”Oh, human life, we would like to value it / But if there’s no profit in it, what’s the point?”
Few persons have had the ability to say as much in two minutes as Malcolm Eden did with his lyrics during his time as vocalist and songwriter for the British janglepopsters McCarthy. From the first single, ‘In Purgatory’ (1986), to the last, ‘Get A Knife Between Your Teeth’ (1990), his lyrics boiled with anti-capitalistic propaganda. But despite the often very aggressive lyrics, McCarthy managed to make wonderful, ultra-melodic jangle pop that in some strange way fitted Eden’s lyrics like a hand in a glove.
McCarthy were formed by Malcolm Eden (vocals, guitar), Tim Gane (guitar) and John Williamson (bass) when they were about 14 years old and were at school in Barking just outside London (the same school protest singer Billy Bragg attended, by the way).
”I could play a little guitar because my brother taught me, so I taught Tim to play the guitar and John the bass” Malcolm tells me in his first interview about the band in a decade. ” We had trouble finding a drummer. I think Gary joined in 1984. He made a big difference because he was technically much better than the rest of us. At that time, just after punk, when the first Rough Trade records came out, it didn’t seem very important to us to be technically proficient. It never did.”
When you are 14 years old, you often don’t have strong political views, and that was the case with the boys in McCarthy (which by the way was called something else from the start, but Malcolm can’t remember the name. The name McCarthy was meant as a joke, taken from the American politician Joe McCarthy, who started a witch-hunt against communists in the USA in the nineteen fifties) . They were influenced by punk, most of all The Sex Pistols, but they also played Buzzcocks-songs because they were easy to play.
But in 1979 when Malcolm was 16 years old, Margaret Thatcher first became Prime Minister of Britain, an event that would change his view of the world forever.
” She had a very forceful way of putting her arguments. Nobody in the opposition really had an answer to her. That’s why she kept winning elections in fact. To find a good answer to the Tories, you had to go to the root of the matter. That’s what got me interested in Marxism.”
In 1986, the band took their saved money and recorded a single on their own label, Wall Of Salmon. The single was called’ In Purgatory’, and had a limited edition of exactly 456 copies,. That single now costs between fifty and sixty pounds if you ever see it up for sale.
”We sent our record to a record label called Pink. They signed us up and started to get us gigs. After C86 and Red Sleeping Beauty it was always easy to get gigs. Even abroad. I loved playing in other countries. People were always very kind to us.”
That C86-cassette, released by the New Musical Express and Rough Trade in 1986, proved to be important, not only for McCarthy, but to guitarbased indiepop in general (See Tommy Gunnarsson’s recent feature on the whole C86 movement in the Archives section of this magazine for more details about this cassette-Ed) . Bands like The Pastels and The Shop Assistants would be forever associated with the genre that was named after the cassette. McCarthy also contributed to this tape with one track ‘Celestial City.’
”We were very lucky to be on the C86 cassette. It’s what first got us attention. Musically we were pretty similar to those bands. I think our general attitude was a bit different though.”
Usually Tim would write the chords and record them on a four-track, and then Malcolm would add the bass and melody.
”Gary did the drums, although Tim and I used to give him suggestions. I put the lyrics on last. Some of the songs I wrote on my own, like ‘Frans Hals.’
Malcolm is still satisfied with the lyrics he wrote back then, but he thinks that he might have written some things a bit more elegantly.
”But I still think a lot of them are quite pertinent and funny. Although naturally I wouldn’t say the same things the same way today. Not because I’ve changed my mind, but because the world has changed. The other members were always very supportive. They agreed with the general tendency in my lyrics, I think. I had a few big arguments with Gary about politics. But generally we were all on the same wavelength.”
After the C86-compilation, Pink released the first ”real” McCarthy single, ‘Red Sleeping Beauty’, which was a poetic stab at the Thatcher regime. In the song, Malcolm sings that he has been sound asleep for twenty years and that ”she won’t wake me”. But above all, the song has one of the best intros of the popmusic history, an intro that during a mere minute goes from a few simple guitar chords to a cacaphony of guitars and rolling drums. The B-side isn’t bad either. ‘From The Damned is probably the roughest song the band ever recorded (in competition with ‘In Purgatory’), with Baker’s drums once again the focus.
McCarthy didn’t stay very long with the Pink Label. Their second single, the aforementioned ‘ Frans Hals’, was their last for the label, and their next stop would be new label September Records, who released the classic ‘The Well Of Loneliness’ as a single in October 1987, a single that ended up in the British Indie Charts’ Top Ten (‘Frans Hals’ actually came in at Number 4). The same month, the long awaited debut album, ‘I Am A Wallet’, was also released, containing short, fast songs that could be read individually as a political manifesto. Titles as ‘The Provession Of Popular Capitalism’, ‘The Wicked Palace Revolution’ and ‘The International Narcotics Traffic’ speak for themselves. But the record didn’t sell very well, and in an interview for Swedish fanzine ‘Sound Affects’ at the time of ‘I Am A Wallet’, Malcolm said that the band was ignored, something that he doesn’t agree with today:
” I don’t remember saying that, and I’m not sure if I agree today. We were only a little group, but we got quite a lot of attention. In the beginning, all we aimed at was to make a record and play some concerts. Everything else was a bonus.”
Despite the setbacks (?), the band continued to be productive, and as soon as February 1988, a new 12″ single hit the shelves, with a new song called ‘This Nelson Rockefeller’ as its lead track. On the B-side re-recordings of three old songs (‘The Funeral’, ‘The Way Of The World’ and ‘The Fall’) could be found, plus one more new song, ‘The Enemy Is At Home (For The Fat Lady)’. But why did they record two songs from ‘I Am A Wallet’ just months after its release?
”We didn’t re-record the songs because we disliked the originals. I think we did it at the suggestion of our manager, who wanted to put out two singles one after the other, very quickly (‘This Nelson Rockefeller’ and ‘Should The Bible Be Banned?’). We didn’t have enough songs for B-sides, so we redid some older songs. It was partly to experiment with drum-machines and keyboards. Up until that moment a lot of the ”indie” people really liked us, but they saw this move to re-record songs as the Ultimate Betrayal. Notably the people who did the Sarah record label in particular.”
Only two months later, another 12″ single was released, the foresaid ‘Should The Bible Be Banned?’ The title track questionsif the Bible encourages murder. Eden sings of a person named Dave who has just killed his brother with an axe, and finds support in the Bible’s story of Cain and Abel for his crime. Finally, he sings ”should the bible be banned / to keep the peace”.
Then it took almost a year until we heard from McCarthy again, this time with a new single ‘Keep An Open Mind Or Else’, the band’s first release on Midnight Music. The single was a taster from the album ‘The Enraged Will Inherit The Earth’, which was released in March 1989. Now the band had a new producer, Ian Caple, and despite the album being more polished than the debut, it doesn’t feel as brilliant as the first album.’ I Am A Wallet’ had a kind of unproduced feeling, something that really fitted McCarthy’s music, and now that they had a more producer-type producer,something was missing. But that isn’t to say it’s bad, no not at all. Here we find masterpieces such as ‘Governing Takes Brains’, ‘Throw Him Out He’s Breaking My Heart’ and ‘Boy Meets Girl So What’. Malcolm agrees with my feelings about their second album.
”Some of the songs on the second album were badly done. I prefer the first and last albums. We were very happy with ‘We Are All Bourgeois Now’ (the song the Manic Street Preachers covered), and some of the songs on the last album were quite well done, I think. I like’ I Worked My Self Up From Nothing.’ We could have recorded most of the songs a lot better though. I don’t think I was a very good singer either, to be frank.”
I really must say that I can’t agree with the last thing Malcolm mentions. Personally, I think Malcolm has (had?) a very pleasant voice, which was not at all bombastic like many other indiepop singers at that time in the UK. In other words, it is a voice that can never annoy you.
Only a month or so after the second album was released, a new single reached the stores. This time it’ was an EP with the name ‘McCarthy At War’. On the EP, there’s a remixed version of ‘Boy Meets Girl So What’, plus three new songs, of which ‘All Your Questions Answered’ probably is the best, with a superb guitarhook, and Malcolm singing ”who destroyed our industry? / who can tell me that? / the Germans swamped the market with their German products”.In ‘The Lion Will Lie Down With The Lamb’ he asks all the global industry corporations (he mentions IBM and General Motors) to move away from South Africa, so that the people there can be free.
Now the band started to feel that they couldn’t achieve much more, and a split up was not very far away. But despite this, they released what was to be their last album in April 1990, ‘Banking, Violence And The Inner Life Today’. By this time the band had also been joined by Laetitia Sadier, a fan that had hooked up with Tim during a tour in France. They became a couple, and she got to sing in his band. On ‘Banking, Violence… the production was even more polished, but this time they made a better job out of it. Kevin Harris, in co-operation with the band, managed to create a sound that fitted their songs perfectly. The album also found the band taking a big step with their songwriting. The songs developed very long titles (such as ‘I’m In The Side Of Mankind As Much As The Next Man; and ‘Tomorrow The Stock Exchange Will Be The Human Race’) and they also had longer durations. Many of the songs are more than four minutes long, which was very rare in the early days of the band. McCarthy’s last single, ‘Get A Knife Between Your Teeth’, is also featured on the album and it is a song that has a production that is very characteristic of the period. This was a time when Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses were very popular, and McCarthyjoined the Madchester-wave for this one song only, with baggy drums, wah-wah guitars and everything else that was part of the scene. Maybe it was a attempt at a hit single, maybe not. It didn’t turn out very well though, and shortly afterwards, after a final gig at the London School of Economics (something that according to Malcolm was just a coincidence), the band decided to quit.
Tim and Laetitia formed Stereolab, and also started their own label, Duophonic, a label that as well as nearly all Stereolab’s records also released two records (one 7″ single, and a 10″ minialbum) by Herzfeld. Behind that pseudonym was none other than Malcolm Eden.
”If possible, Herzfeld’s records were even more badly recorded than McCarthy’s records. I tried to use keyboards as well as guitars. They weren’t very dance-orientated however. It wasn’t that different from McCarthy.”
When you read about McCarthy’s split-up, it always says that they were tired of being ignored, but that isn’t the full story, according to Malcolm:
”I think the others would have carried on a bit longer. I didn’t want to though. I had the impression at the time that we’d reached a plateau in terms of audience and our songs, and we weren’t advancing. We could naturally have carried on, repeating ourselves over and over again, but that would have been terrible, Plus, although there weren’t any tensions between us, the fact that Laetitia had more or less joined the group for the last tour did break up our former cohesion a little bit.”
”I’m glad we stopped when we did. I think pop music is basically for young people and not for fifty-year-olds. I know some fifty-year-olds do carry on, but it’s hardly ever a good idea.”
There was a rumour on the Internet that Malcolm had become a gardener in Paris after the split, but he says it’s just a joke made up by Tim. He has in fact never gardened in his life. What John and Gary did after the split isn’t part of the story, but Malcolm says that he only has contact with John, who he meets a couple of times a year. He hasn’t seen Tim and Gary for five years. John works at the music publisher BMG in London, and he thinks Gary works at a book publisher, and as far as he knows they don’t play music anymore.
There are actually two McCarthy songs recorded during the ‘Banking, Violence…’-sessions, but they were never mixed, and therefore never released.
”John and Tim thought they weren’t good enough to go on the compilation ['That's All Very Well But…', released by Cherry Red in 1996]. One was called ‘Who Will Rid Me Of These Turbulent Proles?’ I was really pleased with it. It was one of my best lyrics. It’s recorded but not mixed unfortunately, so it’s a bit rough. The other was a joke disco song that Tim did. It’s called ‘You Had To Go And Open Your Big Mouth’. Laetitia sings a few lines on it. We had very long titles towards the end. It’s in a fairly rough condition too.”
Some people thinks that bands like The Manic Street Preachers have taken over McCarthy’s place in pop music, so I had to ask Malcolm what he thinks of them.
”I’m afraid I don’t know the Manic Street Preachers very well, although I’ve heard the two songs ‘Charles Windsor’ and ‘We Are All Bourgeois Now’) of ours they’ve done, of course. I can’t see too many groups with the same kind of attitude as ours. But perhaps I just don’t know them.”
He also tells me that hardly ever buys records nowadays, and that music has lost it’s meaning for him.
”I buy classical records sometimes. I like Bach very much. My wife bought the last Madonna album, so I had to listen to that quite a lot.”
Instead, Malcolm says that the lyrics remain the most important to him, and he tells me that he has written a book that hopefully will be out on 2002.
”The book is about a woman who discovers an unusual amount of dog mess all over the town where she lives. She spends the book trying to find out why there’s so much of it and where it’s all coming from. This was partly inspired by life in Paris, which is certainly the dog mess capital of the world, although naturally they don’t mention this in the guide books.”
He is also writing a second one right now. But what authors does he admire?
”I like Bertholt Brecht, Jaroslav Hasek, Karl Marx, Shakespeare and Diderot a lot.”
He also says that he sadly doesn’t have any outflow for his views except his books.
Speaking of the views, are they the same as they were 15 years ago?
”Yes. Although I try to develop my opinions in interaction with what is going on around me. It would be foolish to carry on repeating what was said fifteen years ago, since the world has moved on. I don’t know if you have extreme left-wing parties in Sweden, but the mistake they make in France and Britain is to carry on repeating the old line, as if the world hadn’t changed out of recognition in the meantime.”
”I think today the most important thing is to stand up for politics in a general sense – the idea that people can change the world. I have nothing in common with the people who demonstrated in Seattle, for instance. I don’t think they want to kick the world forwards, but kick it backwards. They’re not really in favour of progress or reason. Quite the contrary. If I wrote songs today they would be taking the piss out of homeopathy, environmentalist doom-mongering, animal rights, and standing up for reason and the human race.”
In the lyrics Malcolm wrote for McCarthy he often spoke of the subject of anti-capitalism, and in one song he almost goes too far. The song is called ‘Use A Bank I’d Rather Die’ and is available on the ‘Banking, Violence…’ album. There he sings ”We won’t use cash, no, no, no / we let no cash soil our hands” and that he would rather give his money to charity. This made me a little curious; did Malcolm live and learn, or was he just acting?
”Almost all of the McCarthy songs are sung by a ”character”, like a character in a play. I often don’t agree with the sentiments expressed in the song, quite the reverse. This is the case for ‘Use A Bank I’d Rather Die’. People sometimes used to accuse us of compromising. They assumed that anyone with political principles can’t possibly compromise at any time. Which I don’t agree with at all. If your general position is advanced by a compromise, then it can be a good thing. This is more or less what that song is about. I think the character in the song refuses all compromise and ends up in all kinds of hopeless contradictions.”
But what did you do with the money you earned?
”We didn’t get very much I’m afraid. We all signed on the dole and used the McCarthy money to buy books and records and so on. We never got any advances from anyone. But I still get a little bit of money today, because Cherry Red re-released all our albums. But as you might imagine, this isn’t much. The money we should get from The Manic Street Preachers’ cover will certainly be a lot more than anything from our own records.”
Finally I asked Malcolm if he ever listens to McCarthy nowadays.
”Not very often. When I do listen though, I sometimes wince, and say to myself ”We could have done that better” or ”We should have changed that bit”. But I also think some of the songs, with all their faults, are quite exciting. They sometimes make me laugh too, when I hear a funny line that I’ve forgotten about.”
And a reunion seems very unlikely…
”This is a highly unlikely scenario, I think you’ll agree. I think it’s a bit sad when old groups get back together. The Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks, The Beatles, etc. People do these reunions either for money or else to relive their lost youth, I should say. Either way it’s a bit pathetic.”
Well, a McCarthy reunion seem a bit unlikely, I’ll have to agree. And unnecessary. The band recorded three wonderful albums and a bunch of brilliant singles during their lifetime, and I think I can cope with that. But maybe my neighbours would like to hear something new…