In 2019’s Jim Bob from Carter – In the Shadow of my Former Self, Jim Bob Morrison wrote, ‘I still haven’t written a new song since 2013. But now that I’ve nearly finished writing this, perhaps the songs will come flooding out of me’.
And so it proved, I suggested to a treasured singer-songwriter, musician and author who mischievously describes himself on Twitter as a ’10-time Grammy Award winner’ from ‘lower London’, and elsewhere as the ‘Poundland Bono’.
“Yeah, I don’t know what happened there. It’s like a tap or something, isn’t it!”
During the year the Covid-19 pandemic struck the Western world, Jim Bob found himself with a No.26 hit with rightly-acclaimed album Pop Up, his first top-40 LP in two decades of solo recordings. And now he’s back with another winner, Who Do We Hate Today, a ‘silver-tongued snapshot of modern life in Britain’ recorded mid-pandemic in South London with his band, The Hoodrats, our man again proving he has the ability to connect … big time.
What’s more, in its first week of release – after the splendid ‘The Summer of No Touching’, ‘Song for the Unsung’ and ‘The Earth Bleeds Out’ lit the way as singles – the new record also cracked the top-40 (in at No.34, pop-pickers). And maybe it will rise from there. It certainly deserves to.
With Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine – co-formed with fellow ex-Jamie Wednesday bandmate Les ‘Fruitbat’ Carter – Jim managed 14 top-40 singles, four top-10 albums (including a No.1, more of which later), sold more than a million records, toured the world, and headlined Glastonbury Festival. Then, in 2007, a decade after initially splitting, they reformed for a series of huge, sold-out shows.
And outside Carter USM, my interviewee has also had a distinguished career, including songwriting for Ian Dury and a 2006 Barbican production of Dick Whittington & His Cat, 2010’s Edinburgh Fringe debut in Ward and White musical, Gutted, A Revenger’s Musical, and his acclaimed autobiographies, 2004’s Goodnight Jim Bob – On the Road with Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine and the aforementioned 2019sequel, both published by Cherry Red Books.
He’s also – writing as Jim Bob and JB Morrison – published several novels, translated into eight languages, leading to a seven-year break from writing or recording new music until he sprang ‘Pop Up’ upon us. And now this, me having words with Jim after the release of the new LP’s second single, ‘Song for the Unsung (You’re So Modest You’ll Never Think This Song is About You)’, his ‘fanfare for the everyday heroes too modest to blow their own trumpet’ and ‘musical celebration of the selfless and kind’, giving his subjects ‘a round of applause and a big fat medal of appreciation’ with ‘a banging of metaphorical saucepans on the doorstep’.
“The world is so dark we’d be lost without you
This comes from the heart, it’s so long overdue.”
It’s a corking feelgood track, just when we needed it, and Jim reckons if ‘Song for the Unsung’ – ‘the most ITV single I’ve ever released’ – were a television show, it would be presented by Davina McCall. It should certainly be all over the radio, I suggested.
“Erm, I’m fairly confident in saying that’s not going to happen. Radio don’t seem to be fans of playing anything I bring out. I don’t know why that is.”
I’d have thought at least the likes of BBC 6 Music’s Steve Lamacq would be great supporters.
“Yeah, Steve’s always been good to me … and I always think it’s him playing them rather than it being down to the decisions of others.”
When it’s down to a playlist panel, perhaps?
“Yeah, it’s perhaps that I just don’t fit in – too old to be young, yet not quite cool enough to fit in with other people from my era.”
But it certainly has commercial possibilities. In fact, the spoken bits remind me of Eric Idle in The Life of Brian, suggesting we ‘cheer up, give a whistle’.
“Yes! I’ll take that! I know what you mean. When I was recording that, I just sort of did that bit, not really thinking about it. It was almost like I’d put on the voice of an actor doing a cockney!”
In a sense – and it’s always been there – there’s a touch of a punk rock Oliver! about your work. You’ve always been a storyteller with added menace.
“Yeah, I like to think so.”
For the video of ’Song for the Unsung’, fans were asked to send photos and stories of their own unsung heroes – friends and family, nurses, teachers, postmen, lollipop folk, whoever they wanted to celebrate. And the response took Jim aback, inundated with pictures and moving stories of courage, human kindness and friendship. Many were pandemic-related, but some were simply people wanting to give loved ones a pat on the back just for being there, the one picked out of a hat to be illustrated for the single by Mark Reynolds (also responsible for the LP’s sleeve design and that of Pop Up) being Val Bleasdale, nominated by her disabled, chronically-ill son, Thom for raising tens of thousands for animal charities and the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, as well as looking after him.
Is this Jim seeking out positives after a testing few years where we’ve faced Brexit, right-wing Government, a pandemic, and all that? It’s certainly never been more defined as to which side of the debate we’re on. Is that the idea of Who Do We Hate Today, speaking up for the unsung out there?
“Yeah, ’Song for the Unsung’ was the last song I wrote for the album, when I realised all the others kind of painted a fairly pessimistic picture. I literally did think, let’s say something a bit positive for a change. I think most people in this country just want to get on with their lives. They don’t necessarily have strong opinions, yet that’s what we constantly tend to hear – strong opinions – just because they’re the loudest.”
Because – like me – you spend a bit of time on divisive social media platforms like Twitter, perhaps you tend to see the best and worst of people there.
“Yes, and because I’m almost masochistic about the things I look at on there, I find myself telling someone else about it. Maybe I’ll say something about Laurence Fox, and they’ll say, ‘Who’s Laurence Fox?’. Then you realise it’s not necessarily troubling the majority of people at all.”
Very true. I guess we give these people oxygen, the likes of Nigel Farage (as I’ve just done there, admittedly). Meanwhile, from the moment he launches into ‘The Earth Bleeds Out’, we’re in no doubt this is that fella from Carter USM, this time railing about global warming, setting the scene perfectly in classic in-your-face style on something of a post-apocalyptic LP, yet with acres of thought, Jim initially inspired as the world briefly stopped last Spring.
“Imagine a world without airports or cars
I was literally counting and thanking my stars
For a moment or two there was hope in the flu
As the Earth bleeds out”
This is no 13-track rant though, and soon we get back-to-back classic Jim portraits of everyday life, his first subject that girl we all know who punches well below her weight, with so many gems of lines on ‘Shona is Dating a Drunk, Woman Hating Neanderthal Man’, pitched somewhere between Cinerama and The Kinks for these ears. Glorious.
“Shona is joined at the hip to an arse
Who’s a dick when he drinks
She’s eager to please while he never agrees
With what Shona thinks
She’s science and facts and he’s pro-antivax
Because opposites attract”
Then we’re on to ‘#prayfortony’ and Jim’s portrait of an all too familiar ‘loaded gun’ of a character who ‘hates Black History Month’ and ‘did Movember once (you lucky, lucky ladies)’.
“One day there’ll be a statue in his hometown
Tall enough to climb upon and pull down
So you can stamp his face into the cold ground”
There’s almost a sense of Mick Jones about it, I suggest, not least because of a Mott the Hoople feel beneath Jim’s vocal.
“Well, it must have seeped in – I’ve listened to him enough! The songs Mick sang with The Clash were maybe a bit sweeter, and we are from the same …. area.”
You were trying not to say ‘manor’ there, weren’t you?
“I was. Ha!”
But despite the retro feel, I guess you can’t get more 21st century than a song title with a hashtag.
“Terrible, really, isn’t it! About five years ago, that would have been the most pretentious thing, but I think everybody knows what a hashtag is now.”
You can get away with post-ironic now.
“Yes … everything I do is post-ironic!”
Carrying on the Mick Jones theme, ‘Where’s the Backdoor, Steve?’ is almost Big Audio Dynamite territory. Another great song. Who’s sharing the vocals with you there?
“It’s Chris T-T (Thorpe-Tracey) and Jen (Macro), who plays guitar on the album. Jen features quite a bit. Wherever you hear a female voice, that’s Jen, and that kind of changed things for me, the way I record songs, knowing it doesn’t have to be a bloke singing.”
Again, there are so many cracking lines, my interviewee summing up how so many of us have felt since the Brexit vote and the horrors that have followed. This is truly ‘in a nutshell’ verse.
“Is there a way out of this?
Maybe there’s a reset somewhere
A system override,
A switch along the side or underneath
Where d’you put the reset, Steve?”
And they keep on coming, ‘Karen (Is Thinking of Changing Her Name)’ another highpoint, Jim’s protagonist rightly keen to disassociate herself from the characteristics her name might imply in modern parlance. It carries a kind of ‘60s (is it just chance that I heard ‘You Only Live Twice’ in there after a couple of listens?) meets Pulp feel, the title reminding me of The Go-Betweens’ debut B-side, and how far that definition of a Karen has slipped from sexy librarian down the years. And musically it has more of a Wire feel, I suggested. Is that a band that grabbed Jim down the years?
“Massively so. I haven’t bought much of their more recent stuff … well, late ‘80s onwards, but definitely the first three albums. Pink Flag is probably … I’ve got around 10 albums I’ve played since 1977 or whatever, that I still play constantly, and Pink Flag is one of them. Wire were a band I saw in ’78, the support band for XTC. I’d never heard of them, and it completely blew my mind – at the time, to me, they sounded like nothing else.”
That was at the Lyceum, apparently, in February that year, the bill – completed by The Secret – a musicians’ musicians heaven. Was that Strand venue a regular haunt?
“Yeah, I saw a 2 Tone gig there too – The Specials, Madness, The Selecter. There was lots of fighting … not me, obviously! Before that, I used to go to Capital Radio’s Best Disco in Town. I think it was every Friday, when I was 16 or so. It would always be the same – it was always depressing! When I was that age, I was constantly trying to find a girlfriend. And I never did find a girlfriend at the Best Disco in Town! They always finished with ‘Three Times a Lady’, then ‘Hi-Ho Silver Lining’ … which meant ‘Get out!’, I think.”
I only got to the Lyceum three times, but they were all corkers: REM in February ’85 on the Reckoning tour; Ramones three months earlier; and first The Undertones, their last indoor gig in late May ’83, 11 days before seeing Feargal Sharkey with them one more time at Crystal Palace FC, supporting Peter Gabriel. Given the chance now, maybe I’d have hung around for the headliner out of curiosity, having bought the ticket with Saturday job earnings, but we left mid-Thompson Twins, being told by gate staff we wouldn’t be allowed back in, us adamantly responding that we had no intention of returning.
“It’s funny, those decisions you make when you’re young and angry!”
Then we’re on to the LP’s true epic, ‘A Random Act’, perhaps the most Carter-like song on the record, Jim at his most prosaic in Lionel Bart-esquestorytelling vibe, tackling the most 21st century of topics, in a song as much about the dangers of public reactions without the full facts as a grim rolling TV news story unfolds, in these all too common days of terrorist incidents.
“It’s an act with no obvious reason or rhyme
But on the socials we’ve already made up our minds”
He always did this with Carter USM, of course. What’s changed though, three decades down the road, is that Jim doesn’t spit out the words with such venom. It’s all more measured and reflective.
“I guess that’s age, obviously, and on a purely technical note I can’t sing as high as I used to. If I listen to those old Carter songs where I’m really screaming … I could never do that now. But I know what you mean, years ago for ‘A Random Act’ I’d have probably started measured, but then …”
All got a tad cacophonous?
“Yeah … I wouldn’t say I hold back now, but, as you say, measured.”
It’s certainly perfectly pitched, not least when the story evolves, becoming far more about everyday heroes doing their bit on the scene, something of a pre-cursor to the song that soon follows, the afore-mentioned ’Song for the Unsung’. Carrying on my line of questioning though, perhaps Jim’s more at ease with himself these days, hence his less shouty rants.
“I suppose so. Quite comfortable.”
He’s not quite ready for slippers yet though, as heard on ‘Men’, which carries lots of punk fury and Graham Coxon fire, if only as a way of saying, ‘Look at us dicks, eh. Blimey. Sorry, girls’.
Home -wrecking, bed-wetting
Men, pathological liars
If men are from Mars,
Maybe they should go back there,
Use some of that hot air for fuel.”
More to the point, it’s observational and Ray Davies-like, someone he’s clearly admired down the years, another writer who shone a light on an England he knew so well – half-hating, half-loving.
“Definitely, and I’ve not long ago recorded a cover of ‘Village Green Preservation Society’, coming out as a free thing related to the album. And The Kinks were always there.”
Was that 1968 LP of the same name the one that resonated most with you?
“I think so. I liked all the hits, but those songs were almost ahead of their time in their lyrical detail. It shouldn’t really have been in pop songs.”
Seeing as he mentioned the bonus disc, titled Who Do We Love Today, I should tell you that also includes Jim Bob takes on ‘The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum’ (Fun Boy Three), ‘Tulse Hill Night’/’Shot By Both Sides’ (999/Magazine), ‘(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear’ (Blondie), ‘Get on Board’ (The Double Deckers), ‘How Can I Exist’ (The Frank & Walters), and the only cover I’d heard at time of going to press, an amazing if not jarring (at least when seen with its promo video tie-in footage featuring the worst excesses of the dreaded Brits abroad crowd) interpretation of ‘Seasons in the Sun’, Terry Jacks’ 1974 hit version a key part of the soundtrack to my childhood, and a song that grew darker and darker the better I understood its subject matter. And Jim nails that uneasy feeling. Not for the faint-hearted. Westlife, it ain’t.
And before you have a go, thinking I failed to pick up on something there, of course I’m intrigued by the other tracks, not least the Double Deckers TV show title song. But I’m jumping ahead, having not even got on to ‘The Summer of No Touching’, which conveys so well that Blitz spirit we briefly experienced – against all odds – when this pandemic reached our shores, despite what might have been happening behind it all, that hope from adversity soon chipped away at.
“It was like Christmas for conspiracy theorists
The in hat milliners and snake oil careerists
Me, I got my facts from whatever David Icke says
And from old rock stars from the 1990s.”
By the way, it’s good to hear another scathing namecheck for David Icke three decades beyond ‘After the Watershed’, in the same way ‘The Summer of No Touching’ ends with the poignant line, ‘And me? I’m still here waiting outside Tesco’s, self-medicating with my Domestos’, all these years after 101 Damnations first set the world alight (and as an accelerant, the leading brand of bleach that ‘kills all known germs dead’ would surely do the job).
All too soon, ‘Evan Knows the Sirens’ takes us neatly through to another classic Carter USM-like moment, LP closer ‘The Loneliest Elephant in the World’ perhaps this era’s ‘The Impossible Dream’, Jim’s words, delivery and music craft as poignant as ever, not least after these last 18 months or so.
“And I’ll remember your face
Until my dying days
I’ll remember how you brought joy
To this lonely boy
And how much I loved you”
Space and a determination to not repeat myself means I won’t go all out on Jim’s spiky pop past this time, but seeing as I’ve brought up a few key moments from yesteryear, I mention that it’s now 30 years since him and Les were arguably at the peak of their powers, at least regarding record sales and sold-out venues. In fact, they were second (behind REM both times) in the Best Band category in the NME readers’ polls in both 1991 and 1992. Going back to this point in ’91 – with help from Goodnight Jim Bob’s gig-list –they were between the releases of 30 Something and 1992: The Love Album, not long back from US dates with EMF then a trip to Japan, with a slight gap before a Mean Fiddler warm-up for their triumphant Reading Festival appearance, second on the bill to James but winning the day. As he put it in Goodnight Jim Bob, ‘Jon Beast spoke to God, and God had a word with the Sun and got it to set behind the crowd at exactly the right moment during ‘GI Blues’. Winston Churchill, who was stood at the back, in between the signing tent and the crepe stall, said it was ‘our finest hour’.’
That was followed by more European and UK dates. In fact, I got to see them that autumn at Guildford Civic Hall, noting in my diary how many under-18s were in, feeling old on the cusp of my 24th birthday. And while I was slightly worse for wear back home after Sunday lunch celebrations to that end three days later, I chanced upon the band playing ‘After the Watershed’ at the Smash Hits Pollwinners’ Party, broadcast live on BBC1 from London’s Docklands in late afternoon/early evening. You probably remember that car-crash TV, and the footage is out there, Fruitbat taking Philip Schofield down following the host’s latest sarcastic remark in reaction to a tired and emotional Les trashing the set after the sound was faded early, his tackle on the children’s presenter somewhat fitting (so to speak) as the second Rugby World Cup semi-final had taken place that afternoon, the full incident and story behind it neatly retold in Goodnight Jim Bob.
Soon after there was a memorable night at Kilburn National Club, the duo supported by Mega City 4, their front-man Wiz having featured in my Captains Log fanzine. This time the age gap wasn’t so obvious, but I noted how the dancing went all the way back to the mixing desk, and there were several choruses of ‘Schofield is a wanker’ for BBC Radio 1’s microphones in relation to the incident 13 days earlier, the band going on to play Brixton Academy two nights later, in a landmark year for the band that ended with further US dates and two pre-Christmas Athens gigs.
Incidentally, when I got to see them again one Wednesday night in mid-May the following year at Preston Guild Hall, just before flying from Manchester for a week’s holiday in Zante, 1992: The Love Album had gone straight in at No.1 three days earlier (the pair finding out backstage at Carlisle Sands Centre, seen by Jim as an ‘anti-climax’ compared to previous euphoria at impressive chart placings for 101 Damnations and 30 Something), the band among the Glastonbury headliners a month later (another moment that didn’t quite work out as well as it should have, in Jim’s eyes). Was Jim doing a lot of writing for that third LP this time three decades ago?
“Yeah, although I can’t remember when we wrote those songs exactly. But around then, we were writing most of the time if we weren’t doing gigs. We did tour a lot, but as soon as we stopped, we were writing again, and often revisiting songs we’d scrapped or failed to do anything with. There’s a few things on that album that existed before in a different sort of way.”
You clearly had momentum.
“Yeah, and I think that’s always been crucial to me. The only reason I wrote and recorded this album was because of the one before it. There was a small snowball effect!”
You wrote in your latter-years autobiography, ‘Anniversaries come and go. Opportunities missed’, and I feel duty-bound to ask when the next Carter comeback gig is. Or have you put all that behind you?
“Erm … yeah, it’s definitely behind us. Apart from anything else, Les is completely disinterested in it. We do get asked a lot. The problem with the offers as time goes on is that they get more tempting though, because they’re for more money. So we never just say no. The last time we considered it, a few years ago now, we had to think it through, for what’s involved. It’s often to do two gigs, which could take six months of work to find people to work on the show, get together, re-learn all the songs …”
I’m guessing in the circumstances it’s easier just to go for a pint with your old bandmate.
“Yeah, absolutely, and we definitely get on better when we’re not in a band together.”
Besides, current form suggests you have no need to delve back into the past right now.
“Yeah, we always said we didn’t want to do it purely for money. We had to be enjoying it. And at this moment in time I don’t think we’d be as good as we used to be. And luckily, we’re making enough money off t-shirts to get through a year!”
And when’s the next Jim Bob or JB Morrison book title landing?
“I started a couple of things but lost that mojo in the same way as I did with the songs. And I think the last novel disappointed me in how it did. I’ve never been one of those, ‘If I make one person happy …’ people. I need a modicum of success. I don’t mean a bestseller, but I think it deserved a bit more.
“It’s the same as music – it can be frustrating. This album’s going to do okay, I’m sure, and people will love it, but it’s frustrating when you put a lot of work into making videos and putting out singles when it doesn’t make that much difference. I don’t want to be bitter about it like Status Quo or Cliff Richard though, constantly complaining about not being played on the radio. It can be frustrating though, when people just ignore you!”
Oscar Wilde’s line, ‘There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about’ springs to mind there. But there have been plenty of ticket sales for the forthcoming tour last time I checked.
“Yeah, I think four of them have sold out. But from the moment tickets went on sale, it was almost two years before they would happen, as it turned out, which is insane. And it’s created this knock-on effect of postponed gigs. If you want to do a medium or large-sized venue tour now, they’re all booked up until 2023 or so!”
And how about you, personally – are you getting out and about again?
“I wasn’t a big ‘out and about’ type anyway, but I’m pretty much back to how I was before all this. There was a point – without going on about vaccines – where I’d had two jabs and thought at some point I’m going to have to face all this – surely, it’s safer now. But I’m not a hugger!”
I get that, in fact I’m still trying to keep myself to myself, at least until I know my daughters have had their second jabs and are deemed safer (that’s now happened, I’m pleased to say).
“Yeah, I think you have to make up your own rules and look after the people that are close to you. If the Government say you don’t have to wear a mask from Tuesday, that doesn’t mean it’s any less or any more dangerous than it was on Monday.”
And how was that first lockdown for you? Was that in South London?
“Yeah, me and my partner in the house, and that first lockdown – the one I covered in the song ‘The Summer of No Touching’ – was so unusual. For me I found it terrifying. It felt like the film, Contagion. I just presumed we were all going to die. I was convinced about that.
“I stayed in and did all the things we were told to do. Then I remember going out for a walk, with there not being anyone around, and how strange that was – no aeroplanes, no cars, thinking maybe this is a good thing in the long run. But then it turned out it wasn’t!
“That first year will probably be looked back on as more or less a Second World War/Blitz thing, whereas the period after that was just a massive pain in the arse, and people started taking sides. It became another Brexit.”
Well, hopefully we’re moving forward now, and all being well we’ll see Jim Bob and the Hoodrats on the road again in November, performing songs from both new LPs – pandemic restrictions having ruled out his Pop Up album tour – plus other solo and Carter classics. And I hope I can get along to Gorilla, Manchester, in mid-November.
“Yeah, come along and say hello … if it’s allowed!”
Sounds good to me, although I won’t try and hug him, and will avoid politician-like elbow greetings.
For a link to Jim Bob’s May 2019 WriteWyattUK feature/interview, head here.
Who Do We Hate Today comes in an array of Mark Reynolds-designed individual formats: gatefold vinyl with a 2022 Jim Bob calendar; CD with Jim Bob beermats; and even a limited-edition cassette. For more detail, head here.
Jim Bob’s November 2021 tour dates: Cambridge J2 (4th); Hebden Bridge Trades Club (sold out) (5th); Leeds Brudenell Social Club (sold out) (6th); Newcastle Cluny (sold out) (11th); Edinburgh Summerhall (12th); Manchester Gorilla (13th); Shiiine On Minehead (sold out) (14th); Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms (18th); Birmingham O2 Institute (19th); London Brixton Electric (20th). For ticket details and all the latest from Jim Bob, head here.