Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine covering ‘Rent’ by The Pet Shop Boys
For the first time in Magnificent Cover Versions, I didn’t like the original song. The Pet Shop Boys were OK – West End Girls and Suburbia were good tunes – but Rent, the original, was dull.
Carter USM did a lot of cover versions – most 12″s they released came with at least one, and loads of them were really good too. Highlights include Everybody’s Happy Nowadays by The Buzzcocks, Bedsitter by Soft Cell, Down In The Tube Station At Midnight by The Jam and This Is How It Feels by Inspiral Carpets. Their version of Alternate Title by The Monkees was a personal favourite, but having two Monkees songs in Magnificent Cover Versions isn’t allowed and besides, Rent, the B-side to the 1990 single Rubbish, is Carter’s classic cover version.
At one time one of Carter’s t-shirts had a photo of The Pet Shop Boys on it with the words ‘But Harder’ underneath it, acknowledging the other band’s influence. The original song is a lightweight, synth-pop affair. Carter’s take on it speeds it up, piles on the guitars and samples and brings it roaring to life, releasing the song’s potential and ramping up the drama of the subject matter. They even play with the lyrics to suit their style; the ‘restaurant on Broadway’ becomes, ‘the restaurant on Fulham Broadway’ – altering the one aspect of the song that doesn’t seem like it’s written for them. It’s an absolutely inspired cover.
I loved Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine from the first time I heard them, playing live at a tiny venue in my home town when I was 15. I’d just recently started going to gigs, and this was the first one by a band that weren’t local and the first one in a proper club. Their name rang a bell from the gig guide in Melody Maker, but this was well before they were getting any sort of coverage and I took a chance, having no idea what to expect.
When they came onto the tiny stage, there were only two of them and they were weird looking – one of them was tall and bony with a ponytail at the front of his head. They played to a backing track, starting with a hymn interrupted by machine-gun fire before the two band members kicked in with thrashing punk guitars. The guitars paused and front-ponytail man began singing about suicide before the guitars fired up again and built to a crescendo. I was 15 years old, in a real club, hearing music like I’d never heard before at close quarters and it was thrilling.
They had loads of these great punk-pop songs, all beefed-up and enhanced by drum machines and samples. They also had an incredible stage presence. They would come to the front of the foot-high stage to sing, then surge backwards in unison, bent-double, slashing away at their sticker-covered guitars. It was a small club, nowhere near full and nobody seemed to know the band, but they really went for it, with total conviction from start to finish and put on a brilliant show. It was exhilarating and it hooked me straight away.
Carter USM became my new favourite band and remained it for at least a couple of years. I saw them a lot of times after that – at clubs around the country, high on the bill at festivals and at their spiritual home, The Brixton Academy. And whenever I saw them, these two weird looking guys with their backing track, they always gave a great show and they deserved all the success that came their way, because they’d performed like that from the start.