McCarthy

TrackAlbum / EP / Single
The Home Secretary Briefs
The Forces Of Law And Order
The Enraged Will Inherit
The Earth
The Well Of LonelinessSeptember SEPT 1T
The Procession Of Popular CapitalismI Am A Wallet
I'm On The Side Of Mankind
As Much As The Next Man
Banking, Violence And The
Inner Life Today
Boy Meets Girl So WhatMidnight Music DONG48
Can The Haves Use Their Brains?Midnight Music DONG61
Should The Bible Be Banned?September SEPT 5T
Frans HalsPink PINKY 17T
Red Sleeping BeautyPink PINKY 12T
The Comrade EraPink PINKY 12T

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McCarthy photo

McCarthy (l to r): John Williamson (bass), Malcolm Eden (guitar & vocals), Gary Baker (drums), Tim Gane (guitars)

 

Contributor: John Hartley

At the age of twenty I made a triumphant return to the primary school that had shaped my childhood. Nine years on from my transition to secondary education I was now two thirds of the way through a university degree and, more importantly, I was on the cusp of international pop music superstardom. I say ‘triumphant’ return, I mean ‘slightly embarrassed’ return; similarly my being ‘on the cusp of international pop superstardom’ was in all actuality being one half of an acoustic guitar pairing who had just done some busking in Bolton. The Fabricators wrote and performed political pop songs, and to celebrate the ‘Busking Bolton’ festival we had just done two stints a hundred yards down the road from the bagpiper and performed two songs on a stage in front of the town hall to general public nonchalance. We gave the money we raised to my old primary school (not my idea, but it seemed worthy), and were invited to perform in front of a hundred cross-legged juniors in assembly. I don’t know what the kids made of it, but in my head I was one step away from becoming the next McCarthy.

At this point I knew very little about McCarthy. In fact, this is what I did know: they had split up, they’d released three albums and lots of singles, they had completely bypassed my weekly scouring of the NME. I stumbled upon them by complete accident, listening to a cassette recording of my first school band, The November Criminals. After our five songs (four, one played twice because the first version was, in the words of the singer, ‘a bit shit’), interspersed with adolescent banter and drummer impatience, were the remnants of a John Peel show. Amongst the usual stuff you’d expect to find on a John Peel show one track leapt out, gleaming, setting the fire in my stomach alight once more. The song announced itself with menacing guitar followed by bold, forthright lyrics, a catchy chorus and an instrumental break that went on longer than I expected it to but was all the better for it. And then Peel revealed its title: The Home Secretary Briefs The Forces Of Law And Order. After my own half-baked efforts at that stage (‘The Puppet’, ‘Judge Pickled’) I now knew exactly what a good song title should be like, and this was it.

I needed to know more. I wrote to Chris; it was his tape, after all. Chris was my closest secondary school friend, my indie guru, the source of much of my alternative musical education. It was he who had formally introduced me to The Wedding Present, James, The Railway Children and a whole host of other bands. Like myself, Chris found himself in the minority of bright working class youngsters accommodated by the social conscience of our fee-paying school. He promised to send me a tape, because home taping killed music and would thwart my pursuit of more great bands. Of course I couldn’t wait that long, so I popped into the record shops of my then locale of Newcastle to see what they had in store. I was going to be popping in anyway …

Although the brief bursts of jangly songs that comprise McCarthy’s debut album I Am A Wallet (1987) were to shape my contributions to The Fabricators, I wasn’t that taken with the album on first hearing. Neither was I on the fifth to be perfectly frank, because none of these songs seemed to be by the same band I had heard on that tape. Slowly, though, dawn crept in through the darkness, and then the sun came out: The Well Of Loneliness. Breezy guitar pop and a deadpan lyrical style that was finally beginning to register. “They promised me paradise if I fell under their spell” – now my school’s ethos was beginning to make sense to me.

Perhaps that is a little unfair; I owe my school credit for shaping the political leanings I would probably have developed anyway. On the one hand I felt lonely and ashamed when, in 1985, I was unable to give a home telephone number to the football squad for summer training because we didn’t have a telephone, and I felt embarrassed when taking the PE teacher up on the offer of some cricket pads that were otherwise going to be thrown away only to be called a ‘scrubber’. On the other hand, I enjoyed the near horror of my tutors when they realised I was only going to apply to polytechnics, never mind choosing Durham or York instead of Oxford and Cambridge. More importantly, one of the economics teachers, himself an ‘Old Boy’, sidled alongside me one wet lunchtime of socio-political bickering and told me to not rise to the bait of my taunters, but be proud of who I was and from where I had come before handing me a copy of The Fabian Society’s “A-Z of Thatcherism”. Three years later, listening to The Procession Of Popular Capitalism, I knew exactly what he meant.

Before too long a cassette duly arrived from Chris, containing McCarthy’s two subsequent albums. More great titles, more great songs; ‘more’ because by now I Am A Wallet was on heavy rotation on my cassette player, drowning out the pleading of Beverley Craven emanating from the flat above at unsociable hours (which could be classified simply as any hour that I was in my own flat having to listen to Beverley Craven). I quickly began to wish Beverley Craven would ‘Promise’ the girls upstairs that she would write songs with such brooding, heavy introductions and calculated, withering lyrics as I’m On The Side Of Mankind As Much As The Next Man. Sensing she wouldn’t, I just played the tape very, very loudly several times.

Now presented with all three McCarthy albums I began to see quite marked progression in the songcraft. With many bands there appears to be a slow, subtle shift in style over a long period of time; each McCarthy album sounded to me like it could be by a different band, and still does to this day. I am not quite sure why; the band’s line-up remained intact throughout their five-year period of activity and the articulate narrative style of lyric was a constant feature. There was however a significant development in the band’s sound which became even more marked as I began to source their singles. The first of these I purchased was the At War EP, whose lead track Boy Meets Girl So What quite presciently put into words what Garry – the other Fabricator – was trying to impress upon me as he wrote songs like ‘Fighting Governments’ and ‘Ban The Bomb’ in contrast to my descriptions of teenage angst (“so wrote a songwriter hoping to sell a tissue of lies to the record label/Oh all the old clichés, well, never mind, we’ll stir their emotions for the hundredth time”). The version on the EP differed slightly from the album version; sparser yet bolder and remains my preferred version.

The next visit to Eldon Square presented me with the opportunity to buy what I would later discover to be McCarthy’s last single. I still knew very little about the band, other than the information I read on the record sleeves. They still weren’t in the music press, and they still weren’t on the radio and definitely not on the TV. The B-sides to this single were – are – fantastic and worthy of a place on the album itself in principle. (I would later discover through the joys of the internet that Banking, Violence And The Inner Life Today (1990) was intended to represent the political spectrum starting with far right, becoming centrist and ending hard left. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but makes complete sense now, and as such I can see why the B-sides didn’t make the album). Most outstanding of these was Can The Haves Use Their Brains?: “the fat cats say they want what is best for everyone, but what if it’s best for us if fat cats are swept from the earth for good?” This was exactly how I’d felt when questioning the aspirations of my school a few years earlier.

Singles from McCarthy’s earlier years proved harder to trace. None could be found in the national record shop chains, and even the tried and trusted independent stores were devoid of content. Those behind the counter invariably hadn’t even heard of McCarthy. By good fortune Chris and I had discovered a couple of second hand record shops just along the road from Manchester’s Eastern Bloc and although rather pricey the McCarthy content was there. The £7.00 I paid for Should The Bible Be Banned? was money well spent as I discovered an instantly likeable, urgently punchy guitar riff driving a suitably deadpan lyric questioning how moral the Bible might actually be: “My name is Dave. I killed my brother. I whacked an axe through his head…” after reading the story of Cain and Abel. To this day I remain amazed at the atrocities – historical and contemporary – committed in the name of religions.

The earliest singles remained tantalisingly out of reach, however. Faced with so much music, so many bands whose output I wanted to catch up on (thanks to various tapes – have I ever mentioned how much home taping killed music for me?). I couldn’t justify spending double figures on a single, especially when the money wouldn’t even go to the band. Chris and I watched as the price slowly reduced pound by pound on the next prize: Frans Hals. Again, this proved to be money well spent when the white-sleeved twelve inch single nudged the £6.00 mark. Although not unusual for a band to release a Peel Session track, McCarthy relegated their studio recording of the title track to a B-side, choosing instead to lead with the Peel version. The guitars are bolder, the vocals stronger, but for me the best bit is the way the drums drop in and out during the instrumental introduction. Twenty odd years of listening later and I still can’t air drum accurately to the track, and it’s not through want of trying. The song has an interesting tale to tell too; that of an artist fallen on hard times, paid in fuel by the Ruling Elite to paint their portraits: “You bastards gave me peat, so I will paint you drunk”. Just have a look at ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ …

McCarthy’s debut single, In Purgatory, was self-released at around 350 seven inch singles. I have never even seen a copy to be able to baulk at paying thirty quid for it. I did eventually buy their first single released by a ‘proper’ label, however. Encased mysteriously in a plain black sleeve of which Spinal Tap would be proud, Red Sleeping Beauty makes the perfect introduction to the band and their ideology. Singer and lyricist Malcolm Eden has suggested in subsequent (rare) interviews that the songs were written in narrative mode, and that the sentiments should not automatically be assumed to represent those of the band or indeed singer. After all, just because the band formed at the same school that educated Billy Bragg doesn’t mean they share the same political leanings; mine differed vastly from my fellow scholars. However, I cannot bring myself to believe that there is no substance behind the apparently socialist take on matters inherent throughout the band’s catalogue. Perhaps it is because that is what I want to believe. Red Sleeping Beauty begins with a stuttering, staccato guitar introduction that builds into a frenzy of thrashed strums and cymbal crashes and the promise that “While there’s still a world to win my red dream is everything”.

The final track in this Toppermost draws all of the above into one simple statement. It didn’t matter which school I went to: I still found people who had the same beliefs in humanity, in people over profit, in being true to yourself. I hope the kids in that assembly grew up to tolerate each other at worst, and at best to embrace people rather than money, rather than religion, rather than individual gain. There is only one line in the entire song, and its language in the widest sense tells us all we need to know about living: “Comrade now, comrade now and forever”.

Whether or not the four members of McCarthy remained comrades is unclear. Guitarist Tim Gane went on to form Stereolab and their record label would also release a single and mini album by Herzfeld, a band fronted again by Malcolm Eden. It appears that drummer Gary Baker went into radiography, whilst bassist John Williamson worked for indie label, Domino Records. A McCarthy reunion is unlikely, given Williamson’s assertion in a recent interview that it would be very difficult for the three other band members to take to the stage with him, given that he is the only one whose natural beauty has persisted with age. Stereolab meanwhile will feature in a further Toppermost in the not-too-distant future.

All of the tracks in this post can be found on the very well-priced Complete Albums, Singles and BBC Sessions Collection via Cherry Red Records CRCDMBOX15

 

“For me, I Am A Wallet is the greatest political album ever made … I love them so much, my son’s middle name is McCarthy.” Nicky Wire

Louder Than war interviews Malcolm Eden (2015)

Interview with Tim Gane and Lætitia Sadier of Stereolab (2012) on YT

1989 interview with John Williamson (bass guitar) and Gary Baker (drums) on YT

McCarthy biography (iTunes)

John Hartley is the author of “Capturing The Wry”, an autobiographical tale of the unsigned side of the music industry, published by i40Publishing and available here. After spending the best part of twenty five years trying to write the perfect pop song he has also turned his attention to writing about those who have done a much better job at it. He tweets as @JohnyNocash and gives away his music, generally for free, at Broken Down Records.

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