Rough transcript of an argument I’ve had more than once on the internet:

Me: I used to listen to a lot of indie music
Them: Indie isn't a genre.
Me: Yes it is.
Them: No, "indie" means independent. It means "not major label".
Me: OK, firstly, no it doesn't. The "indie" in indie chart says nothing about the label the artist was signed to. It merely refers to singles that did not use the distribution network of any of the major labels. Artists signed to labels that were subsidiaries of or owned by major labels could be included in the indie chart.

Secondly, ask anyone roughly my age who grew up listening to a certain type of guitar band in the late 80s and early 90s, and at some point they'll use the term "indie" to describe this broad set of bands in a generic but usefully concise way.

Them: indie just means independent... [etc etc]

Now, not to cause Atlantic consternation, but the person on the other end of this argument is usually American. I think the problem stems from the fact that where our chart distinctions have always been relatively clearly defined - ie singles chart, indie chart, dance chart in America have always, as far as I can tell, been completely screwy.

For example, there’s a chart called “Active Rock”. Active Rock, in case you don’t already know and are unable to intuit definition from such a vague and meaningless two-word combination, is best described as rock that isn’t quite alternative and isn’t quite as heavy as metal. More accurately, but less usefully, it’s music played by Active Rock radio stations. What is an Active Rock radio station? Why, it’s a station that plays Active Rock of course!

There’s an alternative rock chart as well, of course, which is for non-mainstream rock, but I think it can be active or inactive. Oh, and modern rock; that’s one, too. To be honest I’m not really sure where the boundaries are, and I doubt I’m the only one.

Which is why the indie chart is a perfect conception: identify a possible new chart, create a rule for it, apply the rule. Defining indie music might still be like catching water in a net, but saying whether a single belongs on the indie chart or not is a simple matter of checking the rules.

It just so happened that a lot of the time, the sort of music being created by bands whose work was eligible for the indie charts tended to share certain characteristics. It happened because the musicians tended to have similar goals, outlooks, influences. They were following on from 80s outsider scenes like post-punk and indie-pop. There was a desire to eschew the mainstream, to avoid the obvious, to strive for authenticity. As Richard King writes in How Soon is Now?

An indie band’s songs document their passage into adulthood with the odd jarring chord sequence, a sense that no one has been through this kind of thing before, vague or confused lyrics and an underfed look in their video.

Now there’s a description I recognise in much of the music that formed my early music collection.

You might think, then, that the indie chart would be a pasty, nervous, introverted thing. To an extent it was, but then a group of guys who did not at all fit that description invaded the indie charts. Here’s a list of indie chart number ones from the Spring and Summer of 1989:

  • Pixies - _Monkey Gone To Heaven_
  • Beatmasters feat MC Merlin - _Who's In The House?_
  • Kylie Minogue - _Hand on Your Heart_
  • Dinosaur Jr - _Just Like Heaven_
  • The Christians
  • Holly Johnson, Paul McCartney, Gerry Marsden & Stock Aitken Waterman - _Ferry Cross The Mersey_
  • Jason Donovan - _Sealed With a Kiss_
  • Pixies - _Here Comes Your Man_
  • Spacemen 3 - _Hypnotized_
  • The Stone Roses - _She Bangs the Drums_
  • Lightning Seeds - _Pure_
  • Beatmasters feat Betty Boo - _Hey DJ_

If you were expecting a panoply of British alt-rock greatness, you might be confused by the presence on the list of Kylie, Jason and Beatmasters. The clue to figuring out what’s going on here is the presence of Stock Aitken & Waterman, number one in May with a version of Ferry Cross the Mersey, recorded in support of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster the month before, in which 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives. Their label, PWL, was independent of the majors, so they were indie-chart eligible even if their methods and music represented a complete opposite of almost everything indie fans and musicians stood for and craved. Their songs were number one in the main singles chart as well as the indie chart, their artists were former soap stars, and while Pete Waterman might have felt like a spiritual successor to Berry Gordy’s songwriting teams at Motown, that only holds if you can imagine Holland-Dozier-Holland desperately trying to cobble I Heard it Through the Grapevine together in half an hour having just remembered that Marvin Gaye is popping into the studio to pick up his latest track. “The respectable face of capitalism”, he called it. A production line; an efficient hit-generating machine, in other words.

(This awkward interloping, though… it’s still better than the “Active Rock” chart. I understand that the market in America is bigger and broader than in the UK and that expanding and fragmenting charts could lead to more exposure for artists, but this can cause problems of its own, when it becomes a matter of publicity and marketing to be able to announce that your act is flying high in a particular chart. The charts then become something used to generate popularity, rather than a reflection of popularity.)

I hear my needle hit the groove

In the late 1980s, Manchester bands The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses, on a diet of Ecstasy, house music and a mutual appreciation for the tradition of British guitar bands, took their danceable indie to the masses. As Ian Brown said to Nick Kent - “

The Mondays and The Stone Roses have the same influences really, cos we’ve been to the same clubs. Blues nights, reggae nights, house nights, a bit of Parliament, a bit of Funkadelic… we’re all takin’ it from the same record collections, just doin’ it up different.

At first The Stone Roses sounded heavy, gritty. So Young felt like it wanted to toe the Joy Division bassline, but Ian Brown was no Ian Curtis. John Squire could be Johnny Marr Mk II, however, and by the time of Sally Cinnamon and its b-sides - Here it Comes and All Across the Sands - there were hints of a lighter, looser Stone Roses sound. Perhaps it was just the E talking, but by the time they released their debut album, they had perfected the Madchester rock/dance fusion, and were no longer so obviously in the shadow of their record collections. Tracks like Fools Gold and I am the Resurrection stretch out into the forever, groovy, funky, full of regional self-confidence, and when Brown sang, he was “the first rock vocalist to stake a claim for the Manchester accent”.

The Stone Roses opens with I Wanna Be Adored: it’s a statement of fact and intent. That intent would be achieved by never stopping, never standing still. The album’s second track, She Bangs The Drums became The Stone Roses’ first indie chart #1 and their first top 40 hit in July 1989. “The past was yours but the future’s mine”, sang Ian Brown, unaware of the brick wall around the corner. Liam Gallagher, the next to let his natural Manchester sounds sheeee-iiine, once chose it as his favourite summer anthem. Sound choice, Liam.

The following year, The Happy Mondays stormed the charts with Pills n Thrills and Bellyaches, and recorded two top five singles with Step On and Kinky Afro, but that was as good as it got. Madchester was over almost before it began, and both its shining indie lights lost their way. The Happy Mondays lost it in paradise, almost spending Factory into oblivion during hedonistic recording sessions in Barbados, while The Stone Roses were stuck in legal wrangle hell. Unable to record or release a follow-up, they stagnated, and when Second Coming arrived in December 1994 it was a huge disappointment, almost entirely lacking in the youthful arrogance of its predecessor, bogged down by a reliance on the old rock gods.