Carter USM…thoughts from a thirtysomething…

So the Pynchon project is still very much alive, but in a prolonged state of hibernation – hopefully back up and running in a couple of months time.

In the meantime something of an artistic departure with a few thoughts on Carter USM, following a thoroughly entertaining Friday evening seeing Jim Bob on the ‘Touring Jarvis Ham’ jaunt at Play in Reading.  I have already written this piece once, never mind if only in a Peroni- and Red Stripe-fuelled head walking home, and I am pretty sure that version was better than this one will be.  Still, I will do my best to recount the more pertinent points.

What became clear on the night was the extent to which Carter have been an enormous influence on my love of music, from formative early teenage years of the nineties onwards, and remain important to me today.

My friends and I, around age 13/14, first became aware of the band around the release of The Love Album in 1992, largely through a number of elder brothers – all part of West Berkshire’s burgeoning but sadly short-lived UK indie scene (post-rave, pre-grunge).  ‘Scene’ is also probably a bit much as no-one played any instruments and bizarrely we didn’t even take in any of the now fondly-remembered local Thames Valley movement – rather everybody was into Neds, PWEI, EMF and Carter.

We quickly fell in love with everything grebo – even if in part through fraternal peer pressure and the ongoing quest for adolescent acceptance.  Carter were favourites by a distance though – not least because the singles were overall more accessible to young ears – and through the stories passed down of the danger and excitement in braving the moshpit at their gigs.  The songs also were our first exposure to anything other than largely mundane pop lyrics and subject matter, instead providing witty, acerbic, sometimes political views of life.

As brief a period as it was, for a year or so not a school or youth club disco went by without requests for Sheriff Fatman, The Only Living Boy In New Cross or similar – resulting in the evacuation of all girls from the dance floor along with what now I can only imagine was a hilariously lame attempt at moshing.  All of us were also in proud possession of Carter t-shirts – generally 101 Damnations, 30something or as in my case the Test Card.  We all had the albums on cassette but none of us would see them live at the time being that bit too young.

There was a parallel influence for me at that time as well, involving the likes of Guns n’ Roses and no little amount of hair metal, which resulted in a somewhat schizophrenic confusion in musical appreciation for a while – but that is a story for another time.

Grunge and Britpop came and went throughout the rest of my teens and slowly but surely I discovered the things I was really into.  For a long time Carter were no longer at the forefront of playlists or mixtapes for me but remained all the same amongst the punk, folk, psych, soul, rock and metal underpinning my collection today – if only through a second-hand CD of Straw Donkey and the odd frantic drunken airing at indie discos.  I’d make many new friends in this time, generally a bit older, all of whom had grown up smack bang in the middle of 90s indie and from whom I would both learn from and share with a love of Carter and much more besides.

So by 2007, with news of a formal reunion following a one-off performance in memory of Wiz from Mega City Four, the announcement of a Brixton Academy gig signalled enormous excitement and anticipation amongst a group of us.  Some friends, who’d worked with both bands in the 90s, had been at the tribute gig and reported back its success.  We duly got tickets for the ‘one-off’ reunion gig at Brixton, and what a night it was – everything 13 year old me could have hoped for and more.  The energy of both the band and an adoring crowd of all ages was awesome and the songs timeless.  We’ve subsequently been to three out of the four ‘one-off’ Brixton gigs in the last few years and have loved every one.  I confess I can’t really remember all of them, thanks to always hitting the Red Stripe rather harder than necessary, but I know I enjoyed them.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from last night’s gig, beyond it being both spoken word and songs, though had an inkling it would work.  And work it did.

Play is a great venue for this type of night – small and intimate enough for readings, yet with enough space for the songs to shine.  I have not yet read the new book, however the excerpts we heard were engaging and funny and I most certainly will.  The songs, both solo and Carter material, come across tremendously well in an acoustic setting.  Stripped back from dirty guitars and drum machines (themselves always entirely welcome) the stories and messages stand out in a way I’d never stopped to consider before.

There is always a sense of the shambolic – not least with the closing Carter song raffle – however it fits with memories of the band and the scene and only serves to charm – never frustrate.  My friend Pete and I both left the gig commenting how impressive it had been and how it had affirmed our longstanding love of the band.

All in all, I now feel like I have experienced three ages of Carter – from the clumsy introduction to indie in my early teens, through raucous middle-aged nights at Brixton Academy to Jim Bob doing the literary acoustic thing (and even a recent cover of Mr Blue Sky).

Anyway, enough.  This is far longer than I had planned and probably too personal and occasionally fawning to the point of disinterest.  So one last observation…A number of friends never ‘got’ or ‘don’t get’ Carter, which is their prerogative  of course.  However they are wrong and those of us who do are right.

Ben (still 13 yrs old…sort of)

PS Oh. Also – Jim Bob – something that’s been bugging me for a while now – I think shortcrust pastry will serve you better than flaky for that tart…


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