Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Best of Indie Top 20

Format: Double LP/ Cassette/ CD
Year of Release: 1991

"The Best of Indie Top 20 is a celebration of the rise and rise of independent music over the last three years. Many of the singles chosen are the bands' first important cross-over hits. Music that is so often described as specialist or provocative, but soon proves to become the mainstream taste; establishing new styles and genres.

First released in '87, The Indie Top 20 series has also gone from strength to strength, released 3 times a year as the definitive guide to independent music on double LP, cassette, CD and video. 

Beechwood music is fiercely proud of its independence and by making these albums available and generating much needed funds for all the bands and record labels concerned, we hope that we are helping independent music to continue its growth through the nineties."

Unlike CD88 which was really an attempt to bring large chunks of "Indie Top 20" into the digital age, this was a dual celebration; both of the series itself, which was by now ten LPs deep and available in most record stores, and the independent scene in general. At the point of Volume One's release, three short years before, being "indie" often meant cheap black-and-white record sleeves, John Peel airplay, low production values, and cultdom. By now it really could mean anything - any of the above, or the colossal success of the Mondays and the Roses, or even the full-fat independence of the KLF, issuing platinum records (or records limited to runs of 5 copies) on their own label without external interference.

There's a tendency to believe that this all happened very suddenly as a result of the baggy phenomenon, but that's an over-simplification of things. The independent sector went through several key moments from the late seventies onwards, some of them likely to get greater nods of approval from people reading this blog than others. Firstly, the emergence of punk and the DIY ethic in the late seventies (or, if not the actual emergence of the DIY ethic, then certainly the broader acceptance of it) opened considerable doors for anyone wanting to start a label. Then the first stirrings of mainstream chart success in the early eighties boosted the coffers and made siding with Rough Trade or Pinnacle seem like a realistic option - and those successes included Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Keith Marshall, and, er, Renee and Renato (who are a hugely unacknowledged factor as the first ever independently distributed Christmas number one, unthinkable a mere few years before. You don't have to actually like "Save Your Love" to understand its impact in boosting Pinnacle's reputation as a distribution body who could actually get records into all shops, not just the Small Wonders and Probes of the UK).

C86/ Indiepop boosted the profile of the independent sector yet again, rapidly followed by the commercial success of House music (which the major labels were slow to see the potential of), Stock Aitken and Waterman's PWL label, then indie-dance. The independent sector took a huge number of gambles the likes of EMI, RCA and CBS were frequently unwilling to place their bets on, and while that often led to sales in the hundreds rather than top ten success, it also sometimes highlighted the failures of the institutionalised corporate thinking of others, especially as the eighties came to a close. Indie labels were closer to the ground and the owners were normally punters themselves, a close part of the scene they celebrated. This enabled them to see the potential in anything from a popular club white label, to a bunch of fey indie kids, to an Australian soap opera star.

As a celebration, "The Best of Indie Top 20" emerged at the right time, looking backwards over the terrain the sector had climbed and taking stock. Sadly, it also landed a mere few months before their distributor Rough Trade's demise, leaving Chet and Bee (and their father Clive Selwood) scrambling to get hold of all their stock from Rough Trade's warehouse before the bailiffs got their hands on it. Clearly all wasn't sunshine and roses in indie-land - not at Rough Trade, in any case, where a fortune had been lost on a computer system that didn't work properly and paying rent on expensive properties.

Moving away from business difficulties, the contents of this album are interesting and presumably a compromise in places. The absence of The Stone Roses is odd. They were the big success story of the last couple of years, and presumably weren't included due to rights issues. James are also AWOL, as are My Bloody Valentine. There was also little space for big names who were independent-by-distribution-but-not-by-"style", such as Erasure or KLF or The Cookie Crew. No mention of old-school indie-pop success stories like The Primitives and The Darling Buds, either - clearly Beechwood didn't want to waste too much time looking backwards over their shoulders at artists who hadn't also had a role in defining the present (hence The Beloved's "Forever Dancing" appearing here yet again, for the third time. It had already featured on "Volume Two" and "CD88").

Carefully compiled and sequenced, "The Best of Indie Top 20" sold more copies than any other "Indie Top 20" compilation before or since. It hung around the official Compilation Charts for weeks amassing sales, had television adverts voiced by someone who sounded suspiciously like Craig Charles declaring loudly "It's soooound!", and could be picked up in WH Smiths or Woolworths easily. This is the LP which acted as an introduction to the series for many, and no doubt boosted its profile considerably. A few average tracks aside, it's also pretty difficult to fault. It does an incredibly good job of summing up the heady days of 1989-90 in particular.

It also features one surprise bonus track in the form of Carter USM's "Bloodsport For All", which we'll discuss when we come to it. An odd choice, as "Sheriff Fatman" was by far their more iconic single at this point, but mine is not to reason why.

We've discussed all the other tracks already, so please click on the relevant links if you want to re-read what I said about them first time around.

1. Happy Mondays - 24 Hour Party People (Factory) (Volume 3)

2. The Farm - Stepping Stone (Produce) (Volume 9)

3. The Charlatans - Indian Rope (Dead Dead Good) (Volume 9)

4. Inspiral Carpets - Joe (Cow) (Volume 7)

5. Soup Dragons - Mother Universe (Big Life) (Volume 9)

6. The Beloved - Forever Dancing (Flim Flam) (Volume 2)

7. New Order - Round & Round (Club Mix) (Factory) (Volume 9)

8. The Shamen - Pro>Gen (One Little Indian) (Volume 9)

9. Paris Angels - All On You (Perfume) (Sheer Joy) - (Volume 10)

10. Flowered Up - It's On (Heavenly) - (Volume 10)

11. Front 242 - Headhunter (Play It Again Sam) - vinyl and cassette only - (Volume 6)

12. Depeche Mode - Personal Jesus (Mute) - (Volume 8)

13. Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine - Bloodsport For All (Rough Trade) - bonus track

"Bloodsport For All" saw Carter return to their popular theme of a man's life in the army and the hype not quite living up to the reality. "How very hackneyed" you might think, but in reality a number of horror stories were beginning to be slowly drip-fed to the press at this time, focussed on bullying, and even (by the time we reached the late nineties) mysterious deaths at places like Deepcut barracks. Clearly it wasn't just Government-defined enemies some soldiers were fighting, but also psychopathic enemies within their own ranks.

The single's lyrics can't resist the usual Carter onslaught of tabloid headline puns, but are nonetheless actually quite savage, highlighting the bullying racism which was rife in the armed forces  ("While we're on the subject I've been called a spade/ single-filed in public/ with my privates on parade/ I hope my feet go flat/ before I hang myself").

Combined with that unflinching criticism of army life, "Bloodsport For All" has a sledgehammer glam rock rhythm, a pulsing synth bassline and a fierce energy to it despite its mechanised rhythm section. The final minute builds itself into the kind of frothing fury last heard on their cover version of "Rent", and on the original seven-inch version you could just about hear the screeching conclusion of guitars being thrown to the floor in the final audible section of the fade-out, like a private tantrum you could only hear if you pressed a glass to the wall of their studio.

I'm a sucker for the unsubtle trucker rhythms of glam at the best of times, and this always was one of my favourite Carter USM tracks.  By taking the foot-stomping of the mid-seventies and adding it to a military march criticism of the modern army, they created a very macho, muscular sounding record which nonetheless undermined the message sent out to the country by the military's PR campaigns. It's far from perfect - most Carter records of this period have a clunky, sticklebrick production I find harder going in the present day than I ever did at the time - but it climbed to Number 48 in the national charts, and showed the group were poised for a mainstream breakthrough. And all this despite "Bloodsport For All" being subjected to a Radio One ban due to the Gulf War "sensitivities" of very early 1991.

14. Pixies - Monkey Gone To Heaven (4AD) - (Volume 7)

15. Dinosaur Jr - Freak Scene (Blast First) - (Volume 7)

16. Spacemen 3 - Revolution (Fire) - (Volume 6)

17. Wedding Present - Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now? (Reception) - (Volume 6)

18. Birdland - Sleep With Me (Lazy) - vinyl and cassette only (Volume 9)

19. Loop - Arclite (Situation Two) - vinyl and cassette only - (Volume 8)

20. The Sugarcubes - Regina (One Little Indian) - (Volume 8)

21. The Sundays - Joy (Rough Trade) - (Volume 9)

22. The Heart Throbs - Dreamtime (One Little Indian) - (Volume 9)


  1. Great review indeed, although I was expecting Volume XI instead as I'm sure that was released before this one. Gareth.

  2. You know what - you might be right. Volume 2 of "The Best of Indie Top 20" drew from "Volume Eleven" though, so I assumed "Volume Eleven" followed this, and couldn't find anything to prove otherwise.

    Ah well - it's done now!

    1. Yeah, no worries. I've checked my copy of "Best Of..." and it lists all the other available volumes - including XI :-). Gare th.

  3. Bah! A schoolboy error - sometimes the clues are in the most obvious places. Thanks for pointing that out.