Back in the early 90s, two scruffy London punks with a drum machine named Jim Bob and Fruitbat became the most unlikely pop stars in the United Kingdom. They sat atop the UK album chart and were booked to headline Glastonbury, the world's biggest music festival - but they also attacked children's television presenters and were banned by the BBC. Unsurprisingly, by the time they got to Glasto itself, things didn't quite go to plan.
Formed in 1987 when Les “Fruitbat” Carter and James “Jim Bob” Morrison were the only members of their band, Jamie Wednesday, to turn up to a gig at London’s Astoria and were forced to perform as a duo, Carter USM’s rise to indie prominence was swift. The band's second single, the slum-landlord baiting Sheriff Fatman, reached number 23 on the UK chart, and marked the band out as a unique proposition. The punk energy of the pair's guitars and Jim Bob’s sneering delivery of sarcastic, hard-left-leaning and distinctly British lyrics were offset by the HI-NRG electronic drum and bass throb of their drum machine loops.
It was a potent mix, and with dance music and indie culture beginning to coalesce in the late 80s, so Carter felt like an intriguing bridge between two worlds. Their appeal grew enough for debut album 1001 Damnations to crack the UK top 30 in 1989, before the band signed to Rough Trade Records and headlined London’s prestigious Brixton Academy.
Carter were now looked at as major players in the British music scene. Before grunge and Britpop, and with the like of The Smiths and The Stone Roses either split or inactive, a new style of danceable guitar music, christened 'grebo' in the music press, felt like a genuine, homegrown alternative movement.
“There were successful bands there`; The Wonderstuff, Pop Will Eat Itself, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin,” Jim Bob told Louder Than War in 2016. “Bands that were in the charts; some were big in America but they don’t get mentioned, which is a bit weird.”
1991 was a landmark year for the band; the release of their career-best second album 30 Something reached number 8 on the UK album chart, with the album's second single, Bloodsport For All, an attack on the racist and bullying culture prevalent in the military, banned by the BBC after the start of the Gulf War conflict. Carter then appeared second from the top of the main stage at Reading Festival that August, before a notorious television appearance at the 1991 Smash Hits Poll Winners Party on the 26th of October turned them into a national concern.
It was weird enough that Carter were asked to perform at the event, the clear sore thumbs alongside shiny pop stars like Jason Donovan, Danni Minogue, Vanilla Ice and Roxette. Keen to leave a lasting impression, though, at the end of their performance of After The Watershed, Fruitbat threw his guitar down and kicked over both sets of the band's Marshall stacks, to which awards presenter Phillip Schofield mockingly declared: “Blimey, that was original... pushing back the frontiers of music, otherwise known as Carter!”
Not a great idea, Phil.
“On the day, he was very annoying,” Fruitbat shrugged years later. So annoyed was the guitarist that he rushed back onto the stage and rugby-tackled the future This Morning host and national treasure to the ground live on TV, leading to a television ban for the band.
“We were very drunk,” Jim Bob would later tell webzine Shiiine On. “We’d been waiting around all day. We felt like we were betraying our roots. Fruitbat got carried away.”
It may have roughed up a clearly rattled Schofield, but it seemed to do wonders for Carter’s profile, as ticket sales for their tour soared. The proof of how far the band had come came in May 1992 when their third record, 1992 – The Love Album, entered the UK album chart at number one. From being forced to play as half a band in 1987 to the very top of the charts and confirmed pop star status only five years later, it was a phenomenal achievement.
It would lead to an offer from Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis for the band to close the Pyramid Stage on the Friday of the 1992 festival. It was a strong bill, including the likes of folk-rock favourites The Levellers, New York art-punk legends Television and the Pixies-associated The Breeders. It should have been the crowning moment of glory for Carter, but instead it proved to be a disaster.
“By the time it came to our set we were [cut] 20 minutes short,” Fruitbat told Kent Online in 2020. “`When you headline a festival you plan it down to the nth second, so we lost a load of songs and were really disappointed.”
If that wasn’t bad enough, the short set meant that the band's planned promotional stunt was also lost.
“I can’t remember whose idea it was to fire 5000 foam tennis balls with the name of our new single, Do Re Me So Far So Good into the audience,” Jim Bob said to The Arts Desk after their set. “But it must have seemed like a good one at the time. We had these huge cannons loaded with foam balls either side of the stage; when we played Do Re Me... as an encore the cannons would do their thing. Unfortunately, we were asked to cut our set short...you can still buy them on eBay!”
The situation was not something that Carter took very well. With the set cut short, it was decided that Fruitbat would go on after and explain what had happened, apologise for the short set and thank everyone for coming to see them.
“Instead,” Jim Bob said, “Fruitbat slagged off pretty much everything about Glastonbury and dropped the mic. More backstage arguments followed, including a visit to the dressing room from a livid Michael Eavis, and we were asked to leave the site.”
“I just had a blazing row with Mr Eavis,” Fruitbat told Kent Online. “Shouted at him, swore at him, I think I probably grabbed him by the collar. And then he just said ‘Right, that's it. You’re banned from Glastonbury forever.’ we even got it in writing later on.”
Fruitbat insisted, however, there was more to his reaction than just Carter’s performance being shut down.
“It was the year that Glastonbury stopped letting the travellers in for free,” he says. “And being a semi-hippie myself I was really upset about it, because they were a very important part of the festival. With the two things combined, I just got very cross.”
Carter would never get the chance to make up for their Glastonbury debacle - not at Glasto or any other major festival. When grunge began dominating column inches in the music press, they were somewhat marginalised, and by the time Britpop became an obsession in the mid-90s, they were long forgotten.
“We were kind of finished by Britpop,” Jim Bob shrugged to Louder Than War. Iin the words of Noel Gallagher, we’d ‘Never been so over’... or something. He was probably right. By that point we were already sort of self-destructing.”
By 1998 the band had gone from having a number one album to sixth and final release I Blame the Government only just making it into the top 100 on the UK album chart. They split soon after.
So unlikely a story was it all that it sounds like a tall tale these days, and unlike so many of their 90s peers and contemporaries, there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of a cultural re-evaluation by a new generation for Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine. It's a shame, because going back to Sheriff Fatman, The Only Living Boy in New Cross, Second to Last Will and Testament or any of their other big hitters reveal a band talking about themes and issues within society that are still relevant and pertinent today, and doing so with an idiosyncratic British style and humour. By never really being part of the zeitgeist, Carter USM manage to avoid sounding dated.
“It seems there’s a certain bit of musical history that doesn’t exist,” mused Jim Bob to Louder Than War when asked about Carter’s legacy. “On BBC4 you get documentaries on Joy Division, The Smiths, then it’s Acid House and then Nirvana and then Oasis vs. Blur... and there’s a jump. Maybe it doesn’t fit the narrative?”
Whatever the narrative, let’s set the record straight: Carter USM remain Glastonbury's great forgotten headliner - and they deserve your attention.