Non-Nordic Sunday feature: Carter USM – the UK’s smartest ever lyricists?
I haven’t listened to Carter – the Unstoppable Sex Machine (as Les ‘Fruitbat’ Carter fancied himself) for a long time, but coming across their UK #1 charting ‘1992 – The Love Album’ again prompted me to wonder what they would make of 2020 if they were to reform and record some songs about it. ‘2020 – The Bug Album’?
That probably won’t happen. Carter and ‘Jim Bob’ Morrison split up and got back together several times while adding and subtracting other band members along the way. They always said they would call it a day when they stopped having fun but that fun called them back several times. However, their ‘last ever’ performance at Brixton Academy in 2014 has proved remarkably durable so far. Since then they have settled on other projects, Carter with his longstanding Abdoujaparov and others and Morrison with mainly solo work (occasionally performing Carter USM songs live) and as a novelist.
Another reason they’ve turned up here is that I have long considered them to be potentially the smartest lyricists we’ve ever produced. I suppose some would argue they aren’t even the smartest lyricists in south London, as that is where members of Squeeze also hail from, but I’ll stick to my guns. And they were prolific, with seven albums in eight years, as well as being super-fast writers, once churning out one side of an album in half a day.
Their style is evident in how they named their songs, often punning or parodying other songs, books, films or popular sayings. They set out their stall with their first album, ‘101 Damnations’, in 1990.And even more so in their wordplay-rich, dark humoured lyrics supported by samples, drum machines, sequenced basses, and jangly guitar, all rolled up into a unique post-punk, power pop, anthemic sound. Their subject matter was almost exclusively the disadvantaged working people they would see around them every time they walked out of the door, living a brutalised life during the Margaret Thatcher and John Major eras.
That backing tape technology (but with Carter usually playing live guitar) was needed because they became a duo by accident when other band members failed to turn up for a charity show. They did add a drummer for their fifth album ‘Worry Bomb’ but by then their popularity was waning a little, it having peaked with the chart-topping ‘1992 – The Love Album’, which got them on Top of the Pops with ‘The only living boy in New Cross’.
Here’s a list of some of their wordplay song titles, written between 1990 and 1998. It isn’t comprehensive – there might be other puns out there that I haven’t ‘got’ - but it does give a flavour of the power of that wordplay.
Born on the 5th of November
The Road to Domestos
Twenty-Four Minutes from Tulse Hill
The Taking of Peckham 123
Billy's Smart Circus
Sealed With a Glasgow Kiss
The Final Comedown
2001: A Clockwork Orange
My Second to Last Will and Testament
The Only Living Boy in New Cross
Do Re Me, So Far So Good
2 Million Years B.C
Suicide isn’t painless
Lean on Me I Won't Fall Over
The Life and Soul of the Party dies
The Man Who Bought the World
We Three Kings of Orient Aren't (as the band’s predecessor, Jamie Wednesday).
To support the central theme here I’ll run through some examples of those outstanding lyrics, focusing mainly on ‘1992 – The Love Album’ only because it was their most commercially successful one (and a tape I played incessantly in the car until it wore out).
One of their earliest singles was ‘Sheriff Fatman’ (1989), said to be based around the business dealings of property tycoons Nicholas van Hoogstraten and Peter Rachman, the latter of whom also attracted the ire of Genesis in ‘Get ‘em out by Friday’.
First and last verses:
“Sheriff Fatman started out his business as a granny farmer/ He was infamous for fifteen minutes/ And he appeared on Panorama/T hen he somehow got on board/ The Starship Enterprise Allowance Scheme/ With a Prince of Wales Award/F or pushing Valium and amphetamines;
Moving up on second base/ Behind Nicholas van what’s-his-face/ At six foot six and a hundred tons/ The undisputed king of the slums/ With more aliases than Klaus Barbie/ The master butcher of Leigh-on-Sea/ In a hatchback from Notre Dame/ The one and only, Sheriff Fatman.”
Carter USM could mix humour and pathos in the same song in a way other bands can only aspire to. A prime example is the anti-suicide song (and there are several of them, as you’ll see later) ‘Gas (Man)’.
I’m reminded of the comment by John Betjeman on Albert Camus’ ‘L’Etranger’ when he said “Never have I read a work which says so much in so short a space”. Few songs convey so much social observation in two verses, a vocal bridge and a 13-word outro. Admire the news headline-like poignancy of:
“Illiterate bored teenager gets spelling wrong…on suicide note/ Loneliness of the long distance drugs runner ends/ On crowded Bangkok death row/ Happy days, oh happy days/ And it's a gas man, oh boy/A nd we will enjoy ourselves.”
And the bridge:
“Over and over the sums are the same/ Count up the number of people in pain/T ake away friends and then add a few noughts/ Dividing it by the first number you thought/ And it's a gas man...”
In the anti-celebrity ‘Suppose you gave a funeral and nobody came’, Morrison rages with wonderful oxymorons:
“Light up the sky with sub-standard fireworks/ Release the pit-bull doves of peace/ I've changed my mind about the mindless violence/ I'm happy doing porridge…with the knowledge that at least/Y ou may be popular/ You're beautiful/ The whole world knows your name/ But today you gave a funeral/ And nobody came…;
Here's the church/ Here's the steeple/ Open the doors/ where's all the people?”
I once “performed” ‘England’ acapella to some friends who described it as ‘pure poetry’ though they kindly didn’t offer a comment on my performance. A song about “the mistreatment of prostitutes”, the entire thing is wonderful, every word of it.
There are few videos, even of live performances, of this song so we’ll have to revert to Spotify, at least it should earn them a fraction of a fraction of a penny per click. Had Spotify existed in their day it would have attracted their scorn in spades.
The lyrics here go beyond cutting, they are savage. This section is presumably an appearance before the bench.
“…I was fornicating before I could read or write/ And now I can't stop, sir/ I graduated from the University of Life/ And the School of Hard Knocks, sir/ And my telephone is always ringing/And my number is triple-X directory/ Call 0898 treble three/ Talk dirty to me…;
Oh come on all ye unfaithful/ Joyful, triumphant and pathetically weak/ I've been Amsterdamned, Reeperbahned, Wham bam no thank you mammed/ If the spirit is willing/ Then the telephone is cheap/ And if you want to step outside love/ You can step outside love, with me…”
And then the coup de grace:
“I'm gonna help you with your sickness/ Like a Jehovah's Witness/ You'll be born again and again, and again/ Just lie back, close your eyes and think of England/ And what England's done for me.”
In ‘Senile Delinquent’ the pair address how they thought they might end up.
“You say tomatoe/ I say tomato/ But I'll never be a vegetable/ You say Karl/ And I say Harpo/ I'm politically incorrect-table;
I'm a fucking senile delinquent/ Delinquent with a capital D/ For services to serious drinking/ I should get an O.B.E;
On the 22nd day of November/ The day that they shot Kennedy/ I become a fully paid-up member/ Of the Flat Earth Society.”
And they were politically incorrect-table. In ‘Look mum, no hands’ they scorchingly lambast terrorism, which (it’s easy to forget) was viewed as acceptable as a means to an end in some parts of British society in the 1989s and 1990s.
“Business as usual starts with the sound/ Of another damn funeral march through the town/ One less for St Nicholas/ There's nothing as vile/ Or as sad or ridiculous/ As the coffin of a child;
He flies through the air with the greatest of ease/ That daring young man in the blue dungarees/ Shot down by the G-force of a Semtex surprise/ He bucks like a seahorse, keels over and dies/ With his eyes all dramatic, glazed and confused/T he full metal jacket, trousers and shoes/ He flies through the air with the greatest of ease/T hat daring young man in the blue dungarees;
And his poor, pathetic parents/ So stricken with grief/ That they spelled his name wrong on his funeral wreath/ Are appealing for no vengeance/ On behalf of their son/ But they've already assembled/ and planted the bomb”.
Then in ‘Skywest and Crooked’ they play cards with their futures:
“Skywest and crooked/ Twisted and strange as fuck/ Outside the bookies/ Window shopping for a change of luck;
Skywest and crooked/ So your whole world has been a catastrophe/ But don't kill yourself stupid/ This ain't the Dead Poets Society;
If we club together with all the diamonds we've saved/ We could look at our hearts and say / We've got it in spades.”
I could go on forever, there is something to admire in just about every song they ever wrote. Most readers familiar with Carter USM might feel inclined to offer up even better lyrics, but I rest my case.
I left my favourite to the end. I doubt there is a finer anthem for the England of the late 1980s and early 1990s than ‘The life and soul of the party dies.’ Set in the slums that the likes of Rachman and Nicholas van what’s-his-face had lined up for ‘gentrification’ you couldn’t even retire down the pub because:
“There's a place you sometimes go/ When you can't face your own shadow/ They've got an old jukebox/ Supposed to keep you entertained/ But all the records suck/ They wind you up, they drive you insane.”
The only escape is from the city itself:
“Maybe we should hit the coast hard/ To the scene of a saucy postcard/ Or to Paris for a wilting flower/ To get an eyeful of the tower/ Because there's a sadness in those eyes/ As the life and soul of the party dies…
(followed by an instrumental middle eight that would pin you to the wall in live shows, then…)
No, you don't wanna be/ The life and soul of the party anymore/ And the birthday cake/ Was baked to make you cry/ And no you don't wanna dance to the rock 'n' roll/ That your radio's for/ You wanna call it a day/ Crawl away and die/ So do I”.
Oh, one other thing. With Carter USM there was always, ALWAYS, a tune.
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