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31st October 1987
By Neil Perry
Photos Russell Young
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO BILL CARTER
Back in action with 'Bikini Red', THE SCREAMING BLUE MESSIAHS are now more lethal than ever. NEIL PERRY is born again with BILL CARTER, RUSSELL YOUNG just looks to the heavens
If you walk under the Westway, the huge elevated ribbon of concrete that slashes West London in two, it is said that sometimes you can hear the last excited rant of a maniac driver, long since despatched to the great highway in the sky.
"Four wheels, spinning round, heading down to the edge of town... you wanna get out? You wanna get out now, too fast for ya? Huh? Too fast, huh? Ha!..."
You think of smoking, screeching tyres, of white knuckles on the steering wheel, the awful scrunch of metal meeting metal, head on, at high speed. You wonder about his passenger, and shiver. You walk on.
Screaming Blue Messiahs mainman Bill Carter is waiting for me in a Ladbroke Grove pub, possibly the same one in which we last met two years ago.
He's still shy, he still needs a lot of prompting, but he smiles a lot more; it seems hard to believe his was the voice on 'Twin Cadillac Valentine', a psychotic Messiahs tale of cars, death, love and loneliness, and one of last year's most dynamic singles.
"I feel a bit more... happier, really," he says thoughtfully. "The truth is I've now got a different perspective. Things things happen that make you realise the only way to be is positive."
"Somebody said to me that they thought the music we're doing now is less mean-spirited than it was. Which I think is a good thing."
Screaming Blue Messiahs have been very quiet in the UK since last year's LP 'Gun-Shy'. While it contained the vicious trinity of 'Twin Cadillac Valentine', 'Killer Born Man' and 'Wild Blue Yonder' – Carter and the Messiahs at their hardest and sharpest – the energy seemed confused and diffused.
Not so with the new LP 'Bikini Red', where Carter's intellectual thuggery is blessed with a whole new outlook of nuance and subtlety. There are eleven songs, and all of them are different.
"I've been having acupuncture, actually," Bill confesses. "trying to give up drinking and smoking. Well, drinking anyway."
He sips a tonic and stares, in mock depression, at the cigarette in his hand.
"No, I'm not satisfied at all. But I can get up in the morning and not feel really bad. I used to just get really pissed off and now I've decided not to do that ever again."
Why aren't you satisfied?
"I like the journey, you know? There's a lot of things I need to do. I feel as if we're just starting off. If I could just get to the stage where I had enough money to fix my car (a Dodge Challenger; the engine blew up) and enough money to buy petrol and stuff, I'd just take off. America, Mexico...
"It's just dreaming, you know? But not impossible."
Certainly not impossible, as the past 12 months have proved.
After one rip-roaring gig at Dingwalls last Christmas, Screaming Blue Messiahs effectively vanished, only to reappear this summer supporting of all people David Bowie.
In between, the Messiahs have laid a solid foundation for themselves in the States, and maybe it isn't such a strange thing; Messiahs music, with a firm base in rhythm and blues, and its contrast of murderous city life with simple country ethics, is almost tailor made for the home of the brave.
"they're sensible, educated, intelligent people," jokes Bill. "No, they're much more open to our kind of music. It seems more relevant there. I don't think people even know about us over here. You ask anyone in this pub."
Does this sadden you?
"no. You need somewhere to play. America's as good a place as any. Over here people are up to their neck in mortgages and stuff. This is a very straight country, very house-proud. In America, they're much more into that rock 'n' roll dream thing."
The Screaming Blue Messiahs have made a record that glitters and shines with inventiveness, a record on which Carter – with the juggernaut accompaniment of his partners, Chris Thompson (bass) and Kenny Harris (drums) – continues his exploration into the dark and quirky sides of the human condition.
A classic power trio, which, thinking about it, Britain probably doesn't even deserve.
Bill insists that I listen to some of the album there and then, and the first thing that strikes me is the variety. 'Gun-Shy' and the Messiahs' six-track debut 'Good And Gone' were cold, almost unfeeling constructions.
The power and threatening fury of those records (as is still true of the Messiahs live) couldn't fail to impress, but there was never much room to breathe, as if a break in the onslaught was an admission of failure.
'Bikini Red' circles slowly, takes stock, then goes for the jugular. There's bully-boy funk with 'Big Brother Muscle', the fairground organ swing of 'I Can Speak American', and the more familiar guitar swathed charges of 'Sweet Water Pools' and 'Jesus Chrysler Drives A Dodge'. At the comic bed-rock of 'I Wanna Be A Flintstone', I begin to laugh.
"It's supposed to be funny!" says Bill. "We have a lot of fun, it's not deadly serious... I don't think. It's slightly tongue in cheek," and here he gets a little exasperated. "It's only music!"
But Messiahs music is only music in the way that Cadillacs are only Cadillacs, or Triumph Bonnevilles are only Triumph Bonnevilles. The mad bad world of the Messiahs is something to which Bill has dedicated his life, and while he may shrug it off, I've seen people back away from the stage when he came too close.
"But on a good gig it doesn't seem to me like people are frightened – they're enjoying themselves. What's to be frightened of? It's only music."
I remember the way the very air seemed to shimmer when Screaming Blue Messiahs kicked into 'Tracking The Dog' or 'Someone To Talk To' at Digwalls last Christmas. OK, there's you onstage, the violence with which you strangle your guitar, the way Kenny and Chris push it all to the edge (he's smiling now) the way that...
"Actually," he admits quietly, "a lot of people have said it was frightening. I thought that was a bit detrimental, I wanted it to be exciting.
It is exciting. Screaming Blue Messiahs, if nothing else, have always been celebrated as a band who know how to rock; but like the proverbial search for Colonel Kurtz down the river in Conrad's Heart Of Darkness, the further you explore, the tighter the vibes will grip you.
One theme that has followed through on 'Bikini Red' is Bill's love affair with the automobile.
"I always think that music is best heard in a car when you're driving. This album would sound much better if you were hearing it in a car rather than a pub, or a sitting room, or a disco.
"They're not all about cars, there's other bits for people who don't like cars. But all it takes is to be in one and then you realise everything else is boring but cars..."
Is 'Jesus Chrysler...' autobiographical?
"I'm not totally removed... they're always true in some ways. I think of them as dreams. I like daydreaming. I like the idea of something being completely different from the music."
"It's better than drugs and drinking and all that. I prefer to have a little dream, driving in a car, meeting people, keeping moving. Probably quite adolescent, but I feel that way."
Meeting people – fans – is there any one constant that strikes you?
"Yes there is! It's how they feel the same as I do. You always think you're alone. Perhaps that's why I'm happier, I've met a lot of people who recognise something of themselves in it. They give you warmth. I like that, it's like making friends.
"A lot of times they know more about it than me, I don't know what I'm doing half the time but they know.
"You ask me what it's all about and mostly I haven't a clue. It's a mystery, like a trance. It's quite exciting, but once you start believing it you get into trouble."
Bill Carter onstage is truly Messiahs music personified, as he roams his patch, hammering mean chords from his guitar, wild eyes staring. Offstage, he often reminds me, he's just your average Joe.
"If you're gigging for six months, you start to lose one person and turn into the other. It's a fine line between being a reasonable person and a crazed whatever. I've seen a couple of things of us on video, and I've thought, I don't like the look of that."
He reveals he is most likely to calm down on tour with some old Irish dance music or a Pogues tape, and his own musical evolution can be heard on the 'Bikini Red' track 'Waltz', a fragile ballad that he wrote for his mother who died last year.
"I sent it to Dolly Parton," says Bill, "but..." and he shrugs and smiles.
He lights a cigarette, pulls on it once, and then stubs it out quickly.
"That's it, that's the last one!" he exclaims. "Never again."
"Don't mess with the infinite," was the last thing he said to me after our first meeting, and that could be what the message of Screaming Blue Messiahs is, that's if you were looking for one in the first place.
It's more likely that the real answer is locked away in Bill Carter's head, and even he's not sure where to start searching.
A wave of the hand and a "dunno" is how he often reacts to a question, not out of boredom or ignorance but because whys and wherefores are anathema to him. Not particularly bothered with winning the race, just as long as it never stops.
Whatever, Screaming Blue Messiahs are a machine so simple, so effective, so spontaneous; this year's model.
0–60 in no time at all. Watch them move.
By Lynn Geller
Bill Carter, singer / guitarist for the Screaming Blue messiahs, a wild British trio with a Fred Flintstone edge and a new album, Bikini Red, talks about the perils of the road.
"Touring is sensory deprivation. When you wake up you know everything that's going to happen that day. The good part is that you have the gig, so you try to put everything into that to make up for the deprivation. The bad part is that you put out so much and then you get empty and there's nothing to fill it up. But there's no going back. You meet these bands who can't stop touring. They have nothing else, so they go around the world in a kind of limbo. They live in a time warp.
"Most pop stars are huge assholes with personality problems. You're creating a monster. Of course, everyone likes a monster, it's possessed. So they keep feeding it. The best movie about that is Performance. James Fox turned to religion after making that film.
"In performance, particularly with some kinds of music – gospel, certain blues – it's like an exorcism. You're tapping into things and it could be that it isn't you. It's the devil's music. That's the Moral Majority's view, but I'm suspicious of it myself. You do change. All you have to do is look at Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean. And the ones who are still alive, a lot of them are like cardboard cutouts. It's like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
"Robert Johnson is a classic. In a way you are selling yourself to the devil. There's always something and everybody's weak. Being successful, the difference is you have to do a lot more. Instead of doing twenty shows, you tour for six months. I didn't expect that when we started out. And it burns you out, giving 100%, you pay sooner or later. What we do is beyond our capabilities. You're stretching something that isn't quite there.
"But that's what makes it exciting. You can do things that are in everyone, but most people never have a chance to show. And the money's a plus, not that I have any yet. If I were rich I'd quit. I'd quit and form a band."
BALD MAN IN FLINTSTONE RUMPUS!
Well, The Screaming Blue Messiahs... what can Bitz say to do them justice? They're a group who have been around for quite a long time and have just had their first "sniff" of chart "action" with a song all about wanting to be a Flintstone and their singer, a bald bloke called Bill, is on the phone this very second to explain it all so...
It's a rum old name, The Screaming Blue Messiahs. What exactly does it mean?
Bald Bloke: "What do you mean, 'what does it mean?'? It doesn't mean anything. I made it up about four years ago. I had this dream that Elvis got blown away in the desert... " (????)
Oh. Are you naturally bald or do you shave your head?
Bald Bloke: "I shave my head. It feels like a baby seal. I think it's a higher life-form to be bald."
Do you really want to be a Flintstone?
Bald Bloke: "Well, yeah. I am a Flintstone in the song. I'm Dino, the dinosaur, Kenny the drummer is Bam Bam because that's the little baby who keeps hitting the floor and Chris is Pebbles, a girl baby."
So you like watching the Flintstones on TV then?
Bald Bloke: "No. I don't watch the telly (getting a bit shirty). I don't like all these questions."
So you can't tell us all about the Flintstones then?
Bald Bloke: "I'm sick of this."
Bald Bloke's phone: Click. Burrr...
It is quite clear from the above interview that the so-called Screaming Blue Messiahs know next to nothing about those televisual cartoon caperers The Flintstones and are just using the name in a shoddy and underhand bid for stardom. A disgrace. Bitz, on the other hand, knows nothing about the Screaming Blue Messiahs but everything about The Flintstones.
By Andy Gill
BUILT TO BURN RUBBER
Screaming Blue Messiahs: music to drive by.
"Driving is the last form of freedom," says Screaming Blue Messiahs mainman Bill Carter. "Physical freedom, anyway. They'll probably stop it soon. I think it's quite a special thing to have. Cos 99 million people can't do it – in the third world, they can only walk down the street. They couldn't move anywhere. It's a luxury."
It's a luxury Bill likes to indulge as often as he can, and intensely as possible. Cars are the only things which animate this rather broody baldheaded guitarist – apart, that is, from live performance, when his sullenness gets channelled through his Telecaster in a Wilko Johnson-like frenzy which sees his shiny dome ricocheting around the stage like some wayward pinball. Cars are the inspiration that's driven Bill through an early stint with the Beefheartian R&B outfit Motor Boys Motor, and now three albums with the Messiahs, culminating in the streamlined powerglide of Bikini Red, an album built to burn rubber.
"Yeah, I liked that idea," says Bill. "I think music should be heard in cars. That's where I think it's best. Some cars. Not all cars. Some cars shouldn't be allowed to have music in."
Oh? And which cars might that be?
"Communist vehicles. Any communist cars – any cars where there's thousands and thousands and thousands of them all looking the same. They shouldn't have anything in them. And cars that have got great engines in them, that sound good, shouldn't have anything. So you're down to vans really..."
Bill's car comes into the second category, being 5000 quid's worth of Dodge Challenger, a small car with a high-performance engine. "It's a 440 six-pack SERT. That means it's got three two-stage carburettors on it. 71/2 litres with three two-stage carburettors that come in on a secondary vacuum." Which, roughly translated, means it goes like a bat out of hell. It's American, of course, but then so are many of the better things in life, in Bill's view.
"It's an inspiring country, but if you went to China, that might be too. It's just access to new imagery, really. We're living in an old country, it's quite tired, and there's not a lot of things to excite you. Whereas America is just like an adult playground, there's lots of things that are funny and exciting."
Not only that, there's lot's more freedom too. "They want you to do what you want. Whereas here, if you do what you want, you don't know your place. It's a different psychology. The bottom line is they like success, they like people to have a go at things, whereas here they don't like people to do that – especially fat, bald people. They shouldn't be in bands, shouldn't be doing it. It doesn't come in line with their idea of what a band should be: over here they think a band should look like The Clash or Keith Richards."
When last spotted, Bill Carter was cruising smoothly through the lower reaches of the British Top 40 with the Messiahs' first hit single, the infectious cartoon caper 'I Wanna Be A Flintstone'. The future, it seems, is looking that little bit brighter for fat, bald people in bands.
By Sylvie Simmons
A BOX OF SCREAMING BLUE MESSIAHS
There's a white Madonna and a black Prince, a metal Priest and a buffy Saint Marie and three Screaming Blue Messiahs: Bill Carter, Chris Thompson and Kenny Harris.
I've got Bill, he's got me, he's been drinking, I haven't, I'm not happy but Bill is positively wretched. He'd be tearing his hair out if he had some. It would seem he's just discovered the hopeless position of the artist who has to put his creativity in a box to sell it, and boxes and creativity don't get along. He's fighting. But I've got tradition on my side – boxes build tradition, same as tradition builds boxes, and though he draws on a tradition of iconoclasm (people like Beefheart, to a great extent, and John Lee Hooker to a lesser one), it's boxes all the same – and he's just got a Budweiser. On a dull, heavy afternoon in London we're facing off across a record company desk. I'm here because of an album called Bikini Red, "eine Jukebox," the Germans said "fur einen perfekten Planeten," which is good enough for me. A cathedral built of parts from a freeway-crash of styles. Mutant Beach Boys, Cramps, Beefheart, Velvets, polka, waltz and blues. I like your album a lot, Bill Carter.
You're in the minority then. Bowie likes you, Rolling Stone likes you, America, the London Times, cynical rockcrits like you. A rare achievement; shows how you've managed to be all things to all men. "What do you mean? Is that a trick question? I'm trying to think, I've just been in the pub, hang on." He puts the tape on pause. Time for me to tell you that the album he doesn't like is their third record, an EP announcing their arrival in '85, Good And Gone, the full-length Gun Shy confirming it. They spent a lot of time touring the States, sometimes headlining, sometimes with the Cramps; oh, here's Bill back again:
"I couldn't handle it at first, America. I couldn't take it in. The whole deal. I just couldn't believe that it existed. It just seemed like..." he grabs the back of his skull and tries to pull it down over his forehead, "Oh, it's what everybody says." What? "They're like Martians, the body-snatchers, that's what it seemed like. I think if you stay there you end up being one, you don't have much time before you become an American, there's no way out. I've seen so many people who've come from England floundering. Concentrate!" (I'm cleaning off the coffee I spilled on an official-looking file.) "It's alright, it's only contracts." But I just rubbed a few noughts off someone's deal. "Good." So, America makes you flounder?
"It sucks you in, I think. It's a very powerful culture. If you don't join in, you're out. That kind of power is frightening." More head-rubbing, like he's trying to erase himself. Tough business to be in if you don't want to be the center of attention.
"You could turn up there and say 'I'm Bill Carter' and this and that, and if I wasn't in a band I'd be eaten up. I'll probably be eaten up anyway." So why keep going back then? "Because I like it, the excitement. It's also got diminished responsibilities. You don't have to think," he laughs.
Which is why a lot of people say they join bands. Because they don't have to think, someone else thinks for them, looks after them – "That's true, that's true, but I don't like people looking after you and, in fact, that's one thing I'm trying to stop. The thing about music is it's a diminished...toytown. What's going on everywhere else doesn't count. Anyway." The silence decides it's cold out-side and comes back in to join us.
What was it – can you remember – that got you into music? One apocalyptic moment? A blinding flash? "Are you talking about me personally?" The silence shrugs and looks the other way. "It took me a long – a lot longer than I imagined it would to become competent at doing it. What got me into it was the same things that get everybody into it. You see doors to a different world and you can see that it's possible to exist and to do something. You can fulfill. Everybody's got talent, every single person. What am I doing?" Making sense, I think. "Every single person has talent but most people don't have a chance or don't find an outlet or don't fulfill it for some reason. They can't make a living at it, or...I know what it's like to feel underestimated. The one thing about music is it's a fair deal, you get up there and do it – and if it works, it works, and there's nothing can stop it, there's no class system, no prejudices, no nothing, and that's what attracted me to it. If you were just yourself there must be a way of just being yourself, but it's hard just keeping being yourself because you can turn into a caricature of yourself." The theory of "If you're soft enough you'll expand to fit the box you're put in." Me, enemy boxmaker. Well aware of this I shut up and drink my coffee.
"But I just thought there's no other way to do it, to actually get yourself – the things that you feel inside you – to work. You couldn't get it to work in driving a van, you couldn't get it being an architect, you couldn't get it doing paintings; the only way you could do it is to be yourself. And the hard part is that you have to live with yourself and it starts becoming slightly public and it's a bit vulnerable and it's like hearing your voice on a tape recorder – you don't like it."
Back to what you were saying about not liking the album –
"I've been through a bad patch with this album." Certainly wasn't what I thought it was going to be. "What did you think it was going to be then?" An extension of the first, like most people's second albums. Less witty, I thought, more intense, aggressive like the live show, more in your face.
"Well, a lot of people think we should do that." Your band, your fans, your record company? "There aren't 'a lot of people' in the band, only three." I know; what did you think? "I don't know. At the time, to do the album how we did it was probably alright. Because you're never in an ideal position." He laughs hopelessly. "I feel like Montgomery, did you see that thing?" A TV program the night before, featuring the Field Marshall, a British war hero, defeater of the wily Rommel in the Middle East, and evidently a screwed-up dwarf. The program implied he won the war for us because his good wife died and his bad mom beat his buttocks with a riding whip.
"It's the same in bands," says Bill. "Most people who are driven to do things like that are usually pretty inadequate in one way or another. They've usually got something missing. Because if you feel happy and you've got everything going for you, you don't do anything. There's a lot of them about. Or do you think everyone has their own weight of misery?" I do, as it happens. "I do." So why make this album that I like and you don't? Why all these different styles?
"The reason we did it is because we'd been doing a lot of touring and I was really bored doing the same kind of vibe all the time. I didn't want to come in and just do the same thing again. I got really disgusted with shouting my head off every night – I don't know, you can start off doing something and it just becomes a nightmare. And I just wanted to do something – I didn't want to do anything, until about now. Are you interested in hearing what I'm saying? You ask me questions and I answer them and – it just doesn't seem worth it sometimes." I know what you mean, but the box is half-built already and it beats working for a living.
"I didn't want to do anything until now." But record companies don't work that way. "I said we'd do some demos and this album is really demos – we'd do two three songs and then we'd have a couple of weeks and do another two songs – there was a lot of distance between songs. Also because I wanted to do things that had some sort of feelings about new, different feelings. At the time you just do the best you can, that's it." So you never intended it to be a lasting monument? "You always think when you start that that's what it could be, a lasting monument, and when it's over you wish you could never see it again. But that's part of the process. Doing anything you're just putting yourself in a vulnerable position, anyway."
America sounded, I persist, a major inspiration – the muted surf of the title track, metallic-spray-painted C&W, hillbilly polka, sillybilly Flintstones, Dodges, Chryslers, Eddie Cochran – even an American accent.
"Yeah, well America's a new – I don't know. What's the question? Well it's a good place to get material from, America. I like America. What I like is the way they use the language – very creative way of speaking English. For example, instead of saying, like in England, '30 mph speed limit,' there's 55 in big letters and then 'That's The Law,' and underneath it, 'Drive Friendly.' I like things like that. Like what does 'Drive Friendly' mean? Nobody would say it here." They might have if the same-named single he did for an in-die label with Motor Boys Motor, his band before Messiahs, had gotten more exposure. Chris Thompson was in Motor Boys Motor, Kenny Harris wasn't. He says he "knew them both, really," though Kenny joined in after regularly going to see them play and "we changed the name when we thought it sounded good; we kept the old name while it wasn't very good." This band is "about three years old, maybe four, I don't know." He formed it because "I wanted to do something. I didn't want to be sitting around and being on the dole or being pissed off. It's like an obsession, really. It's very hard to talk about it now and say, oh why did you want to do it, because you don't actually feel that way about it, you originally start playing because you want – to be like a hero or something. It's stage by stage. You don't start off thinking you want a big record deal or anything like that. It was never that ambitious, really."
Does songwriting come easy? "I don't know. I can't remember. I haven't written one for a bit. I usually write them if somebody turns around and says 'Unless you write two songs you're going to get kicked off the label.'"
Here's a question: why does a creative person need a kick up the arse from an uncreative mercenary institution to make them open the box?
"Why? I don't know. This isn't getting anywhere, is it?"
A pause as long as a tour bus. They're off to tour Europe at the start of '88; another American tour follows. Headlining this time, it looks at the moment. You might have seen them with the Cramps.
"The Cramps. Oh," Bill grabs his skull. "It was a good tour. The audiences were good audiences. The only thing was that Lux abuses his microphone and they complained because we were spitting in the microphone or something." Well, he has to put it down his pants; maybe he's sensitive about hygiene. "Yeah, and he expects you to sing through it and then complains because you're filling it up with gob. I thought that was funny!
"I don't like touring that much, but sometimes I really enjoy it. Quite often it's better than hanging around in London. Most people in a band, we have to get out, we have to tour really, get out of the country, leave. But you know what touring's like. It's boring, mindlessly boring. I'm doing as least as possible."
The usual line is it's worth it all for the hour or so onstage.
"It's not, no way."
Why do it then?
"Why does it have to be those alternatives? Why does it have to be like a big star trip or 'part of the job?' There could be another way of looking at it." There is, thousands at least. "Yeah, well. It isn't like that. It's personal. The reason why you do things is personal. Personal. It's not necessarily just a job, and in some ways it is. It is a job, I suppose – you wouldn't choose to play every night. It's supposed to be special, and the more you do it – you do two nights in a row and stuff – it just becomes dissipated and meaningless. So you have to combine the fact that you're on a record label and you've got an album and you're supposed to tour, and it doesn't sit that well. It's not something I'm very comfortable with. I would prefer to play when I feel like it. On the other hand, you look at some of these old blues guys and they play – they just play all the time." He looks defeated by his own argument. The sky's blackening outside.
"I don't like the systemization of music. I don't like the way when you go on a record company everything slows down to the point of crucial boredom. This album that's come out now is six months old. I don't want to hear it! When you're actually doing it it's gone, it's over. And it's like, well why don't you just go back to the clubs and busk, play what you want, just do that, and that's a good question. I get very frustrated by the static-ness. You put 12 tracks out and that's an album for a year, it doesn't represent the band, it doesn't represent the live gigs, it doesn't represent one good moment in a live gig, it's a product. I'm signed to a record label to make money. No other reason at all. It's not because I want to go around being liked by people. To keep on doing that, to jump onto the gravy train for want of a better word, sticks in my throat, I don't like it." Fair enough. But then if you only write songs when the record company takes a gun to your back – "Yeah, well, that's a contradiction. You've got two choices: you either write songs when you feel like it, or when people say you have to. It can become a job, a thing. I don't know."
Neither do I. An hour tossing convolutions back and forth like one-armed ancient racquetball-players gets a little bit exhausting. Whether Bill and his Messiahs give a holy shit or not, their records are quite wonderful, their live shows even better.
"I don't know, music's never seemed a total way of life to me, it never seemed to answer everything. There's nobody I'd like to be – you look at pop stars or you look at people, supposedly successful people. I wouldn't want to swap places with them. I know what a lot of people have to sell to get what they want." he rubs his head. "It's a fine line."
No. 114 April 1988
by Ed Ward
BIG BALD BRITONS STARE DOWN AMERICA'S GUN SIGHTS
Boy George's clothes budget for the first three months of the year could probably outfit all three Blue Messiahs for 1988-'89. Ask New Order what kind of gear they use and you'll have to pack a lunch. The Messiahs' Bill Carter only has to say, "Uh, Telecastuh." Furthermore, they outnumber The Pet Shop Boys three to two.
After only ten minutes with these guys, I think I'm beginning to understand why nobody in Britain has heard of them.
Not that Carter and his two band-mates, bassist Chris Thompson and drummer Kenny Harris, are going to lose any sleep over that. "I make a living at this," he growls, "and you can't make a living playing 'round here. We played Britain, what, twice in 1987?" "Coulda been three times," burrs Harris. "And not at all in '86." "But you see my point," Carter continues. "In Europe you can do well enough to at least break even, and America..."
Ah, yes, America. America inhabits a very interesting place in Messiahs mythology. This is the band that snarled out an amazing version of Hank Williams' "You're Gonna Change Or I'm Gonna Leave" on Gun-Shy, their first album, and on Bikini Red, the second, virtually every song has some American touch-stone, from CB cross-talk on the title track to "55 - The Law" to the assertion that "Jesus Chrysler Drives A Dodge", to the even more shocking declaration that "I Can Speak American."
"Well, yeah," says Carter, a citizen of a country where gas costs $3.50 a gallon who recently traded his mid-'70s Camaro for a Dodge Challenger. "I've always found the U.S. an interesting sort of place. I mean, it's very new for us. This is the old country here. With your films, your cars, it's sort of like an adult playground. Adults aren't really catered for in Europe. On the other hand, I don't think the U.S. is any sort of place to bring up children. I'll tell you what sums it up for me: In America, the old-age pensioners wear Bermuda shorts!"
Plus, of course, there's blues. Keep the band talking and there will soon be mention of blues. Although Carter seems to hate to discuss influences, a discerning listener can easily spot the more demented side of roackabilly (the kind the Cramps turned into a nightmare cartoon) side by side with a definite Beefheartian angularity, which itself is fed by the music of the master of angular flow, John Lee Hooker, the only name Carter will admit. Chris also admires ex-Fabulous Thunderbirds bassist Keith Ferguson quite a bit, while Kenny defensively mentions that the band consider his tastes too mainstream. Like? "Like AC/DC," he says, as the room dissolves in hoots.
"But I like what we do," Carter says, anchoring the conversation again. "I like anything when it's exciting. Like PIL's single 'Rise'. There's just a handful of things like that, things that actually touch a nerve. Things like Doctor Feelgood's early stuff, things that whip up a storm." This the Messiahs definitely do. I first encountered them on a San Francisco college radio station when Gun-Shy came out and the station was going nuts playing "Smash The Market Place". Although the lyrics were hard to make out, it was an exciting radio song, and I decided that after years of turning into lazy, self-indulgent rock stars, the Clash had finally made another great record. When that turned out not to be the case, I was left to contemplate the idea of a British band that wanted to make that kind of impact in 1986.
"Well," Carter says grandly, "I think it's possible for this band to be a major force to be reckoned with. I certainly don't want to go down. It's go up or give up. No, this band has the potential to make music people will listen to. I haven't heard a band recently with that edge to get it across. There's room that now. I truly think we should be a world-famous R&B band."
That's something Bill Carter's been trying to do for some time now. He was an art school student 12 years ago when punk exploded, and ran around looking for people to join his dream band, almost (at least to hear him tell it) snagging Joe Strummer, but getting there just a little too late. He kept on painting, listening to R&B and dreaming, and finally got a four-piece called Motor Boys Motor together. A record for Stiff went nowhere, and, predictably, the band fell apart. Carter and his bassist, Chris Thompson, weren't about to surrender though. So they recruited Kenny Harris from Scotland, and the Messiahs were born. An indie EP did well enough for Warners U.K. to sign them, and Elektra picked them up for stateside distribution. So far, they've done okay, but they haven't blown apart any sales records. But Carter still has his dreams.
"The thing is." he declares, "I'd like to make a record you'd like to play all the time. Like 'Rise', which I think you can put on any time at all and it sounds right. I'd like to make something great, but that's easier said than done."
So what has to be done? He's dipped far into his obsession with America and come out with a doozie: "I Wanna Be A Flintstone." It's a record that in many ways encapsulates the Messiahs' sound, with a rhythmic thrust that sounds like Bo Diddley falling down several flights of stairs, enigmatic but comprehensible lyrics, and plenty of references to the Hanna-Barbera TV show. The song's video shows the band floating around space and has plenty of clips from the cartoon in it. It does look like the closest thing the Messiahs have had to a hit so far.
And that might not be a good thing in the long run. When a band establishes itself with a song that is perceived as a novelty, it can become imprisoned by that track. If "Flintstone" becomes a huge record, America's teenagers might not buy its followup unless it's about the Jetsons. (Or more likely, America's program directors might not program it.) Bill Carter might spend the rest of his career yelling "Yabba-dabba-doo" to slowly diminishing crowds. This suggestion pisses him off.
"What 'Flintstone' is is the tip of the iceberg. We have to get in the door. It was not recorded as a novelty track. We play it live and it is a credible track. Look at the imagery in any track we've recorded – you'll find the same thing. This was just the most direct tune of the ones we've had." But after he's had a minute to cool off, he does relent a little bit. "I guess it is unfortunate in some ways that 'Flintstone' is the one getting the airplay., but we're not ashamed of any of the tracks we've recorded."
Nor would I suggest that they should be. I just hope that those in charge of such things see to it that the band isn't relegated to novelty status, that's all. After all, the Messiahs are a lot of fun, what with their solid back-beat and weird lyrics. "Our lyrics are not weird," Carter insists. "you can have a lot of fun with lyrics." Right. Lyrics like "I can speak Ameri-can / Like Lois Lane and Charlie Chan / And Superman" aren't weird. Of course, the lyrics are only weird (or not, as you choose) when you can hear them, and one of the hallmarks of the Messiahs' sound is a sort of grungy murkiness in which the guitar dominates.
While nervously awaiting the outcome of "Flintstone"'s run on the charts, Carter's not anticipating any major changes in the band except the size of the halls they play, but he does foresee some evolution. "Well, I hope so. I mean, I think it will be churned up a bit more. I don't really know what form it'll take, though. I'd like to hit a vibe. Like ZZ Top hit a vibe with Eliminator, they clicked into a great feeling. I know one thing I'd like to do is to have the high point of our gigs recorded. I'd really love to do a good live album, but that's definitely not an easy thing to accomplish.
"I guess what I'd ultimately like to do is to find a rhythm that's a sort of signature. Things like Bo Diddley – that rhythm has lasted for years. Like hip-hop or reggae, something you hear and say 'Ah!'" Another lofty ideal, you say, but I don't know. There is something about the tenacity of Bill Carter's vision and his drive for success that makes me think that if anybody can make something this idiosyncratic yet basically rocking popular, the Screaming Blue Messiahs can.
I mean, one thing's for sure; unlike a lot of other bands in Britain that I could name, they damn sure aren't gonna make it on their haircuts.
16 April 1988
by John Millward
MESSIAHS: Rock Trio That Blares The Blues
The group's name, Screaming Blue Messiahs, is at least two-thirds accurate. The British trio indeed plays raw, blues-based rock belted at a volume that could rival a jet engine's. The religious appellation is what remains fanciful. This is a band, after all, that's had a semi-hit with a goofy powerhouse of a song called "I Wanna Be a Flintstone."
"I describe us as a blues band," says guitarist Bill Carter, who forgoes a pick to strum his Fender Telecaster with all five of his right fingers. "I think of it as a little modern urban psychotic blues band."
In performance even more than on records, the Screaming Blue Messiahs, who will appear tonight at the 23 East Cabaret in Ardmore and tomorrow night at Trenton's City Gardens, create a rambunctious, hard-rocking squall.
As Carter's finger-picking style suggests, he generally writes his tunes on an acoustic guitar. Consequently, when he teaches them to his band mates - drummer Kenny Harris and bassist Chris Thompson - a song that might have been country blues takes on the weight of an urban subway train.
"It's only when Kenny joined that (the trio format) started to make sense to me," says Carter, who previously played in a band called Motor Boys Motor. ''He's such a full sounding drummer that it really fills out the sound.
"I think," Carter concludes with a chuckle, "we'll have to begin paying him more."
Not that the group is swimming in money. With two albums out on Elektra - Gun-Shy and Bikini Red - the Messiahs have developed a following on college radio and among rock fans who appreciated the no-frills power of late-'70s punk. Though the group hardly fits into the punk genre, its thrashing style has often been compared to that of the Clash, and its concerts sometimes attract a contingent of slam-dancers who approach their partners like football linemen in the pit.
"I was a bit detached from the punk thing, and didn't find the political side of it that appealing," says Carter, who is somewhat dismayed about the band's nouveau-punk appeal. "Nobody dug me then. I didn't look right, and I didn't have the right attitude."
Carter found musical sustenance not in the cold steel heart of punk but in the more soulful style of the pioneering bluesmen and the rockers that they inspired.
"I was always into the classic things," says Carter, "like Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, reggae and Cajun."
Many of Carter's songs are built on rhythm riffs that anchor his songs in the way that the rhythms of a guitarist like Bo Diddley defined his compositions.
"I agree," says a slightly jesting Carter. "Bo Diddley should be paid for his riffs, although I've heard similar rhythms and tremolo techniques in jazz recordings of the '30s and '40s. In fact, I was going to write a song called 'Pay Bo Diddley' with lyrics that would list the people who've stolen his riffs, and say that we'd like to pay him if we could only find his trailer."
Besides being inspired by the great bluesmen, the Messiahs' sound is also derived from rock's great power trios. Although Carter says he was never a fan of Cream, Harris' drums serve a function similar to Ginger Baker's in the prototypical '60s power trio: They set up a rumbling bottom that frees both Carter's guitar and Thompson's bass from strict rhythmic duties.
Carter says he got his own youthful kicks listening to The Who (instrumentally a trio) and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The Hendrix influence is most apparent during the occasionally psychedelic portions of the Messiahs' rave-ups; his flailing strumming style was no doubt partly inspired by The Who's Pete Townshend.
The band that really got Carter's juices going in the mid-'70s, however, was not the Clash or the Sex Pistols but a raunchy rhythm and blues-inflected rock band called Dr. Feelgood. Another instrumental trio, Dr. Feelgood never made it in America, but found short-lived success in Britain as a link between punk bands and pub-rock groups like Brinsley Schwartz and Ducks Deluxe.
"Wilco (Johnson, Feelgood's guitarist) was probably one of the first punks," says Carter, "and he still can't sing. They had a very aggressive attitude. These days he's much more traditional."
Although the Messiahs hardly consider themselves purists, Carter admits to some trepidation over the elements of novelty built into "I Wanna Be a Flintstone."
"I'm really quite glad it wasn't a bigger hit," says Carter, who can be forgiven a fib to make a point. "The idea of the song was just too good for the record company to pass up. I don't think it's the best song on the album, but the fact that there's millions and millions of people who know about The Flintstones made it the inevitable single."
Equally pertinent, perhaps, was that Carter had written a rhythmic chorus that perfectly fit a lyric cribbed from Fred Flintstone's call to fun: "Ya- ba-da-ba-do-time."
Carter's fears of being pegged as the Smothers Brothers of hard rock were intensified when the band's non-American record label (WEA International) followed up "I Wanna Be a Flintstone" with a remixed version of another new song called "I Can Speak American," with some lyrics snipped and a disco section sandwiched into the middle.
"They haven't a clue," grumbled Carter about the alterations. "It's like they all had a drink and went down to the studio to make the record over."
On the other hand, it's significant that Carter admires an American blues- rock trio that has used a cartoon image to get its music to the masses - ZZ Top.
"I think (ZZ's) Eliminator was an unusually good album," says the unlikely fan. "I just think they sort of hit the spot, found a really good vibe and a great sound. For what the band was about, that album was better than they were, which is what everybody wants to do - to make a record that's better than you are at the time, and then catch up."
ZZ Top's sense of style is defined by waist-length beards. Carter's visual
hook is his shaved cue-ball of a head.
"That is a stupid question," replies Carter when asked to describe the evolution of his haircut. But he relents with an explanation that's as logical as the blues: "It's sort of been a gradual process. I always knew that I'd go bald. It's just like because I'm in a rock band, I figure I'll die in a plane crash."
New York Times
17 April 1988
by John Pareles
POP VIEW: Technology Doesn't Mean Getting Seduced by It
... Right now, I'd guess, someone is sampling Jimi Hendrix's feedback in the ''Star-Spangled Banner'' from a compact disk, planning to loop and reverb and equalize it, then trigger it with a MIDI computer interface. The far better course, I'd say, would be something like what Bill Carter of the Screaming Blue Messiahs did at the Ritz the other night. He draped his microphone cord around his neck, wandered out toward the monitors until the feedback started, then unhooked his guitar and hung it on the microphone stand; bumping together, guitar pickups and microphone created huge blotches of noise. Then, with the guitar still dangling, he tipped the mike stand to slide it along the strings and, on the song's last note, upended it to crash the guitar on the floor. Low-tech, and proud of it.
Popular music has tangoed with technology from the start, of course. Mr. Carter's gambit wouldn't have the same impact with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica holder (though he could probably wrest noise from them, too.) But using technology doesn't mean getting seduced by it. Sound recording is wonderfully democratic; a rolling tape doesn't care if the sound of an earthquake comes from a natural disaster or sandpaper on the microphone grille. Often it seems that as producing a sound becomes a more elaborate process, the sound itself gets tamer.
Summary and translation by Kåre Naustan
En elskelig bølle (a lovable bully)
The article "En elskelig bølle" (a lovable bully) describes SBM's music as very aggressive, and in sharp contrast to the calm Bill Carter being interviewed. BC says he is not an aggressive person and that he, as he grows older, has to dig deeper within to find the necessary aggression required for the music. Motivation, BC says, is earning money and the fear of losing the grip. Asked if SBM, with their raw power live, do frighten people, BC says he do not like to watch live performances of the band on video, but don't find the band to be frightening.
Their apperance seems to match the music and BC reflects on the possibility of him being a major rockstar at this point, if he had weighted 20 kg less and had long hair. He says he do understand the record company's challenge in selling the SBM, but that they must have been aware of when they signed the band.
Asked to comment the hit single "I wanna be a flintstone", the response from BC is that the single has been a disaster for the band. WEA had 20-30 just as good songs to choose from, and they picked it for its novelty-sound. If it hadn't been for the single, the SBM would have been able to get out of the contract with WEA in the UK. In the US they are on Electra, and they prefer to have no contact whatsoever with WEA. BC says WEA have censored lyrics and videos, edited music and released a terrible dance version of "I can speak American" without the band taking any part, plus WEA has not promoted the music or paid the band.
The future for SBM seems most promising in the US, but BC still thinks the band needs to make a record that matches the band's live energy, and says their studio albums so far have been too "sweet". Asked if the band name possibly could cause trouble in the southern states of the US, BC replies that probably, but those to protest do not pay much attention to the small venues where SBM performs.
An expansion of the band is called an interesting possibility, but the right people haven't showed up so far, and as a trio it is easier to be in full control.
By Joe Gore
A BLUE MESSIAH SCREAMS
"The early blues stuff that I like is the stuff with a bit of edge," declares Bill Carter, the Screaming Blue Messiahs' guitarist and vocalist. "I find that a lot of R&B revival bands don't have that edge – it usually sounds very middle-of-the-road."
A London-based trio, the Screaming Blue Messiahs dish out a truly dangerous-sounding blend of blues, punk and early rock 'n' roll. On their two Elektra albums (the 1986 Gun-Shy [9 60488-1] and this year's Bikini Red [9 60755-1], the band fires a barrage of angry, guitar-driven sings. Carter sings in an enraged bellow and plays guitar like a man possessed. His Telecaster-pounding is backed by a real Mack truck of a rhythm section, bassist Chris Thompson and drummer Kenny Harris. The Messiahs, however, are no simple thrash band. For all their frenzy, they have plenty of rhythmic sophistication and a terrific ensemble sense – groove predominates over grunge.
The Screaming Blue Messiahs don't try to reproduce a literal -minded '50s sound in the manner of some rock and roll revivalists. They seem to understand that recapturing the 'edge' of early rock and roll means more than just aping its mannerisms. Oh, they might slip in a warped New Orleans feel or some mutant Bo Diddley here and there, but they've managed to forge their influences into a unique and decidedly modern sound. They've even put their own stamp on the one cover tune in their repertoire, a smouldering version of Hank Williams' 'You're Gonna Change Or I'm Gonna Leave' (from Gun-Shy). In short, they reinterpret earlier styles instead of just regurgitating them. Carter claims that the subtle allusions to early rock and blues that permeate the Messiahs' songs aren't premeditated. "I don't really give a fuck where it comes from," he says with characteristic bluntness. "It's just a feel thing. I don't know how to analyse it, and it's not acquired knowledge. I think what we do is true, and that's it."
For Carter, feel and spontaneity are all-important. 'Someone To Talk to' (from Gun-Shy), for example, has the unpredictable, semi-improvised character of an early John Lee Hooker or Bo Diddley record. The song is sung from the point of view of a nameless soldier in the front-line trenches of a nameless war. Driven by a simple but powerful open E chord riff, the song picks up steam until, by the third verse, Carter's persona has disintegrated into an incoherent, babble-spewing lost soul. It's the scariest vision of apocalyptic dread this side of Robert Johnson's 'Helbound On My Trail'. Carter has no rational explanation for the song – "I just felt haunted at the time," he explains.
Born in the north of England in 1951, Carter didn't begin playing the guitar until he was in his early twenties. His first instrument was a Rickenbacker, "the Pete Townsend one" (probably and export model 1997 or 1998). "I was trying to do what punk eventually did," he recalls. "I liked the aggressiveness of the early Who, Capt. Beefheart, and Dr Feelgood." His first band, Motor Boys Motor, was formed in the wake of the punk explosion and featured Thompson on bass. After that band split up, Carter and Thompson joined forces with Motor Boys Motor fan Harris, and the Screaming Blue Messiahs were born. "The sound came together as soon as Kenny joined," Carter remembers. "He's a very loud, powerful drummer, and I just had to turn up, I had to go to 11, like the guy in Spinal Tap."
The guitarists that Carter acknowledges as influences are all unpretentious, groove-oriented players: Steve Cropper, Howlin' Wolf sideman Hubert Sumlin, and perhaps most of all, Wilko Johnson, the brilliant British R&B minimalist who played with Dr Feelgood and Ian Dury in the '70s. His more recent favourites include the Clash, the Gun Club ("when they're good"), and PiL's 'Rise' (from 'Album' [Elektra 60438-1]), which features Steve Vai. He's also a big fan of the Cramps' Ivy Rorschach: "If you cencentrate on what she's actually playing," he confesses, "it's brilliant."
Carter avoids the clichés of rock and blues soloing, in fact, he almost avoids soloing altogether. The solo section of a Messiahs song is less likely to feature generic pentatonic riffing than a searing blast of, well, sound, an approach that Carter quaintly describes as "kill, kill, kill!" Does he consciously avoid standard linear solos? "It's a combination of not being able to do it, and actually liking one-note solos and the one-chord sort of sound," he replies. "The only person I've ever heard who played a lot of notes and really interested me was Jimi Hendrix. I don't really have the capabilities to play the guitar in a conventional fashion."
Carter tends to be very dismissive of his own abilities; he emphasises his lack of technique and his ignorance of music theory. "I don't know the names of any chords; I don't even know the names of the strings," he claims. He also pleads guilty to brutalising his guitars, although he admits that "it looks worse than it is. We have somebody who puts them together again after the gigs. I just think of them as bits of wood. I'm torn because I have a couple of really nice old Teles, and I know they're just gonna go to pieces. It's not anything to be proud of, there's nothing good about it at all."
But even if he won't admit it, there's a lot more to Carter's playing than Neanderthal axe abuse. He's got a superb rhythm feel, and he pulls an enormous tone out of his guitars. He also has a knack for concocting cool riffs that are grounded in rock and roll tradition without being clichéd. The lines from Gun-Shy's 'Wild Blue Yonder' and Bikini Red's 'Too Much Love' (Ex. 1 and 2 respectively, see music notations) are both based on simple blues pentatonic figures. Each contains a short melodic motive (the C-D-F figure in the first and third measures of Ex. 1 and the A-B-D-E-D figure in the second measure of Ex. 2) that repeats itself in a pattern that moves out of phase with the song's pulse. When paired with Kenny Harris' straight back-beat, these syncopated riffs generate enormous rhythmic momentum.
Carter also has an ear for manipulating the timbre of his instruments. In the studio, he experiments continuously with his tone, drawing upon a wide variety of high- and low-tech effects. "I do whatever it takes to make it sound good," he asserts. "I'll play through a transistor radio if that's what we need at the time." He makes impressive use of harmonising devices (check out the brontosaurus-sized guitar sounds on Bikini Red's 'Big Brother Muscle'), and he gets plenty of mileage out of his Ibanez Harmonics / Delay,which he uses for both pitch-shifting ('Let's Go Down To The Woods' on Gun-Shy) and timed slap-back effects a la Albert Lee and The Edge. The riff that begins 'Sweet Water Pools on Bikini Red is a good example of the latter (refer to Ex. 3 below).
Here, the delay is set for a single repetition at an interval of about 200 milliseconds. Each note the guitarist plays is echoed one eighth-note later. The composite effect is rotated on the second line. (Actually, it's possible to play the composite line, but the delay trick produces a much better sound because the chords 'bleed' into each other slightly).
Some of Carter's best effects, however, are quite a bit trashier. "The sound of the car starting on 'Jesus Chrysler Drives A Dodge' [from Bikini Red] is an old fuzz box going through a Fender Twin amp with the tremolo on," he reports. In fact, the creative use of amplifier tremolo is one of the hallmarks of Carter's sound; he manages to generate striking sounds with an effect many guitarists find too primitive to bother with.Typically, he sets the speed of the tremolo to match a song's tempo (listen to the oscillating feedback wails at the end of Bikini Red's 'All Shook Down').
Onstage, Carter favours a fairly straightforward setup. He runs his Telecasters simultaneously through two combo amps, a MESA / Boogie and an HH outfitted with Gauss speakers. Aside from the occasional use of a wah-wah pedal, his only onstage effect is the Ibanez DDL. He's been exploring the possibility of having a wah-wah installed in the body of one of his Telecasters, to be controlled by a whammy bar-type lever. "It's a question of cutting a big lump out of the guitar and putting it in," he states. "It's gonna cost about $2,000 to get it done, because everything's got to be made. I might want to spend it on my car instead." He plays heavy-gauge Rotosound strings without a pick. For his occasional forays into slide, he favours "the mike stand, or whatever's handy." He uses open tunings, "only when the strings go open by accident."
Carter is well aware that the Messiahs are following a 25-year tradition of English bands returning blues-based music back to America. To him, the blues spring from real life despair. Some English bands, he says, have been able to assimilate the blues because England is "a miserable sort of place, as I suppose it must have been miserable where they were doing the blues." America figures prominently in the Blue Messianic worldview, their words and music express a complex love / hate relationship with a land where bigotry and random violence are the dark flipside of the big cars and rockin' music. On a more practical level, their career strategy is based on gaining a foothold in the American music market. The Messiahs rarely perform in the UK because, according to Carter, "it just doesn't pay – people would rather go hear some disco band." Still, Carter realises his music may never garner massive popularity. "I was an odd man out when I started playing, I was an odd man out during punk, and I'm still an odd man out. There's nothing really acceptable about us at all. Our faces don't fit, and I like that, but there's no way we're going to be the darlings of rock 'n' roll."
The Screaming Blue Messiahs are beginning work on their third album, one that Carter hopes will differ somewhat from the first two. "I don't think we've made a record that quite represents what we're about," he complains. "Everything we've done sounded safe on record compared to how they were live, like The Who always sounded safe on record compared to how they were live. Producers tend to flatten it out and make it safer than it would normally be. This time we're going to turn the guitar up. I want to make an album that sounds really raw."
Consider yourself warned.
28th October 1989
By David Cavanagh
Photos Ian T Tilton
The last year has been a traumatic time for Screaming Blue Messiahs during which they almost disbanded. Now back with a new LP, Bill Carter tells David Cavanagh that he's still a desperate man. Hot shot by Ian T Tilton.
Bill Carter is the first man I've ever met who made the harmless invitation of a beer sound like an offer to introduce you, post mortem, to the internal structure of a motorway bridge.
No, better than that, it sounds like a simple fact: you, son, are coming for a beer. Get your jacket on.
Well, I've no objection. As it happens, Bill Carter has a few answers that need questioning and the locale of a spicy West London pub at lunchtime sure beats the original idea of gentlemanly coffees at the hotel.
"So how's it looking from the psycho-analyst's chair?" he asks good-humouredly as we sit down.
Like this. Screaming Blue Messiahs release their fourth LP, 'Totally Religious', at the end of this month. After a two year nothin' doin' interim which saw the band go through a lot of frustration and grief, this record is a brilliant way to refamiliarise themselves with the glare.
Bill Carter agrees that it's the band's best work yet, but with one proviso. He doesn't think any of their records were any good.
He means it. 'Bikini Red'?
The explosive 'Good And Gone' mini album?
"I dunno how we got away with it".
He's not taking the piss, although when he asks me to keep an eye out for anyone who might be interested in joining the band – "Cos we might be pretty good if we had another guitarist," – you can't help laughing out loud.
"I played the new album to Tony Moon (his former writing partner) and he cried all the way through it. Said I'd blown it completely."
When he explains he could really have done with another ten thousand quid – "then we'd have had an album" – it's much more than the pained urbanity of the effortless genius. It's the howl of desperation from a man who can honestly say he is "not satisfied".
This lack of satisfaction, with music and TV and people and everything else that involves being alive and shaven-haired and intense and 38, has been written down, mutated, mixed and produced and is now ready for public consumption on 'Totally Religious'.
"So how's it looking from the psycho-analyst's chair?"
Hmmm. Difficult to say at this stage. Tell me about the recent past, Mr Carter.
He remembers something.
"We nearly split up."
Screaming Blue Messiahs did indeed think of winding it all up last year. Lack of money, management problems, record company problems (they recently switched from Warners to Elektra) and a debilitating back injury for Carter were compounded by the death of their friend and producer, Vic Maile.
Quite apart from losing "a great, close friend and I really miss him", Carter thought he might have lost the only person who can produce the Messiahs. When he talks of producing it's as though it's a sacred act or a salvation enterprise; cathartic yes, redemptive no. He figures Howard Gray and Rob Stevens, who produced this one, probably won't ever want to work with him again.
"Producing this band is a nightmare for anybody. It's almost impossible to record what we're about and make it listenable. We're lucky that in one or two of these tracks there's a little bit of something on it. But it's not easy. You'd think it would be, but it's not.
"I saw that Hendrix thing (South Bank Show) the other day, where Chas Chandler was talking about Hendrix getting in that cab and losing the B-side to the album. And then going in and recording it all again overnight. I thought, Jesus!"
If you had packed the band in, what would you have done?
"Start another band. But probably... I mean, the Messiahs is a three-piece band that plays in a certain way, and there's only a certain amount of life in it at the best of times. There's a lot of things we can't do. We can't do, uh, a rap record."
Well, 'Mega City One' and 'Martian' off the new album convince me that you could. You've got the beat down exactly.
"Well, maybe. I actually like a lot of that stuff. But if the record company wants a rock album that's what you gotta give them. Cos we ain't gonna be doin' a lot of rap gigs," he laughs.
"I've been living in Baltimore for six months, which is 80, 90 per cent black, and that's all I ever hear. Comin' out of cars, windows."
It's a similar idea to the Messiahs, isn't it? A really uncompromising vision of freedom.
"It starts to make a lot of sense after a while. It's just such a determined bloody force. The rhythm, the beat."
Yes, but I meant more the declarations of intent in the lyrics.
"Yeah, you got to watch all that," he mutters. "But I don't really understand half of 'em. Heavily political? I suppose they must be. There's a lot of people in Baltimore who don't have a chance. Don't have a chance..."
Freedom, whether it's the cocky fuck you brand voiced in rap music or the perceived idyll of democracy desperately strived for in East Germany or Tiananmen Square, is a recurring metaphorical theme in a lot of Messiahs songs.
So I ask Carter what he thinks of recent events in those places.
"Well, I try not to think too much, to be honest. About anything. I find the whole business pretty unacceptable."
There seems to be a slight move away from conflict, though, in Europe. Green issues, 1992 and so on. There's more of a consensus now. Does he feel that?
"Well, I mean to a lot of people life's about conflict. It's like that Star Trek thing when they all beamed down to the Planet of Love or something. And it was pretty boring. Plus you got executed if you walked on the grass, that was the rule. Can't remember why.
"I just think that's what life's about. Conflict. And if you didn't have it it would reappear in another form. You can't stop it, you're never gonna get it levelled out so it's a wonderful world. People try and you have to keep on trying, but it always seems to reassert itself."
And you may as well write about it as long as it's there. But Carter feels that the freedom motif in the Messiahs songs has had rather too much made of it. He suspects that somewhere in that patented Messiahs vocabulary of guns, cars and stifling glass palaces he may have created "a monster".
"I would rather people didn't pinpoint the imagery so much. I would rather it didn't have any... specific connotations," he tells me.
The problem is, Screaming Blue Messiahs just can't seem to escape the specific connotations. As the man said, people are strange, when you're a stranger.
"The studio where we recorded the album was built on top of a disused nuclear silo. It was really creepy. And the caretaker was one of those Hitchcock characters who always seem to come round the corner at the exact moment you're talking about them. Which didn't help. And owner was a guy named Van Horne, which is the devil's name in The Witches Of Eastwick. I thought, 'Ello!
"While we were recording I was playing with an F16 flight simulator. They're exactly like the real thing. You gauge your weight, weapons, radar, all that. And you actually simulate the flight.
"So I can fly one now I reckon. If I saw one parked up, like, and I thought I could get over the fence..."
From the psycho-analyst's chair comes a nervous laugh.
And as he strolls away, this peculiar soul in torment, as he strolls away to get his photograph taken, I feel the least I can do is to reassure him that – whatever else has gone wrong – his album stands up as a great record. Cheer up, I chirp, it could get worse!
Oh man. The look Bill Carter throws me as he goes off to meet the camera... you'd think I was offering him a dollop of Brylcreem to help him on his merry way.
By Jason Pettigrew
DOUBLED BARRELLED SALVATION
A chat with Screaming Blue Messiah Bill Carter. Jason Pettigrew looks to see where the bullets come from.
High speed car chases. Espionage. Being in the line of fire. Blowing away your neighbours. The kind of things that can get you killed or incarcerated. Or you can live these incidents vicariously through the Screaming Blue Messiahs, a band whose dangerous, jagged rhythm and blues workouts and unbridled energy by way of the state hospital can slam your blasé carcass up against the wall hard enough that you'll have to pick yer teeth up in the next Congressional voting district. The Messiahs' new record, TOTALLY RELIGIOUS is finally out after an acute case of low profile for two years.
"I think this is kind of resolving the Messiahs as a band," says Mr. Bill Carter, the Blue's leader, songwriter, singer and guitar terrorist. "We all felt that we put a lot of life into what we had done and we weren't ready to call it a day. There was a lot of dissatisfaction happening with the band; we weren't getting on, stuff we recorded wasn't coming out the way we wanted, promises to the record company, different management, all kinds of problems. It was getting to the point that it wasn't being fun anymore. I feel now 'cause we've had a lay-off that it's become an opportunity to enjoy it again and we just have to see how it goes."
Carter, drummer Kenny Harris, and bassist Chris Thompson have been tearing up stages for many years. Their American debut at the New Music Seminar (1985) was as subtle as a shotgun blast to the chest. They toured in the opening slot for the Cramps' last major US jaunt, and unequivocally mulched them up enough times that roadies began sabotaging their set. Their gigs are displays of true rock fury leaving smoked amps, broken strings and decimated eardrums in their wake. It's not 'fun' – it's fucking cathartic.
Carter and Thompson were in a band called Motor Boys Motor along with singer Tony Moon. They released one album for the Albion label and one single for some subsidiary of Stiff Records. Moon departed, and True Life Confessions drummer Harris was brought on board. (Moon was a close personal pal of a certain Robyn Hitchcock. In fact, Chris and Bill play on a little gem of Robyn's called 'Eaten By Her Own Dinner'). The Screaming Blue Messiahs were born and their debut, import-only mini LP GOOD AND GONE was released. Produced by the late Vic Maile, the record contained six tracks of R 'n' B shot up with punk and rock hypertension.
Since then, the band has released three steaming records, GUN-SHY, BIKINI RED and the new TOTALLY RELIGIOUS platter. It was rumoured that Maile's death from cancer earlier this year suspended the new record's release indefinitely.
"No... not at all," Carter resigns in low tones. "I talked with him before we did the album and he said he kinda had enough of me (laughter). I don't know... we were friends."
Carter dismisses any hint of being caught as a singer producer's band. "As far as I'm concerned, producers are just a problem. I mean... it boils down to the same thing – you're just arguing with them. We (new producers Howard Gray and Rob Stevens and the band) agreed on the goal; what we wanted was a decent record that sounded a bit hard-hitting and sounded a bit near to what we're all about.
"It's just sometimes how you get there and the route to it is where you differ... but that's just working with people. It hasn't been an easy record to make, that's for sure."
Well, hell, Bill, why didn't you just do it yourself? Who would know better about your band than you?
"It had never been actually suggested in a way that nobody burst out laughing! (laughter). Because we haven't had a kind of great success, it's kind of hard to get people going around saying, 'Oh yeah, we'll let that nut produce the band.
"I tend to pull everything to pieces every day and want to do different takes and different this and different that to try to make the whole thing cohesive and that can't go on forever. Sometimes I wonder... I'm still not sure how to go about recording. You have such high hopes and then you kind of get too close to it and then you come out and some things are better than you imagine. It was a workman-like job under the circumstances. If we were to go in tomorrow, it would sound completely different.
One thing that sounds different is the live show. It's different from the records. Like the difference between watching a TV movie and actually having a sawed-off shotgun barrel deposited in your mouth. It's as close to Armageddon with a PA system as you can get. When the Messiahs threaten to dessimate an entire city block during 'Twin Cadillac Valentine', 'Jesus Chrysler Drives A Dodge' or 'All Shook Down', the carnage is so compelling that you forget to run for cover.
Bill perks up. "Well, that's the beaut! I think if we've got the right attitude and play with freshness and intensity and spontaneity and play for people who encourage you... you get egged on by the audience. When that chemistry comes together, you start to move."
Ah, but wait! I feel an irony attack coming on. Bill has never been the kind of guy to do the cocktail lounge working of the room.
"Well, it's a two-way thing... It's a different type of communication, really. If we wanted to have a Tupperware party we could do that later."
Fair enough. As a veteran of many Messiahs' gigs, I feel that the band gets caught up in the energy so much that all metaphor aside, it does get dangerous. I remember one gig where Bill, who does not use guitar picks, ripped a chunk out of his thumb onstage without missing a note. When asked about it after the show, he couldn't remember a thing.
"It isn't... it's... it's just a state you get into. I mean... it's pretty frightening just to keep it on course. It does suck you in."
Detachment, I offer.
"Yeah, I think that's a fairly accurate viewpoint. Well, it is a bit. I'm sure that's why you get some people flashing themselves or Iggy Pop walking on glass and stuff. You do get a sense of diminished responsibility onstage, which is kind of healthy to a point, but it's kind of... I'm more interested in getting off on the atmosphere of it or the sound of it... it seems like slow motion (disgust). I don't know, I don't know what to say about it (laughter). It's embarrassing, really!"
TOTALLY RELIGIOUS' opener, 'Four Engines Burning (Over The USA)', is a fist flying reclamation. The first lyrics ram home the sentiment: 'I woke up this morning / Bent on destruction'. A two-year layoff hasn't mellowed the man out one nuclear flaming iota. Bill's lyrics are the perfect compliment to the driving energy generated by his bandmates. Other songs, past and present, have found our guitarslinger experiencing bodies floating in sweet water pools, taunting hitchhikers on the highway to hell, and trapped in towns where redneck justice stands tall (among other things).
Gee, Bill. Are you a happy guy?
"Happy? I'm optimistic. They probably aren't the most sociable lyrics... yeah, but you got to realise that it's a strange kind of cloth to wear. It's a funny thing to do to pick out of your personality. It's very harsh, uncompromising, psychotic, two steps removed from the world attitude, but... it's... I don't know, it's... I can't really justify it... and to do it repeatedly is...
"I was talking to somebody else about this. Take Clint Eastwood. Is he a happy guy? Blowing people away in films? What's that? It's a dream world. In my way of thinking, that's what a lot of what we do is. Escapism. It's far better to get that out on a friendly piece of plastic than me mumbling around the supermarket."
Plans call for the band to tour the States at the beginning of 1990. If you haven't seen the blur, get on the case. But there's just one loose end that needs tied up before I hand up and abuse my hearing with four speakers burning. Are the Messiahs really just a rhythm and blues band from England?
"What would you call Jimi Hendrix?" offers Wild Bill. "What kind of music is Jimi Hendrix music? It's not like Aerosmith. If you could say to Jimi Hendrix, 'Hey, what sort of band are you in?' and he said 'a hard rock band' that would not say anything about what he did. We're a rhythm and blues band. It's kind of mutant (laughter)... on the half shell."
How about what I read in some magazine: 'sound like Bo Diddley baby-sitting the bastard son of George Thorogood and Squeaky Fromme in a little house located near the mouth of hell'?
Bill stops, smirks and responds, "Let's have a cup of tea, then."
Picture from the SOUNDS March 1985 cover photo shootMOJO
by Kieron Tyler
ONE HIT WONDER
The Screaming Blue Messiahs
I Wanna Be A Flintstone
DATE: January 16 1988
CHART POSITION: 28 (UK)
AVAILABLE: Currently unavailable
The Screaming Blue Messiahs were unlikely chart contenders. Looking like hard nuts, their tough blend of Howlin' Wolf's blues, Hank Williams' country and Captain Beefheart's howl was uncompromising and visceral. Live, singer-guitarist Bill Carter seemed permanently ready to burst a blood vessel.
Rising from the ashes of Motor Boys Motor, the Screaming Blue Messiahs weren't formed with hits in mind. "We just though we'd see what we could do as a three-piece," explains bassist Chris Thompson. "There was no conscious direction, it was organic. Bill wasn't that keen on being a frontman at first, but he became brilliant."
Always delivering raging live shows, The SBMs issued the Good And Gone EP on ACE in 1984, which was followed by their signing with Warner Bros after a show at the Woolwich Tramshed.
Another EP and the Gun-Shy album followed. Although dates in the States helped The SMBs pick up a loyal American following, their primal fury wasn't going to translate easily into chart success. Then Bikini Red, their second album, was issued in 1987. One track was called I Wanna Be A Flintstone. "For us, it was a bit of a filler," recalls Thompson. "In our heads it wasn't obvious as a single – we thought of it as much darker. But the label pushed the Flintstone song."
The record label was proved right. I Wanna Be A Flintstone charted, and the trio were propelled onto the nation's TV screens. "We were never pretty," laughs Thompson. "Really grizzled looking. We'd be on a kids' programme with cardboard boulders on the set. Top Of The Pops was most odd. We just thought, What was all that about? Elton John did it at the same time. He said, 'Don't worry about it. I had to go through that with Crocodile Rock.'"
A follow-up hit never came and the band split in 1990. There's new music from Bill Carter on his Myspace page, at www.myspace.com/screamingbillcarter, and nowadays Thompson plays with The Killer B's. Looking back on his moment in the charts, he muses, "We were pretty embarrassed about it on the whole. It wasn't really us."
7th April 2009
By Alex Young
The name may not sound familiar to you, but guitarist/vocalist Chris Thompson is one of the busiest musicians in London at the moment. The bluesy and eclectic axe-slinger started his career in the early 1980’s with one of London’s most rocking underground groups Motor Boys Motor with guitarist Bill Carter. After many gigs, the band disbanded, but out of the ashes rose one of England’s proudest and hardest rocking bands, The Screaming Blue Messiahs. They get a lot of love here at CoS, and why not, good music lasts forever. Thompson played bass and sang backup for the powerhouse trio from 1983-1990 and co-wrote a good number of the band’s tunes with manic guitarist Carter. Needless to say, the man certainly knows how to move a crowd.
After the demise of the Messiahs, Thompson switched over to guitar and formed what is currently his longest running band, The Killer B’s. As the primary guitarist, vocalist and songwriter of the band, Thompson shares not only his love of the blues, raw power and amped up musclebound aggression, but also puts his own modern spin on traditional English blues. The band consists of Thompson, drummer Dave Morgan, and bassist/backup vocalist Ricky McGuire and much like The Messiahs, the band proves that a trio can make a ton of awesome noise. Whether its on the jukebox or on the stage, The Killer B’s know how to make for a truly great time.
We’re very fortunate to speak with Mr. Thompson via exchange of emails across the gigantic pond. He’s a great guy and he opened up a bit on the current state of The Killer B’s, the London lifestyle and some unanswered questions regarding The Screaming Blue Messiahs:
CoS: First off, thanks so much for taking the time out to talk with me. How are things over in London these days?
Chris Thompson (CT): In London these days there seems to be an upside and a down side from my point of view and I think it is probably the same everywhere. The record industry seems to be dead in the water. All or most of the small record shops have closed and a lot of major ones too. The ones that are still open are like ghost towns. On the upside there is a lot of live music going on and quite a lot of Blues too.
CoS: You used to play bass (with The Screaming Blue Messiahs) and afterward switched over to guitar. Did you play guitar first? How long have you been playing?
CT: My mother taught me to play guitar when I was seven and I was at home with chicken pox. So I have played pretty much all my life.
CoS: Seeing both the main bluesy influences in your previous bands Motor Boys Motor and The Screaming Blue Messiahs, they’re heavily prevalent in The Killer B’s. What bands influence you the most? Where do you draw your inspirations from?
CT: Most of my influences have been American and Black. When I started to play publicly at about fifteen I was listening to Big Bill Broonsey, Lightening Hopkins, Mance Lipskcom, Sonyboy Williamson, Jessy Fuller, Robert Johnson, Fred McDowell and many more country blues artists. I also loved a lot of Rock and Roll especially Little Richard. When I came to England, from Toronto and I started going to gigs I was turned on to the Rolling Stones by other boys at the school. This in turn led me back to American Black artists particularly the electric bands of Chess Records including Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddly, Little Walter, Slim Harpo and Willie Dixon.
CoS: Are you working on any brand new material? Any word on a tour?
CT: Me and the band are working on new material all the time and we have quite a backlog of material that we want to record. We have no plans to tour at the moment. We really could do with a record company or something to help with recording and touring and to generally raise our profile. There seem to be a few interested parties around at the moment.
CoS: How do the live shows go over? Do you prefer concert halls or pubs? What’s the best reaction you get from your music?
CT: Our live shows go down really great. It’s brilliant to see your audience having a really good time. We play mostly pubs and clubs and a few festivals but my favorite gigs are hot, sweaty clubs with a good rocking atmosphere.
CoS: What’s the craziest event that’s ever happened at one of your live shows?
CT: There must be thousands of crazy events over the years but the only ones that come to mind are a couple of gun related incidents. One was at the Ritz club in New York where somebody ran amok in the club with a gun. Luckily the brave bouncers jumped on the guy and nobody was hurt except the guy. The other was in France with the Messiahs. We were on stage going full tilt when a guy sneaked up behind Bill and I watched in horror as he pulled out a switch blade knife. I then realized that it was only Jeffrey Lee Pearce from the Gun Club and it wasn’t a knife but a switchblade comb that he was holding up behind Bill’s big bald head!
CoS: If you don’t mind, what exactly happened to The Screaming Blue Messiahs all those years ago? Do you still talk to Mr. Bill Carter and Mr. Kenny Harris?
CT: Bill decided that Kenny and I were surplus to requirements and I think he wanted to pursue a solo career.
CoS: Also, with the re-release of the Messiahs’ performance “Live At The BBC,” is there a possibility of a Messiahs reunion?
CT: Every couple of years I get a call from one of the others saying, “Shall we re-form and do something”. I have always said, “OK lets Go!” Then after about a week it fizzles out with some sort of drama. I had my bi-annual call recently. This time I said I wasn’t up for it as it’s just going to fizzle out in a week. Anyway, I’m having a lot of fun doing what I’m doing. But as they say, “Never say Never”
There you have it.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW? SCREAMING BLUE MESSIAHS
Formed in London in 1983, the Screaming Blue Messiahs were a power trio with a passion for rockabilly, blues and the more colourful aspects of American life (TV evangelists, classic cars, old B movies etc). But after scorching their way through three albums and a best-forgotten novelty hit they ended up as the forgotten men of ‘80s rock. VLR tracked down drummer Kenny Harris and bassist Chris Thompson to talk about the group and their resurrection as The Messiahs.
VLR: The band were influenced by rock ’n’ roll and blues, which in the ‘80s weren’t very fashionable. Did you feel out of step with the times?
CT: “I personally didn’t think about it. It was just what we wanted to play.”
KH: “We used to get lumped in with The Godfathers though I think the only thing we had in common was we both wore suits and were produced by Vic Maile. There were a few we really liked, like The Gun Club and The Cramps. We did a month with The Cramps in America and hardly met them. Offstage Lux and Ivy were nothing like the image. She used to wear Laura Ashley floral prints and with no make up he looked like Grandpa Walton.”
VLR: Where did the obsession with Americana come from?
KH: “That was Bill. He wrote the words and was pretty taken with all things American. Some of it I understand because rock ’n’ roll wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for America. But it was very much his thing.”
VLR: David Bowie was a fan and you eded up doing some dates on the Glass Spider tour. What sort of experience was that?
KH: “We did Cardiff Arms Park and Roker Park and I don’t think I’ll ever forget playing underneath a giant spider. Bowie did come into our dressing room after Cardiff and apologised for missing us. The next one was at Roker Park and he promised he’d make that and the bastard never made that one either!”
VLR: Was it a mistake to release ‘I Wanna Be A Flintstone’ as a single?
CT: “It was a great song live. Quite sinister, I thought. But then Warners got hold of it and put us onto children’s TV with big huge rocks behind us and Fred Flintstone, so it turned into a novelty. I remember we did Top Of The Pops and Elton John came up to us afterwards and said “Well I had to do ‘Crocodile Rock’, so don’t worry about it”. So yes, we weren’t very pleased with it. It was embarrassing. Before that we were seen as fairly credible.”
VLR: The third album, ‘Totally Religious’ flopped - what went wrong there?
KH: “That was a very long drawn out process. We went to Miami for six weeks, to Criteria Studios where the Bee Gees recorded most of their hits, to make demos; demos that quite frankly were crap! Warners heard them and told us to get our arses back to London and record some more. So we did - back at Alaska. Which they loved. And the reason they were far superior to the Miami ones… well, it wasn’t Miami, it was the charlie. That fucks everything up.”
CT: “A lot of things were going wrong at that time. I don’t think any of us were in a good frame of mind. I remember our US label Elektra asked us to do a cover of ‘He’s Gonna Step On You Again’ for a compilation album. Instead we split up. ‘Course, Happy Mondays did it instead as ‘Step On’ and had a huge hit.”
VLR: Were relations within the group breaking down by that point?
CT: “A lot of it was fatigue. I know it sounds soppy but Kenny and me are like brothers. We’ve had rows obviously, but there wasn’t much of a breakdown between us. Bill had had enough. We went from being quite successful to painting toilets. Literally! I remember soon after we split I was painting the skirting board behind a toilet in Kensington, thinking ‘Jesus’.”
VLR: Are you still in touch with Bill? What is he doing now?
CT: “We don’t hear from him much. I don’t think he’s ever done a gig since we stopped, as far as I know. It’s a real shame. He was very talented, probably still is a very talented guy.”
VLR: Why The Messiahs for the new band?
KH: “We were the Marvellous Escalators for a while. Then Horseface. Then I thought ‘The Messiahs’. It’s a nod to the past. It’s a bit like when Steve Marriott left the Small Faces. They carried on, got Ronnie and Rod in and became The Faces. This is more of a gap, but fuck it.”
VLR: Will there ever be a full Screaming Blue Messiahs reunion?
KH: “It wasn’t just the age thing that made me give up for ages. I was pissed off with the whole business side of things. It’s got to be fun and so far it has been. Reforming the Screaming Blue Messiahs would be anything but fun. Not saying anything against Bill, but there are certain combinations of people that are… past their sell by date. It’s best left alone.”