Revisiting: Carter USM’s 30 Something
My hometown at the turn of the 1990s was something of a cultural wasteland. Fashion didn’t really exist in the small, conservative tourist trap on the south coast of England and, with the internet yet to permeate our lives and satellite television still very much in its infancy, there were few obvious trends or scenes to influence a young schoolboy such as myself. Non-uniform days simply meant wearing the colours of your favourite football team to school, and music was whatever Radio 1 (or ‘Wun FM’ as it liked to call itself in a bid to appeal to the yoof of the time) was playing. So when an impossibly cool new boy from London with a strange, floppy fringe joined my school and talked of a band called Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, I was intrigued. They were a two-piece who played guitars and sang over a drum machine. That Christmas, I asked for their latest album. It sounded like The Sex Pistols having a fight with the Pet Shop Boys. I soon started collecting everything they had ever done. Which is how I chanced upon my favourite album of all time, 30 Something.
The record starts with – strangely – the thing that appeals to me least about my all-time favourite band. The excellently named Surfin’ USM opens with a jokey sample of Rimmer from Red Dwarf talking about getting fat and then gives way to a crowd chanting ‘You Fat Bastard’. It’s the kind of laddish novelty that wrongly signposted the duo as something of a comedy act. A T-shirt band. They were far from that and, indeed, by the end of the song, their strengths were already being illustrated. The belting instrumental indie-dance track with chainsaw guitars and an excellent Bowie sample is followed by another tune which shows how good Messrs James Morrison (aka Jim Bob) and Leslie Carter (aka Fruitbat) were at melding genres. My Second To Last Will and Testament saw a similar aesthetic to the opener, yet with snarling punk vocals from Jim Bob juxtaposing with some lovely harmonising from Fruitbat. The whole thing builds to a massive chorus before ending abruptly with Jim Bob throatily yelling “…die.” Thrilling stuff.
Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere delivers an insistent beat and ringing guitars beneath lyrics which tapped into mainstream culture. The song’s vocal hook was appropriated from a Martini commercial “Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere/There’s a wonderful world you can share,” they sing, taking the original imagery of drinking Martini on a yacht and replacing it with the idea of dipsomaniacs necking half a bottle of cooking sherry for breakfast.
This was the world that Carter painted. Bedsits, booze, misery, poverty, oppressed by the man, teetering between love-lorn and angry, and all parcelled up with a kind of doomed romance, a brave smile in a world gone to shit. Next up, A Prince in a Pauper’s Grave slows things down and is a singalong, sit-on-your-mate’s-shoulders-at-a-gig anthem, before a hat-trick of songs at the record’s heart combine infectious pop tunes with a strong social conscience. First, Shopper’s Paradise has a dig at capitalist Britain, “We’ve got a government freezer full of benefits,” before Billy’s Smart Circus offers more genius lyrics: “Under-funded OAPs turn to a life of crime/The great cucumber robberies of 1989.” Completing this fine threesome is Bloodsport For All, which was famously banned from Radio 1 because it dared to broach the issue of racism in the army at a period when the troops were heading over to the Middle East. (“I hope my feet go flat before I hang myself, cos I can’t take this crap, I’m going A.W.O.L”). It was, and is, a big, brazen pop anthem atop a dance backbeat and a cacophony of guitars.
After domestic violence and war are addressed in Sealed With a Glasgow Kiss and Say It With Flowers, the album reaches its absolute peak with a stunning denouement. While the punk-dance-indie-pop crossover tracks offered excitement, Carter were at their best as world-weary poets, pouring their hearts out on tape. Their lyrics were at their most poignant when they touched on humdrum stories of loneliness, sadness, depression and occasional optimism in the face of adversity. Falling on a Bruise is an example of this and is the jewel in 30 Something‘s crown, telling the downbeat tale of dejection and misery (“Some you win and some you lose/I’ve spent my whole lifetime falling on a bruise/And if I had the chance to do it all again/I’d change everything”). Segueing into the album-closing lullaby The Final Comedown (“I’ve been cut, I’ve been stitched, I’ve been buggered, bewitched and abandoned”) this was Carter’s finest hour and proved them to be heavyweight lyricists who, with their tales of British life, could stand up against the likes Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker. Whether they did it with a wink or a tear, it was always absolutely believable and wonderfully observed.
When grunge and Britpop came along, Carter were brushed aside by the media, but to revisit their work is to discover a band that oozed energy, excitement and passion. Now, when I play 30 Something, I don’t think “They really could have done with a bass player,” I think how fresh it sounds, over 20 years on, with intelligent lyrics, samples, irresistible choruses and guitars cutting through you like a knife (especially on the chinkier, newly remastered versions). Whether it translates to others two decades on I don’t know, but at a time when the Tory government’s leadership seemed interminable, the poll tax was causing riots in London and the world was at war, Carter were hugely important, which is why their following album reached number one in the UK charts, why they headlined Glastonbury and why music lovers like me would have walked out of the doors of a gig and stormed the government if Jim Bob had told me to. And it’s why I still love this band and this album to this day.
30 Something and Carter’s number 1 follow-up album, 1992 The Love Album, have been remastered and are now available in deluxe editions each with a bonus disk of rarities/b-sides/live songs and a new inlay booklet. You can grab them here.
Words by Bobby Townsend.