The band that dominated my youth, Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, are reforming to play a farewell gig in November. I have been revisiting their back-catalogue:Eastbourne at the turn of the 1990s was something of a cultural wasteland. 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 the Radio 1(or ‘Wun FM’ as it liked to call itself in a bid to appeal to the yoof of the time) playlist. Therefore, at the age of 14, I was a fan of The Soup Dragons, while still harbouring a love for my childhood heroes, Dire Straits. Musically, they were bleak times. Within a year, I would start buying Melody Maker and NME, which would introduce me to Kurt Cobain’s Wonderful World Of Grunge, prompting my jeans to become ripped, my lank hair to tumble beyond my shoulders and my feet to clomp heavily in scuffed DMs. Before that though, something happened that affected my music taste, and my life, forever.
A new boy joined my school; an impossibly cool new boy from London with a strange, floppy fringe. He wore a Stone Roses T-shirt for P.E. and had press cuttings from NME on his folder. One of the cuttings was about a band called 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, this new band sounded impossibly exciting. 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 a band that wrote dazzling punk-pop tunes which spoke as if directly to me. These songs were angry and bursting with life in a way that I had never before heard. At this time in my life, I was typically ignorant to the history of music. The Clash and The Sex Pistols were well before my time and, as most kids do, I thought all old music was rubbish anyway, so they meant nothing to me whatsoever. I have since learnt the error of my teenage ways and now music from beyond yesteryear such as Tom Waits, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Blondie, Bob Dylan, Velvet Underground and the aforementioned punks all count as favourites. However, back in 1992, Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine 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 to get their autographs once and purchased everything they released (literally everything). Posters adorned my walls, I copied their haircuts, I owned so many of their T-shirts that had one for every day of the week at least and I could sing every lyric of every song.
Now, ten years after their break-up and 20 years since they formed, they return in their original line-up (guitarist/vocalist Jimbob and guitarist/backing vocalist Fruitbat) to play a farewell hurrah at London’s Brixton Academy in November. This begs the question, were they actually any good, or are my dewy-eyed memories of the duo misplaced?
There are so many reasons to dismiss Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine; so many reasons to hide one’s love for them away like a secret stash of pornography. There is the ridiculous name for a start (which refers to Fruitbat’s stamina in the bedroom), and the band-members’ similarly silly monikers. Already, before a note is played, it is hard to take them seriously. Next, there is the stupid hair, the shorts and cycling caps, the stick-thin arms dangling from baggy t-shirts like pieces of string, the occasional, ill-advised forays into the world of facial hair. They were certainly the band that style forgot. Music purists would also point to the fact that their guitar-playing was often primitive, there was no bass and that their trusty drum machine would simply bash out standard beats. Their gigs were attended by fatboys in shorts who would mosh and shout ‘You fat bastard’ at the band (a reference to their obese, one-time compere Jon Beast). Lyrically they evoked sighs for the overuse of puns and wordplay; and often they were accused of either a lack of subtlety or of dipping their toes in the murky waters of over-sentimentality in their subject-matter. Frankly, many people just thought that they 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 actually 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 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 stood out because they actually stood for something. Politics really hadn’t had a place in the mainstream charts for some time (certainly not in the late 80s anyway), so when a group came along that was so overtly political you simply couldn’t ignore the message that they were ramming down your throat. Okay, so they may have simply been shouting about issues rather than solving them, but at least they were willing to stand up and be counted. There was an honesty and integrity about Carter that wasn’t in the slightest contrived and could not be doubted.
Single, Bloodsport For All 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 it was also done with a drollness that pulled it back from being the kind of inaccessible ranting that it was in danger of becoming. Another reason that their message was so accessible is because, primitive or not, these guys 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 bed-sit poets, pouring their hearts out on tape. Where critics point to over-sentimentality, I see honesty. Carter’s lyrics were at their most poignant when they touched on humdrum stories of loneliness, sadness, depression and occasional 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 vocally 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 – perhaps because they simply weren’t cool enough, 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 (1992, funnily enough) 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. Their guitar playing may have been basic, they may have hollered in an odd sarf Landon drawl and had the sartorial elegance of a couple of dishevelled EMF fans, but the two unassuming lads from south of the river were hot property for a while. Some might say that, sometime between 1991 and 1993, they were even proper pop stars.
This was the main problem. In spite of their pop sensibilities when it came to penning a tune, Jimbob and Fruitbat were in no way pop stars, and they were not equipped or prepared to deal with everything that came with selling a squllion records. Jimbob grew 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 long-player with an 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 the album that fans of their poppier work were hoping for. Releasing from it the least radio-friendly single ever (Lenny and Terence) was the nail in the coffin. Not only was it a fairly pointless rant about modern day music (which they had done much better with earlier single, Do Re Me So Far So Good, anyway), that demonised Lenny Kravitz and Terence Trent D’Arby, but 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. Why Carter so knowingly shot themselves in the foot is beyond me. Rather than play to their strengths (the humour, the cheekiness, the indie/dance formula), they went all serious and guitar heavy on us. Much like Super Furry Animals today, it seems that, when confronted with the opportunity to take over the world, they deliberately placed hurdles in their own way, as if they were scared to take the next step.Of course, when grunge and Britpop came along, Carter were brushed aside by the media, and history has not been kind to their memory, but to revisit their work is to discover a band that oozed energy, excitement and passion. Now, when I play their 1989 debut album, 101 Damnations, I don’t think “Oh they really could have done with a bass player” I think how fresh it sounds, nearly 20 years on. I think how fucking in-yer-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.
In spite of this, it would be hard to switch someone on to Carter now. While I got into them fairly late (their third album was my first), 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 the only music that we were being offered from this country emanated from the ecstasy-popping Madchester scene. I’m sure that was great if you lived in The North and were old enough to get into Hacienda, it meant little to us youngsters from the south, but 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, and some of them are wonderful, 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, and in spite of the fact that there were just two of them on a massive stage, 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. 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 all the time 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.
Nowadays, while some of their songs still sound exciting and important – the anti-war stance of Say it With Flowers, the thrilling burst of aggression that is Re-educating Rita, the dipsomaniac wooziness of Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere - the uninitiated would perhaps wonder why I am praising them so highly. This is understandable, as it might be hard to understand the appeal of Carter simply because there are now many bands doing something similar to such a high standard. Just listen to Jamie T’s Jimbob-esque shouting/rapping over a hip-hop backbeat, or how Klaxons mix dance rhythms with chainsaw guitar riffs and you have the remnants of something that Carter started. Similarly, the social commentary of The Rakes or The Streets is reminiscent of Carter, and did anyones else see something they recognised in the Likely Lads companionship of The Libertines? Oh, and of course Art Brut openly state them as an influence.
Regardless of where they stand in the grand scheme of things, whether they are important or nothing more than a footnote on the 90s scene, there is always one band that makes a difference to a person’s life, and Carter was that band for me. The fact that their upcoming Brixton show sold out in the blink of an eye, as thousands of 30 Somethings jumped at the chance to relive an important part of their youth, suggests that it isn’t just me that they mean so much to. I’ll be at Brixton, singing my heart out to those massive pop tunes like Glam Rock Cops and top ten hit The Only Living Boy In New Cross, and I’ll be doing it without irony and with utter abandon. They may have been wiped from history by the cooler than thou NME, but I will say without shame that Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine are unquestionably my favourite band of all time.