Formats: Double Vinyl and Cassette
After the success of the cassette-only Volume one, a decision was clearly taken to join the adult music world and produce Volume two on both double cassette and double vinyl formats (no CDs were being issued yet, but as Now! and Hits were only just starting to get to grips with that format themselves, it's slightly silly to expect Indie Top 20 to have joined the digital audio revolution this early). The double cassette version - which I've never seen in the wild, but that's probably because I was never really looking for it - also came emblazoned with Melody Maker sponsorship across its sleeve, creating a partnership between the series and the IPC music magazine. The connection would become more cemented over the next few LPs.
Other than that, this slipped out on Clive Selwood's Band of Joy label in 1987, much like Volume One, but in terms of track selection shows a slight widening of variety. Indiepop remains very well represented, but also lurking in the grooves on offer here is British Hip-Hop, House music and Folk, and even - unexpectedly for an album so early in the series - arguably the earliest rumblings of the Indie Dance crossover. It still lacks the diversity of a Now or Hits compilation, but is less guitar orientated than you might initially expect.
It's also actually a very solid compilation, with not a single outright stinker in sight, and acts as a far better and more honest barometer of the independent music scene at this point in its history than many Double CD retrospectives and box sets which have emerged in more recent years. The simple truth is that while early Indiepop often sought to charm with its naiveté and amateurism, the more they gigged and recorded, the tighter most of the bands got, especially with their songwriting. For me personally, many of the bands who emerged from C86 and the numerous fanzine and gig networks in the mid eighties really found their feet and realised their potential in 1987. Suddenly, now they were under the media spotlight, the game got upped and some seriously good (and even great) singles emerged. But hey, if you'd prefer to listen to your early flexidiscs, don't let me stop you. It's all a matter of taste.
Let's pop the needle down on to the groove of side one, shall we?
1. Crazyhead - What Gives You The Idea That You're So Amazing Baby? (Food)
Side One of this compilation is uncharacteristically brutal, actually, and opens with Leicester's great Grebo hopes Crazyhead. Snapped up by David Balfe's (of Teardrop Explodes fame) Food label shortly before that very label ran to EMI for major label cash and distribution, Crazyhead were much feted at the time. Indeed, it's easy to hear that their cross-appeal was likely to be immense. One of the few groups of the period to confidently sit on both the Indie and Heavy Metal specialist charts without complaints from either parties, they played a raucous, rapid and noisy eighties approximation of garage punk, of which "What Gives You The Idea...?" is a fairly typical example. It's brash and dumb but FUN with it - and its inclusion here, track one side one, is indicative of the fact that it was a cult indie hit of some stature, climbing to number two on the specialist chart.
Crazyhead never did achieve mainstream chart success, however, and by 1989 they had been dumped by Food Records and ejected straight back into indie-land again, where they never really made the same kind of waves again.
While we're on the subject, there's probably a bigger debate to be had about whether Grebo was a genuine youth movement, a music press invention, a gang of predominantly Midlands groups who all just happened to be scruffs and all knew each other, or some combination of all three. Footage of the gigs these bands played during the period does show an army of fans dressed in combat gear and denim, some with greasy locks and partly shaved hair, but it's highly unlikely that any of them would have identified themselves as being part of a youth movement (most of the music was too bloody sardonic and silly to base your entire life around - Grebo probably wouldn't have come with many rules attached apart from "get pissed on Scrumpy"). Nor is it necessarily easy to create a clear line from the sound Crazyhead made, to Pop Will Eat Itself's beatbox obsessions, to the downright berserk Gaye Bykers On Acid. What most of those groups do have in common, however, is that they were so lacking in glamour that the Britpop era indie music press more-or-less tipp-exed over their contributions.
2. Pop Will Eat Itself - Love Missile F1-11 (Chapter 22)
Fellow Grebos Pop Will Eat Itself emerge here in a slightly different form from when we last met them on Volume One. While the metamorphosis from scratchy, treble-heavy indie-punk to an alternative British take on Rick Rubin produced Hip-Hop wasn't complete, the boys do rap for one segment of this track, and point the way for their future recordings.
This was an interesting choice of cover version for the Poppies as well. Sigue Sigue Sputnik's "Love Missile F1-11" had only been released the year before, and the group's attempt at cyber-futuristic rock and roll was largely savaged by the music press (and also public) who weren't willing to accept the record company hype. Pop Will Eat Itself actually beef up the original - which always was an unusually stark and minimal top ten hit - and plug the gaps with loud, thrashed guitars and a chugging riff where you would expect the electro loops to be. Whether you feel it sounds better for the treatment or not depends upon your feelings on Sigue Sigue Sputnik, but it was certainly a large indie hit.
3. Three Wise Men - Refresh Yourself (Rhythm King)
British Hip-Hop acts struggled horribly to make the same waves as their American counterparts in the eighties (and actually nineties as well) never really generating the same amount of sales, press or media exposure. The very idea of rappers having regional British accents was actually outright mocked during this period, and Hip-Hop artists in the UK found themselves having to confront the same prejudices that British Rock and Rollers had in the fifties.
Unlike many of the fifties artists, however, most British Hip-Hop acts were usually smart enough to realise that there was no point in adopting American accents and slang. The only way forward was to forge their own identity and talk about their own lives - and Three Wise Men certainly did that with "Urban Hell", a largely-forgotten 1986 single about the since-demolished North Peckham estate in London.
"Refresh Yourself" is an entirely different single, obviously, and perhaps less representative of their sound. Minimal sounding and lyrically simplistic, it's probably one of their most dated sounding pieces of work. For whatever reason, for the three years they were active the group only had three singles and one LP put out on Rhythm King records, after which time was called.
4. Renegade Soundwave - Kray Twins (Rhythm King)
Renegade Soundwave were also signed to Rhythm King to produce their own multi-faceted brand of electronic dance music, but eventually ended up moving to the parent label Mute after a series of "artistic" disputes.
"Kray Twins" hints at just how Rhythm King might have found them totally out-of-sorts with the rest of their roster. It's a seriously rambling, aggressive, frantic piece of work, taking in harsh, punchy, in-your-face samples, burbling electronic noises, sneering cockney vocals, and the periodic emergence of thrashed guitars. Despite the fact that the techniques used to create this single must have been absurdly primitive by today's standards, it actually doesn't sound dated in the slightest - elements even sound close to the minimal rantings of Sleaford Mods, admittedly without the political nous.
Then again, nor is "Kray Twins" necessarily representative of the rest of Renegade Soundwave's work. They would produce a lot of varied material throughout their careers, from the threatening chaos of this track to the pop suss of "Probably a Robbery", and the House dancefloor hit "The Phantom". They would probably be more at home on one of the many Dance compilations that littered the eighties, but future appearances on "Indie Top 20" also occurred. Long before the label "Indie-Dance" was thought of, Renegade Soundwave were probably one of the few true crossover artists of the mid-eighties period.
5. Bambi Slam - Don't It Make You Feel (Product Inc.)
Roy Slam, the lead singer of Bambi Slam (naturally) was a Canadian ex-pat who formed the group on British shores, in the process creating a band with - at the time, at least - an unusual array of influences. There's a clear American underground punk sound leaking through a lot of their work, but also beatbox loops and poppy hooks, combining to create a brew which sounds particularly of its indie moment.
"Don't It Make You Feel" is rough and ready, but melodically sounds as if it could have been written by a successful glam rock band in 1973 - almost everything about the track is catchy and insistent, like a past pop smash being dragged through a cheap recording studio by punk musicians.
The group generated plenty of excitement and became big enough news to be signed to Warner Brothers who released one LP of theirs, the eponymous "Bambi Slam" in 1988. By that time, however, everyone seemed to have lost interest and they were pushed aside in favour of the next trend.