It was my older brother who introduced me to Carter USM. When you’re 11 it’s generally your older brother who gets you in trouble.
The year was 1992 and the smell of revolution was in the air. The Cold War ended, Yugoslavia imploded, Los Angles burned, and I was getting ready to move to big school.
These were crazy times.
As revolutions raged, cities fell and my primary school classmates and I prepared to go our separate ways into an uncertain future of French classes, extended school days and the very real prospect of being beaten up behind the bike sheds by the older kids, there was a desperate need for heroes.
In the anarchy of a world yet to discover Coldplay, a CD with a blue and yellow cover and ten short songs was about to change everything.
With its songs about inner city deprivation blasted out in a thick London accent, ‘1992: The Love Album’ became an unlikely soundtrack to our middle class Dublin home.
Songs like ‘England’, ‘The Only Living Boy In New Cross’ and ‘While You Were Out’ offered glimpses of a world we didn’t know existed; a world of exploitation, exclusion and betrayal. We didn’t even know where New Cross was, let alone the mortality status of the boys who lived there, but it didn’t matter.
Carter USM’s fondness for strange haircuts, cycling caps and beating up Philip Schofield made it easy to dismiss them as a novelty act; a quirky musical duo destined for the One Hit Wonder bin. But there was nothing quirky or soft about what they were singing about.
Carter USM combined the witticism and politics of The Smiths with the chaos and anarchy of The Sex Pistols. These were songs about being under-valued, disenfranchised and marginalised; songs sung from the heart and from the street.
The ability of singer Jim Bob to package words into sentences laced with double-meaning and imagery (there’s a reason why he’s now a brilliant and successful author) possibly distracted some people from seeing that behind all the puns was a brutal assessment of working class life.
Carter always provoked a musical snobbery among people who were not comfortable with the fact that they weren’t really a band, as such. Carter USM was two guitarists – James Morrison and Les Carter, known by the more colourful moniker’s Jim Bob and Fruitbat – and a drum machine. What gave them the right to highlight social ills without the benefit of a percussion instrument? Radiohead were so disgusted that they allegedly wrote ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’ in response to Carter’s success.
Until The Love Album burst onto our brand-new CD player, music for us had been about people like Michael Jackson. Carter USM sang about a different type of Neverland; one that had been privatised, decimated by cuts and left without electricity. (Come to think of it, it was an eerie premonition for what would happen to the actual Neverland).
I searched out the back catalogue and soon ‘101 Damnations’ and ’30 Something’ were vying with ‘The Love Album’ for air time.
‘101 Damnations’, their debut album, was even more London-centric than their later work, with song titles like ’24 Minutes From Tulse Hill’ and ‘The Taking of Peckham 123’, where Jim Bob describes pensioners being beaten and sent to “the great high rise block in the sky”.
’30 Something’ was a glorious collection of songs about racist bullying in the army (banned by the BBC at the time, ‘Bloodsport For All’ was recently dedicated to Nigel Farage.), alcohol addiction (‘Anytime, Any Place, Anywhere’) and the hypocrisy of war (‘Say It With Flowers’).
I never thought I’d get to see the madness performed live but in 1997 I discovered that Carter USM were playing The Mean Fiddler, a legendary Dublin venue that in recent times has undergone more name changes than a post-war Russian city.
Not to be put off by the fact that I was only 15, I got the bus into town with my accomplice,
Nick (now called Nige – he’s also undergone more name changes than most Russian cities but that’s a story for another day), and bought some fake IDs that claimed we were studying “computors” (sic) at Sterling University, wherever that is.
Unaware of his teenage son’s sudden enrolment into third level education, my father strongly objected to me going to the gig. Good parenting is a nightmare for a 15 year old with a taste for rebellion and apple-based alcoholic drinks.
Luck was on my side, however. The government had fallen and an election had been called for the night of the gig, meaning my father, a radio journalist, would be tied-up with overnight broadcasting. Ireland’s romantic determination to conduct democracy through hand counting the entire nation’s ballot papers would see him debating the potential outcome of the Limerick East and Leitrim / Sligo constituencies well into the early hours.
The big night came and we did our best to look old, or at least older. These were the days before the soon-to-be despised Intoxicating Liquor Act; glorious days when all a Dublin 15 year old needed to secure a night on the tiles was Microsoft Word and access to a laminator.
The bouncers smiled when they saw our IDs but we had tickets to the gig and they weren’t going to stand in our way. They parted slightly and ushered us into a previously unseen adult world of beer taps, mosh pits, and girls wearing anything other than school uniforms. (We sampled two of those delights that night. I’ll give you a clue: it wasn’t the third one.)
I don’t remember much from that gig (that’ll be the beer taps) but two memories stand out:
- A roadie gave me a plectrum after the show. Standing beside a Scottish man at the bar, I proudly declared: “I’ve got a plectrum”, but the music was too loud for him to hear me properly, leading him to bend over and utter the immortal line, “I’ve got a rectum too”.
- I absolutely harassed the band for autographs after the show, to the point where I think they began avoiding me. I even managed to accidentally insult the drummer (Carter had gone all posh and hired a drummer for this tour) by asking him was he in the band, a question which prompted a very unimpressed response. I then harassed him into autographing the cover of my Worry Bomb CD, which I still have.
Myself and Nige had finally lived the dream of seeing Carter USM live in concert, and we were just in time because just a few short years later Jim Bob and Fruitbat announced the end of Carter USM. I don’t think it had anything to do with my behaviour in the Mean Fiddler, although the thought has always lingered.
We finished school. We got jobs, girlfriends and then wives (although not all three at the same time, I should add – that would be manic and incredibly stressful).
Life moved on and Carter USM moved off stage. But they were always there. Maybe not every day, not even every month, but the CDs never gathered too much dust.
1992 got pushed back into history in the way years do when others keep jumping in front of them, but The Love Album always stayed in the present.
Britpop came and went and then for a while everyone was a singer-songwriter. Musicians became famous for being on the telly instead of the other way round.
It all became quite bland.
There were good songs, of course, but they were generally about love or relationships or the unbearable stress of being a teenager that apparently only musicians in their 30s and music executives in their 50s can understand.
I struggled to find an album that grabbed me in the same way as Carter’s had, although that was possibly because nobody bought albums anymore. Eventually nobody bought music at all, instead opting to trade it via computers like a musical version of Wall Street.
In the early ‘90s Carter had asked, “where are the songs about boozers and buildings, banning the bomb and abusing the children?” By the early ‘00s it felt like their question had been answered. It felt as though nobody would ever write a song about sexual abuse in the Scouts ever again.
Then, in 2011, they were back. Carter USM reformed to play what would become an almost annual November reunion gig. I had a rolling agreement with Aer Lingus to deliver me as close as was aeronautically possible to the Brixton Academy each year.
When we first discovered ’30 Something’, the idea of being over 30 years of age seemed almost comical in its preposterousness, yet here we were, two 30-somethings bouncing along with a lot of 40-somethings, some 50-somethings and probably a few 60-somethings as two guitars and an unstoppable drum machine blasted out the soundtrack to our lives.
The Carter reunion gigs transformed Brixton Academy into a strange place. Each of the 5,000 people in the venue were absolute fanatics, but to be fanatical about something as niche and fringe as Carter USM is to be fanatical in private. One or two people might share your interest but generally debating the subtleties of 1993’s ‘Post Historic Monsters’ album is not considered water cooler conversation.
Stepping into the Brixton Academy on Carter USM gig night was like attending a League of Ireland football match (as it happens, the other obsession I picked up in the early 1990s). Inside that stadium you’re surrounded by fellow devotees but the outside world remains largely ignorant and a little bit bemused by the whole thing. I’d imagine that if you surveyed Carter USM fans you’d probably find a lot of lower league football fans. We probably don’t fit into mainstream society too well, and that’s possibly for the best for both us and mainstream society.
Last week we all got to experience the warm fuzzy feeling one last time. We made the pilgrimage to Brixton and Carter USM played what was their final ever gig. Their 27-year existence was extended for two final hours of blistering and heavenly noise.
When the set ended, Jim Bob and Fruitbat put arms around each other, waved and said goodbye.
It was over, and the joy of listening to Carter USM play was suddenly dulled by the knowledge that it would never happen again.
As we sat over some beers after the gig, we realised that Nige works with somebody who was still wearing nappies when we first nervously handed over those Sterling University IDs for inspection.
A few days before the gig I learned that Nige is about to become a father. I hope that by the time his kid reaches their teens they have discovered a band that teaches them that war is futile, racism is moronic and that power – all power – should always be viewed with suspicion.
I’d love if that band was Carter USM.
Mostly though, I just hope that some band is willing to do it.