John Carter – My World Fell DownJohn Carter: My World Fell Down – album review

Grapefruit

4CD/DL

Released 18 March 2022

Subtitled The John Carter Story, this 4CD set takes in the songwriter’s work in the 1960s and 1970s, including his hit compositions for The Ivy League, The Flower Pot Men and The First Class. Ian Canty wanders around Soho trying to find out what went wrong…

Walking down Denmark Street in London these days you would be hard pushed to believe that it used to be the centre of anything (thank you Crossrail). It makes for a very sobering visit for anyone with a taste for pop history, with traces of everything from the dawn of rock & roll, The Stones and The Pistols slowing being brushed away. But from the 1920s onwards this compact area was the hub of UK’s music industry’s Tin Pan Alley, with the sheet music craze meaning it became crammed with publishers’ offices and also the music papers Melody Maker and NME had their headquarters there.

In the 1960s Denmark Street’s reputation as the centre of the music industry in Britain lost some of its sheen, as groups composing their own songs came into fashion with the advent of The Beatles. But for a while both the old and new existed alongside each other, as not every group had a natural songwriting resource and even bands with a developing talent in that field sometimes struggled to make the charts. In that case they often turned to outside writers as a possible route to success.

Regent Sound was the first recording studio in the street and others followed in its wake, meaning that Denmark Street was basically a one stop shop for recording needs. The area was as a result full of session whizzes, hucksters and people trying to sell their songs. Many of these hopeful writers knocked together their own demos to show potential customers the good points of their work. Among them were two recent arrivals from Birmingham Ken Lewis and John Shakespeare aka John Carter.

These youngsters got their first publishing contract while both were at the age of seventeen with Noel Gay Music, having door-stepped the music companies of the street. Initially with the aim of making ends meet, the pair started playing live and recording as Carter, Lewis And The Southerners. This aggregation, that occasionally featured the likes of Jimmy Page and Clem Cattini, issued seven singles from 1961 to 1964 with varying degrees of success. It’s under this guise that My World Fell Down commences, with each 7 inch represented by at least one side.

The first offerings Back On The Scene, Two Timing Baby and Here’s Hopin’ lucidly depict the duo’s admiration for the work of Buddy Holly. By the time of 1963’s Sweet And Tender Romance we can see the influence of beat coming into play and a snappy Somebody Told My Girl, the flipside to the band’s biggest hit Your Momma’s Out Of Town (not included here), is full of energy and impressive. They adapted to the new sound fairly seamlessly, with a wild version of the standard Skinny Minnie underlining the point by having some proto-freakbeat guitar moves. A demo of the good-natured handclapper Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat?, which Herman’s Hermits reached number two in the US with, is tacked on to the end of this section of the set.

At the same time they worked as Carter, Lewis And The Southerners, the pair wrote for P.J. Proby, Brenda Lee and as mentioned above, Herman’s Hermits. If this wasn’t keeping Carter and Lewis busy enough, near the end of this period they formed The Ivy League with Perry Ford. This was a more successful set up and also moonlighted on the sessions scene. They famously provided backing vocals on the first single by The Who I Can’t Explain.

Eight Ivy league waxings come next, with big hits Funny How Love Can Be, That’s Why I’m Crying and Tossing And Turning showing up. Their debut single What More Do You Want was a dream-like harmony vocal charmer didn’t really deserve to disappear without trace and the dramatic folk rock of Funny How Love Can Be is satisfying and assured. The moody, restrained beat of Lonely Room is pretty good and That’s Why I’m Crying evokes a tender atmosphere with organ frills and a truly great hook. Tossing And Turning was their biggest UK hit and again it mined folk rock and beat successfully and The Beach Boys’ Don’t Worry Baby is cooly covered.

At this point in 1965 John Carter, not a natural stage performer, opted to leave the band as he was much happier in the environment of the recording studio. On My World Fell Down we get four demos from 1966 next. Carter sang lead on Winchester Cathedral, which was a massive hit in the UK and US under the name of The New Vaudeville Band. The demo here shows there may well have been a sizable debt owed to The Bonzos and another demo Peek-A-Boo was aimed at a similar area and was also recorded by The NVB. Also in this quartet, some overloud drums actually develop into the strong point of One Little Smile.

The Ivy League are back for the beautifully arranged and achieved title track of this set, which was covered successfully in America by Sagittarius. In the latter form the song eventually ended up on the Nuggets compilation in 1972. Carter and Lewis also worked on The Ministry Of Sound with Mickey Keen and Robin Shaw, with White Collar Worker being a good amalgamation of The Who/The Kinks and their own soaring vocals. Time And Motion was also intended for this project and a complete-sounding and neat demo version begins the final raft of not originally issued items on disc one. Also present it Goodbye Rosalie, a great pop tune with one of Carter and new collaborator Geoff Stephens’ typically ornate vocal pieces. A wistful Am I Losing You ends this tempting platter.

The psychedelic era opened up a whole new avenue of opportunities for songsmiths, with people virtually queuing up for a crack at this weird next big thing. Ken Lewis had by this time departed The Ivy League too and as we reach disc two he was back at work with Carter on their first tripped-out “front” The Flower Pot Men. They struck gold immediately with a lushly produced harmony pop masterstroke Let’s Go to San Francisco. Parts one and two are the first items on this section of the set, with its finely drawn baroque pop stylings immediately gratifying.

The FPM were eventually spun into an actual band, but though Carter/Lewis supplied the similarly ornate A Walk In The Sky and Man Without A Woman/You Can Never Be Wrong (only the very smart B-side is on this collection), they didn’t bother the charts again and the pair moved on, with Friends being their new psych handle. Ford And Hudson, of Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera and later on fake new wavers The Monks, supplied the rhythm to Mythological Sunday. This is a beautifully constructed work in an orchestrated psych mode, generously endowed with the correct amount of blissed-out chill.

After it comes another extended series of demos, which begins with the weird and wordy folk pop/music hall epic Conversation (In A Station Light Refreshment Bar). Hip Hip Hooray, given a constant undercurrent of applause, was later recorded by The Troggs in an effort to address their commercial decline and an upbeat Geranium Pot makes the most of some lively performances. Good Talk To Myself could almost be proto-glam and The Cooks Of Cake And Kindness is a cool post-“summer of love” gem. Proving that Denmark Street pros could knock out flowing psychedelic rock as well as anyone as Blow Away is excellent, with Children Of Tomorrow practically being a mini-pop opera on its own.

A single released in 1969 as The Wheels (not the Irish r&b rowdies) had the infectious acoustic drive of You’re Playing With Fire backed up by What’s The Matter With Juliet. I found this part of My World Fell Down so enjoyable. Despite being mainly consisting of demo versions that were either intended to get others to record the songs or part of two unrealised LP projects Peace and Past Imperfect, there’s no mistaking that these are complete pieces of enchanting pop that are full of invention. The late 1960s seemed to suit Carter and his cohorts down to the ground. On this disc they easily nail the introspective and touching, simple but obviously painstakingly crafted pop sound of the era.

John Carter & Russ Alquist end this second disc with the late 1968 recording of a beguiling Midsummer Dreaming. It was the flipside of a more eccentric sound The Laughing Man, which starts up disc three of My World Fell Down. Carter And Lewis kept busy with more demos, presumably also for the pair of unissued albums. They ensue with the pleasant organ-based groove of Life Is Living. A driving Sunday In The Park is quality pop music and Three In The Morning potters along in an affable manner, with soaring backing vocals enhancing its infectious impact. The bright and fresh Love Equals Love, a superior bubblegum item and a tense When I Was Born both offer plenty to suggest Peace and Past Imperfect would have made more than decent collections.

In addition to the demos, also included are a number of Carter/Lewis projects under a variety of names. The Carlew Choir yielded one single, with the sunshine pop flipside Give A Hand To The Clown rather outshining their nonsense song Huma Luma. The Running, Jumping, Standing Still Band, taking its name from the 1959 Richard Lester short that featured Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, give us the stomping glam prototype Aye-O. The Haystack managed to last two whole 45s and their debut A Letter To Josephine is very good in the harmony voiced styled Carter and Lewis had mastered.

Dawn Chorus and Sweet Chariot only managed the one disc each, but the former’s A Night To Be Remembered is lovely, golden pop that deserved to grace 1969’s charts. Ohio Express were originally a Graham Gouldman project, but Carter and Lewis took up the reins on a jokey Cowboy Convention and if Fat Man’s Music Festival couldn’t really have succeeded with such a throwaway name, their Highway Of Our Dreams is a nice singalong with a touch of The Faces’ ebullience.

Of all things, a football record was the catalyst for Carter/Lewis to work under a more regular handle. They recorded Chelsea under the name Stamford Bridge in early 1970 for the Penny Farthing label. Although it wasn’t a big hit it just about made the Top 50, so they were give the green light to release a couple of albums in that guise. They’re on this disc with borderline offensive novelty song Roly Poly and the rather better Vicar’s Daughter, a sweeping post-psych gem. This disc reaches its finale with the Mark Wirtz hook up The Elephant Song/Phoney Phoney Mixed Up Croney, which sits at the 1971 midpoint between bubblegum, acid rock fuzz and glam.

The first five tracks on the final disc are also by Stamford Bridge, with two being cheesy radio jingles. World Of Fantasy is big production pop that is quite fun and the strange, echo-laden Mother Nature is basic sound but fairly catchy. After that, we’re back amongst a revolving cast of names for one-off outings. The guitar blasts in Red Line Explosion’s blues/glam mix Sweet Talkin’ Mama are smart and Stormy Petrel’s The Light Of Day is lovely and light. Kentucky Freeway’s Take Off is a moody rocker, a little like a more restrained Alvin Stardust, but Dreams Are Ten A Penny by Kincade is a real ace with a stripped back sound. It was a big hit in Germany, so much so they had to call in one John Knowles to pretend to be the record’s performer in the country. A decidedly weird but enjoyable Big Hand For Annie was the strange choice for a follow up, but Kincade actually went onto further German success.

John Carter’s biggest hit after the 1960s was The First Class’ Beach Baby, which charted in many countries and got to the Top 5 on Billboard in the US. He was long an admirer of The Beach Boys and with the lyrics are by his wife Gill Shakespeare, this was the beautiful and energetic tribute to their sound. Despite this success, Carter was still not interested in touring, so a makeshift outfit was sent on the road. Their follow up single Bobby Dazzler had a slightly different emphasis, but was blessed with one of Carter’s ever so lush arrangements, despite the odd glam rock “heys” popping up here and there.

It was a minor American hit and Carter’s interest eventually fizzled out, but not before an album that had the fine What Became Of Me and I Was Always The Joker on it. As the 1970s wore on John Carter retreated from pop music, working more in composing for film soundtracks. The odd single crept out, like future original Mirrors/Status Que drummer Pete Kircher’s Rockin’ Lady, which had the country rock of Let It Roll that is included here as its flip. Oh California by Magic is practically Beach Baby rejigged and The First Class whet one’s appetite for the promised full collection of their works with the cool vocals and stringed up musical attack of I Was A Star. One can’t avoid wishing the dopey shouting DJ was left off the otherwise elegant set closer Too Many Golden Oldies though.

John Carter beavered away busily through the 60s and 70s, with Ken Lewis being there most of the time. As a songsmith he achieved a quality result nine times out of ten. Perhaps the best period for him was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he could indulge his preferences for lush instrumentation allied to honeyed harmonising and killer melodies. Pop music will struggle to be as outrageous and daft as this again, but also it will also struggle to be as inspired too.

All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here

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