I don’t think much of the idea of ‘guilty pleasures’ but there’s guilt and there’s guilt, isn’t there? There’s guilt for something you might be doing wrong – breaking some invisible law of taste, maybe – and that guilt you can and should kick aside. But then there’s guilt for the things you have done, and that’s what I felt when I listened to Carter USM.
The USM stands for Unstoppable Sex Machine, and like everything else about them it seemed like a good idea at the time. Which was 1989 to sometime in the mid-90s – they lost their major label deal and faded from sight; they’d faded from fashion long before. But for a while they were kings – a No.1 album and Top 10 singles when ‘indie bands’ didn’t routinely achieve such things, in the music press all the time, et cetera. In their pomp they were as big as The Smiths ever were, I’d guess. They had a high profile for so long that their profile now they’re uncool is absolutely flat – they don’t even get referenced by mags who want to wink knowingly at their readers and say, hey, even we get it wrong sometimes, because with Carter the NME and other zines got it ‘wrong’ continually, for years.
Actually I’m not even sure they are uncool: I just assume it, since Carter’s still-going solo projects don’t get the slightest far-off hint of buzz. They re-united onstage earlier this year and if I hadn’t been to their website I’d never have known. If they’re not uncool they’re certainly almost forgotten. But whichever it is, there’s a question we can ask about Carter USM: why were they liked, and why aren’t they liked now?
(And there’s another, guiltier, question, too – do I like them?)
One simple answer to start with: Carter did a specific thing nobody else was doing, which made them popular, but that was all they did, so people got bored. They were two men with keyboards, a drum machine, and a guitar. The drum machine hammered out a bass-and-beats pattern; the keyboards provided a melody line and the guitar thrashed away in sympathy. The vocals were sung/shouted in an angry South London bark and it very shortly became clear that almost every Carter track – especially the singles – was issue-led or political.
Before each single’s release there would be an item on the NME news page saying what Carter would be “dealing with” this time. “Anytime Anyplace Anywhere” “dealt with” alcoholism; “Bloodsport For All” “dealt with” racism in the army; “After The Watershed” “dealt with” child abuse; and so on. Dealing with an issue involved shouting about how bad it was, in an oblique sort of way which the Carter website calls ‘blackly humourous’ and which you could still jump up and down to. To illustrate let’s take a verse from their breakthrough hit, “Sheriff Fatman”, which “dealt with” slum landlords in fairly typical style:
“Fatman’s got something to sell to the capital’s homeless
A Crossroads Motel for the no-fixed-aboders
You can live life in style! You can sleep in a closet
And if you flash him a smile he’ll take your teeth on deposit”
This summary probably makes Carter USM sound bloody awful. At the time, though, “Sheriff Fatman” was an invigorating, exciting record, and here’s where I start to feel guilty. I felt guilty for liking Carter USM so much when I was 17 and 18, and then I felt guilty for not liking them and for feeling guilty, and above all that I felt guilty about the fact that the only time I listened to them was when I got drunk with friends who still owned the records and insisted on them putting “Falling On A Bruise” on. “Falling On A Bruise” is Carter’s big end-of-record ballad from their second album. My friend and I listened to it on our last day of school one term and I think of that every time I hear it: “Some you win and some you lose, and 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”. It hadn’t been a great term but it hadn’t been as bad as that, and we hadn’t spent our whole lifetimes doing very much of anything, but that was part of the point.
Why did I stop liking them? That same friend and I went round Europe in 1992. When we got back there was a new Carter single out, “The Only Living Boy In New Cross” (their best single, it seems to me now). I was disappointed with it – more of the same old stuff. I had new friends too, who didn’t like Carter. By the time I went to University I didn’t like them either or affected not to, and as usual the affectation turns into the real thing pretty quickly. And something else was happening: other political bands were getting attention and getting big, and most of those bands were using programmed rhythms too. Chumbawamba, Senser, Back To The Planet – these bands weren’t on major labels like Carter, so they seemed like they had more integrity, but they also diluted the uniqueness of Carter’s jokey-punky approach.
And when those bands went out of fashion, as quickly as they’d come in, Carter went with them. Political pop, and guitars with drum machines, were suddenly about the naffest things a band could do. Social, knowingly British, character-driven pop by snappily-dressed new groups was much cooler – you know the history, I’m sure. And what Carter did is still very unfashionable. Well, sort of. The basic formula of Carter USM is not a vast distance from the basic formula of Le Tigre, after all. But the band’s reputation isn’t what I’m interested in: what I want to ask is, did they sound good? Did the formula work?
In some ways I think it did. Very few bands have sounded as cheap as Carter, and very few have seemed less subtle. The rhythm tracks Carter used were always ultra-primitive – synth presets on sulphate – and the hooks were as brutishly to-the-point as any Top 10 trance tune. The nasty sound of the tapes and machines bled into the nasty sound of pig-handed guitar chordage, but nothing ever sounded stodgy or sluggish like so much guitar-rock of the time did. Linked to the lyrical editorialising, this meant a kind of angry, energetic thrill, like being on a one-man private demo. The ‘guilt’ was built into listening, because you knew of course that they were simplistic and crass, but you loved them that way. They made crassness a virtue.
This was one reason why some of Carter’s worst singles ranted not about AIDS or single mothers but about the simply dreadful state of the pop charts (present company excepted, naturally). “Do Ray Me So Far So Good” saw the only guitar band in the Top 10 sneering about the “pop music stars / with their pop music guitars” who weren’t writing songs about abused children. “Lenny And Terence” was an ugly, pointless stomp which bizarrely chose Terence Trent D’Arby as symptomatic of something rotten in the state of Gallup. You were brought suddenly down to Earth – for a band to work up the exact same froth of rage against Lenny Kravitz as against the Gulf War made both froths seem a bit silly.
Carter’s very worst single was a karaoke stab at “The Impossible Dream” which they talked up as a Christmas No.1 but which may well have scotched their career. It showed off their other defining trait – they were as sentimental a band as the 90s produced. As their fame grew, so did their feeling for their unfortunate fellow man. “The Only Living Boy…” is ostensibly about HIV paranoia but it’s soaked through with hokey affection and the bits everyone remembers are the all-embracing lists of South London lowlives – “the gypsies, the travellers, and the thieves / The good, the bad, the average, and unique”. It thunders along on a borrowed Magazine riff, but this song offers both sides a big boozy hug, shot or not. “Lean On Me I Won’t Fall Over” has a skippy piano loop and a live drummer, but otherwise it’s business as usual musically, and the lyrics are “You’ve Got A Friend” with extra needle-sharing.
In the end, though, I’m a sentimental man myself, and this is why, yes, I do like Carter USM. Especially, I’ll grant you, if I’ve had a few pints. Carter at their occasional best sit as part of a much-loved strain of pint-handed mawkishness in British rock: Rod Stewart’s “You Wear It Well”, The Pogues’ “Rainy Night In Soho”, Mott’s “Saturday Gigs” maybe. And “Falling On A Bruise”, too. These songs stick out like a sore head amongst all the other stuff I like, though that’s not why I feel guilty. I feel guilty because admitting I like Carter USM is admitting the 18-year-old me was more honest, and more open-hearted, than the me which didn’t like them through most of my twenties. They’re part of my history as a pop fan – and their story’s interesting beyond that, as an example of what happens to one-trick ponies when the rides dry up (it was listening to The Streets that got me thinking about Carter again, as it happens). I wouldn’t recommend them to you – a lot of the time they were rubbish, after all – but I won’t apologise either. And if I had the chance to do it all again? I’d change nothing.