In the summer of 1989 I walked into the McDonalds on Kirkcaldy High Street, filled out an application form to become a crew member and then headed home. I was sixteen and the income from a paper round, delivering the local free newspaper The Fife Leader was no longer sufficient to provide for my ever maturing tastes. Sure a couple of pounds (literally) for dropping a couple of hundred free newspapers through the doors of my neighbourhood helped keep me in fizzy pop and sweets but it couldn’t stretch to copies of both the NME and the Melody Maker or to buying the records being recommended inside them. I had no choice. I had to get a job.
A few days later I was called back to the “restaurant” to be interviewed in order to assess my suitability to cook processed meat, dip fries into a deep fat fryer and deal with the public. Despite my not being in possession of any previous processed meat, deep fat frying or dealing with other human beings experience I was given a job.
My rate of pay was somewhere around £2.50 an hour.
I could only work on Saturdays because my religious beliefs prohibited working on the Sabbath and that meant that I was restricted to a maximum weekly wage of about £20. We were paid fortnightly and, as long as I worked an eight hour shift each Saturday, I was banking about £40…enough for all the fizzy pop, sweets, crisps, music papers and records my acne ridden face could cope with.
After a year of McDonalds life I had bagged all of the gold stars for my badge, had been “promoted” to the position of lobby host and children’s party host and was a well established, if not well liked, member of the team. I also had a much larger record collection and, thanks to the fact that my diet consisted mainly of the junk food I was serving up to the public and sugar based treats purchased with my wages for doing that my face looked like a dot-to-dot picture. A pus filled, red, swollen, disgusting dot-to-dot picture.
It was 1990 and something was changing in the pages of the NME and the Melody Maker. The back combed hair, long coats, quiffs and misery that had been the mainstay of both journals throughout the 1980’s were, slowly, beginning to give way to something very different. Something that had more of a loose fit. Something baggier. Something more optimistic. Something that was built on pills and thrills and…you know the rest.
This was Madchester.
The rain coated lovers of eighties indie had been replaced, almost overnight, by 24 hour party people.
In the staff room at McDonalds one kid was hip to this new beat.
His name was Gary and he had the haircut, the flared jeans, the attitude and the record collection to put him right at the heart of this new scene. He was also a bit of a prick to me and I used to feel a bit sick in my tummy whenever he was scheduled to work the same shift as me. But, despite that, he was…cool.
One day Gary arrived with a video of a gig by a band that I had heard of but that I hadn’t actually heard. They were called Inspiral Carpets and their cow and “Cool as F**k!” t-shirts seemed to be surgically attached to the other cool kids in town. I’m not sure how I managed to miss all of this but I would wager it had to do with my having no real friends and being utterly obsessed with The Smiths…what a waste of time that has proven to be.
Gary put the video into the player in the staff room while I was waiting to start my shift and by the time “Real Thing” had concluded I was hooked. It was brilliant…a frantic, frenzied, frenetic, flash of energy, attitude and madness that swept me off of my feet. The swirl and swish of the organ, the relentless battering of the drums, the beat, beat, beat of the bass, the urgency of the guitars, the roar of the vocal. It was the best thing I had heard…ever. But there was a problem; I didn’t like Gary. Gary liked The Inspiral Carpets. I couldn’t like the thing that Gary liked. Petty? You betcha.
Ultimately I decided that the Carpets were just too good to not give in to their charms.
I became a closet fan.
I bought the debut album “Life” on cassette and listened to it constantly for months. “Real Thing” I knew from 21.7.90 (the video of their gig at the G-Mex in Manchester that Gary had brought to the staff room) and “She Comes in the Fall” I knew from watching, almost on a loop, the live performance from the same video…the marching band, the bass line and the instruction to “WAKE UP” made it a firm favourite of mine.
By the time the second album, “The Beast Inside”, arrived in April of 1991 I had given up on trying to keep my love of them a secret. Still too in awe of The Smiths to give up on my quiff and Evans blouses I was, nevertheless, equally evangelical and passionate about these baggy virtuoso’s with a knack for delivering pop so perfect it could melt your heart. The first single, “Caravan”, was more confident, more assured, more mature and more and more and more of everything that had come before.
The only other single from “The Beast Inside” was “Please Be Cruel” which was, if anything, even better than “Caravan”. A different beast (ahem) for sure…slower, groovier, cooler (if such a thing were possible) than much of what had gone before. I may be alone in my love of this though as it only made it to number 50 in the charts…when the previous four singles had all broken the top thirty and the following seven all charted higher.
I’m a lone wolf.
Before their next album arrived I had left home to serve a mission for my Church. Between December of 1991 and July of 1992 I was knocking on doors, treading rain soaked streets, living off of porridge oats and trying to convince other people that the things I believed could be things they could believe too. It was a strange, unsettling, life changing, wonderful, miserable and, at times, genuinely depressing experience. What made it really difficult wasn’t being separated from my family and friends but was being unable to listen to music…unless it was hymns. I cannot tell you how difficult that was…and it probably wouldn’t make sense even if I could.
By the time I came home baggy was dead.
Madchester had fallen under the weight of its own legends…drugs had destroyed the Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses were missing in action in a farmhouse in Wales or something, Blur were reinventing themselves as something very different, Flowered Up, New Fast Automatic Daffodils, Mock Turtles and the rest had all had their moment in the spotlight. It was over.
When “This is How it Feels” had become a major hit single, reaching number 14 in the charts, things could have gone one of two ways for the Carpets…they could have become one hit wonders with their career forever defined by that one moment or they could just disappear, never to be heard from again.
But neither of those things happened.
They had bigger hits than “This is How it Feels”.
They didn’t disappear.
The death of the scene that spawned them didn’t destroy them like it destroyed some other bands.
Instead, in October 1992, they released “Revenge of the Goldfish” which, despite the dreadful title and the even more dreadful cover art was their best record yet. Spawning four top forty singles and positioning them as one of the biggest bands in the country…again. The album was a rare example of one that is bigger, maybe even better, than the singles that came from it. Twelve tracks of dizzy wonder…think about this for a second, “Saviour” wasn’t one of the four songs chosen for release as a single…
Just think about that.
That song…with a melody so infuriatingly infectious that it can ruin all other songs for the listener for life, with a confusing mess of dark, brooding and uplifting, joy at the same time wasn’t deemed good enough to be a single.
But then when the singles that are released include something as glorious as “Two Worlds Collide” it begins to make more sense.
As Britpop was about to become both A thing and THE thing the sensible thing for a band like the Carpets to do would have been to head for the hills, wait it out and then hope that when it was all over, when the dust had settled that their might still be an audience for them. Britpop wasn’t baggy. It wasn’t the summer of love…the first one or the second. The clothes were sharper, the sounds tighter and the drugs that fuelled it were not ecstasy and wacky backy but the more arrogance inducing, Gordon Gecko approved, greed is good of cocaine and speed. What place in this world for the Carpets?
As it turned out there was a place for them.
They returned in March of 1994 with “Devil Hopping” and far from sounding out of place and out of time they sounded thrillingly relevant. It wasn’t a Britpop record but it was an album that served as a reminder of the role of Madchester in paving the way, kicking down the doors and shifting the culture for the new breed who were about to become the most exciting musical moment and movement in Britain since the sixties.
From the dance floor filling delights of “Saturn 5” which thrust them back into the top twenty to a song which, I am prepared to argue, is one of the best of the decade…
Mark E. bloody Smith.
One of the few, the very few, figures in British pop music who can comfortably be hailed as a genius and an artist in the truest and purest sense of both words.
There he is on Top of the bloomin’ Pops skulking in the shadows, intoning, ranting and singing in a way that is unsettling and terrifying for the audience and the presenters.
It is as close to the spirit of punk as an art form, as opposed to a fancy dress costume that you can get.
How do you top that?
The answer is that you can’t.
So the Inspiral Carpets sort of…disappeared.
Tom Hingley left.
Tom Hingley was fired.
Pick a side.
Stephen Holt returned for the first time since before they were signed.
Then, amazingly, new music in 2014…a decade after “Devil Hopping”.
That album was “Inspiral Carpets” and, give thanks to the Gods and Godesses above and the devils below, it was great. After such a long wait it could so easily have been anything, maybe even everything, other than great. It sounded like they had never gone away. In some ways it sounded like they had never been around…it was fresh and relevant. Sadly we are now five years away from that and nothing more has arrived…maybe there won’t ever be another Inspiral Carpets record, maybe Clint Boon has other things to do, maybe they just don’t have the appetite or maybe, just maybe, there might be one more album lurking in their hearts.