Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, The Only Living Boy In New Cross (1992)

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Artist: Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine
Title: The Only Living Boy In New Cross
Description: single; album track, 1992: The Love Album
Label: Chrysalis
Release date: 1992
First heard: 1992

Hello, good evening, welcome, to nothing much …

Five days before writing this entry, along with let’s say 4,999 others, I witnessed Carter play their final, final gig on 22 November 2014 at Brixton Academy in London, which was always practically their home ground. Apparently, this time they meant it. For two hours, two men filled the vast ampitheatrical space, using only voices, guitars and backing tapes, and a certain amount of moving backwards and forwards. Were we not entertained?

This final comedown was something to behold, as was their previous final gig at Brixton Academy, and the one before that. Who of sound mind and body could deny them the financial injection of what turned into an eight-year reunion? There was, as Jim Bob observed when I asked him to define this second coming, a lot of love in the room. During the last song before the first of two encores, it was possible to conclude that The Impossible Dream was their finest song. But they didn’t write that, another duo, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, did in 1965, and Carter adopted it 27 years later (as did we), and in any case, there is another song, one of theirs, that tries, when its arms are too weary, to reach the same unreachable star.

Quite why a band called Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine weren’t taken seriously is beyond me. Jim Bob and Les “Fruitbat” Carter were men of serious intent and righteous late-Thatcher discontent. Their place in history has long been denied them. Amid a whole wave of alternative British bands that came through at the end of the 80s and were signed by funky-vicar major labels desperate to get a piece of the independent action, Carter epitomised that quiet revolution. Not literally quiet, of course. They made a proper racket.

Much has been written about the comfort and the joy of Jim Bob’s punning titles and lyrics. Most of it by me. But a keen mind and an ear for wordplay are not a prerequisite for writing memorable power-pop songs, and if he and Fruitbat had written only instrumentals, they would have been a pretty tasty double-act. That said, it was Jim’s droll eloquence that elevated Carter to the top tier. Though it has improved like a fine port over the years and into his more thoughtful, less punny solo incarnation, his singing voice began as a can of Special Brew. Perfect for the inner-city rage within him, and as effective an outlet as Fruitbat’s squalling guitar. That their second single, first classic and first Top 30 hit on wily reissue, Sheriff Fatman, survived for a quarter of a century as the ultimate Carter anthem clues you into how good they were from the outset.

The Only Living Boy In New Cross, the first single from their third album and their first Top 20 hit, its very title a hallmark of quality (you had to be old enough to know Simon and Garfunkel and metropolitan enough to know the London Underground map to get the joke), is the favourite Carter song of many Carter fans. Including me. It’s not the one that landed them with a lawsuit from the Rolling Stones, or earned them their first go at Top Of The Pops, or got them banned by the BBC during the first Gulf War, nor was it the last song they ever played, five days ago, in Brixton, as I wrote.

But it is the one I personally chose to interpret at Karaoke Circus in London in 2011 – the latterly-defunct night where comedians and hangers-on performed with a live band at venues around London (and Edinburgh). The scene of this particular crime was the Royal Vauxhall Tavern on the right side of the river for Carter, and low-quality phone footage confirms that my interpretation was spirited if not 100% accurate. (It’s on YouTube, but is yet to monetise.) It should be noted that Jim Bob was in the audience. He was magnanimous about it.

It may be the definitive Carter song. Think about it. It begins with a slow, quiet, contemplative passage, a moving piano prelude to earth-moving punk rock. It explodes into sequenced life with a throbbing synth line, raucous, wagon-train guitar and – that Carter building block – a joyous fanfare. Rarely has a band provided itself with so many internal reveilles. The drum pattern is one that a real drummer would never attempt in real life, and, suitably stroked by Fruitbat, adds to the urgency of the engine. Lyrically, it begins with a pun – again, one that requires you to be as old as Jim and Les, as it’s David Frost’s trademark greeting from the 70s – and quickly arrests your ears.

A no holds barred half nelson
And the loving touch

Such affection for the way the English language slots together, juxtaposing a wrestling move with something tender, and rhyming the whole thing with “nothing much”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: poetry. It would be just that without the tip-top tune, whose epic scope requires Jim to hold a note for 12 seconds at the end of the second sort-of-chorus (“New Crooooooooo-ooooooooo-oooo-ooooss!”). I like the fact that the line after “Fill another suitcase” is perpetually mis-transcribed as “with another hall”, when it’s actually “another haul.” Such is the beguiling nature of the imagery, either would work.

Then wipe the lipstick hearts and flowers
From the glass and chrome
Take five or six hot showers
And come on home

It’s rare that a single song surveys the cultural and tribal landscape of the day, but The Only Living Boy, with its hidden-in-plain-sight HIV-panic subject line (check the condom-packet inner sleeve), does just that, with the gypsies, travellers, thieves, grebos, crusties and goths, not to mention the more obtuse “butchered bakers, deaf and dumb waiters, Marble Arch criminals and Clause 28-ers, authors, authors, plastered outcasts, locked up daughters, rock and roll stars.” (Where was the Ivor Novello nomination for this song?)

In a rare moment of autobiography, Jim declares he’s “teamed up with the hippies now” and has his “fringe unfurled”, before delivering a heartfelt plea from a weary pacifist in a post-Gulf War world:

I want to give peace, love and kisses out
To this whole stinking world

I’m not showing off (well I am), but I remember being in Fruitbat’s house in Brixton circa 1991, with no journalistic purpose, just loitering. And Jim was so excited about a couplet he’d just written, he premiered it in my presence. It was that one.

We don’t know who Rudy, David, Rosie, Abraham and Julianne are, but we wish them farewell all the same, unable not to think back to After The Watershed, which expensively bid goodbye to Ruby Tuesday, while at the same time begging the “silly cow” to come home. This song welcomes and repels at the same time. It’s what happens when you live in a stinking world. It probably explains why Carter kept reforming, promising to retire and then reforming again. Jim writes for a living. Hello, good evening, welcome and goodbye.

Cocteau Twins, Ivo (1984)

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Artist: Cocteau Twins
Title: Ivo
Description: album track, Treasure
Label: 4AD
Release date: 1984
First heard: 1984

Ping pong, peach flan …

There are a number of bands over the years who, as a fan, I’ve fantasised about becoming friends with. Cocteau Twins were one of them. Having met them professionally on numerous occasions since first falling head over heels for them around the time of Head Over Heels, I know for a fact that singling out a track from their third album, Treasure, will not make the transition to their Christmas card list smooth. Sometimes you have to put gut instinct above social ambition.

Our first meeting, ironically, was non-professional. In 1985, my first full year as a resident of London, my friend Rob and I were in our Cocteaus pomp. I’d been intrigued by their grumbling Goth beginnings back in Northampton – the tinny drum machine, the lonely echo, Robin Guthrie’s squealing guitar, Elizabeth Fraser’s fraught Esperanto – but a perfect storm of the increasingly glacial grandiosity of their music, the sheer beauty of the sleeve artwork Vaughan Oliver was creating for them (Head Over Heels, The Spangle Maker, Sunburst And Snowblind), and the top-heavy nature of their haircuts had ushered them to the top of our to-do list by Christmas ’84 and the end of that first term. As a pair of art students, we’d bonded over their aesthetic. Treasure was our first shared new release. Ivo was our first shared opening track. It shed light, truth and beauty into a nondescript study bedroom behind an ugly orange curtain in Battersea.

Self-produced, it was the first Cocteau Twins LP to include Simon Raymonde and, in retrospect, feels like their first complete work. The earlier genuflections to the wiry fuzz and angry beats of Siouxsie & The Banshees had been totally expunged in favour of cathedral guitar that exploded into shards (or “a thousand incandescent fireflies,” were you to take one florid review of the time as gospel) and a hard, resonant metronome from deep within the drumbox first discovered on Hitherto. It was as if Sugar Hiccup – the airborne lead track from Sunburst And Snowblind – was the new blueprint for their sound. That every track had its own decorative Christian name felt very much as if the Cocteaus had given birth.

There was, however, no pop hit here. No single gem from Treasure would leave the chest. It’s an album’s album. (Pearly Dewdrops-Drops had reached number 29 earlier that year, and it would remain their highest singles-chart position.) It coalesces around that signature sound. Little is left to understatement. It is an ornate Valhalla of a record. Its two almost beatless tracks, Beatrix and Otterley, make a credible claim to modern classical music. but Ivo, named after their mysterious label boss, sums up Treasure for me. Fading in, which is not something I usually encourage, on the back of strummed guitar, it allows Fraser to trill her gobbledegook refrain without having to battle for ear-time with anything ethereal or Wagnerian: [phonetically] “Ping pong, peach flan, pandor, pompadour, penleigh, peatswee, Persephone-eeeeeee.”

In a more cosmopolitan age of Danish drama, Polish supermarkets and Sigur Ros, the idea of not understanding a word of what’s being sung or said but appreciating the musical sound is commonplace. In the early 80s, Liz Fraser’s bulletins from another dimension seemed peculiar and, to some, impenetrable. To those who succumbed, they were ours to decipher. I got the feeling I’d been cheated when, in the early 90s, she started to string sentences together.

Ivo does not tinker with the verse-chorus-bridge orthodoxy of rock. It even has a guitar solo – which is a bit like letting off a firework during a fireworks display. But in every other way it was unlike anything else at the time. (As a drummer, it’s odd for me to cleave so closely to music that dispenses with one – as I subsequently would with Carter USM and had already done with Sisters Of Mercy – but there’s nothing a man behind a kit could do to improve this rapturous, skyscraping sound.) There was jazz and there were marimbas, scratchy guitars and fisherman’s caps in the early-to-mid 80s. None were to be found here. Even the other acts on 4AD, whose sleeves looked like the Cocteaus’, didn’t sound like the Cocteaus.

Rob and I – superfans, remember – met Liz Fraser and Robin Guthrie in the bar at the University of London Union in 1985, at a 4AD gig whose bill included instrumentalists Dif Juz (we’d bought their records, too, without having heard a note) and the Wolfgang Press (why, of course). Too enraptured at seeing our clay-footed gods not to approach them, I allowed Rob to make contact, and joined him once he’d broken the ice by showing them the ticket to a GLC gig they were supposed to be headlining, but which had been cancelled. (We kept the tickets as souvenirs rather than get our money back.) Robin and Elizabeth, as we now intimately knew them, seemed not to know anything about the gig and were momentarily intrigued. We had our “in”. Nothing profound was exchanged. They were shyer than we were. When the headliner went on, we accompanied them back into the hall. Liz had added playful backing vocals to an iconoclastic Wolfgang Press cover of Respect, and Rob asked her if she was getting up onstage. She shook her head and we dispersed into the overcoated throng.

I eventually seized my chance to interview them for the NME in 1990 for Heaven Or Las Vegas. It would have been the cover story if not for the Pet Shop Boys, but we ran it across the centre pages, and my circle was squared. They didn’t say much on that occasion either, although I reminded them of our first meeting at ULU, and, a few years later, managed to wangle it for Rob to interview them, briefly, for Q, when I’d taken him on as technology ed and the Cocteaus did an early streamed gig on a new thing called the Internet.

In 1993, Guthrie unloaded some post-rehab, 12-step coke confessions into my tape recorder in Brussels, and in 1996, I went to his house to interview he and Liz, then separated, for a record company bio. We never became friends, which means I am allowed to carry on loving Treasure.

When I listen to Ivo today, it takes me back to sitting in the dark as a first-year and thinking beyond the instant coffee and Marlon Brando postcards. I never ever went off the Cocteau Twins, but will always prefer their earlier, more incandescent fireflies.