Deadline | Feature | October 1993
THE UNSTOPPABLE TEAM
"You wouldn't happen to have any champers, would you?" asks the man in the doorway, his bushy eyebrows jiggling up and down in excited expectation. They look like epileptic caterpillars.
Jim Bob and Fruitbat make no attempt to reply.
"Champers," repeats the man. "You know, champagne."
Jim Bob and Fruitbat stay silent.
Caterpillar Eyebrows sighs and spins on his heels, heading back out into the thick jungle of television cameras and sound booms and cables and clipboards in the garden at the rear of Fruitbat's Brixton house. It seems "The Big Breakfast" are used to dealing with an altogether different sort of pop group to Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine.
It's been a good 18 months since Carter USM last played host to the full-on media circus. Back then, the duo were celebrating the fact that their "1992: The Love Album" had zoomed straight into the charts at Number One.
Carter's fall from grace followed within just a few weeks of this achievement. By the end of last year, when they released "The Impossible Dream", the third single from "1992",
the only press they were able to pick up was the occasional piss-take in the gossip pages. The single stiffed. The critics crowed.
Carter, it seemed, were well and truly finished. They were through. Kaput. Over and out. Everybody, it seemed, was sick of their disco beatbox and their punky riffs, their Sarf London pride and their David Hockney rhyming slang, their it's-all-in-The Sun-stylee puns and their, oh, a bit of satire there, a bit of Ben Elton there, routines...
The list went on and on.
Carter, the critics said, were off to The Great Gig In The Sky. They ought to be bloody grateful they'd managed to last longer than Half Man Half Biscuit.
The recent release of "Post Historic Monsters", Carter's fourth album, marks a recovery on a par with that of Lazarus. The duo are back with their strongest LP since their 1989 debut, "101 Damnations".
However well it had sold, "1992" lacked bite. With the exception of a couple of songs, it sounded too safe, too deliberate. In stark contrast, "Post Historic Monsters" recaptures the anger and the frustration, the all-round urgency, of their debut.
"Post Historic Monsters" finds the group moving into previously uncharted musical and lyrical territories. "Lean On Me, I Won't Fall Over", a Top 20 single the week of its release,
is about the only song instantly identifiable as the work of Carter. It boasts two of just three references to London on the entire album.
"The difference between 'Post Historic Monsters' and the records we have put out since '101 Damnations' is that you can listen to it without prejudice," says Jim Bob. "There's none of the stuff that usually puts people off. It's like it doesn't matter that it's a Carter record. It could almost be by anyone. A lot of the journalists who have put the boot into us have had to admit that they like this album. Or at least some of it.
"I don't mind being slagged off, it really doesn't bother me that much, but the snide comments we were getting in the press at the time of 'The Impossible Dream' weren't entertaining or funny. They were completely pointless. At the same time, I must admit that a lot of what we were doing up until now was really easy to parody. I mean, parts of '1992' could have been made by Bobby Davro. It was up for that kind of a bashing."
"We knew we had something to prove with the new album," adds Fruitbat. "We didn't want anybody to be allowed to dismiss us. No fucking way!"
"We're not just talking about journalists," says Jim Bob. "A lot of our fans had gone off us too and we didn't have the over-the-top enthusiasm from the record company we'd had when we first signed with them. We knew we had to come up with a good album or that would have been the end of it.
"But even more importantly than that, we were as bored with Carter as everybody else was. That's why we didn't put out any records for almost a year. We decided to stop until we reached the point where we wanted to write songs and play gigs."
"We had to do that for our sanity," says Fruitbat. "I really couldn't have faced a 'We're in the studio next week, what the hell are we going to do?' scenario. The way we work now is so much more spontaneous. 'The Music That Nobody Likes' began as a mistake and 'Evil' is an experimental B-side gone haywire. The whole album is just so much more refreshing."
It's difficult to keep count of the surprises on "Post Historic Monsters". "Being There", a late-night jazz lilt complete with a sublime piano solo, is one. "Stuff The Jubilee!", which could easily be mistaken for something from "Oh, What A Lovely War!", is two. "Evil", which boasts a backwards "Devil Woman", a snippet of country and western, and Jim Bob in the role of Hans Christian Andersen, is five. Or 666.
Perhaps the biggest shock is "Lenny And Terence", a vitriolic attack on Kravitz and Trent D'Arby. Jim Bob's vocals are spiked with effects and the backing music sounds like Ministry covering Black Sabbath. Perversely, the track has been ear-marked as the second single from the album. It seems a hell of a risk.
"It'll be interesting to see what happens," says Fruitbat.
"I'll tell you exactly what will happen," says his partner. "It's going to destroy everything we've built up – everything – in one blow. I mean, it's not even the version that appears on the album. We've re-recorded it and made it substantially less radio playable. It's a really fucking stupid thing to do."
"Absolutely," laughs Fruitbat. "It's a good test. The thing is, if all the people who bought 'Lean On Me' the week it came out do the same with 'Lenny And Terence', 'Top Of The Pops' will have to consider putting us on. That will be hilarious. It could ruin our careers, but it's well worth doing."
Jim Bob's lyrics have always taken a fair bit of flak. He still employs plenty of twisted cliches and silly puns, but he's now also offering some straightforward, succinct observations. He still enjoys taking swipes at racists and bigots, but he's digging deeper into himself too. A lot of Carter's new songs tackle quite personal subjects.
Of particular note is "A Bachelor For Baden Powell", which tells of a young boy's efforts to stop the roving hands of his scoutmaster: "You'll get no badge for touching me". The song is written in the first person. The incident happened to Jim Bob when he was nine years old.
"Some people will probably think 'Baden Powell' is a really traumatic song but, to be frank, I came up with the lyrics as almost a joke. The whole thing seemed to be pretty funny to me. Maybe it was some kind of a relief. Until I wrote that song, I hadn't told anyone. And the way I chose to tell someone was by telling absolutely everyone. I had to broadcast it."
"Then spend the next six months explaining every single bloody word of it," snorts Fruitbat.
"Yeah, I should have known what I was letting myself in for. I just had to get it out, I suppose. I mean, yeah, I know the stuff we're doing now is more personal than ever before, but I don't want to spend my life on some kind of public rack. Fuck me, I don't want to end up like Sinead O'Connor.
"That was one of the strange things with 'Lean On Me', which is all about some of the fans who have attached themselves to us, the majority of whom are suicidal. It's provoked an amazing amount of letters from people saying, 'I feel guilty about what you've said, but I must tell you...'. It's actually opened us up to more of that stuff, just because we were honest."
Honest? Now there's a word most bands don't even know the meaning of.
"I certainly don't want to be right-on anymore," bellows Jim Bob, banging his coffee cup on the table. "Not in that kind of hallowed sense, anyway. I mean, we had loads of people write to us saying we had betrayed them after we did that KP Peanuts advert - and I don't want to have to defend myself against those accusations. The fact is we did it to get funding for the next tour. We did what we did and that's that. Why should we have to explain ourselves? Why should we have to defend that decision?"
"Because we're a socialist band?" tries Fruitbat.
"Yeah, but look at the reality," says Jim Bob. "Our record company is part of EMI, who make nuclear weapons and fuck knows what else. These people have sent their letters via the Royal Mail. And where is the paper they've used made? Or the pen? How do they know it wasn't made in South Africa? I could go on and on like that forever, but what's the point?
"It's like the reviews of last year's Reading Festival which talked about Fruitbat and I spending the whole weekend at the backstage bar. It wasn't true and I was very pissed off at the thought of our fans reading that. Whereas this year, yeah, we stayed at the bar for one of the days and I don't actually care who knows it. You don't spend all your time watching bands at a festival. You don't think, 'Oh, I'd better go and see this lot' if you don't like them.
"We're hoping to get paid to be backstage next year. We want to be booked to hang around and get drunk and shout at people, you know, as part of the entertainment. We'd certainly be value for money. How much did Rage Against The Machine get paid this year? I was a lot more entertaining than they were. I was a lot louder than they were too."
Caterpiller Eyebrows returns. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology and lots of gaffa, Fruitbat's garden has been turned into the set of "The Big Breakfast". Next door's curtains are twitching and the cameras are ready to roll.
"You didn't happen to find any...?"
No, they didn't. Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine are past the champers at breakfast bit. They're past the indie hero bit as well. It's not that Jim Bob and Fruitbat have grown up. It's not that their songwriting skills have reached some kind of fourth album maturity. It's stupid to talk about two 30-somethings who have been working together for around 12 years in such terms. It's more that they've learnt - or re-learnt - how to make music instinctively, naturally, hell, honestly.
Back from the dead, the future's looking bright for Carter. Isn't it?
"We're trying to plan ahead but we're finding it really hard because we don't want to do anything," says Jim Bob. "To bring out a single early next year, we have to get it together now – and we don't want to do it now. We don't know what is happening beyond 'Lenny And Terence' and the autumn tour. I mean, the band obviously won't go on forever. Unless we're very lucky.
"I do want it to stop – eventually – but I can't see myself getting a job and you need a fair amount of money to be able to not do anything. Being a father makes a difference. I have to be more responsible. I need security and I need money. It's like that KP advert. I'm not prepared to see my daughter starve to keep the fans happy.
"We definitely don't want to split the band up, but we don't want to be tied down to making records on demand. It becomes a career, then it becomes boring, and we're back to where we were a year ago. We've reached that R.E.M. stage, you know, where we'd like to fuck off for two years, but we're there a bit early. We can't afford to do it at the moment."
"Buy our records and help our pension plans," says Fruitbat, leaning close to the tape recorder.
You'll make two old men very happy.