I took a while to warm up to Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine. Didn’t know that much about them, didn’t really care for the name, didn’t like that the person I knew who listened to them most was my housemate Doug, who tended to go straight for all those Madchester bands that all those floppy-haired baggy idiots listened to.
The first chance I had to see Jim Bob and Fruitbat was at Huddersfield Poly in 1990, and instead I opted to sit outside the gig, working the till. I didn’t hate what I heard through the doors, and I seem to recall being quite taken with the slightly muffled sound of their cover of the Pet Shop Boys’ Rent, but that was it.
And then over the next year I grew to love them. Personally I think it’s their sheer incongruity that eventually drew me to Carter. With about 10 years on their indie peers, they’d been around a bit and seemed to give less of a fuck about how they were perceived, something that enabled them to jump around on stage in shorts and (in Jim Bob’s case) silly haircuts, hammering out high energy songs about generally grim subjects, Jim Bob’s sharp lyrics thick with puns and pop culture references.
They tended to draw criticism for being two blokes with guitars and a drum machine, but for me that was their strength; it gave them focus. It’s hard to fault Fruitbat’s musical skills, gifting Carter’s songs with ambitiously arranged musical backdrops, and as a words person I never tire of Jim Bob’s artful lyrics, painting tales of life south of the river with deft, poetic strokes.
With such a brilliantly dissonant mix going on, it’s a miracle they made it into the mainstream at all. I think it comes down to sheer bloody persistence on their part and the boundless, infectious enthusiasm of the fans. Having made it, it’s not surprising that they didn’t last long at the top; theirs was never simple pop music or earnest indie or indeed anything you can easily pigeonhole. They were – still are – thoroughly divisive, and I love them for it.
I think the gateway drug for me was the barnstorming opener to their second album, 30 Something. Surfin’ USM, with its Red Dwarf and Bowie samples, machine gun drum machine, rock star guitar riffs, over-the-top orchestra hits and timpani rolls, and those ‘Ba-ba-ba’ lyrics, grabbed me from the off. It’s catchy as all hell and it sounds like a band who are really enjoying themselves.
It took another year – and many listens to 30 Something and 101 Damnations on cassette – for me to see Carter live; by that time they were packing out the larger venues across the UK, but I was living in France at the time and so got to see them at a fab little venue in the north of Paris called Espace Ornano (where they’d also played a year earlier and recorded it, then forgot about the tape until 2012 and put it online for free; if you want to hear a band at the peak of their powers, you really ought to download it).
The venue was like a smaller, slightly crappier, French version of the classic Charing Cross Road Marquee, and I saw a few bands there over the course of that year, although not the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy because by that point I had a girlfriend, who was arriving in Paris the same night. Still kick myself for missing that one.
The Ornano gig was a bit of a strange one because the audience was mainly English; my first glimpse of those Carter fans who followed the band around everywhere. I don’t think enough of them made it across the English Channel to result in the sort of moshpit and crowdsurfing action that was happening in the UK at the time, but I still remember it being a fantastic gig, even though by this time they’d released their ‘difficult’ third album, 1992: The Love Album and, by all accounts, were starting to tire of the whole business. Listen to live performances from then on – such as the one on the remastered version of 1992 – and it definitely seems like they’re not having so much fun any more.
A couple of weeks later they headlined Glastonbury and got banned for life after Fruitbat, understandably annoyed after earlier bands overran and caused Carter’s set to be cut short, called Michael Eavis a cunt on-stage. Fair enough. (It was funnier when he rugby-tackled Philip Schofield at the Smash Hits Poll Winners party, though.)
There’s a great moment in the Paris gig recording I mentioned earlier, where Jim Bob remarks, “All the mad stupid fuckers on this side, and all the intelligent people going, ‘Mmm, these lyrics are interesting’, on this side.” Which sums up a Carter audience beautifully. When I finally got round to seeing them again, 19 years later in Manchester, I inadvertently positioned myself among the mad stupid fuckers, figuring that this 40 something crowd wasn’t likely to get too energetic.
This proved to be a bit of an error, and I was spat out of the moshpit before the end of Surfin’ USM. Yeah, one of the intelligent, interesting lyrics people, but the atmosphere that night was so great, with so much love in the room for Carter, that I kept leaping back into it throughout the gig. I had to buy a T-shirt at the end of the night just so I had something that wasn’t soaked in sweat to wear to the after-party.
I missed Carter in 2012, but this year I was fortunate enough to grab a ticket for their last-ever show at Brixton Academy, which sold out in about 20 minutes. It was my first time at the Academy and my first time in Brixton, and even though I knew it was sold out I wasn’t quite prepared for the experience of seeing Carter playing on home ground. I got there about an hour before they were due on stage and the venue was already rammed, every bar three or four deep. I managed to get a couple of pints in before Carter came on, but once I’d politely elbowed my way as far forward as I could get (it turns out, as I discovered many times later on, that the trick was to just barge through at top speed and no-one seemed to mind that much, but that’s really not my style) I decided against getting back to the bar again.
Once again, the love and energy in the room was incredible. The show kicked off with a tribute to the late Jon Fat Beast, their strange but exuberant MC from the early days and more recent reunion shows; 13 bastards of varying fatness marched across the stage, masks on their faces and letters painted on their chests spelling out ‘YOU FAT BASTARD’, while snippets of the man himself played over the PA and room thundered to the traditional chant.
The set itself held no surprises, opening with Surfin’ USM and finishing with G.I. Blues and cramming almost everything you could hope for into the intervening two hours. Heavy on the first two albums and the singles and with three covers along the way – Rent, This is How it Feels and the ever-glorious The Impossible Dream – it was a riotous, exhilarating and at times emotional blast through the songs we all knew and could all sing along to. And sing along we did, at volume. The crowd didn’t quite drown out Carter themselves, but it came close at times.
If you want to know what it was like, this sums it up nicely:
It was an amazing night and it was great to chat afterwards to Carter fans who’d made it over from Sweden and Australia just for this gig; while I’m sure it’s true for lots of bands, it was fantastic to see how much love Carter inspire in their fans – amplified, I’m sure, by how most either don’t like them or don’t know who they are – and how this translated into a wonderful atmosphere both at the gig itself and the after-party. Even though the occasion of Jim Bob and Fruitbat finally, definitely, absolutely calling time on Carter USM is a disappointment for, well everyone who was there and many more besides, this was a hell of a high to go out on.
Photo by Stephen Edwards.