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Sep 02

YOU SAD BASTARD! – Carter Reconsidered

FT/79 comments • 22,746 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. 1
    KEV EDGAR on 12 Sep 2006 #

    Great piece on Carter,

    I still like them though!!!

  2. 2
    Rivergypsy on 17 Oct 2006 #

    Hi.
    I’m looking for some background material and or opinions on Jon beast(often known it would seem, as the ‘fat bastard’!. Most of the comments i’ve come across aren’t particularly constructive (or remotely polite sometimes come to that!) so it’s hard to pick out the truth/sensible comments from the abuse and bullshit. Can anyone offer or point towards some halfway factual data about the fat bastard! :)

    Cheers,

    Rivergypsy.

  3. 3
    dogs knob rob on 3 Nov 2006 #

    as i read this, im listening to “worry bomb”. i was interested in carter from the beggining and when i play any of their songs it takes me back to the “good old days”. i think some of the comments were a bit harsh, but overall a good review!!!

  4. 4
    Michele on 8 Dec 2006 #

    Harsh stuff here, I thought Carter were one of the most thought provoking bands of the nineties myself better than a lot of the brainless rubbish around at the time. I really liked them a lot.

  5. 5
    Arty Farty Ben on 14 Dec 2006 #

    Hi there

    Jon Beast used to be a punk promoter and fanzine writer in Exeter back in the 80s. I think I may even have played with him in his band “Gerbil squad” once. Famous for his “Go mental” song and baby’s dummy, and the immortal words “my best friend is a fridge freezer/he’s a bit cold but he’s a good geezer”

    Fondly remembered

  6. 6
    Andy P on 29 Dec 2006 #

    Carter were, and remain, a legendary band. Unfashionable they may be, but poor quality they never were.

  7. 7
    Tom on 30 Dec 2006 #

    Re-reading this for the first time since I wrote it, I really like this piece.

    I should probably also mention that I like Carter more and more each year, too. I’m sorry if this piece seems harsh on them: reading it again it’s harsher on me. A more full-hearted defence of Carter USM is required and deserved.

  8. 8
    paniczoo on 9 Jan 2007 #

    I fucking hate Lenny Kravitz, cunt.

  9. 9
    punctum on 10 Jan 2007 #

    Surprised that there’s no mention of Carter as the indie B-side of the Pet Shop Boys (down to their cover of “Rent” which was, er, an indie B-side). There’s just one bottle of Parazone separating “Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere” from “It’s A Sin.”

  10. 10
    Ben e Boy on 22 Jan 2007 #

    As a 21-year old who wasn’t into music at the age of

  11. 11
    Ben e Boy on 22 Jan 2007 #

    (oops, broken html)

    As a 21-year old who was under 10 when Carter were around, I’ve just been getting into them for the last ~12 months. I’m tryng to learn more about what each of their songs is about. Maybe the bubble will burst for me eventually, too, and I’ll look back on this phase Carter fandom questionably. Who knows?

  12. 12
    Pete on 22 Jan 2007 #

    None of their songs are about druqs, that much I can assure you. But if any are obscure, i am sure we can help you with particular obscure references!

  13. 13
    Andy on 26 Jan 2007 #

    Well I love Carter and I’m not ashamed to say it! I think it’s because I understood a lot of their more significant music. One of the reasons that they were not so fashionable or more popular is that they released what seemed like hundreds of albums and singles and b-sides etc etc which really diluted the absolute quality of output to the broader public. This was, however, a bonus for the die-hard fan as we got to listen to absolutely everything that Les and Jim wrote – however most bands will just release a handfull of albums and pick the cream – Carter gave you the works, warts and all! You could make 3 albums of quality music which would stick to carter’s morals but at the same time be commercially accessable – the only problem is that they spead these songs over a decade and over 10 albums…

  14. 14
    sst on 21 Feb 2007 #

    A few points (especially to young ones):

    As you get older you don’t listen to the same music ALL the time. It would be like eating your favourite food every day. So you take time out from your favourite stuff and re-visit it, this makes it more enjoyable. I took time out from carter in the late 90s until about 3 years back and on re-visiting I find the songs which made you sing and jump around still have the same power.

    Also carter fell out of favour for many reasons. First the death of students in the real “young one” sense. Student life is nothing like it was due to grants, the fact not everyone became a student (not that everyone should not if they want to, but do they want to? a different discussion but you get the point.) Second the NME was determined to find a new sound and binned carter et al. They tried new wave of new wave and other pish but then came oasis and their bland anthems which the kids and their dads loved. It was loved by old fart hacks as you did not need to jump up and down like indie or grunge and reminded them of their 60s records. Oasis in turn single-handedly destroyed indie labels and music as the majors bought the labels to try and get another oasis then when the profit was not there shut them down. Finally the kids of 95+ while eating their oasis dirge and swaying to the drone had suffered a loss of feeling. Feeling angry, caring & shouting all gone, it was all about the self (see oasis -> travis -> coldplay -> snow patrol). So it remained for 10 years and only now do any acts sing about their surroundings and shout about it. It is no surprise that people believed carter wrote the arctic monkeys songs when that rumour went out is it.

  15. 15
    Gibby on 26 Feb 2007 #

    Im a 17 year old college student who happened to get hooked on Carter USM by pure chance after I heard someone making a reference to “Sherrif Fatman”. I was instantly hooked. Apart from “Born On The 5th of November” and “Lenny and Terrence”, every single they released was superb. I also think some of their later stuff is vastly underrated, and if they hadnt split up “Citizens Band” and “Sunshine” could easily have been released as singles.

    Some of their lyrics are just brilliant though. “Ive never gone cold turkey in a shed in Alberquirky……”

  16. 16
    Pete on 26 Feb 2007 #

    The Lenny & Terrance problem though is still the greatest barrier for me completely letting Carter back into my life.

  17. 17
    Thom on 1 Mar 2007 #

    I never understood anyone not loving Carter! At the time i also loved PWEI but Carter were my band…..

    Therir lyrics always made you think, the tunes were as bouncy as you could get and the blokes themselves the most unassuming, self depricating types you could meet.

    It was at a time when NME built up a band and built them up and built them up and suddenly decided to crush them, i think that had a lot to do with their sudden lack of credibility.

    What kind of band would have their 3rd album go straight into the chart at number one and then want to call the 4th album ‘Commercial Fucking Suicide’?

    I AM biased and i don’t care. Carter, great band always were!!!!!!

  18. 18
    J Kelly on 19 Mar 2007 #

    I somehow heard Sheriff Fatman in CA in 89 I think. I was able to buy the ‘single’ at Tower on cassette as you could do back then. But I never heard another thing they did. I seems funny to think that their history can leave someone feeling guilty. It makes them sound like Vanilla Ice, but I get what you’re saying.

    I for one have never heard a song like Sheriff Fatman before or since. I think it is a totally original sound. It popped into my head the other night watching ECW pro wrestling as I thought what a great character “Sheriff Fatman would be for a wrestler. The entrance music would never get old… and boy wouldn’t you love to hate him!

  19. 19
    Gary N on 5 Apr 2007 #

    Carter are ACE!!!

    I saw them at the Zodiac in Oxford in the very late 90’s or 00’s… first time I had seen them, and I bounced all night (very easy on the upstairs, wooden floor of the Zodiac)… Fantastic..!

    I finally got hold of Worry Bomb and I now play it as loud as I my wife will let me – and I bop about too when she isn’t looking…

    Gotta go do some singing/shouting into the mike – without any guilt at all!

    Signed… a senile deliquent

  20. 20
    baldylum on 25 Apr 2007 #

    I followed Carter over the 90’s and i have got to say. They were the godfathers of brit pop. Never mind oasis and the roses. These two guys when they were on their game were fantastic. I once had a drunken night at the Queens hall in Edinburgh with fruitbat, Jimbob and Wez (the part time drummer)which was one of the best laughs that I have ever had. I for one will be at the final gigs in October at the Barras and Brixton.

    Baldylum

  21. 21
    jkforde on 28 Apr 2007 #

    CUSM’s SFM was THE anthem during the early 1990s because it rocks (I still love it) and it has an intelligent lyrics, which can’t be said for 80% of the vacuous shite since!

    …..British rock: …. The Pogues’ “Rainy Night In Soho”….., er bty, The Pogues are Irish, not British…Shane would use some words if he was referred to as anything other than Irish!

  22. 22
    barborini on 7 May 2007 #

    I felt alone for oh so many years couse in italy not so many people knew Carter (nobody in my town, I guess)
    i liked them so much and they meant so much for me. They were great.

  23. 23
    scott on 9 May 2007 #

    i’m 24 but i distinctly remember carter been in my life from an early age, my older brother and father were and still are huge fans, scratch that, maybe not anymore. over the course of the last 5/6 years have fallen in love with em. carter still live on

  24. 24
    Birdy on 19 May 2007 #

    My name is Birdy and I am a recovering Carterholic. I haven’t listened to Carter for at least 8 years now, but I still get cravings every now and then.
    At the time I was a complete Carter fan, bordering on obsession for a good 4 or 5 years. I’ve moved on since then, but I look back quite proudly, feeling that Carter were a step above all the other tepid, ineffectual music that my friends listened to at the time.
    I don’t care if they are ‘cool’ any more, their honesty, cynicism and issue led anthems influenced me at a certain time and place as I grew up and are part of the fabric of who I am now (cynical git).
    Without wanting to sound like an old bastard, at least we had bands like Carter – what the hell have kids got now? Justin Timberlake? McFly?

  25. 25
    fivelongdays on 2 Jun 2007 #

    I’m 25, and I’m inordinately fond of Carter. I even like “Lenny and Terence”, so there.

    Incidentally, me and a mate were going to set up the world’s first Carter USM tribute band. Plus, “Let’s Get Tattoos” certainly influenced Andrew WK’s “Party Hard”, which has to go in their favour.

  26. 26
    Howard Rowntree on 4 Jun 2007 #

    Carter we’re one of those bands people either loved or hated. It’s interesting to note that the music industry seems to have completely forgetten about them and yet they were probably one of the most important bands of the 90’s. And just to show how importnat they we’re their Brixton reunion show sold out within days.

  27. 27
    dani on 10 Jun 2007 #

    Carter USM is part of my life, it’s still a very important part of me. They are my idols and I still listen to them quite often. I’m from Spain and I also felt alone by the time they were so famous, as no one else in my hometown knew them.

    I wish I could understand better English as I don’t get the meaning of so many songs… but the music, no matter if the author of this essay says it’s just all the same, I think it’s really different from anything else I can find in other groups.

    And, still, I think the latest songs from the two members once they split up, some of them are worth it, especially the Jimbob ones.

  28. 28
    Murdoch on 11 Jun 2007 #

    Carter the Unspeakable Shit Machine, as they were known round my way, were more fucking horrible than the first world war. Stupid fucking hair, cycling clothing (Who fucking DOESN’T look like a twat in THAT?) and songs to make one murderous with rage. I cite in evidence the following: Their inept drum programming – clattery lumpen “beats” built by people who couldn’t dance for people who couldn’t dance – made all their songs sound like a drill square at busy time for drill squares, only with some whiny nasal Sarf Lahndan dole-bludger moaning about some shit that’s got fuck all to do with him, because he’s afucking POP STAR, thrown to the fore over the relentless sound of stomping, which if I remember correctly, was just about all Carter fans could do when overwhelmed with a desire to “dance”. Carter’s ghastly pun-ridden lyrics, which the witless cunts who bought this shite claimed were “witty” and/or “ironic”, are enough to make anyone with any fondness whatever for wit and irony choke on their Squeeze records.

    Lemme get back to their “image”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but having a manky hippy squatter’s “interesting” hairdo is only a good thing if you’re a manky hippy squatter, which in itself is only a good thing if you want me to come and whack your feckless brains out with a car door, y’bastard. And the cycling shorts and t-shirts!!! Honest to Christ, if there was ever a clothing choice better designed to make some aging scrawny hair criminal (who used to be in the shittest of all shit indie bands – Jamie Wednesday) look even more of a cunt than his hairdon’t and back-to-front cap already did, then I want to know about it.

    These arseholes should have been drowned at birth instead of subjecting me and other right-thinking music fascists to their faux-proletarian blethering and hideous tastlesness.

    One more thing – I hate the fact that Mega City Four still get lumped in with crap like Carter. Genuinely witty and caring people and bands like MC4 don’t come along every day of the week, whereas you can walk into any student bar in the western world and hear some middle-class twonk twatting a guitar in the most grindingly dull way imaginable while spraying poorly considered puns and hapless low-grade wordplay at his mates and their girlfriends from the stage. Do yourselves a favour, kids. If you see one of them, spoil their evening before they spoil yours.

    Oh, and next time you’re at a mate’s house and he brings out his big sister’s Carter cds and says “You might not have heard this, but it’s really good – it’s from the 90s”, punch him in the throat, shove the Carter cds up his nose and then leave, safe in the knowledge that you’ve narrowly avoided a lifetime’s friendship with an unconscionable arsehole.

  29. 29
    CarsmileSteve on 11 Jun 2007 #

    man, he was doing so well until the Megas reference as well…

    i assume that the poster is Howlin’ Mad Murdoch

  30. 30
    Murdoch on 11 Jun 2007 #

    Assume away. You’ll be wrong, though.

    I, on the other hand, will be right about MC4. ;)

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