Don’t expect hyperbole when talking to Jim Morrison. Despite that rock star name, this was never an artist seemingly at ease at being on pop’s top table. In fact, he’s been known throughout his career as plain Jim Bob; not even the best known of the Waltons.
He made his name, after a spell with indie also-rans Jamie Wednesday, as half of Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, alongside Les ‘Fruitbat’ Carter’, the pair breaking through in the late ‘80s, garnering a few tabloid headlines and music press front pages en route.
But amid the wider media interest, raucous guitar, of-the-moment samples, drum and bass sequencing, the deeper quality of the songs was often overlooked, not least Jim’s evocative lyrics, a barometer of those troubled times. These were vivid illustrations of life on the edge, exposing the not so far beneath the surface underbelly of Thatcher’s Britain, as best conveyed on first three albums, 101 Damnations (1990), 30 Something (1991) and 1992: The Love Album (1992).
With that in mind, it makes sense that Jim Bob has more recently been able to prove his worth as an author. For starters there’s recently-reprinted band autobiography Goodnight Jim Bob: On The Road With Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, and newly-published sequel, Jim Bob from Carter: In the Shadow of my Former Self, both via Cherry Red Records, which is also responsible for a number of impressive Carter USM retrospective releases. There are also three novels from Jim Bob. Accordingly, however, his live outings are more limited now. Does he have a busy summer ahead?
“Not really … not by anyone’s standards! I’ve not done that many gigs at all these past few years. I haven’t toured for two years. I find myself doing quite a few of these odd all-dayers though.”
The ‘odd all-dayer’ he’s alluding to is Gigantic Vol. 5, running from 1pm to 11.30pm this Saturday, May 25th, at the Academy, Oxford Road, Manchester, slotting in on a bill – headlined by Echo & the Bunnymen – just below contemporaries The Wonder Stuff and The Bluetones.
This South Londoner hasn’t strayed far from his old patch over the years. Born in Streatham, he’s lived no further from there than Mitcham, and is these days based in Crystal Palace.
“I’ve been here quite a long time, and it’s changed radically. In terms of poshness. I remember it when it was a shithole, and now it’s on those things they do – y’know, ‘the 10 most desirable places to live’.”
It’s nice to still hear a healthy dose of cynicism from him. And he always did seem a little removed from many of his contemporaries. Then again, when Carter USM broke through with first hit ‘Sheriff Fatman’ (1989, possibly one of the last cassette singles I bought) and the 101 Damnations album that followed, they were older than many of the acts around them.
“Yeah, if we made one mistake it was naming a famous album 30 Something! But you can’t really go back on that. I remember around then a meeting with a lawyer or accountant type, advising us to get pensions, saying nobody in the music business would work beyond 50. That’s massively untrue now. But at the time the idea of anyone being in a rock band beyond that age …
“I had little to do with the financial side. I’m the same now. I switch off when anybody’s talking about all that. My manager now seems obsessed with spreadsheets, but there could be anything on them. I have to pretend I read them!”
I recently rediscovered two Stephen Dalton interviews with Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine in back copies of former NME offshoot monthly magazine Vox, from September 1991 and April 1992, the latter revealing how Les bought a house in London with part of his Chrysalis advance, while Jim stayed put in his council flat. That suggests contrasting outlooks.
“Yeah, we still do. He’s not a planner, I’d say. If he had money, he’d spend it and not really worry about it, whereas I’d probably be more wary of it running out. I’m still like that now, wondering what’ll happen if there’s no money coming in. . His approach probably made more sense though. I don’t know.”
You got a bit of a backlash from the tabloid press, journalists suggesting you were raking it in. But those who understood the way the industry works would have realised you were ultimately borrowing from yourselves.
“When we signed to Chrysalis, that was bought by EMI, and it’s been through various ownerships over the years and is now owned by someone else, who just licenses stuff out. We had a statement a week or two ago and we still owe them, I think, almost £900,000.” We wouldn’t have to pay it, but …”
They made a big thing about you being a millionaires at the time.
“Yeah, and certainly by the way things are going today I’m sure people in bands would love to have the money we got when we signed a record deal. They’ll say someone’s been signed by Simon Cowell for a million pounds, but they don’t get any of that money, do they? Whereas we got the money.”
I recall a decision you took to turn down an impressive advertising deal … only for former support act EMF to take up the option.
“Yeah, maybe they did. We were very principled in a way you couldn’t really be today. That was for either ‘Sheriff Fatman’ or ‘Shoppers Paradise’. It didn’t make any sense in terms of the song. I think they just wanted to be attached to us while they were at that level.
“We turned it down because the company that owned them were testing on animals. We did an advert for KP Peanuts though. That was for ‘Shoppers Paradise’. Even then, they came to us with storyboards to check we approved. It would be harder to turn the money down than it was then.
“I suppose when everything‘s going well, you don’t necessarily see an end to it. You just think you can afford to turned that kind of money down, £60,000 to do nothing. But if someone said that to us now, it would be, ‘Oh no, what a dilemma!’
My diaries suggest I first saw Carter USM live on October 24th, 1991, at hometown venue, Guildford Civic Hall, then two weeks later saw them at Kilburn National with Mega City 4, then the following year at Preston Guild Hall on the 1992: The Love Album tour, supported by the Band of Holy Joy.
“Ah, that was one of the bands that were a big influence on us when we started as Carter.”
But what surprises me is that I somehow missed out on seeing Jamie Wednesday, his previous outfit. I was a regular gig-goer at most of the pubs and small venues they played, probably just a few days before or after their appearances. I was definitely aware of them, but somehow missed them. In my fanzine, Captains Log, days, I interviewed a few of their contemporaries, including Mega City 4, was in touch with the Senseless Things and followed others on The Pink Label, like The June Brides, That Patrol Emotion, Wire, McCarthy and The Wolfhounds.
I’m guessing you just got – after that initial hard slog – too big, too quick for me.
“Yeah, once it got to that point, I suppose it was kind of quick. But even for the first year or two of Carter there were a lot of false starts. We put a single out and nothing happened. It came out in the middle of a postal strike and so we couldn’t get it to press and so on. Well … that was out excuse for it not doing well. Then our first label weren’t pleased that we wanted to leave more or less straight away. We’d signed a contract to make an album with them, so that kind of stalled. It felt like a long time that we couldn’t really do anything.”
But then, around the time of ‘Sheriff Fatman’, the stars seemed to align for you.
“Yeah, although I don’t really know why. We used to do quite a lot of gigs before anybody knew who we were. But we tended to get asked to go back to places, so built up this following at specific places like Harlow and Bolton. Every time we went back there’d be another 10 people there. We also made a decision not to play London anymore, playing the same pub gigs to the same people we knew.”
“Yeah, and it’s a shame now, because they’re probably all gone! But I think you can almost get into a routine.”
Fulham Greyhound was one such regular venue that springs to mind.
“Yeah, although that was one we did come back to when we finally did play London again, and it sold out. That was when things started to come together. I think it was then that Steve Lamacq couldn’t get in to report for the NME. That was perfect in a way. They had to write about how busy it was instead.”
There were several moments like that in your career that suggest you were capable of pulling off masterstrokes of marketing. I’m not sure they weren’t accidents, to be honest, but they worked.
“Yeah, semi-accidental really. Our manager at the time, Adrian (Boss), liked mild controversies, like putting condoms on the posters for The Only Living Boy in New Cross single. He wanted someone to complain.”
Those big moments notably including Les’ headline-grabbing rugby tackle on Phillip Schofield at the live BBC-aired October 1991 Smash Hits Poll Winners Party, the moment Jim reckoned the band became pop stars – ‘known by milkmen and postmen’. As Stephen Dalton put it, ’17 million viewers witnessed a highly intoxicated Fruitbat assault Britain’s favourite children’s TV presenter’. Les had taken exception at the host’s on-air remarks, later reflecting, ‘It occurred to me we were just playing the game, and being treated like shit. Even Dannii (Minogue) and the New Kids (on the Block) were being treated like shit, just like another product’.
Squeaky-clean Phillip hadn’t helped himself, introducing the band miming ‘After the Watershed’ with a string of insults, telling his young audience, ‘With bad teeth, naff shoes, a really weird hairdo and your own very individual style, you too can be a pop star’. What followed was a performance faded early ‘to allow time for more patronising banter’. At which point Jim stormed offstage, while furious Les overturned his amps, provoking the presenter to add, ‘Blimey, that was original. Jimbob and The Fruitbat, pushing back the frontiers of music …’ As Stephen Dalton put it, ‘Five seconds later ‘The Fruitbat’ was knocking him sideways, with cameras panning wildly into space as the Dockands Arena crowd erupted into the day’s loudest cheer.’
“Yeah, but that was never deliberate, although that was the one everyone thought was deliberate. I didn’t enjoy that at all, any of that experience.”
Ever get a chance to talk to Philip Schofield about that in later years?
“Not directly, but there has been interaction. Even when we were still going. We met someone doing the lights for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, when he was in it, and he wished us luck for a gig. And years later when we reformed, we were on BBC 6 Music about to do our last gig, when we got a message. I kind of feel sorry for him, as people on Twitter seems to constantly reference it. So I should imagine that’s worse for him than me.
“God, yeah! At the time he was very much the villain as far as I was concerned.”
Do you and Les move in the same circles now and again today?
“Well, I’m still in London and he’s in Folkestone, so I don’t see him much. And he’s off permanently on tour with various bands. But every now and again we meet up and go to the pub, and e-mail each other now and again.”
I seem to recall you already had a daughter by the time you broke through.
“Yeah, she was born in ’86.”
Has she followed you into music?
“She’s a teacher … which is better! She went to the Brit School, doing theatre for two years or so. She wanted to act at the time, then got a bit disillusioned with it all and ended up via a series of accidents working in a school,and is now a qualified teacher. And I prefer that to her being a singer or something like that.”
I seem to recall back in the day a rather adulatory Carter USM fan-base. I knew a fair few of the words, but so many more clearly know every line. That’s something I’m sure that left you feeling proud.
“That can be pretty extraordinary. When I played Shepherd’s Bush Empire last year, just me and a guitar and a few songs with a piano, they more or less sang along with every song. And they were crowd-surfing as well, which I think freaked out the security at the venue. I wasn’t prepared for that!
“I’m doing a couple of gigs this year where there might be a few who don’t know me, though, so that might be where it all comes unstuck! But I did Gigantic before and that was brilliant.”
There have been some memorable moments in the past, not least playing to huge crowds at Reading Festival, touring America with EMF, being taken to court by the Rolling Stones, and appearing in the former Yugoslavia just as the civil war was about to come to a head.
“We went there twice, playing Zagreb, and also Croatia and Bosnia. For a while it was sort of calming down, but there was still tension. It’s a terrible thing to say, but it was quite exciting at the time. We also played in Eastern Europe pretty much just as the Berlin Wall came down, playing in East Germany for a few weeks, and the Czech Republic. Interesting times.”
Now, 30 years on, it seems that everything’s breaking down again, politically. You still have plenty to write about. Or is that down to the next generation of musical artistes?
“To be honest, I haven’t written a new song for quite some time.”
Because you’re concentrating on your books?
“I suppose it’s that, but if I write songs it would be to record and release them, and I find all that quite depressing – it’s all about what format, how you’re going to sell it, and will it be on vinyl or just on Spotify. That stops me doing it. You’ve really got to want to do it. If it involves a proper recording studio with other musicians you’re instantly going to lose money. I’ve never done the kick-tarter type thing. I never wanted to. And even that’s gone all tits up. It was bound to happen, I suppose. People set up a business that was a good idea, doing really well, but then it’s a case of ‘how can we make this bigger for us? Let’s invest the money’.”
And what will we get at Manchester Academy for Gigantic – a greatest hits show?
“Yeah, that will just be Carter songs. But I played London last month, and it was about 60% Carter songs and the rest solo work. At these all-day events I don’t think there’s room to be clever. And I’m quite happy playing either.”
“Quite a few to be honest. The album I did before the last one, What I Think About When I Think About You, which I recorded with an orchestra. That was some people I’d met rather than the Royal Philharmonic, but sounds great to me. I think that’s another reason why I’ve struggled to make records since. Once you’ve played with an orchestra …”
I don’t suppose you could have afforded to take them out on the road with you.
“No. we did one gig. For the last gig I did in London we had a five-piece band for about 40 minutes, and as a result I’m doing four gigs in October, again with a mix of solo and Carter songs. It was an exciting thing to do, but financially it was a mistake!”
Going back to pre-Jamie Wednesday days, did your band, The Ballpoints, get what they deserved, or was that all just part of getting to where you eventually found success?
“Yeah, I don’t think The Ballpoints were ever that great. I suppose it was heading towards something, changing band members. When Les joined that was us heading towards Carter. There was a band before that, Jeepster, who did just one gig, musically totally inept, but … I’ve got some recordings that very few people have ever heard, and there’s …. I dunno … something legendary about that band.”
Where was that gig?
“I can’t remember what it was called, but it was in Southgate. A youth club or something. It was the first proper gig I got, and I left my job before, thinking, ‘This is it … here we go! I’m going to be a pop star!’ I was working at an advertising company in the West End. I was a messenger. I think that was 1978.”
Who was the first band you saw that made you think, ‘This is what I want to do with my life’?
“The first band I ever saw was Queen. By that point, around 14, I was really into music, but it changed a lot, into what my older sister’s boyfriends brought into the house. But I always think of David Essex in Stardust. That’s kind of what I aspired to, even though it’s got a sad ending, I kind of wanted to be David Essex. I was into him and Buddy Holly, then got into Queen and Bad Company. Then punk came along, and I genuinely hated them all of a sudden, overnight. I don’t think that was fake. But then time passes, and you think maybe I do like them again. The Jam and Elvis Costello were my favourites around that time.“
I’m guessing that’s the songwriter in you.
“I suppose so, yeah. And I saw The Jam and Elvis Costello quite a lot, and saw The Clash a couple of times. There was sort of a connection between me and Les and The Clash. We used to hang around in a rehearsal studio in South London, full of inter-changing band members. One was Paul Simonon’s brother Nicky, on drums, and Les went to school with Mick Jones. Also, Joe Strummer once said to me – I would say quite early on – how brilliant Carter was. That blew my mind at the time. Even more so now, in a way.”
I can see that there was a similar spirit there, having seen you live. There was definitely an energy to your sets.
Am I right in thinking Jamie Wednesday were booked to play with The Men They Couldn’t Hang, and while you then split up you honoured the gig with Les in your new format, for what turned out to be Carter USM’s debut gig?
“Yeah, we’d sort of had enough of the band but were too pathetic to tell the rest of the band. We did eventually, but decided not to tell the promoter. We still wanted to do the gig. So we started out of necessity really. We wrote a few songs then decided to just do them with a drum machine.”
Did any of those songs make it to the first album, 101 Damnations?
“Yeah, although some of them were slightly rewritten. I think we had around seven songs, including ‘A cPerfect Day to Drop the Bomb’, ‘Everytime a Churchbell Rings’, ‘The Taking of Peckham 123’, and Wire song, ‘Mannequin’.
“Jamie Wednesday were more cowpunk, as they called us, with acoustic guitars and a horn section. So the people who came to see us … I don’t think they liked it. But we did loads of gigs with The Men They Couldn’t Hang. In a way we didn’t really fit in, but for some reason ended up with them quite a lot. And The Boothill Foot-Tappers, and we did quite a few gigs with The Pogues. Yet we were also connected to the twee indie scene, maybe through The Pink Label link – otherwise it doesn’t really make sense.”
“Yeah, they did a lot of gigs with Carter in the early days. It was a very diverse scene, I suppose. Interchanging bands who didn’t all sound the same.”
What did the ousted members of Jamie Wednesday make of your breakaway?
“Erm … I’m not sure at the time, to be honest with you. But I know Dean (Leggett) quite well, the drummer.”
I knew him first from Bob, another band I loved. So I guess it worked out pretty well for him after all.
“Yeah, and in more recent years Simon (Henry) and Lindsey (Lowe) – our horn section – have played on my solo stuff after we reconnected. But at the time they probably weren’t too pleased.”
That story will make for a good film, perhaps.
“Yes, although there’s no documentary evidence of anything we ever did. Hardly anything. Nobody ever filmed us!”
Well, you say that, but you’ve got the books out there.
“Well, that’s true.”
Jim Bob plays Manchester Academy on Saturday, May 25th (1pm-11.30pm) for Gigantic Vol. 5, the bill also featuring headliners Echo & the Bunnymen, plus The Wonder Stuff, The Bluetones, The Juliana Hatfield Three, Jesus Jones, and Crazyhead, with Graham Crabb (Pop Will Eat Itself) as DJ/MC. For more details and tickets try the event’s Facebook page or the venue website. Jim Bob is also set to play the Darwen Live free festival on Sunday, May 26th (on stage 6.45pm). For more about his shows, books and records, visit Jim bob’s website or head to the relevant Cherry Red Records artist page, where you can also find details of a deluxe Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine: The Studio Recordings 1988-1998 collector’s edition vinyl boxset and the Hello, Good Evening, Welcome, and Goodbye 2014 live recording on CD, vinyl and download.