The average and unique: a love story

I can vividly remember the first time I heard Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine. I was fourteen years old, it was late July, or maybe early August, and I was in a field in Wales. I was at a church camp (I’m Jew-ish, but it’s complicated) where every minute of every day was filled with activity, but for some reason there was nowhere we had to be just then; and somebody – probably Marsha, who would go on to make a career out of introducing people to new music, but maybe her impossibly cool older brother – had smuggled in a cassette player, and into the hazy afternoon sun snaked the crashing chords of Prince In A Pauper’s Grave. My tiny mind was blown. It was the most exciting song I’d ever heard.

So when I got home I taped someone’s copy of 30 Something and listened to it obsessively until the following year, when 1992: The Love Album came out at almost exactly the time I met my first ever boyfriend. By the time the relationship ended three months and four days later, I knew all the words to every song. It was a heady time.

That autumn I got a Saturday job at the hippie stall. The hippie stall probably had another name for trading purposes, but I never heard anyone call it anything else. It was run by Pam and Martin, a proper hippie couple, and they hired a series of schoolgirls attracted by the subversiveness of selling candles and incense in the middle of Bromley, where everybody else sold curtains and lampshades.

I worked the morning shift. One day I was early, so I hung around listening to my walkman while I waited for Pam and Martin to arrive. When their beaten-up old van lumbered up, I took my headphones off. Martin got out of the van.

“What are you listening to?”

I hesitated. Martin could be witheringly sarcastic, in a way that was breathlessly funny if you weren’t the target, but less so when you were.

“Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine.”

“Oh yes, I’ve heard him. Very good at playing his…machine, isn’t he?”

It’s not a him, it’s a them, I wanted to say, but I didn’t. They play guitars as well as machines, I nearly said, but I didn’t. What’s wrong with making music on a machine?, I should have said, but I didn’t.

I expect I just shrugged, not realising then that casual dismissal of something I thought heartstoppingly good was to be a standard reaction from other people for years to come. When I went to HMV in Bromley to queue up to meet Johnny Rotten and have him sign a copy of No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, I was careful not to mention it to Martin. I knew his limits.

Nobody ever liked the music I liked, so in later years I learned to like the music other people liked, and my CD rack grew heavy with albums by Blur and Pulp and David Bowie and the Rolling Stones. And I do like them all. But I didn’t find them for myself, and I bought their albums because it was something people did. Carter will always hold a special place in my heart because for a little while they were only mine. (Secretly, I still think they are.)

Which is mad. Everybody should listen to them. They are brilliant. The tunes are brilliant, the arrangements are brilliant, the energy is brilliant, the words, especially, are brilliant: witty, biting statements against the world interspersed with moments of melancholy and occasional whimsy, firmly set in an all too recognisable South London, and sung in a rough diamond, devil-may-care voice that you recognise in an instant.

I was an orderly, list-making sort of a teenager. 1992 was the best album. Prince in a Pauper’s Grave was the best song. Suppose You Gave a Funeral And Nobody Came was the best song title. The best lyric, from My Second To Last Will And Testament, was perfect in its simplicity:

Give my body to medical science

If medical science’ll have me

They can take my lungs and kidneys

But my heart belongs to Daphne

(No wonder Jim Bob is a writer now.)

The genius of their lyrics was always in taking the banal and the familiar and twisting it into something new. Rubbish contained a reference to Elmers End. I lived in Elmers End. Nobody lived in Elmers End: it was tiny, and people from five miles away had never heard of it, but this band, my band, had made it famous.

I learned to draw the red-and-white band logo, and I traced it carefully across my bedroom wall, over the back pages of notebooks; on to the canvas flap of my school bag. The hardest part was making sure the words “The Unstoppable Sex Machine” were centre-aligned in relation to “Carter”. You had to start with the “Unstoppable”, halfway across the “A”, and work outwards from there.

(Other logos I have obsessively drawn: the grafitti spray of BAD from the Michael Jackson album; the clenched fist of the Socialist Worker Student Society.)

But nobody liked the music I liked, so I never went to see them play live, because I could never find anybody to come with me. And they’ve played a few reunion gigs over the years but I’ve somehow missed them all, and when they announced “big news” a couple of weeks ago I knew they were going to be back again, but the London show is on our wedding day, and we’re getting married in Dublin, and even if we were getting married at home I don’t think I could get away with leaving the reception to go to a gig.

(Could I?)

So maybe I’ll never get to see them, and although that breaks my heart a little bit, it also lets me persevere with the delusion that their music belongs to only me. So I’ll keep listening to them through headphones and squirming with secret delight at every delicious angry joke. I might tell people I’m listening to Radio 4, if they ask.

Should you happen to be charged with choosing music for my funeral, however, I have a suggestion. You needn’t go with it, because I’ll be dead so I won’t care, but at sixteen I decided that I wanted to be waved off to the sound of the last two songs from 1992; Skywest and Crooked and The Impossible Dream (they always did cover versions better than anyone else, better than the originals), and I’ve never found a reason to change my mind:

This summer will mark the twentieth anniversary of that day in a field in Wales. Crystal Palace Football Club is the only entity I’ve loved for longer, not counting actual people, but football’s different because it causes at least as much pain as joy, especially if you support Palace. When you find a band you love, though, your life gets uncomplicatedly better, which is why music is better than football.

Now, excuse me while I go and turn up the stereo really loud.

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4 thoughts on “The average and unique: a love story

  1. jim5et says:

    Lovely post. I’d pretty much forgotten Carter, but 10 minutes on Spotify this morning reminded me that I still know all the words to the first 2 albums, and that Any Time, Any Place, Anywhere is still the best hangover cure I know.

    I was never much of a fan, really – with the exception of Huggy Bear I’ve never done that adopting a band to be my band thing – but I saw them live a couple of times and I loved those first couple of records. More than that, I remember that they were the first and best example of a genuinely good and kind band – lots of my mates dropped out of A-Levels to follow them round the country and came back with stories of both of them finding ways to take care of their following of drunk teenage boys – from lifts on tour vans to fatherly lectures – that I can’t imagine other bands bothering with. I think that daddishness is part of why they were always on the wrong side of fractal indie snobbery – that and their fans wearing combat boots.

    They’re playing Beautiful Days near us this year, and I’d be tempted if I didn’t think it’d be full of ghastly fake crusties. So some indie snobbery never dies.

  2. jim5et says:

    Oh, and you forgot the best bit about that line from My Second to Last Will and Testament: “my heart belongs to Daphne – DAPHNE!!”. that second Daphne is one of the great pop moments of the 90s.

  3. elsiem says:

    I deliberated over whether to include the “DAPHNE!”, but I decided that it would be confusing to people who didn’t know the song. I loved your comment, thank you. And I was also half-tempted by Beautiful Days but I don’t think I’m allowed any more holidays this year.

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