A Spotify playlist showcasing 11 of the best from “the Pet Shop Boys on the dole”, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, plus a video of them beating up Phillip Schofield.
In 2007, reviewing the Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine anthology “You Fat Bastard” (a reference to Jon “Fat” Beast, part of the Carter USM road crew who would introduce the band onstage at gigs) for the BBC, Steve Lamacq described Jim “Jim Bob” Morrison and Les “Fruitbat” Carter as “the Pet Shop Boys on the dole”. It’s a comparison that could sound sneering. Carter were scruffy lads from Lambeth with a cheap drum machine, unpolished lairy vocals and a lo-fi, art college aesthetic and Lamacq was comparing them to the finest auteurs of electronic pop since – well, since pop records began, in this country at least.
But I don’t see it as a put down. In fact, it’s hard to think of a higher compliment. What the two duos produced was exactly the same – witty lyrics and memorable melodies in hook-filled three-and-a-half minute bites – with only the mode of the music as a difference. The same biting social and political observations of the type that fill “Bloodsport for All” and “Sheriff Fatman” appear in “I’m With Stupid” and “Integral”. What could easily appear as facile pop music is, in the hands of both duos, something far more satisfying and close, repeated listenings reward the patient listener.
Not that I came about them that way. Whilst “Sheriff Fatman” was doing to the top forty what Fruitbat would later do to Phillip Schofield, I first heard Carter during happy hour on Sunday afternoons in a Chesterfield pub called The Saint. To give you some sort of idea, it cost more to play a song on the jukebox than to buy a pint. 20p would get you something warm, gassy, half-hearted and virtually tasteless (nowadays you’d pay £40 at a Ricky Gervais gig for the same experience) and for one hour you’d get as many 20p pints down you as you could while “Sheriff Fatman” played almost on a loop in the background. Back then I dismissed them almost as a novelty act, but once I’d been almost brainwashed by a friend who played “1992 – The Love Album” almost endlessly on the cassette player in her Ford Fiesta, I started to see them for what they really are – writers of well-crafted, catchy pop records full of edge and attitude, and blistering live performers.
“A Sheltered Life” (Straw Donkey, 1988)
There’s a tendency to assume that 1989’s “Sheriff Fatman” was Carter’s first single, but that honour actually belongs to “A Sheltered Life” released the year before. It’s all there, in prototype form – shouty vocals, howling guitars, and cheap drum machine turned up to 11. It’s not quite as catchy as that which would follow, but it’s worth listening to in order to see how quickly they would ascend pop’s slippery ladder.
“Rubbish” (Straw Donkey, 1990)
“101 Damnations” was Carter’s first long-player, but the only single taken from it was “Sheriff Fatman”. “A Sheltered Life” and this, third single “Rubbish”, wouldn’t appear on an album until 1995’ singles collection “Straw Donkey” – although “Rubbish” did turn up as a bonus track on the 2011 remastered reedition of “101 Damnations”. Not as immediate as the previous single but still instantly recognisable as Carter, “Rubbish” is a slightly unfocused rant about the state of life under the Milk Snatcher’s dictatorship summarised by the refrain “rubbish on the radio”. They had a point too – when this was originally released in June 1990, the top 40 was suffering from Michael Bolton, Roxette and Heart. It failed to chart, and was re-released in January 1992 when it reached a respectable number 14 in the UK’s hit parade.
“Bloodsport for all” (30 Something, 1991)
I don’t know where you stand on radio censorship, but mostly I’m against it. By all means issue a warning before something possibly offensive, but don’t take away the freedom to listen or not listen from individuals. But for heaven’s sake, if you’re going to ban records then apply some fucking common sense, something the BBC failed to do (you’re shocked, I know) during the first Gulf War. Massive Attack are the most well-known victim of Auntie’s empty-headed stupidity, having to refer to themselves as “Massive” for a short period. Lulu’s “Boom bang a bang” was blacklisted for a time, presumably because the onomatopoeic title might be mistaken for the sound of bombs exploding. “Six Months In A Leaky Boat” by Split Enz was similarly shunned, not for the unforgivable spelling but for the possibility that sailors’ morale might be negatively affected by the reference to a less than seaworthy ship. I shit you not. I read it on the Internet so it must be true.
“Bloodsport for All” suffered a blanket BBC ban for telling the truth. It doesn’t sound like someone stepping on a landmine or remind sailors that sometimes boats sink, but it does talk about racist bullying in the army. And as any blithering idiot knows, when faced with a criminal and cowardly act like racist bullying, the most sensible thing to do is not put a stop to it, but rather to make sure that promising and fashionably scruffy guitar band from south of the river don’t sing unfortunately accurate songs reminding everyone that it goes on and is being ignored. When I referred to Carter as being unfocused whilst discussing “Rubbish”, this song is why I get to make that observation.
“Is Wrestling Fixed” (1992 – The Love Album, 1992)
Simply, my most quoted Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine song, and a paean for lovers of sarcasm everywhere:
Am I un-H-A-P-P-Y?
Does a newborn baby cry?
Did Elvis really die?
Did Little Red Riding wear a hood?
Did the Three Bears shit in the wood?
Was Humpty Dumpty fat?
Does the Pope wear a funny hat?
Is wrestling fixed?
“A Bachelor for Baden Powell” (Post Historic Monsters, 1993)
A poignant one for me personally. I spent happy years in both the Cubs and Scouts, and it was only long after leaving that I discovered one of the leaders had been molesting some of the boys (not me, I hasten to add, for which I don’t know if I’m supposed to feel Mr Garrison-like levels of indignation at the rejection). Album track “A Bachelor for Baden Powell” tells of just such a man, who knows how to fold the Union Jack and sticks his hands down boys’ vests.
“The Young Offender’s Mum” (Worry Bomb, 1995)
Between the releases of 1993’s “Post Historic Monsters” and 1995’s “Worry Bomb”, a seismic shift happened within the band. Founding member The Drum Machine left and was replaced by a multi-limbed human being who used short sections of shaped wood to strike taut skin stretched over a cylindrical tube in a rhythmic manner. As a result, the Carter USM sound changed and they become worryingly professional-sounding. All the Carter trademarks are in this, the last single released from and highest point of “Worry Bomb”, but it sounds notably different from that which had gone before. The band had evolved and – gulp – possibly grown up.
“Glam Rock Cops” (Starry Eyed and Bollock Naked, 1994)
I’m not a fan of unreleased songs which are included on Greatest Hits packages to give fans a point to buying them. What if you release them, and they flop? Then it’s making a mockery of calling it “Greatest Hits”. And don’t even get me started on bands who then don’t release them at all, so that all you get is a “Greatest Hits plus some token other songs”. This song was on “Starry Eyed and Bollock Naked” (the title comes from a line in “Re-educating Rita”, just one of many single-worthy tracks on the album), which was neither a greatest hits nor a singles collection – it was a compilation of B-sides! The scamps.
“Her Song” (Starry Eyed and Bollock Naked, 1994)
Tempting as it is to pigeonhole them as such, Carter were more than just guitars, sequencers and a drum machine turned up to 11. This song, originally the B-side to 1993’s “Lenny and Terence”, is one such song. For half of its duration, it’s a slow, guitar and vocal affair, but at 1:15 the standard Carter instrumentation kicks in, but turned up to twelve this time. The song itself is a sad tale of violence against young girls, with killer ‘Simple Simon’ murdering and dumping an unnamed young girl. Probably keep this one off the Xmas lunch playlist, but do give it a listen at any other time.
“Lenny and Terence” (BBC In Concert (1 December 1994), 1994)
I’ve included the live version here, because it Carter were known for anything, it was their energetic and sweary live shows. Taking the piss out of Lenny Kravitz and Terence Trent D’Arby, this sone was substantially re-recorded for the single release. Ahead of its release Fruitbat said, “… if all the people who bought ‘Lean on Me’ the week it came out do the same with “Lenny and Terence”, Top of the Pops will have to consider putting us on. It could ruin our careers, but it’s well worth doing.”
It limped to number 40 in the charts for one week.
“Lean On Me, I Won’t Fall Over” (BBC In Concert (15 July 1994), 1994)
In 2007 I went to work for a firm who had an office in Bayswater. I didn’t know London at all well back then and to begin with I didn’t even dare take the tube on my own, because I was so sure that I would get lost on the tube network, be unable to get off and spend the rest of my life living underground, eventually going blind but developing super hearing to compensate like those human mole-like things in “The Descent”. Then, one fateful day, I saw a sign at St Pancras for the Hammersmith & City Line. Not so much because it went where I needed to go, but because of the line “stuck in a tunnel on the Hammersmith & City Line” in this song, I clambered aboard. Luckily I discovered the Royal Oak stop along the way and I was able to get to work AND bond with Carter in a small, insignificant way.
“Rent” (This Is The Sound Of An Eclectic Guitar, 2007)
Given that a comparison with Pet Shop Boys was how we opened this post, it seems like the best way to end it would be with this cover version. I’ll be honest, for a hardcore Pethead as I am, this isn’t one of my favourite songs of theirs ever. This version is one of many cover versions that Carter recorded as B-sides – this was on the flip side of the re-issued “Rubbish” – and can also be found on the cover version compilation “This Is The Sound Of An Eclectic Guitar”, which is a slight rewording of the sample which opens an earlier Carter song that I can’t remember the name of, but I’ve been looking for it for ten minutes now and I’m fucked if I can find it.
It wouldn’t be right to end without the highlight of their career. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, the brightest star in the cultural sky was the Smash Hits Poll Winners’ Party, which in 1991 Carter deigned to appear on performing “After The Watershed”. Slimy host Phillip Schofield’s intro and outro to their performance were full of sneering putdowns, and Fruitbat exacted his revenge for it.
Fuck you Schofield, you smarmy gyet.