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Sep 02

YOU SAD BASTARD! – Carter Reconsidered

FT/66 comments • 13,809 views

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.

Comments

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  1. 51
    Jason the Unrepentant on 14 Sep 2008 #

    Gosh.
    And I quite liked Carter.
    Still do.
    I must be sad.

  2. 52
    Charlotte on 6 Nov 2008 #

    to be quite honest i am not a 1st generation carter fan, ive been listening to them since i was born, best friends with their daughters, their brothers best friends with my father and they are the nicest blokes i have ever met, very down to earth in tune and amaingly witty. I am 16, i love carter usm, im so glad they did a reunion because i got a chance to see them (in years i remember).

    straw donkey is an amzing album and im so happy they have a reunion on the 22nd day of november the day that they shot kennedy lol…

    if you dont appriciate them then your missing a screw they wrote about issues that their generated wanted to hear about. They may be forgotten but how many people idolise punk rock for their messages, well this is early 90′s idilic message rock

    god love it i know i do
    cant wait to jump about at the gig
    xxx

  3. 53
    Bernie Reeves on 10 Nov 2008 #

    i love Carter but i was 1 when 101 Damnations came out and i only got into them a couple of years ago when my thirty-something brother lent me one of his CDs.

    i’m going to see them Nov ’08 at Brixton but was wondering are there any Carter fans below the age of 21?

  4. 54
    simon on 24 Nov 2008 #

    yes m8 my daughter’s 8 and i took her to the brixton show on 22nd nov. Had to go in the circle though. some crazy lady tried to get her to dance but shyness prevailled and possibly bewilderment. Went to the front for sheriff fatman (her favourite) and she was amazed at the crowd in the stalls, reverse stage diving. she liked emf too although she said smash were a bit loud. she wants to go again….after we’ve been downtown to get tatoos…

  5. 55
    Alexandros Kotsis on 11 Feb 2009 #

    I’m from Greece, 32. i was not even 18 when they gave a gig in Athens, back in February 1995… less that 500 people in the venue… i still rememberthe final song – ENGLAND -. Jim Bob’s voice made my hair rise… i have their complete discography.

    in 1997 i went to England to study thinkging: “cool, i will get the chance to see carter again”. poor me! they split just a bit later! i discovered that not too many people knew them in England, at least in Staffs uni were i studied… they were forgotten… i almost forgot them too. but every now and then i was picking up my vinyls and cds in order to listen to their songs and remember the good old days…

    now, this year, i will have the chance to see them again… in november. i will travel to London just for that… no way i miss it!

  6. 56
    Sean A on 18 Feb 2009 #

    My intro to Carter USM was on the radio in Arizona (no, not Gutterpressville). It was “Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere”. It got a fair amount of play, but so did a lot of English singles at that time. I liked it (and still do), but in the end, I only ever bought 30 Something and 1992/The Love Album (whatever it’s called). I like both and have recommended them to select friends without reservation. I will continue to do so because I can do with a little Carter in my life every now and then. I enjoyed their wordplays and depressing lyrics. Who cares what they wore – no one won style points back then.

  7. 57
    Hazeley on 17 Apr 2009 #

    Greatest band ever and the gigs the last 2 years have been unbelievable. 2 more in London this Autumn – they’re going to play every track from the the first 4 albums.
    Wasn’t sure about the solo material at first but it’s really grown on me. Some of the tracks on JimBob’s ‘A Humpty Dumpty Thing’ are superb.

  8. 58
    Robert Steed on 16 Nov 2009 #

    I’m not going to read this article – I’ve seen enough to know not to. “I wouldn’t recommend them to you – a lot of the time they were rubbish” sums up this person’s lack of clue! Very little of the time were they rubbish. Carter USM were the band that changed my life, and were rare unique genius. I don’t care what anyone else thinks or says!

  9. 59
    Andy Mac on 21 Nov 2009 #

    Cracking best band in the world but I’m glad they only get together for the odd reunion now… I think ‘I blame the Government’ was a bit of a nail in the coffin, still a decent album but certainly not Carter at their best. So, as gutted as I was at the time with Carter’s curtain finally coming down, I couldn’t imagine my current CD collection without the genius of Jim’s Super Stereoworld (which is loved by everyone that I’ve ever played it to) and all the incredible material that Jim Bob has released as a solo artist…

    Carter still gets played a lot in my house and there is loads of it to get through but what gets me these days is looking forward to hearing new material from Jim Bob and listening to his numerous albums that are already out there waiting to be heard by the masses, the man’s a legend and deserves to be selling Brixton out on his solo shows… If you haven’t heard the album Angelstrike then go out and find it and play it LOUD, it is incredible, as are all his other albums

    Long Live Jim Bob cause I wouldn’t fancy learning to live in a world without him (excuse the pun!!). When you listen to the stuff on the radio at the minute from the ‘indie’ scene I can’t compare anything to the quality that Jim Bob constantly puts out… Don’t get me wrong, there is good music at the minute, just not on the radio and it really gets to me which is why I’m writing this, I just need to get it off my chest in the hope that I don’t get so annoyed in work anymore listening to Radio 1 though I doubt it… maybe its time to give in and learn to love Snow Patrol and Coldplay

    Maybe Not….

  10. 60
    LiSA b on 5 Dec 2009 #

    GET over it att all! :live your live as YOU SEE IT! Believe me, I’ve had a tramatic head injuria ( brain, actualy). Live your life as YOU want it, not as others say it SHOULD be!!
    :Love you all!
    -Magic ( I won’t tellyou whu that’s my nickna,name…use your imaginatin! “-()

  11. 61
    Mad dog on 11 Nov 2011 #

    MURDOCH YR A FANNY u ain’t got a clue here’s 10p go buy 1 FUD BOY Grrrrrrrrrrr

  12. 62
    Pablo Quema on 15 Dec 2012 #

    Tom, if you rate punk bands on the basis of how cool and fashionable they are, you’re always going to miss the point. Carter were lo-fi and angry because they were a punk band, and they stuck with the mindset and technology they started out with – they were very honest and level-headed, despite several years of highly distracting fame and fortune. I’m glad you acknowledge that they did sound good, for all their trashiness (I like the trashiness, personally), but I’m nonplussed that you criticise them for being relentlessly political, and then criticise them for writing a song about how much they disliked Kravitz & D’Arby. Bit of a double standard there mate.

    As for the main thrust of your piece – Carter didn’t disappear to the people who genuinely appreciated them, they only disappeared to people like you who hide musical tastes for fear of being deemed uncool; people who listen to music because it’s fashionable, not because they enjoy it. People who feel guilty about enjoying a certain type of music bore me intensely. Musical taste isn’t about what other people think, it’s about what gives you a kick, and guilt should never enter your mind. The word you want here isn’t ‘guilty’, it’s ‘embarrassed’ – you became embarrassed to like Carter when they stopped being flavour of the month, because you were more bothered about other people’s perception of your musical taste than you were about actually enjoying music itself. What I get from this piece is that you don’t like Carter any more because you’re a hipster, and your perception of musical quality is based on popularity first and foremost.

    I suggest you have another listen to 101 Damnations, forget about your haircut for a while, and accept that two untrained South London lads did remarkably groovy things with a couple of guitars, a drum machine and a sampler. Alternatively, you could count up the ‘for’ and ‘against’ in the comments on here, and realise that Carter are in fact still popular amongst people who care…

  13. 63
    Alan not logged in on 15 Dec 2012 #

    FORGET ABOUT YOUR HAIRCUT, TOM

  14. 64
    Angeljuice on 16 May 2013 #

    Loved Carter, still do, always will. Love Jimbobs work too, ‘Goffam’ is a favorite of mine. To be honest, I don’t think they ever wanted mega-fame, just as happy making a living doing what they love. Really down to earth, nice people.
    Their lyrics, puns and wordplay are very unique, and you could take any song in their catalogue and find real lyrical gems.

    “There’s a free pair of flares with every hip-replacement, just take the stairs to the bargain basement!” a metaphor for modern life if you ask me.

  15. 65
    Thomas on 31 Jul 2013 #

    Well, it was November 1st, 1993 in Dortmund. I was 22 ýears old and wanted to go into the Disco Musiczirkus in Dortmund, Germany.

    Before the regular Disconight began, there still was a concert from a band I’ve never heard from. I was a little bit to early this evening, so I’ve heared the last 3 songs which were played by the band … and I was electrified by this amazing sound.

    I looked at the tour posters and have seen that this great band was “Carter USM”. This was a key moment for me and from this day on I’m a fan of them.

    I’ve seen them 1995 3 times in Germany and had some nice conversations with them backstage after the shows.

    I LOVE Jimbob and Fruitbad for that what they gave me with their music.

  16. 66
    Keene on 15 Aug 2013 #

    Such a jaded article about Carter. I got lucky (not quite lucky enough), and became a fan when 30 Something was out (before 1992 The Love Album). I was instantly hooked – they had crazily perfect lyrics, two guitars and a drum machine.

    The first Carter gig I went to was at the Barrowlands in Glasgow, and oh my god – that was crazy (Love Album Tour). They played all the big songs from all albums (and several that were only bsides), and just rocked that place. I was right in the front center, and I can honestly say that I came out of that gig covered in more beer and lager than sweat – and I danced wildly for 2 hours straight. That was the Friday night show, and I went to the Saturday night show (same venue) too. I took a change of tshirt for that one, and it was just as great as the 1st.

    So, retrospectively, how do I feel about them? When I listen to the music, it brings a tear to my eye, recalling the finer moments in life with Carter as my soundtrack. Wish I could have gone to the reunion shows, but I’m in a whole different country now, and didnt find out in time. Would I go back and do it all again? Hell, yes. Not even a question. When I think about the music, I remember it fondly. My kids also went wild to it when I played some of the songs for them (also young).

    In all, I went to see them about 12-15 times, the best was the first couple of times in Glasgow. They always rocked out the venues. Best gigs ever.

    I wish that some of the haters could have avoided the ‘its cool / its not cool’ crap, because even if Carter sang about political events and issues of the time, it didnt matter, what matters is how it made you feel, how you could just dance without caring, sing along as loud as you could, and live that moment – truly live that moment. I had so many of those, and wouldnt surrender them for anything.

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