This came up on the i-pod the other day. I’d almost forgotten how brilliant a song it is. I’ve written about it before, when I pulled together a Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine ICA (#229) back in October 2019 – it was actually the second ICA devoted to the duo, as SWC and Badger had done the business for ICA #50 as long ago as November 2015.
The Only Living Boy In New Cross (single, 1992)
Carter USM thrived on puns and lyrics that reflected the late 80s and early 90s culture. Their biggest hit single clearly gave a knowing wink to Simon and Garfunkel’s ballad, The Only Living Boy in New York.
For the uninitiated, New Cross is an area in south-east London, in the community from where Carter USM had emerged. It was on the unfashionable side of the river in the capital, poorly served by public transport and in the late 70s and early 80s had become somewhat notorious as a place where far-right and racist politics were thriving, albeit the majority of local people were appalled by such developments. London is a city which has long inspired songwriters to compose words and music to fit in with their surroundings, but few, if any had previously celebrated life in the SE14 postcode district. Until now.
I thought I had come up with a decent enough piece of writing…..but I should have known better. Here is a far more detailed offering. I’ve edited it from a fabulous piece written, in November 2014, by the rather talented Andrew Collins:-
“Hello, good evening, welcome, to nothing much …
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.
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…..
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
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.
I was sort of tempted to head today’s effort as ‘A guest posting by Andrew Collins’ but it would likely get me into bother!!!
mp3: Carter USM – The Only Living Boy In New Cross
The CD single, came (ahem) in a plain brown wrapper so that the folk at Woolworth’s. WH Smith and the other big retailers wouldn’t get into a tizzy about the condom-wrapper rich sleeve it was really meant to have. There were two other tracks…..one of their own and, as per usual, a cover:-
mp3: Carter USM – Watching The Big Apple Turnover
mp3: Carter USM – Panic
It’s been an incredibly long time since anything to do with The Smiths made an appearance round these parts…..but as it’s not actually featuring the Manchester racist, I’m happy enough to offer it up for your aural pleasure.