(#450: 16 May 1992, 1 week)
Track listing: 1993/Is Wrestling Fixed?/The Only Living Boy In New Cross/Suppose You Gave A Funeral And Nobody Came/England/Do Re Me, So Far So Good/Look Mum, No Hands!/While You Were Out/Skywest And Crooked/The Impossible Dream
“I have lived almost fifty years, and I've seen life as it is. Pain, misery, hunger, cruelty beyond belief. I've heard the singing in the taverns, and the moans from bundles of filth in the street. I've been a soldier, and watched my comrades fall in battle, or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I've held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no gallant last words, only their eyes filled with confusion, whimpering the question... ‘Why?’ I do not think they asked why they were dying, but why they had ever lived.”
(Dale Wasserman, from the book to the 1965 musical Man Of La Mancha, as recited by Ian Dury on “Skywest And Crooked”)
“RESOLVED to mark a new stage in the process of European integration undertaken with the establishment of the European Communities,
RECALLING the historic importance of the ending of the division of the European continent and the need to create firm bases for the construction of the future Europe,
CONFIRMING their attachment to the principles of liberty, democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and of the rule of law,
DESIRING to deepen the solidarity between their peoples while respecting their history, their culture and their traditions,
DESIRING to enhance further the democratic and efficient functioning of the institutions so as to enable them better to carry out, within a single institutional framework, the tasks entrusted to them,
RESOLVED to achieve the strengthening and the convergence and to establish an economic and monetary union including, in accordance with the provisions of this Treaty, a single and stable currency,
DETERMINED to promote economic and social progress for their peoples, within the context of the accomplishment of the internal market and of reinforced cohesion and environmental protection, and to implement policies ensuring that advances in economic integration are accompanied by parallel progress in other fields,
RESOLVED to establish a citizenship common to nationals of their countries,
RESOLVED to implement a common foreign and security policy including the eventual framing of a common defence policy, which might in time lead to a common defence, thereby reinforcing the European identity and its independence in order to promote peace, security and progress in Europe and in the world,
REAFFIRMING their objective to facilitate the free movement of persons, while ensuring the safety and security of their peoples, by including provisions on justice and home affairs in this Treaty,
RESOLVED to continue the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity,
IN VIEW of further steps to be taken in order to advance European integration,
HAVE DECIDED to establish a European Union”
(From the Maastricht Treaty, signed 7 February 1992)
“Give me back the Berlin wall
Give me Stalin and St. Paul
I've seen the future, brother
It is murder”
(Leonard Cohen, “The Future,” November 1992)
Look at the list of bands thanked by Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine in the credits to 1992 – The Love Album. Among them you will find…EMF, the Senseless Things, the Inspiral Carpets, the Family Cat, the Mega City 4, the Frank and Walters, the Band of Holy Joy (from New Cross, Carter’s true direct forebears; listen to “Who Snatched The Baby” or “Mad Dot” for confirmation) and the New Fast Automatic Daffodils.
With the partial exceptions (i.e. one song apiece) of EMF and the Inspiral Carpets, who, other than those who were there at the time and absorbed and developed, would randomly remember any of these groups now? They never get played on the radio or acknowledged in music magazines. Britpop created a hole in the floor through which all of those bands fell. They are now viewed, if at all, as liminal dinosaurs, the indie types who popped Britain before Oasis etc. came and sorted everything out.
That probably also includes Carter, who for a brief moment could rightly be called the biggest band in Britain, even though there were only two of them (they were insistent on being viewed as a “band” rather than a “duo”). I was there at the Reading Festival in 1991 when they were second on the Saturday night bill and blew the headliners James off stage with little more than a good sound system, a dazzling and spectacular light show – a gargantuan wall of white lights which nobody who witnessed it will forget - and hearts as big as diamonds. No other band at the time seemed to communicate as directly or strongly with its audience. 1992, though not their best album, consolidated that enormous social and emotional connection.
Carter had form. Guitarist Les “Fruitbat” Carter met singer Jim “Jim Bob” Morrison while rehearsing in a rather manky rehearsal room called The Orchestra Pit, directly beneath Streatham railway station. They formed a band called Jamie Wednesday, whose two singles, “Vote For Love” and “We Three Kings Of Orient Aren’t,” some indie veterans may recall. When Carter and Morrison turned up for a charity concert at the Charing Cross Road Astoria to find that they were the only two band members who had bothered to turn up, they decided to continue as Carter USM.
1991’s 30 Something is their masterpiece, a grittier Pet Shop Boys filtered through with unashamed sentimentality and frequent profundity; “Anytime Anyplace Anywhere” is the pavement wino’s “It’s A Sin” – it cuts deeper than some similar studies by the Pogues – and “Falling On A Bruise” is one of its century’s most shattering folk songs, a damning stare-in-the-eye analysis of the people whom British capitalism has shit out to rot; the failures, the unconnected, the majority.
(That Pet Shop Boys comparison is strengthened by some of the moments on 1992, for instance the extended instrumental coda which comes at the end of “Suppose You Gave A Funeral And Nobody Came.”)
There is a hole in the centre of 1992 which is explained by the absence of “After The Watershed (Early Learning The Hard Way),” a hit single which had been intended for inclusion on the album but had to be withdrawn from it when the Stones camp blew up a legal fuss about its unauthorised “Ruby Tuesday” paraphrases. A pity, because its brutal compassion (“A black eye for a black eye/A chipped tooth for a chipped tooth/A fraction of a half life…/AND DAVID ICKE SAYS!”) joins a few otherwise mystifying conceptual dots.
1992 is a consolidatory record, though also suggests that the concept of Carter had realistically reached its limits. We first hear an odd, melancholy piano and synthesiser motif, which repeats like a worried Harold Budd before fading; then the instrumental prelude “1993” blasts off like a garage band deciding to be ELP – the rest of the album nicely underscores and subtly inverts this Kwik Save perspective of pomp.
There follows a series of what can only be described as angry electro-folk songs, with more puns per verse than can be found in a whole mound of Marina Hyde columns, but bearing markedly more purpose. Given what I said above about the forgotten legions of immediate pre-Britpop British pop, “The Only Living Boy In New Cross” reaches out to, and touches, those who can never be mistaken for cool or trendy. “The grebos, the crusties, the goths” – the deeply unfashionable majority, the clarion call of a South London which, with the exception of Brixton and the partial exception of Peckham, could never at the time have proven attractive to self-appointed hipsters or what are now called “living influencers” (I worked in Camberwell for a spell in the nineties; I KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT). Those irritating working-class types who Lower The Tone. No wonder Carter were raging against that machine.
“England,” a drunkenly sober sea shanty waltz and the album’s clearest expression of the Band of Holy Joy influence, is this album’s “Falling On A Bruise,” a profoundly raw exploration of what a rotten, rotting country does to people. “Do Re Me,” the best utilisation of a Spinal Tap sample I can think of, decries the worse tendencies of Britpop before the latter has even occurred (“Because life Mrs Brown/Is just one big knees up”), demanding to know who and what can cut through the cape of complacency (“Where are the songs about boozers and buildings/Banning the bomb and abusing the children?”).
“Look Mum, No Hands!,” about a child killed by a terrorist bomb (or is it? Note the sleeve’s dedication “TO OUR FRIENDS IN ‘YUGOSLAVIA’”), is bleakly black comedy. The climactic “While You Were Out” describes the protagonist’s world being systematically destroyed, with the increasingly frantic (but also increasingly softer) plea for the song’s object to telephone them. Get in touch. Speak to me. Prove that I exist.
Then “Skywest And Crooked,” a far more effective card game analogy of a song than “Desperado” ever was. It is clumsy and not always coherent. That is its point. It is not The Modern Review (please to God, no). But it is a plea to save the world, to save ourselves (“Don’t kill yourself, stupid!/This ain’t a Dead Poets Society!”). As the song rises to its epic crescendo, the sober spoken voice of Ian Dury – another direct forebear – intones the words from Man Of La Mancha, a stage show based on a book written to warn its readers about the follies of basing one’s life on stories of literary fantasy. But those people who die, despairing, perhaps die every day, like those people emerging from the train at London Bridge, or the assumed rejects who are not deemed fit enough even to get to London Bridge, except perhaps to beg underneath it. It is as though a reluctant requiem for the English working classes is being delivered.
And, yet, there is hope. That opening piano and synthesiser motif returns and leads directly to… “The Impossible Dream,” a standard you had probably heard a thousand times, even then. Jim Bob’s pitching is not perfect. He sometimes goes into sprechgesang, as Rex Harrison – who played Don Quixote on television in the early seventies – once did, and Eddie Argos would one day also do. But, Jesus H Corbett, he MEANS it as few other singers of the song have ever meant it. He illuminates the song with hope. He stretches out a hand of compassionate friendship in that important year of 1992, the one so many people now desire to be fractured beyond repair. He sings to his people, and therefore by extension to us.
The untrendy, the hopelessly unhip. Carter, and all the other bands they mention, and even other bands – Kingmaker, anyone? – who were never going to be hip, or were only momentarily hip. Yet, as the Velvet Underground and Propaganda had done before them, everyone who listened to Carter was, in however askew a way, inspired. Consider the generation which came after Carter (and after Britpop); think in particular of Mike Skinner, or Billy Nomates, or (especially) Sleaford Mods, and for that matter Dizzee Rascal and that whole SW London/Croydon corridor (Skepta, Stormzy, Loyle Carner and I could go on). Oh, and So Solid Crew. As is almost invariably the case, it is those who appear to matter the least at the time who end up mattering the most. Carter did not do anything of equal consequence – in great part, it wasn’t really their fault - after 1992, and disbanded in 1996. But 101 Damnations, 30 Something and 1992 – The Love Album survive as definitive chronicles of a society and people who should never be overlooked, or forgotten, by two people who clearly prefer cheerful, socialist south London, and the People's Republic of Lambeth in particular, to ice-cool north London, and favour Christ over Hiroshima.