With The Members among the acts playing Blackpool’s renowned Rebellion Festival this summer, MALCOLM WYATT had a perfect excuse to track down main songwriter, JC Carroll, and talk about ‘The Sound of the Suburbs’
I guess you could say Jean-Marie Carroll’s musical education started as a 14-year-old in November 1970, when he caught T. Rex at Guildford Civic Hall.
Within a week Marc Bolan’s memorable combo had a first top-10 hit with ‘Ride a White Swan’, and the die was cast for JC, as he’s best known, for a career in rock’n’roll.
“They’d just gone electric. That was a really interesting show. At the same venue I saw David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust show three years on. Those two had a big influence. I really wanted to do stuff like that.”
After playing in various school bands, a chance meeting at a Surrey pub with fellow future new wave star Graham Parker led to a two-track bedroom demo. But while GP went on to the pub-rock circuit and international success, JC was initially consigned to working as a bank clerk and writing songs on a battered acoustic guitar in his North London bedsit. That proved to be the rite of passage needed though, punk-obsessed JC soon joining a group of mates from his hometown, Camberley, and finding success. The Members, led by Liverpool University graduate Nicky Tesco, found fame with hits like ‘The Sound of the Suburbs’ (UK, No.12), ‘Working Girl’ (US, No.35) and ‘Radio’ (Australia, No.5), their take on the frustrations of suburban life resonating around the world, even with Bruce Springsteen.
“He came to see us in America in 1981. We were playing the Stone Pony, Asbury Park. Someone said, ‘Bruce is here. Mind if he comes backstage after the show?’ He loved The Members, we had a great chat, and he said, ‘When I come to England, I’ll invite you to our show.’ We thought, ‘Yeah, of course’. But then the invitation came. We sat backstage – about the size of a football pitch – with everybody who was anybody in London. Then we got a call to the holy of holies. He was a great guy, really identified with us, and we got to talk to him about cars and girls.”
JC’s autobiographical take on bedsit life, ‘Solitary Confinement’, set the ball rolling, released by Stiff Records, before Virgin signed them, and while the story seemed to end in 1983 after three LPs, a 2007 reunion proved the start of a further chapter, the new material as critically-revered as the old.
‘The Sound of the Suburbs’ quickly sold 250,000 copies and has featured on many compilations, while debut LP At the Chelsea Nightclub was recently recognised by Record Collector as one of the top 20 punk albums ever made, and recent financial crises led to a dusting down of ‘Offshore Banking Business’, too, a band with true live pedigree just as adept with politically-charged white reggae, and as innovative and relevant today.
“Nicky Tesco and I loved reggae and we always had this strange mixture of reggae and punk and of fast and slow songs, at a time when not many other bands did that. We’ve had some changes, but I’ve got original bass player Chris Payne with me. The line-ups change, but I’m still there. The band’s had its own life these past 10 years or so, and we’ve been together longer second time around.”
You can see for yourself at Blackpool’s Rebellion Festival in early August, The Members playing Friday night, JC delivering a solo set, too. And there are dates in Barnoldswick and Manchester in November, too, the 62-year-old seemingly no closer to retirement.
It’s not just about The Members and his solo work. He co-ran a boutique in Notting Hill Gate from the late ‘80s, his empire growing to four stores, customers including Kylie Minogue, his tee-shirts and tailored clothing proving all the rage.
These days he’s back in suburban Surrey, though, working on a memoir of his busy career, this performer and fashion leader – of French and Irish parentage – also a successful composer, film and TV projects including work with Julien Temple, and an accordion-playing cameo alongside Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp. He’s no less busy today, admitting he’s struggling to finish his Same Old Boring Sunday Morning autobiography.
“I’m doing gigs most weekends and I’m going to Germany to get a platinum record this Sunday. A band there, Die Totenhosen, have covered ‘The Sound of the Suburbs’ on an album that’s gone platinum.”
Meanwhile, touring continues around the world, from Australia and New Zealand to the USA.
“From the start we were very good live, with a lot of energy. But there wasn’t really anywhere to play around Camberley. We’d play a lot in the Midlands, but not down in Surrey. In the beginning the punk scene was quite small and cliquey. There was a small group in London and another in Manchester, scenes of around 200 or 300 people. Then in 1978, more became interested.
“When we started playing the Red Cow and places like that, we had groups of young men and women coming up to see us from places like Hampton and Staines. That was exciting. We realised there was a whole army out there ready and interested in punk rock, and they didn’t really have any songs written about them. That was one of the reasons I wrote ‘The Sound of the Suburbs’, to speak to those people. And we were very lucky it came out at a time when a lot of people around the country found it spoke to them.
“Before, it was just tough inner-city kids leaning against a brick wall, but we spoke about those satellite towns and living on the edges.”
For more details of JC’s book project, head to https://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/the-members-jc-carroll-autobiography. And for The Members’ live dates go to http://www.themembers.co.uk/