sound highly absent from the mainstream in the eighties. They combined with the group's considered arrangements to a powerful effect, and she possessed a very floaty, casual charisma too (a letter-writer to Record Mirror once announced his fantasies about going on picnics with her - a somewhat unusual thing to declare to the world, but you could just about understand his angle). It may not be easy for a band of their ilk to repeat the trick today, but they were definite cover stars of the era.
"Our Summer" is an early indie release which has their sound firmly in place already, and received a largely positive critical pass despite some clearly unfashionable mid-seventies influences shining through. Later when they signed to Phonogram, they would find mixed critical receptions emerging despite continuing to record much the same style of material. For a while in 1987, though, they could do little wrong.
I'm also bound by Article 38 of the retro music writer's "All About Eve clause" to point out the legendary "Top of the Pops" clip of "Martha Harbour" where... oh, I really can't be bothered to go on typing. Sorry. The kettle's just boiled.