Goodnight Jim Bob: On The Road With Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine by Jim Bob
You don’t need to be a Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine fan to enjoy this first person account of the act’s days on the road. You only need a sense of humor. If you ever saw the funny side of song titles like ‘Sealed With A Glasgow Kiss’ and ‘Lean On Me I Won’t Fall Over,’ you should find Goodnight Jim Bob positively hysterical.
Of course, I have a certain loyalty to the Carter story. There aren’t many (ex) famous bands who write in their memoirs of the Crystal Palace tower, the Norwood Junction DHSS and Streatham Common‘s famously dingy rehearsal room, The Orchestra Pit. And any act that can incorporate unglamorous South London neighborhoods like Tulse Hill, Peckham, New Cross and Brixton into its song titles is alright by me.
Still, I was a long way from South London by the time Jim Bob and partner Les ‘Fruitbat’ Carter struck it big in Britain – and despite the American success of their contemporaries in the early 1990s, Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine’s site-specific songs spectacularly failed to translate across the Atlantic. It came as such a shock to read, via the book’s back cover, that Carter had once enjoyed a run of 14 Top 40 UK singles and several top 10 albums, that I dug those records out to be reminded of what I had missed. Not much, it would seem. Carter’s abrasive guitar riffs, lo-fi drum box rhythms, cheesy synths and shouty lyrics have not aged well. Sharp lyrical couplets aside, I was left briefly wondering how on earth Jim Bob and FruitBat ever became so popular.
The answer is within these pages. When Jim Bob writes, early on, that “We were not a duo, we were a group with two people,” he’s not being pedantic. There was something about Carter that did indeed make them a proper rock’n’roll group, with all the attendant audience loyalty and touring camaraderie such a description portends.
Long before they added a drummer and eventually, rather pathetically, became a sextet, Carter found themselves working with Adrian Boss, who personified the manager as “extra member.” Likewise, the infamous Jon Beast soon joined them as MC, initiating the “You fat bastard” chants that soon became the fans’ battle cry, and which inevitably made it onto t-shirts…
…As did such witticisms as ‘Come On Baby Light My Fag,’ ‘Rock’n’roll Is The New Comedy’ and ‘Mad As Fuck,’ a take on the Inspiral Carpets‘ ‘Cool as Fuck’ shirts which initially inspired legal threats and later led to Carter covering the Mancunian group’s ‘This Is How It Feels.’ (“Many people think it’s the best song we ever wrote,” writes Jim Bob with typically self-effacing humor.)
With the popularity of the t-shirts came the merchandising team: Mad Dog and Mole, whose story and joke-telling abilities were such that “they invariably pulled a bigger crowd than the support band.” And also with the popularity of the t-shirts came the need for private security, to chase away the merchandising bootleggers outside the venues. Meanwhile, as the security inside the gigs were often ill-equipped to handle the act’s raucous fans and their tendency to bodysurf and stage dive, soon the group were bringing their own front of stage team with them too. Carter’s 30Something album was not, it now seems, named for the duo’s age as for the size of their entourage – which Jim Bob readily refers to as “like the telephone directory of a small European country.”
He may have been thinking of Slovenia, which the group first visited in 1991, just as the Yugoslavian civil war was kicking off…
“The club was in the middle of a rough-looking housing estate, there wasn’t a proper PA, and we didn’t think it would be possible to play. The promoter fell to his knees and pleaded with us to go ahead with the gig because if we didn’t, he would lose those knees.”
…Or maybe neighboring Croatia, where Carter played in 1994 as visiting superstars – albeit superstars who couldn’t shake a certain self-defeating indie mentality…
“The gig was organized by Radio 101 as part of their 10th Anniversary, and it was their singles’ charts – compiled from listeners’ votes – that our single ‘Glam Rock Cops’ was sitting at the top of. (Stupidly, or rather because we weren’t aware of this chart-topping fact, we didn’t play the song at the gig.)”
At the end of this Croatian visit, Jim Bob attended a party held in Carter’s honor at a local nightclub.
“I spent most of my time talking to an incredibly intense skinhead poet who had spent a lifetime writing incredibly intense skinhead poetry and had then taken it all to a cave and burned it. If only some of the people writing songs in Britain were that dedicated to their art. I’m willing to supply the matches.”
Nobody, you may have gathered by now, escapes Jim Bob’s wit. Not his fellow bands bands, not the press, not the labels, not the audience, not the promoters, and certainly not Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine themselves. For while most rock’n’roll memoirs concentrate on the author’s long slog to stardom and his or her brief time at the top, Jim Bob appears to find equal pleasure in recounting Carter’s ultimate descent and break-up. Noting of the black-tie University balls that Carter succumbed to in 1996, playing alongside other fallen pop stars and a surprising number of tribute bands, he concludes…
“It would have been a much better idea for us to hire two blokes – one with a cycle hat and shorts and the other with a long fringe – teach them the hits and send them out on tour as a Carter tribute act. They would have got paid twice as much as the real thing and would have been a lot more popular. We could have stayed at home living off all the PRS royalties they generated, plus our very reasonable forty per cent cut of their fee.”
Similarly, even as he details his group’s ever smaller record deals and even smaller record company offices, the sudden popularity of bottles as audience projectiles where once it was merely tomato crisp packets, and the futility of a last-ditch American tour financed out of his own songwriting royalties, he doesn’t make excuses and doesn’t offer apologies. He merely encourages us to laugh at his expense.
“The Kidderminster Market Tavern had been one of our favourites on the way up and we were nostalgically looking forward to seeing what it looked like on the way back down. The main change was the name… The Cage, named after the cage that now enclosed the stage to protect the band from theaudience at the heavier metal gigs. We convinced the landlord of the pub that it would be safe to keep the front gate part of the cage open tonight and we were right because nobody came anyway.”
Jim Bob’s deliberately droll tone and refreshingly non-linear approach makes for excellent entertainment, but offers surprising little insight. We never understand what drove him to get on stage in the first place (ego appears to have little to do with it, as he claims to suffer chronic stage fright), why he believes Carter became so popular, nor how he and Les might have avoided becoming equally unpopular just a few years later. As an indie rocker’s memoir, however, Goodnight Jim Bob is perfect. Typos abound, bad grammar is de rigeur. The final page of the book, following a space-filling gig and song list, confirms what we have by now suspected: that Jim Bob has been busy occupied writing, recording and performing far outside the portals of fame and fortune since splitting up Carter, and that more information can be found at his website entitled, predictably enough, www.jim-bob.co.uk.
Turn that page and you are immediately confronted by a double-page ads for heavy metal biographies. There’s something inappropriately appropriate to the Carter story about this piece of ill-timed indie press marketing, a final reminder that Carter succeeded both despite, and because of the fact that they never fitted in. Goodnight Jim Bob is the suitably erratic memoir of a South London nobody who found himself touring the world as an unlikely rock’n’roll superstar – and lived to recount every hilarious moment.