It is October 21st 1993. An ordinary autumnal evening for many, but for two lads from Kent this is a Thursday night like no other. For these two – at this point aged approximately 17 and 19 and only some six weeks into a friendship– this is to be a very momentous occasion. For both, it is a first gig experience and they are going to see Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, a band with somewhat of a cult following. By this point, Carter USM – still a duo with drum machine and a world of pre-programmed trickery – have scored a run of hit singles and have four hit albums under their belt – including a number one. They’ve rugby tacked Phillip Schofield on live TV (a man still young enough to care about dying his hair) and only within the last couple of weeks have appeared on the long running chart showcase Top of the Pops. Indeed, the very idea that this band would venture into the middle of Kent and play a show in a leisure centre seems like a visit from music royalty. Almost surreal– especially in the eyes of these two teenagers, keen to immerse themselves in a world of live music – but here they are, ready to promote their current full-length release, Post Historic Monsters.
The venue, the Angel Centre in Tonbridge, is no-frills and with inauspicious surroundings. The merchandise table is exactly that and the gig area, a small sports hall with a stage at one end and a basketball hoop at the other, has none of the dark, grubby mystique of Brixton Academy as glimpsed on the live home video release In Bed With Carter. Despite this, the two somewhat inexperienced gig-goers can barely contain themselves with excitement and as the house lights dim and the duo appear on stage, it becomes almost unbearably intense – a life-changing moment. On stage right, James “Jim Bob” Morrison (vocals/guitar) cuts a slight figure, donning a t-shirt bearing the legend “I hate Peanuts” in reference to a TV advertising campaign using one of the band’s best-known tracks. Meanwhile, over on stage left, Les “Fruitbat” Carter (guitar/vocals), having only recently shaved his head, appears to have traded in his trademark cycling cap for a woolly beanie thing, making him look a bit like a council estate version of The Edge in U2’s ‘Numb’ video.
As the fairly intimate crowd bounce in unison to ‘Surfin’ USM’ and other classics ‘Say It With Flowers’, ‘Shoppers Paradise’, ‘Do Re Me, So Far So Good’, the and current hit ‘Lean On Me (I Won’t Fall Over)’, it was everything the friends hoped it would be…and more. A nearby man with a broken leg tries his best to encourage crowd surfing and fails dismally, but looking around, almost the whole audience seems swept up with the enthusiasm generated by the two figures on stage. As Carter USM gradually fill the better part of a boisterous ninety minutes, it becomes clear that a gig doesn’t need to be at Brixton, Hammersmith or any of those legendary places to create a night to remember. The venue is somewhat unimportant: it is the atmosphere that makes a night special and this show is certainly not lacking in that department. The classic ‘Sheriff Fatman’ includes an adlib from Bowie’s ‘The Laughing Gnome’ (something that will amuse the two gig virgins forevermore), while ‘My Second To Last Will and Testament’ and ‘After The Watershed’ invite a world of shouting and ‘GI Blues’ winds the audience down when it is time to leave. Memory of chunks of the gig will inevitably fade away in the mists of time, but the event and its impact is responsible for cementing a friendship between these two gig-attending chums and ensures that subsequent plays of 30 Something and 1992: The Love Album gain more reverence than ever. A night of great music and an unfortunate incident with a kebab thrown into the bargain (or more specifically a lap), this gig is to become something of legend…something the friends will talk about for many years.
Many other Carter USM gigs are to be attended by these two friends over the ensuing years, together and apart – a less memorable show with Salad, Blaggers ITA and S*M*A*S*H* in support, promoting a b-sides compilation in Clapham, shows at the Kentish Town Forum, but best of all, an album launch for the band’s fifth album Worry Bomb. For one of the friends, this in-store set and signing provides the most memorable birthday ever…for the other, the inspiration to fashion his hair into a Jim Bob style flopping fringe. Carter USM, meanwhile gradually change form: firstly expanding from a duo to a trio (present from the b-sides tour onward), then subsequently a full band, this last line-up losing some of the urgency of the two man set-up along the way. They call time on a great career in 1998. The friends will miss them, but no matter what the future, they will treasure the memories of every encounter along the way, but particularly those from Tonbridge and the album launch.
Never content to fade into legend it seems (and certainly never quietly), Carter USM reform some nine years later, after solo projects, other band projects and, for vocalist Jim Bob, a career as a writer and novelist. For those friends who still hold memories of their early bond and those Carter gigs, this news is welcome news indeed, especially since the reunion only involves Jim Bob and Fruitbat. However, with adult responsibilities and real life taking hold, from this point, they will only manage one show each, but those shows – the Beautiful Days Festival for one, Brixton 2012 for the other – are a strong reminder of Carter’s earlier years and their own youth. If only they could catch a show together for old time’s sake, this on-off reunion would surely be even better…
The opportunity finally arises in late 2014. By now, fans are aware of Carter USM’s sporadic gigging approach and each show is a guaranteed sell-out. The two gigs scheduled for November have an extra importance not only for the two friends – now approximately 38 and 40 and barely the same naive teens that first saw Carter USM twenty one years earlier in that Kentish town – but also the entire fan base. These shows, dubbed The Final Comedown are billed as the band’s final farewell. The band have quit before, but this feels different. With these shows, for reasons only known to Jim and Fruity, this is it – they’re quitting rather publically and the shows are designed to bid the world goodbye. Fitting then, that the two friends should attend one more Carter USM together – not just to say goodbye to a band that have entertained them for over two decades, but also in a way, to say goodbye to their youth. With the final Brixton show a sell-out in approximately ten minutes, they gladly settle for the penultimate show at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
The Empire lacks the inter-connected history with Carter that Brixton has held for years, but nevertheless it’s a decent space and the downstairs is packed. Much like Tonbridge and every subsequent gig, the dimming of the house lights brings a huge roar and inevitable excitement…but this time also a sense of sadness. This is the beginning of the end. Regular warm up man Jon Beast is not present having passed away some months previously, but his voice shouts across the PA system with no fewer than thirteen half naked fat bastards in his place, each wearing a Jon Beast mask. Funny yet bittersweet, he would surely appreciate the absurdity of this scene as well as any fan. Then, in an explosion of light and sound, the two figures on stage – at this point little more than silhouettes – tear into regular set opener ‘Surfin’ USM’, and the venue bursts into life. The Carter classics come thick and fast – ‘My Second To Last Will and Testament’, ‘Rubbish’, ‘Midnight On The Murder Mile’ and the lesser-heard b-side ‘Re-Educating Rita’ comprise an uncompromising opening quartet, while a storming cover of the Pet Shop Boys hit ‘Rent’ cements the band’s greatness. Unlike the 2012 Brixton show, ‘Prince In a Pauper’s Grave’ does not represent either a lull in pace or audience comedown, but rather more the opposite: a mass sing-along raises the roof, since for many, this represents a last opportunity to yell “Volkswagen yellow and gold!” with such fervour. As charismatic and as friendly as some twenty years previous, Jim Bob banters with the crowd, but makes several references to the end of a career…it certainly seems this time, they mean it.
More classics tear over the heads of a very sweaty, boisterous, capacity crowd: ‘Do Re Me’, ‘Shoppers Paradise’, ‘Let’s Get Tattoos’, ‘Billy’s Smart Circus’ – each having the vigour that comes from a band who’ve loved every second being on stage, but again each tinged with an odd feeling of nearing finality. Jim is on fantastic form with regard to unrehearsed banter, jibing at those who dislike London, throwing out scathing remarks about politicians, but is eternally grateful to the audience. “Without you, this would be pretty shit”, he quips. “Barry Manilow told me that without those bastards in the audience, there would be no fucking point. I thanked him and told him there was no need for such bad language.” Near perfect renditions of Inspiral Carpets’ ‘This Is How It Feels’, ‘After The Watershed’, ‘The Only Living Boy In New Cross’ keep the good vibes flowing and the crowd-surfers bodies’ flying, before Shepherd’s Bush joins in unified bounce for ‘Bloodsport For All’. This is already a Carter performance that’s set to rival many from the band’s formative years.
The main set pulls to a close with ‘The Music That Nobody Likes’ – the only time this set noticeably sags – and an emotional ‘Impossible Dream’. Into the final stretch, a first encore brings the expected ‘Glam Rock Cops’ and a bouncing frenzy, before something nobody expected. ‘Evil’ – a high point from the under-rated Post Historic Monsters makes only its second ever live airing in the band’s history and the mix of intense riffing and spoken word grandiosity creates a new and striking memory in an instant. A low key pairing ‘Falling On a Bruise’ and ‘The Final Comedown’ provide a fitting end to a strong set, perfectly mirroring the close of the classic ’30 Something’. …And it’s almost goodbye. Returning for the last time, ‘Sheriff Fatman’ is aggressive and almost unhinged, with the mass of bodies lurching and flying in a manner possibly unseen at Shepherd’s Bush since NOFX appeared in 2012. There’s no improvisation – no ‘Laughing Gnome’, no hints of Status Quo, Hot Chocolate or anything else as per previous performances – but it’s possibly the most intense rendition EVER. It may just be the fact that it’s the last time for some, but the volume and energy in the room is overwhelming. Finally, as with so many shows, ‘G.I. Blues’ invites one final roaring singalong and out go the lights.
The following night’s show at Brixton Academy, promises to be as good – if not better – but for the two friends who began their Carter USM live experiences back in Tonbridge, this is the end. Forty eight hours after this performance, Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine will cease to be. This isn’t new in itself, there have been Carter-less years prior to this of course, but the repeated mentions of closure give this a definite sense of finality. What will the world do without the promise of another energy-driven, epilepsy-inducing live set from these ordinary heroes and their array of social commentary and puns? What’s more, how are cities full of slightly overweight, balding men going to cut loose effectively when their wives let them out alone? Without the Carter USM show as one of the greatest ways to let off steam, they might just explode.
So, no more live shows. Nothing. That’s it. There may not be a future, but we’ll forever treasure the past with some great albums and an ever greater selection of live experiences. Thank you Jim. Thank you Les. Thanks for the good times and thanks for the memories. Thank you and goodnight… We’ll miss you.