Thank you and Goodnight, Carter USM
This weekend, Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine will, over a quarter-of-a-Century since forming, cease to be unstoppable. Bobby Townsend pays his respects:
Eastbourne, in the UK county of East Sussex, isn’t at the cutting edge of culture. It was even less so when I was growing up in the 1990s. Fashion didn’t really exist as such 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 was on Radio 1 (or ‘Wun FM’ as it liked to call itself in a bid to appeal to the yoof of the time).
Then a new boy joined my school; an impossibly cool new boy from London. He wore a Stone Roses T-shirt for P.E. and had press cuttings from NME on his ring-binder. One of the cuttings was about “Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine”. He told me that they were a duo from South London and were “the best band in the world.” While their name sounded entirely ridiculous, in a town where Level 42 were considered to be edgy, they represented something impossibly exciting and entrancing. They were a two-piece who played guitars and sang over a drum machine. No bassist? No drummer? Controversial. They had an excellent logo and they seemed as though they were from another planet; a planet far, far away from my moribund hometown. As a child who always been drawn to alternative culture as opposed to the mainstream, it was obvious that I was going to fall head-over-heels in love with Carter.
That Christmas, I asked for their latest record, 1992, The Love Album. Upon receiving it I discovered artists that wrote dazzling punk-pop tunes which spoke as if directly to me. Their songs were angry and bursting with life in a way that I had never before heard. They opened up a whole new world to this uninitiated and sheltered teen, and, over the next few years, I became moderately obsessed with them. I have no idea how many gigs I saw, but reckon it is probably close to 20. I was also a member of their fan club, snuck into the green room at MTV once to get their autographs and purchased everything they released (literally everything). Posters adorned my walls, I copied their haircuts, I owned so many of their T-shirts that I had one for every day of the week at least and I could sing every lyric of every song.
Now, almost two decades after their initial break-up and seven years since they reformed to play annual, sold-out gigs, guitarist/vocalist Jimbob and guitarist/backing vocalist Fruitbat are having their farewell hurrah over two nights this weekend at Shepherds Bush Empire and the Brixton Academy. This really is it. And for many, it’s the end of an important era.
There are perhaps reasons to dismiss Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine. There is the ridiculous name for a start (which refers to Fruitbat’s stamina in the bedroom), and the band-members’ similarly silly monikers. There are the haircuts, the shorts and cycling caps, the lack of a “proper” band dynamic. Their gigs were attended by a high number of lads in shorts who would mosh and shout ‘You fat bastard’ at the band (a reference to their one-time compere Jon Beast, who sadly recently passed away). In general, there were lots of people who just thought that Carter weren’t very good. But these people, in my opinion, were wrong.
While the ‘You fat bastard’ chanting at gigs never sat very well with me and certainly held the band back from being taken more seriously by chin-stroking critics, Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine were incredibly intelligent, witty, hugely entertaining live and very important in their time. They were an exciting band carrying forth the punk sensibilities of the 70s and splicing them into a new indie/pop/dance crossover genre. Essentially, they sounded like The Sex Pistols having a fight/cuddle with the Pet Shop Boys. In an era when the charts were full of the meaningless vocal gymnastics of Mariah Carey and the boy band tosh purveyed by the likes of New Kids On The Block, Carter made a difference because they actually stood for something. There was an honesty and integrity about Carter that wasn’t in the slightest contrived and could not be doubted.
Single, Bloodsport For All (video, above) 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 for the first time. (“I hope my feet go flat before I hang myself, cos I can’t take this crap, I’m going A.W.O.L”). Elsewhere, they would confront other heavyweight issues, whether it was child abuse, AIDS or homelessness. There was always a point to be made, ad infinitum. Carter taught me more about what was going on in the world than any teacher or the tabloids. It was done with passion for sure, but also with a drollness and a pop sensibility. These guys’ message was so accessible because they had tunes to die for; big, brazen pop choruses punctuating a dance backbeat and a cacophony of chainsaw guitars. Social commentary never sounded so much fun.
Personally though, I think Carter were at their best when they weren’t trying to save the world. I like the idea of them as bedsit poets, pouring their hearts out on tape. Carter’s lyrics were at their most poignant when they touched on humdrum stories of loneliness, sadness, depression and optimism in the face of adversity. Taken from the band’s standout album, 30 Something (which was awarded 10/10 by NME reviewer Steve Lamacq), epic ballad Falling on a Bruise was the absolute jewel in Carter’s crown, telling the downbeat tale of dejection and misery that anyone who has ever felt that life dealt them an unfair hand can relate to (“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”). Followed on the album by the heartbreaking 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 could stand up and be counted against the likes of modern day poets like Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker.
They told us about life as it was, constantly conveyed the social deprivation around them with a wink (“Under-funded OAPs turn to a life of crime, the great cucumber robberies of 1989”), and stood against war, more than once telling stories through the eyes of soldiers (“when I come home today, look away, look away, turn your eyes to the children, I don’t want you to see me this way.”) It was unquestionably stirring stuff.
While NME has since been keen to erase Carter from its history, it might surprise those who have never heard of them that the band were cover stars on many occasions. Even at the time though, the music world was completely dissected by Carter. Like indie Marmite, you either loved them or hated them, but everyone, and I mean everyone, had an opinion on them. The letters pages in the music press were often crammed with arguments about how good/awful they were. Whether you call it fame or infamy, Jimbob and Fruitbat were massive for a while. 1992, The Love Album rocketed to the top of the album charts at a time when it was still a relatively impressive achievement for an indie band, the duo appeared live on BBC TV at the Smash Hits Poll Winners Party (which saw the infamous incident where Fruitbat attacked host Philip Schofield), were regulars on Top Of The Pops, had several Top 40 hits and headlined The Glastonbury Festival. You could say that, sometime between 1991 and 1993, they were even proper pop stars.
This was the main problem. In spite of their adroitness when it came to penning a tune, Jimbob and Fruitbat were in no way pop stars. They were not equipped or prepared to deal with everything that came with selling a squllion records. Jimbob seemed to grow a chip on his shoulder the size of a small country and ended up hating every other band but for his few personal favourites, and the duo followed up their number one record with a moderately inaccessible fourth album that was influenced by Fruitbat’s love of AC/DC. While it dented the top ten and spawned a few great moments, like the band’s favourite song, The Music That Nobody Likes, it was not an album that bothered the radio much. Releasing from it the least radio-friendly single ever (Lenny and Terence) didn’t help. It was heavy as hell and featured a girl orgasming throughout the second half of the song. “It sounded great the one time it was played on the radio,” Jimbob said.
Soon after, when Britpop came along, Carter were brushed aside by the media, and history was not kind to their memory, nor indeed to the memory of the entire movement of bands of which Carter were a part (Pop Will Eat Itself, Kingmaker, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, The Family Cat, etc).
But, more recently, there has been something of a re-evaluation of Carter. This week The Guardian and The Independent ran stories about how great the band are/were, for instance. And of course, their loyal fanbase has been filling venues at their reunion shows since the first one in 2007.
To hear their albums nowadays is to rediscover a band that oozed energy, excitement and passion. Now, when I play their 1989 debut longplayer, 101 Damnations, I don’t think, “Oh they really could have done with a bass player,” rather I am blown away by how fresh it sounds, over 25 years on. I think how in-your-face exciting it is, with samples jumping out at you from unexpected angles and guitars cutting through you like a knife. If a band came out now with a track like Midnight On The Murder Mile (“If the concrete and the clay beneath your feet don’t get you son, the avenues and alleyways are gonna do it just for fun, they’ll suck you in and spit you out, leave your family lonely, and the telephones on sticks will tell you ‘999 calls only’”), they would be carried shoulder-high around the NME offices and hailed as the saviours of indie. It is a song so bursting with oomph and aggression that it grabs you by the balls and demands your full attention. Like much of Carter’s early output, it is an adrenaline rush fuelled by bitterness and frustration and it is absolutely invigorating.
I personally got into Carter fairly late (their third album was my first), but it was still just about early enough to appreciate the zeitgeist. The Tory government’s leadership seemed interminable, the poll tax was causing riots in London and all of a sudden and seemingly out of nowhere came these two normal blokes to confirm how shit life was. It made me feel like I was part of something, and the fact that there were actually plenty of people who felt disillusioned and alienated gave rise to optimism. Attending a Carter gig was immeasurably empowering for an angsty teenager. Jimbob, an equally snarly and affable character, could have told the crowd to walk out of the doors and storm the government and we’d have done it.
My job requires me to keep up with new music. I see hundreds of bands a year. Some of them are great, yet few give me that buzz of excitement that I used to get when those two unlikely lads from London would amble onstage. Without question, Carter USM were the best live band I ever saw. I’ve spoken to a number of people who said they never really ‘got’ Carter until they saw them live. Then, it all made sense. My seminal moment came at Brixton, in 1993. Very underage, I was mesmerised as Jimbob spat lyrics into the mic before stomping around the stage, bobbing his head in a bird-like fashion as he went, while the ever-grinning Fruitbat would harmonise and offer the occasional Townshend windmill. They played long, comprehensive and well-paced sets, knowing when to bring the mood down and when to turn it up to 11, while a sweat-drenched crowd sang every single word back at them.
At the same time that the Tory government was replaced by a similarly ineffective Labour one, Carter grew to a disappointingly inoffensive sextet and soon split to form solo projects. To be honest, it was probably the right time to do it. They didn’t seem to be enjoying it anymore anyway. But, for a while, they were the kings of my world.
Their reunion gigs over the past few years have been life-affirming in the extreme. To stand in a room with thousands of other people, all a little wider of waste and greyer of hair, and yell along to the songs that shaped our lives has been an absolute pleasure. The fact that this weekend’s final shows sold out in a heartbeat and have had fans scrabbling around Ebay for months, shows just how much they mean to people. Similarly, over 10,000 people applied for 200 tickets for their recent BBC 6 Music session.
There is always one band that makes a difference to a person’s life and, regardless of where they stand in the grand scheme of music history, Carter were that band for me. And I know that thousands of others will be feeling exactly the same as they sing their hearts out with utter abandon to those massive pop tunes like Glam Rock Cops and top ten hit The Only Living Boy In New Cross this weekend.
They may have been wiped from history by some corners of the cooler-than-thou music press, but I will say without shame that Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine are unquestionably my favourite band of all time.
Thanks for the memories Jim Bob and Fruitbat. Hello, good evening, welcome and goodbye.
Words by Bobby Townsend.