Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Carter USM

Carter USM were a band formed by accident.  Jim Bob Morrison and Leslie Carter were members of indie band Jamie Wednesday who'd released a couple of singles to little acclaim.
The band were scheduled to perform at a Charity gig at The Astoria in 1987, and no-one else turned up, so they went on stage anyway and performed to backing tapes and a drum machine.

They signed to small indie label Big Cat and released their first single "Sheltered Life" in October 1988.  The second single ("Sheriff Fatman") was released to wider recognition and marginally increased sales in November 1989.  The debut album '101 Damnations' was also released in 1989, and a third single ("Rubbish") was released in June 1990.

A change of label to Rough Trade in late 1990 resulted in the single "Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere", and another single "Bloodsport For All" followed in January 1991, and the parent album '30 Something' followed soon after.

Recorded in less than a month and costing less than £5000, the album went straight into the Top 10 upon release.  The associated Long Sleeve T-Shirt bearing the album cover was rapidly becoming the most seen clothing item adorning students and indie fans.

The album is a collection of snarling (in places) direct Powerpop, replete with South London folk tales about alcohol and domestic abuse, bullying and institutional racism, bedsit culture, the Gulf War and the homogenised shopping experience.
Admittedly, not the happiest or most appealing subject matter for a pop song, but its all in the delivery.  And this album delivers healthy doses of black humour, wit, cynicism, puns and energy.  The album is stuffed full of guitars, drum machines, sequenced bass lines, and dialogue lifted from a variety of sources including Alfie, Red Dwarf and David Bowie.

For me personally, this was one of the last defining albums of my rapidly disappearing youth (in terms of chronology, perhaps not attitude or maturity), and remains their definitive work.

The first track is the instrumental "Surfin USM" which follows dialogue lifted from Red Dwarf about the perils of ageing (relatively speaking, of course):
"When you're younger you can eat what you like, drink what you like, and still climb into your 26" waist trousers and zip them closed. Then you reach that age, 24-25, your muscles give up, they wave a little white flag, and without any warning at all you're suddenly a fat bastard"

Thing is, I was 21 when '30 Something' was released - being 24 or 25 seemed ages away.  And as for 30 ...

Off the back of the success of '30 Something', the previous single "Sheriff Fatman" was re-released, gaining wide airplay and a Top30 chart placing.
1991 was turning into Carter USMs year, with tours of Japan and the USA, and a second-on-the-bill appearance at the Reading Festival.
In October, they made their first appearance on Top Of The Pops with new single "After The Watershed (Early Learning The Hard Way)" - a song that rose quickly, thanks to their popularity at the time, a disappeared almost as fast thanks to the litigiousness of Allan Klein (the crime? including the phrase "Goodbye Ruby Tuesday" in the chorus).
They were invited on to the live TV transmission of the Smash Hits Poll Winners Party, and earned front page headlines when a (possibly?) slightly tipsy Fruitbat dived on stage and rugby tackled Phillip Schofield.

By this stage, Rough Trade had collapsed, and Carter USM were now under contract to the major label Chrysalis.

1992 opened with a re-issue of another early single "Rubbish" before a taster for the new album was released in April.
"The Only Living Boy In New Cross" bore all the hallmarks of Carter USM - the wordplay, the South London location and the relentless drum machine rhythm.

Signed to a major label, front page headlines, Top 10 singles - what could possibly go wrong?
Well, the rampant rise of Nirvana and Grunge really didn't help matters.  When the new album was released in May 1992, initial sales to the core audience were enough to deliver a Number 1, but the wider audience sales were missed out on because they didn't wear lumberjack shirts or come from Seattle.
'1992 - The Love Album' is a good album, if a little more knowing in places, and does suffer at times from "trying to be too clever".  It is definitely not a bad album, it just isn't '30 Something'.

The other thing against Carter USM at this time was the criticism "all their songs sound the same".
Well, how many different sounds can you create with two guitars and a drum machine?  there is bound to be some similarity in sound.  I think the problem was that Carter's defined sound was so up front, it was difficult to break away from.  Two songs on '1992 - The Love Album' support this thought: both "Skywest and Crooked" and the cover of "The Impossible Dream" are valid entries in the catalogue, but perhaps a change too far.

Ordinarily, a move to a major label will signal a rise in a bands output, popularity and presense - unfortunately for Carter USM, the opposite seemed to apply.  Two further albums followed ("Post Historic Monsers" and "Worry Bomb"), but the audience had diminished and whilst still selling in adequate numbers, they never achieved the same impact or longevity heights as previous releases.

A move to the Cooking Vinyl label in 1996, spawned the EP/Mini-Album "A World Without Dave", but again the audience was absent.  Following a long UK tour, the band announced their split in 1998.

Almost 10 years later, the band re-convened as part of a benefit/celebration gig for Mega City Four frontman Darren Brown.  The response prompted the band to organise two "farewell" gigs at the end of the year, playing for nearly two hours at each show.  Again, the audience response was overwhelming.  So much so, they repeated the one-off farewell performances in 2008 and 2009.
They didn't repeat the event in 2010, but returned for a Festival appearance in 2011, followed by two more re-union shows in Manchester and Brixton in November.
2012 brought two more re-union concerts, coinciding with the re-release of booth '30 Something' and '1992 - The Love Album'.

In what is believed to be finality, Carter will be playing The Bearded Theory Festival in May 2014, followed by "The Last Tango In Brixton", their final ever shows in November 2014.

So there you go, a band formed out of necessity because no-one else turned up, a rapid rise, an influence on popular culture and clothing choice, a sign to a major label, loss of audience, splitting up, getting back together and refusing to stop.

If I was asked (and I have been once!) to recommend an entry point to Carter USM which isn't '30 Something' (my default choice), I would suggest this early track:

"Re-Educating Rita":

 ... and Cover Versions.
Carter USM, on the B-Side of their singles, often did a tasty line in re-interpreting other peoples songs.  Choices include: "Rent", "Everybody's Happy Nowadays", "Bedsitter", "Panic" and "Down In The Tube Station At Midnight".
This particular cover was on the B-Side of Allan Kleins favourite Carter USM single - "This Is How It Feels":

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