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Classic Album Reviews

Carter USM – 30 Something


The preamble on the Classic Album section of this website states that it reviews a British Classic you may have missed. Carter USM are simply a band you may have missed. Unless of course you’re of a certain age and lived in the UK. Because simply, they were hard to miss at the time.

This was a band that consisted of two men in their 30’s. James ‘Jimbob’ Morrison and Les ‘Fruitbat’ Carter, together with a drum machine. Their songs were blistering not only in pace and sound, but also in their down to the bone social commentary. They had four top ten albums in their career. One of them a number one. They had 12 Top 40 singles in the UK. They headlined the Glastonbury Festival (but were subsequently banned from ever playing again). They were sued by the Rolling Stones, they had singles banned from airplay by the BBC and they beat up  Host Philip Schofield live on TV during an awards ceremony. However, despite all of this, they have been airbrushed from music history as if they never happened.

Carter remain one of the UK’s most criminally under-rated and forgotten bands. Maybe it’s because they were everything the music industry loved to hate. They were in their 30’s, they were exceptionally DIY, they were desperately unfashionable, difficult to market and wrote songs about taboo subjects.  Subjects such as child abuse, destitution and domestic violence but defiantly hitting the mainstream with them, despite best efforts to keep them out of it. This success was due to a devoted fan base that was built from incessant touring. They were amazing band live. And I don’t use that word lightly. I’ve spent a lifetime going to gigs, and they are the best I’ve ever seen. If I could have one more gig in my life, and I had to pick who. Without doubt or hesitation, it would be Carter.

Of their 6 studio Albums, 4 of them could make the Classics list with ease. From their debut 101 Damnations to their forth Post Historic Monsters. Arguably though, it was their second Album released in 1991 30 Something (a self mocking title of their own advancing years) released on Rough Trade and recorded in just two weeks in side a garage for a cost of $5000 where the band hit their creative, rather than their commercial peak. 

The album opens with instrumental Surfin’ USM. The track begins with a sample of the actor Chris Barrie from the cult TV Show Red Dwarf and a recording of the crowd of a Carter gigs chanting ‘You fat bastard’ (a common occurrence that was directed at their manager Jon ‘Fat Beast’ Driscoll) before breaking into Fruitbat’s signature overdriven Gibson Les Paul, backed by synths and harmonies, interspersed with a sample of David Bowie from Suffragette City. Writing it down, it seems insane. But when its put together, it doesn’t just prick up your ears, it shakes you by them. 

The use of samples, often without permission regularly landed Carter in legal hot water and Second to Last Will and Testament begins with another. This time from Michael Caine in Alfie. The pounding drum machine kicks off,  backing a monologue of Jimbob declaring his dying wishes that builds to a screaming, keyboard thrashing crescendo.  Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere is next up and was released as a single before the album. The song deals with the downward spiral of alcoholism to a disco beat and distorted guitars, serving as an illustration of Morrison’s lyrical prowess. This single was one Carter’s many to be banned by the BBC. Bizarrely for promoting alcohol consumption despite the track being an obvious warning against excessive drinking. 

The alcohol theme continues in the track Prince in a Pauper’s Grave. A dark drama set to a waltzing organ about a friend of the band who was murdered in a hate crime. The tone changes completely in Shoppers’ Paradise. A bright, poppy, pun laden wonder about blind consumerism. The title of next track Billy’s Smart Circus is a pun in itself and it could be described as classic Carter. Disco synth, distorted guitar, harmonies and lyrics of kids being sent to die in foreign wars, declining health services, destitute pensioners and how its enough to make someone consider ending it all. The Military is a recurring theme on this record and the subject of the next track Bloodsport for All. This album was written and released during the first Gulf War and a heavy guitar to a marching band drumbeat  tackles bullying and racism in the Army. Another banned by the BBC for fear of upsetting the troops at war at the time. 

A great guitar riff kicks off Sealed with a Glasgow Kiss a pounding overdriven tune about love descending into domestic violence and the inevitable apologies of abusive relationships. The desert War that was happening in 91 is again the subject of Say It with Flowers and Morrison’s razor sharp lyrics address the sabre rattling of world leaders while the proletariat lie dying in the sand. The Guitars take a break for the wonderful piano and horns of Falling on a Bruise. A tale written from the point of view of a single mother sliding into financial destitution and depression which turns into a trumpet refrain over a monologue of hopelessness. The Final Comedown ends the album with whimsical synth chords to lyrics of being beaten by life.

Despite Carter’s frequent address of decay and depression, their music always leaves you with a sense of hope.

Often without explicitly saying so. A magic trick which I’m not sure even they know the secret behind. In fact, they followed up this album with the Number 1 The Love Album. But don’t expect the subject matter to be any lighter. The NME rated this album on its release at 10 out of 10 and 30 Something and Carter USM should be given the place they deserve in our musical history. 

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