CSFTD #5: Carter USM – Cheap ‘N’ Cheesy

There are few bands that are genuinely unique but I can’t think of any that have even attempted to mimic Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, or just plain Carter USM. Formed between two economic depressions in the 1980s and 1990s and active mainly between 1988 and 1998 Carter USM was the epitome of depression. And yet their post-punk power pop music was exhilarating.

As a northerner I’ve come to regard them as the best thing ever to come out of the mean streets of Sarf Larndan, their only competitors being Squeeze, who should really be featured in CSFTD as well.

Carter USM was (and occasionally still is though they seem finally to have called it a day now) made up initially of two people, Jim (‘Jim Bob’) Morrison and Les (‘Fruitbat’) Carter. Later on they were joined by various other members but the songs came from those two, who were guitarists, backed up by all manner of samples, drum machines and sequenced basses. They could make a hell of noise, almost orchestral at times.

But their real strength lay in their abilities as lyricists. If push came to shove I’d nominate them as serious contenders for best of all time, with a particular penchant for classy quick-fire rhymes that leave your typical rap effort sounding lame and tame. Another of their party tricks was wordplay and puns, even with song titles, hence their first album, 101 Damnations, and the songs The Only Living Boy in New Cross (their highest charting single, from ‘1992 – The Love Album’ which went straight to #1 in the charts and they headlined Glastonbury that year, insulting Michael Eavis and getting themselves banned forever); Surfin’ USM; The Final Comedown; Do Re Me So Far So Good; 24 Minutes from Tulse Hill, and a play on the book and film, The Taking of Peckham 123. Also, the incomparable The Road to Domestos. Even before Carter, in another band, they’d released a single, We Three Kings of Orient Aren’t.

These guys have lived and so have their song characters. Every angst ridden working class and underclass moment of the late 1980s and early 1990s was chronicled, catalogued and put under the microscope from the viewpoint of life’s losers, killing time down Cold Blow Lane watching the procession of yuppie Porches heading to and from the City and Canary Wharf. Losing their livelihoods, their homes, even their minds but, as in the classic track I chose today – Cheap ‘N’ Cheesy – never their pride. Unsurprisingly, Carter USM was particularly popular in Yugoslavia during the Balkan Wars when no-one had much hope left at all.

There’s a verse in this song that typifies Carter.

Am I man, am I a mouse?

Who wears the trousers in this house?

I am the rat that killed your cat,

Who painted then destroyed your flat,

You slapped me and I slapped you black and blue.

The brilliant one line oxymoronic non-sequitur of painting, then destroying, your partner’s flat is breathtaking but it’s just run of the mill for Carter, there’s something like that in just about every song they wrote. Much of it, I’m certain, picked up from comments heard down the local boozer just as John Sullivan did when writing Only Fools and Horses.

Cheap ‘N’ Cheesy is from the band’s second-last album, Worry Bomb, when they were starting to mellow a little, even writing ballads. But whatever style they wrote in their work is worth a serious listen. If you like this, I’d recommend particularly Sheriff Fatman (about the Rachmanism that is returning to London and other cities right now); The Life and Soul of the Party Dies; the exquisitely worded England, the lyrics of which should be hung up in the House of Commons; and Gas [Man] (which concerns, as with so many of their songs, suicide). They’re all available on Spotify and/or You Tube.

Also the wonderful segue between the ninth and 10th tracks on The Love Album, when Skywest & Crooked, which features a cameo from Ian Dury reciting lines from The Man of La Mancha, merges seamlessly into the best version ever of The Impossible Dream, that musical’s signature song. And then loops back around into 1993, the first track on side 1. Goosebumps.

Anthems for the 1990s, all of them.

Regrettably they’ve finished touring as Carter though they have their own individual musical and writing projects.  Their final gig was last November (they’d been in Manchester at the Academy the year before). Fittingly, punning to the very last minute, they called it The Last Tango in Brixton.  But they were looking tired. Life is still hard down the Old Kent Road guv and they haven’t worn well. Their catalogue is a constant reminder of just how hard it can be.

©D J Bentley 2015

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