Reading various accounts of Bis' New Transistor Heroes ten year anniversary reunion gigs at the weekend made us think of our own apprenticeship in the ranks of what they so pleasingly call schmindie. (And proud, us.) See, we were in our A-level years when Bis broke through and to us they formed part of something that went on away from the very heart of the mainstream to just a few nationally notable bands, something that only emerges every so often. We were experiencing a wave of indie cult bands.
This might take some explaining. There are cult bands and there are cult bands. The technical explanation is that these are bands with the most die-hard fans, ever keen to spread the message and form a community. Oasis fans were and are like this, and that spirit is continued now in the Kasabian/Fratellis/View lineage, but you'd be doing well to file any of them as 'cult'. Similarly you have the fervent metallers, but while this is definitely a cult these are clearly not adjacent to that much maligned but in this case most appropriate word, 'indie'. And they have to be British. That's important. Of course there are cult foreign bands (the Calvin Johnson junta and Riot Grrrl are perfectly good American examples) but their cult doesn't work in the same way. They seem strange anyway, coming in with their fancy accents and their weird noises. The British cult concerns have that veneer of DIY attitude, spawning lookalikes, fanzines and a Venn diagram of fandom where the middle section is determined as much by the trappings around the music as the limited edition vinyl EPs.
No, the indie cult band is one that grows from the ground up, tours relentlessly and picks up a sub-genre of the existing alternative music scenester. Pre-Bill Grundy punk is the most obvious example, followed by 1979 punk/post-punk crossover, the tape traders of 1981, the C86 twee badge kids, the Richey Manics followers. In 1997, as David McNamee's excellent memorial piece for last month's Plan B helped lay out, it happened with the weeklies only able to scratch the surface of what was going on. It was a blizzard of glitter and amateurishly applied makeup, something for the 15 to 20 year olds to cling on to while everyone else got lost in the Britpop/Dadrock forest. There were three bands at the molten cultish core: Bis, Kenickie and Belle & Sebastian. They were the first people to attempt to reclaim the word 'pop' milliseconds after it was commandeered by Simon Fuller on a ten year lease, but the pop mainstream saw them as outsiders with their funny ways.
"It just seems so unconnected; the way The Smiths used to make me feel, the unconquerable way I used to feel about them, and the everyday nuts and bolts of the job I have now. It’s like I went through the beautiful waterfall only to find a rather musty cave lying behind, not a promised land of dreams. There would be nothing I would hope for more if our music made someone feel like I felt about The Smiths. I just can’t feel it myself." - Stuart Murdoch, Poptones website
Even among these, Belle & Sebastian were outsiders - this was when they didn't appear in their own promotional pictures, their liner notes were short stories, their very presence a cipher. The Sinister mailing list at the time was the hub of cult member activity, at one stage attempting to make a list of where all 1500 copies of the original pressing of Tigermilk went. Tigermilk! Now you can buy it for a tenner on Amazon and own it by the end of the week, but from 1996 to 1999 it was only spoken about in hushed tones, vague memories of the first time The State I Am In touched you when Mark Radcliffe played it and introduced it as the work of a duo tutored by the Associates' Alan Rankine. Even when Dog On Wheels was given Radio 1 breakfast play by the same man during early 1997, the band apparently making the journey down to Manchester just to hand it over, it seemed like a transmission from an alien world where popularity was a nice idea but purposefully unobtainable sounding like this. It was music as a novella-sized mirror of youthful frailness, and it's no wonder that since Belle & Sebastian left Jeepster and started doing proper interviews and having top twenty singles they've not nearly been the same.
"People always say, 'Oh Kenickie, the bargain bins, why were they never successful?' - no one fucking says that about Mogwai or Arab Strap. We were only judged that way because we were girls. We had a Top Ten album, all our singles went in the charts, we recouped - but it was like, 'You're girls, you're like the Honeyz, you've got to be Number Three.' And if you're girls you're 'pop!' That's what you enter into." - Lauren Laverne, The Face
Kenickie were different. The press of the time depicted them as good time minxes, like Debbie Harry meets Courtney Love on a Russ Meyer set. They were, of course, far too smart for the association - Lauren Laverne gave up one of five offered Oxbridge places studying medieval history to follow the glam dream. Labelled indie resolutes, Punka was about lo-fi's purposefully lowered ambitions, a kissoff to Slampt Records, who put out the legendary Catsuit City EP, as they disappeared EMI-wards. Effortlessly funny in interviews and onstage, producing branded makeup bags and compact cases, lathered in eyeshadow and facial glitter, they were the connectable, smart girls on the pull. At The Club, which also hits ten years old this year, was far cleverer than most gave it credit for. Yes, there were songs about going out, but there was also the clinical self-deprecation and heavy duty melancholy and elements of positive desperation. We were right there at the time, on the Kenickie Fried Chicken message board and the unofficial mailing list (and how that concept has been devalued in these readily available Internet and Myspace blog days - members of the band would post every so often to the message board and we'd never seen such interaction. We'll tell you the story of us, Lauren and Chris Addison one day) They meant something to people around our age, and to those people there's part of their heart that will forever be theirs. We just cough and look away during Transmission.
And Bis! They divided opinion like nobody's business. The music press only just stopped short of guerilla warfare while the Teen-C brigade constructed altars and followed them everywhere. Teen-C was their own tag for what they did and what their followers believed in, based on Riot Grrrl credentials that you too could do this - form a band, write a fanzine, draw an anime-inspired cartoon, buy a hairclip and Hello Kitty merchandise. The scuzzy guitars melded with cutesy lyrics and image acted as a signpost that this is where the youth are. Teen-C didn't take off bar two or three other bands, most notably the never especially loved but Radio 1 playlisted Dweeb, but much of it was 1995-97 fanzine culture writ large. If nothing else there were no teenagers in notable bands while Bis were about, whereas now you're almost doing well to find a new hyped band that are older than 21. Amanda McKinnon - oh, alright, Manda Rin - turned thirty two weeks ago. Manda Rin. Thirty. It doesn't compute.
It was the singularity of the scene that appealed at its core. These were the early days of the Internet, where 28.8kbps was the best you could expect, and thus these were arguably the last set of savvy teenage indie kids who had to take it where they could find it. Although these three bands were pop stars in their own peculiar universes they would never, or at least not in that form, become actual pop stars, not given the high concept glamour and immediacy of the proper pop mainstream. The fanzine movement was at its height for the first time since the post-Sniffin' Glue explosion. John Peel moved back to weeknights for his best slot in ages while Steve Lamacq acted as the avatar for this stuff. Behind the big three there was a melange of bands who had fervent, if smaller, fanbases - Symposium, Urusei Yatsura, Helen Love, Quickspace, Marine Research (anything connected with Heavenly did well). Ash and Placebo started out as huge cults before connecting with the increasingly available mainstream; Angelica and Chicks were a couple of years too late. White Town's Your Woman was a de facto cult indie number one single, if elastic logic allows.
More durable logic insists that you just couldn't have the same thing today. The music world is much smaller and more wide-ranging and arguably experimental, more music is available than ever before, from heavily rooted back catalogues to bedroom four track demos on Myspace. And yet... there's definitely something stirring in the indie cult scene. The Research, Misty's Big Adventure, Los Campesinos!, the Hot Puppies, My Latest Novel, Lucky Soul, Bearsuit, Help She Can't Swim, the Priscillas, Ciccone, Kaito, Tender Trap (ah, Amelia)... all with necessarily limited outlooks, all with a white hot kernel of diehard fanbase, all able to trace some sort of lineage to the previous movements outlined above. And again, there's three bands at the peak of the modern cult era. The Long Blondes have had an impact that clearly outstrips their album sales, having had a trail of be-neckerchiefed girls following them well before the NME started giving them trinkets, endlessly quotable lyrically and low-maintenance Rimmel-glamorous visually. Art Brut are the 1979 Television Personalities manque, sporting charisma to burn and a singular, smart take on pop culture mores, plus in an odd plot twist US notoreity that gets them onto late night talk shows and decent festival bills while dismissed as a hipster joke in their home country. And then there's the three girls plus deliberately elusive bloke(s) at the back, smart in interviews and great between songs onstage, drawing heavily on past influences but still parked in today, proclaiming themselves pop even as they remain rooted in the alt sphere, rewarded with a young, female-heavy dressalike fanbase and a substantial internet support presence that belies both record sales and the fact there seems absolutely no middle ground with them... when did you last see the Pipettes and Kenickie in the same room? (Indeed, a lot of the people we know from the Kenickie Fried Chicken days are big Pips fans) As in 1996-97, while a lazy new 'indie' orthodoxy is settling in at the top of the charts, the most exciting things are happening in places that want to be mainstream but dynamically could never be, looking to subtly change things nevertheless through the door potentially opened by those elders and lessers.
According to reports, the majority of the Bis audience at the weekend were 25 at most. Who knew that the band that recorded Icky Poo Air Raid could be at the foundation of something so teenager empowering?