A reappraisal of the band’s landmark breakthrough album and a brief look back at their 30 year career by Martin Gray.
Of all of the bands that made their mark in the 1990s, specifically the early part of that decade, there is one specific name that, sadly, appears to have been virtually forgotten by much of the music writers whenever they now hark back nostalgically to re-appraising that period.
That band was Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine. It seems oddly unfair that in the majority of these periodic reassessments of ’90s bands and genres of the 1990s, so many would choose to omit the merest mention of them as if they were not even deserving of a footnote in the history of what transpired in that glorious decade.
Perhaps all they cared about was the fact that, to them, that decade was just all about Madchester, grunge, Britpop and lad rock….. so their ignorance needs challenging. Perhaps their rose tinted myopia failed to acknowledge that there was so much more to the 1990s than their cosy little cosseted memories could care to muster up?
Let’s not forget, for a few years – chiefly 1990 to 1993 during their commercial peak – Carter USM were pretty much inescapable and … well…. unstoppable, as their initial support from – and frequent appearances in – the music papers (chiefly the NME and Melody Maker) gathered steady momentum and, coupled with constant gigging all over the UK, playing just about anywhere that would have them, they soon started to attract a feverishly devoted following.
It is easy to overlook just how big they became for a short time – they were the quintessential indie T-shirt band of their day (taking over the mantle that, say, James enjoyed to such massive returns only a couple of years earlier), because you simply couldn’t go anywhere without bumping into some indie pop kid[s] sporting a Carter logo across their chest!
James Robert ‘Jim Bob’ Morrison and Leslie George ‘Fruitbat’ Carter were previously in the short-lived indie band Jamie Wednesday, who had a couple of singles before stopping in 1987, and from this point the two reinvented themselves as a power-punk duo set on changing the world through their bitter and world-weary (but brilliantly-worded) diatribes on life in gloomy Tory-ruined Britain. And eventually, their mission for world domination really did pay off as people started to take notice.
Their debut album, 1990’s 101 Damnations was an audaciously bold musical statement – filled with all manner of snarling punk vocals and caustic lyrics from Jim Bob, a bewildering arsenal of belligerent samples (raiding both music and film/TV archives) and the full-throttle adrenalised rush of the sequenced bass lines, demented drum machine and caustic guitars created by Fruitbat.
It was like nothing I had heard before up to that point – electropop meets punk for want of a simple description….. it really was an astonishing piece of work. And I was won over enough to go and catch them live for the first time when they played Manchester’s International 1 venue that spring in 1990.
By the time their second album 30 Something appeared at the beginning of the following year, 1991, it seemed that there was nowhere else for Carter to go but ever upwards. It broke into the top 10 of the UK album charts on the week of its release at number 8 and effectively made them household names.
Their tours got bigger and their audience grew exponentially. The T-shirts became ubiquitous and the duo and their fans had effectively propagated their own particular cult phenomenon: CarterMania. I caught them at least once on every single UK tour they did thereafter until the year they first broke up, in 1997. They were such fantastic, incredible times.
Their growing success had a couple of notable drawbacks, however, chiefly involving two well-known media figures: one was Phillip Schofield (rugby tackled by Fruitbat at the end of their performance at the Smash Hits Poll Winners party televised on TV), the other – even more bafflingly – being the endorsement of the duo by the revolting, slug-lipped, former pop svengali and pop columnist for The Scum, none other than Jonathan King, raving about them in his ‘Bizarre’ feature. But we shall try to forget these two aberrations ever happened!
So here we are…… exactly 30 years on (where does the time go I ask?) and all of those of us who were there at the first ‘baptism of the Cult of USM’ in 1990/1991 can readily attest to now being either thinner of hair, greater of girth, wider of neck, more amply endowed of chin, or whatever the fuck else that happens to us all in middle age….
It is an opportune time to revisit this particular album in their compact canon simply because of one thing: if you ask any Carter fan you see on the street which album they can relate to and love the most, the chances are it will be this one. It’s an intriguing thought. This IS the one album that appears to be representative of the duo at their most concise and cutting: it is probably THE consummate Carter USM album in so many ways. When you start to play the album and cue up side one track one, the reasons will become perfectly clear.
Surfin’ USM. This is what happens: First, a vocal prologue from Chris Barrie as Rimmer from Red Dwarf. Next: YOU FAT BASTARD!!!!!! You never thought that would happen to you? Well, hey, fast forward 30 years and it has! And those of you who haven’t (that includes me fortunately), then you are the lucky ones!
THAT is why this wondrous album is the favourite for so many Carter Fans – because it kicks off with their signature tune …. and/or albatross around their necks (delete as appropriate).
What else is there to say about this track? Except that it sounds EXACTLY like AC/DC playing Blondie’s Call Me backed by a Georgio Moroder/Donna Summer sequenced disco sledgehammer beat. David Bowie even makes a cameo appearance towards the end, which is a neat way of showcasing Jim and Les’s glam rock-loving youth as well before the onset of punk turned their heads….
Quickfire lyrical hand grenades (wrapped in barbed wire and doused in kerosene for maximum effect) are detonated with unrelenting ease on many other tracks which follow: My Second To Last Will and Testament, Billy’s Smart Circus, Sealed With A Glasgow Kiss….. each and every one of them a punch to the gut and performed with the same sort of ferocious zeal as a turbo charged juggernaut gatecrashing a warehouse rave, gleefully scattering its occupants in all directions.
This isn’t the loved up spirit of the E-fuelled 1990s anymore, it’s back to sodding reality with an ignominious thud: and the agenda here on offer is bilious hate, hate, and more hate, in keeping with the TRUE spirit of the times. Sounds good to me.
It’s this sort of hyperactive, electrifying stampede that accounts for why Carter were one of the most exciting and exhilarating live acts on the planet during this time. Just two guys on stage with guitars with a battery of blindingly intense lights and taped backing tracks which sound like the world meeting its maker – no respite as one full-on electro-punk stomper / thrasher is rattled off after another, whilst the crowd go fucking apeshit delirious, shout along until they are hoarse and crowd-surf like their lives depended on it.
Add to this the pre-gig ritual of their roadie/friend Jon ‘Fat’ Beast taunting the crowd and whipping them up into a frenzy of ‘You Fat Bastard!’ chants, and a Carter show was guaranteed to be nothing if not boisterously celebratory from end to end. You would never come out of a Carter USM gig not sweating like a glass blower’s arse (thanks Paul O’ Grady for that one). If you did, then you obviously didn’t enjoy the show!
Carter were also occasionally referred to as ‘the punk Pet Shop Boys’, and it is not difficult to see how. More than a fair few of their numbers could easily pass for the work of Tennant/Lowe in the way they share the same sequenced throb and also the synth bass and soaring keyboards – before the vocals and guitars came in. Indeed, they probably recognised this conscious comparison (for the record Les / Fruitbat did happily admit to this a few times in interviews as well) when they covered PSB’s 1987 hit Rent as a b-side for earlier single Rubbish – which was one of their masterstrokes and still a huge live favourite.
30 Something contains another such PSB moment – side one track three: the magnificent Anytime Anyplace Anywhere. For its portentously foreboding synth intro alone! This is – and always will be – perhaps my all time favourite Carter single ever, because when they first aired it live it already had that air of magnificence about it – it sounded immense. And here in the context of its parent album it fits like a glove – perfectly.
It’s a sardonic parable about the joys of drinking, or more like its pitfalls. [It could well be an admonishment of my own less-than-responsible habit in my mid-80s Poly student years mixing all manner of unpalatable liquids and spirits at house parties to create what I called ‘Frankenstein Cocktails’ and then challenging myself to neck them all whilst under the influence of nothing but sheer fuck-brained stupidity. I soon learnt my lesson the hard way, when I became teetotal for life in 1988.]
After building to its earth shattering climax before detonating in a big fuck-off bomb, it’s followed by an even more spectacular showstopper of a tune. A Prince In A Pauper’s Grave starts deceptively quiet and solemn, with funnily enough, another lyric about drinking….this time Johnny is the eponymous [anti]hero protagonist who is trying to drown his sorrows….but it soon makes its intentions clear as it breaks into another surging synthesised refrain – and it’s hard not to feel the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end at the sheer dramatic VASTNESS of the music here, as it proceeds to waltz its way ever-faster like an out of control fairground carousel towards its thrillingly dizzying finale. Brilliant.
Those two twin peaks would be hard to surpass in anybody’s book, but Shoppers Paradise deftly avoids the temptation to throw in five kitchen sinks rescued from random squats in Brixton or Shoreditch, and instead is a jolly canter (with festive sounding bells) which again calls to mind the obvious PSB influences : because here they have effectively done their own sardonic take on Tennant and Lowe’s already sarcastic socio-political dig Shopping, and offered a far more twisted and cynical worldview into the bargain…. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, the big shop is open, it’s a wonderful world’. A nice welcome treatise on rampant consumerism and exploitation with which to end side one then.
The lyrical mood gets darker still on side two, with the glam punk stomp of Bloodsport For All – a single which was banned by the lightweights at Radio One because of the Gulf War that was occurring at the time – offering a bleak insight into the torturous disciplinarianism of life in the armed forces. A sort of ‘never mind the barracks, here’s to the worst time of your life’. Seldom has a song with such a grim subject matter been so infectious – and as if to ram this particular irony home, the duo career into a refrain of a Gary Glitter song at the song’s fade. Who says that Carter do not have a wry sense of (sadistic) black humour?
Sealed With A Glasgow Kiss, by comparison, literally pulls the doormat from under your feet and drives the 4×4 over you. Graphically violent and unrelenting in its tale of domestic abuse…..it’s further proof that this album isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, but when you’re faced with the sort of spectacularly indignant racket that is on show here, it’s hard not to chant along with a twisted smile on your face (ask any fan at their gigs!).
The album now winds down with two absolute killers – the like of which, I would suggest, have never been surpassed in any of their subsequent recordings.
Falling On A Bruise is exactly the sort of song you would seek unconditional solace in when your world is about to come crashing down around you and you feel as if everything you have strived and worked for means absolutely diddly squat (I know, I have been there many times before and still do now. And to put the icing on the turd it starts fucking raining every time you step outside the front door).
It’s a real soul-baring downer of a song, but by its very nature appears to offer comfort, redemption and salvation for all of the misfits and drop outs who are united in grief at the song’s earnestly heart-on-sleeve sentiments (I’m going to get crucified for saying this but, think of it as their own pre-emptive take on that REM staple Everybody Hurts – without the sodding lighters held aloft that is – which followed some 18 months later).
I have actually cried to this song – because of something utterly tragic that happened to me later that year (losing a beloved soulmate/partner who disappeared without trace in August – a few years before Richey Manic did the same), and no doubt others have done so likewise. I have even seen fans at their gigs – eyes welling up – when this one comes on. It possess a sort of emotional gravitas and power which cannot be merely dismissed as mawkish.
What it does tell us is that Jim Bob is bloody good at wringing pathos from something when the mood takes him. He has always been adept at this aspect of his writing. It’s not just the smart-arse puns and vicious misanthropic swipes that he excels at, but also simple, naked, confessional words as well. This song is a towering example of what can be achieved in just under 6 minutes of pure melodrama. And to then hear the doleful words of Michael Caine emerging at the very end at the song’s fade ruminating on life’s rum deal (I won’t re-quote the words here for fear of spoiling it for those who are new) is just the devastating finishing touch.
And as if that song’s magnanimous and valedictory conclusion did not leave you emotionally drained, we next have the other half of the one-two sucker punch: The Final Comedown. Battle scarred, punch drunk, deflated and bereft of all hope….. it’s the sort of thing a beaten wrestler or gladiator would probably attempt to muster up the dying embers of strength to try and enunciate before he collapses in a bloody crumpled heap on the floor. And, sung wearily to the solitary backing of a lone piano and suitably sympathetic strings, it’s a beautifully tender but remorseless way to close the album on such a downer.
After the breakthrough
Carter would sign to a major (Chrysalis records) after this album and then scale an even higher peak with their third release (1992 : The Love Album) which entered the UK charts at number 1 – their star’s ascendance was assured. From that point onward however, came the inevitable press backlash and the usual tedious ‘we built them up so we’ll now knock them down’ antics from the very papers (e.g. NME and melody Maker) who’d been championing them supporting them all the way during those three previous years.
But the main thing was that they still had their massive fan base – as fervent and devoted and obsessive as you could wish for. Yes they were often unfairly lumped in with all of those early 90s acts of certain distinction like ‘the greboes, the crusties, (but categorically not) the goths’ – as their huge 1992 hit single The Only Living Boy In New Cross would astutely namecheck in its lyrics.
We can list a few of those bands here: EMF, Pop Will Eat Itself, Neds Atomic Dustbin, Mega City Four, Senseless Things (RIP Mark Keds), The Wonder Stuff, even Jesus Jones…. but the only thing they had in common was the fact that most of these were neither part of the ‘baggy’ scene, nor the ‘shoegaze’ or ‘grunge’ or even Britpop scenes, so who cares?
A fair number of these bands are now happily still playing, defying all of the snooty critics who dared to dismiss them and turn their noses up at them by trying to find ever more desperate ways to pigeonhole and lump them together.
After their fourth 1993 album Post Historic Monsters – their last as a duo, Carter USM later expanded to a three piece in late 1994 with the addition of Wez (from International Resque) as their first human drummer, releasing their fifth album Worry Bomb in 1995 – their last top 10 album, before then adding even more personnel to their line up – becoming a six piece up to the recording and release of their final album in 1998 ‘I Blame The Government’.
Their first dissolution – from disillusionment – came in 1997 after their final UK tour, with Jim and Les forging their own respective solo projects/careers soon after with Jim’s Super Stereoworld and Abdoujaparov. But indeed they never stayed apart for long, as over the years they have toured with one another’s bands, even collaborated under other guises (the self-deprecating CUSM covers alias Who’s The Daddy Now?) and then regularly issued records under their own bands.
Jim Bob released a few more solo albums under his own name and also branched out into writing novels as well and to date he has penned at least half a dozen well-received works, some fictional, and a few of them autobiographical detailing his life as a pop star during the frenzied Carter USM years. Les continued to play and tour as Abdoujaparov as well as helping out a few of his other musical chums in various projects – the most notable in recent years being a guest member / guitarist with the acclaimed punk-folkers and hugely popular live act Ferocious Dog.
Reunion and the present
In 2007, ten years after their first split, Carter USM reunited for a couple of tentative gigs – supposedly farewell shows – but due to the unquenchable enthusiasm of their still massively devoted fan base, most of whom had stuck with them all along, further sporadic but sold out ‘reunion’ shows continued through 2008, 2009 and 2012 until, in November 2014, the duo decided to play two final shows at Brixton Academy and Shepherd’s Bush Empire – billed under the title The Final Comedown. These two sold out shows were a hugely emotional get together of fans from across the world who assembled to catch the live spectacle of two men, two guitars and a massive fuck-off light show and electro-punk sound system give it their all for what could be one last time. And it was released as a three disc souvenir complete with DVD of the entire show.
Fast forward to the present – well, 2020 – and Jim Bob was back in the top 40 album charts again for the first time since their Straw Donkey singles compilation of 1995…and deservedly so, with his latest solo magnum opus ‘Pop Up Jim Bob’, which, thanks to an ingenious marketing, publicity and design campaign on behalf of everybody from his management to his beloved friends, family and his fans, saw the album enter the charts at number 26, to the sheer delight of everybody and anybody who – over these last 30 something years – have followed the weird, wonderful and wayward antics of these two humble old young punks at heart and continued to show support and appreciation for everything that they have put out from the beginning.
Carter USM / Jim Bob / Fruitbat have always been underrated and under-appreciated as songwriters and performers. You only need to witness one of their live shows from either 1991 or indeed the more recent reunions to realise that the bond that has been forged between them and their loyal fans continues to this day, irrespective of what projects they may be involved with.
Two of the most unassuming, down to earth guys who just happened to become well known pop stars purely by chance, found themselves in the glare of the public eye, enjoyed it for a while, then decided it was a crock of pish, and backed down as promptly as they were propelled up there…..but then for their sins incurred the wrath of an indifferent and elitist music press who have been contriving to write them out of history these past few decades and pretend they never existed.
Well more fool them…..because as they say, sometimes even the underdogs get their belated due eventually.
all words by Martin Gray