If you’re an American of a certain age you remember MTV playing the hell out of “Working Girl” by The Members. Aussie readers hear that band name and think of the song “Radio,” and anybody who has ever purchased a punk compilation knows “The Sound of the Suburbs,” one of the most infectious cuts from the seventies UK punk explosion. There was a moment there in the late seventies and early eighties were The Members were poised to take over the world.
Members songwriter and guitarist JC Carroll was there for all of it and he still is, fronting a current Members line-up that is still touring and recording. But his output isn’t limited to new Members material. The joy he finds in making and sharing his music is contagious — be it his mandolin-soaked cover of Bowie’s “Where Are We Now” or the spot on (and funny as hell) parody of his alter ego, jPad.
I asked Jesse Budd, Flipron vocalist and friend of both Why It Matters and JC, for a few words on the man:
I was a teenager when I first came across JC Carroll on the sleeve notes of my 12″ single of The Members’ “Offshore Banking Business.” I adored that record and I’d persuaded a friend to swap with me his copy for some piece of inferior vinyl I had that I can’t even remember.
Years later, I met JC through mutual friend Rat Scabies and had the pleasure of jamming onstage with The Members for a fabulous ten minutes. Since then I’ve discovered that there was much more to him than his role in a seminal punk-reggae band.
He is in fact a musician with an astonishingly broad scope. Aside from an enviable career with The Members, JC is a session man, composer of TV & commercial scores, experimentalist, musical satirist, and long-standing folk musician (an accomplished accordionist and mandolin player among other instruments).
He seems perennially capable of surprises, so I’m sure he’s up to loads more stuff that I haven’t a clue about. Certainly I never saw the “Where Are We Now” cover coming!
Also, his onstage appearance has the look of a French Existentialist philosopher emerging butterfly-like into a 1970s Lower East Side pimp.
Why It Matters: I must have listened to the Urgh! A Music War version of “Offshore Banking Business” a thousand times as a kid. Do you have any memories of that gig?
JC Carroll: It was a blur. We were on tour at the time with Magazine and Pere Ubu, I think. Magazine did not talk to us, except for the bass player, Barry Adamson and keyboardist Dave Formula a bit.
We drove overnight from San Francisco to Los Angeles before the show. There were lots of bands on the bill, including people like The Police, Danny Elfman’s band Oingo Boingo, Wall of Voodoo, and Magazine.
WIM: Man, what a show. I wish Miles Copeland or whomever owns it would release the whole thing. Were you pretty pleased with the Urgh! film, or just another day at the office?
JC:When we saw the premiere in London all the bands that were on it went to a movie theatre and cheered out their own bit.
WIM: Ha! I would, too!
JC: I am incredibly proud of “Offshore Banking Business” as it resonates much more loudly now than when I wrote it. It was also considered commercial suicide writing a reggae song about banking after such a huge smash like “Sound of the Suburbs.”
WIM: The Members were really diverse — “Sounds Of The Suburbs” didn’t sound like “Working Girl,” and neither sounded like “Radio.” Any thoughts on why you guys had such a broad range?
JC: The Members were like a barometer of the
changing styles of the times.
In 1977-78 we were a hot punk band recording with a young Steve Lillywhite (producer). In ’79 we were at the forefront of the pop reggae thing, and then in 1980 we did our second album, The Choice Is Yours.
In 1982-83 we were back on tour in the US, and now we were an ’80s college radio band with “Working Girl.” By that time we were working with Martin Rushent, The Human League’s producer. He was at the forefront of electronic music production and I was making dance records for Stiff as a producer. I still work with Martin’s engineer from that period, David M. Allen, who went onto produce lots of Cure records.
So yes there was an incredible diversity, but the style of music changed rapidly in those days. Punk in the Uk only lasted 18 months. The Ska thing was massive in ’79 but was replaced with Electronic and New Romantic.
We did not want to become a hardcore punk band, so we evolved. Some people say it was commercial suicide but it was evolve to survive. What it turned out to be was an great apprenticeship in music production and studio technique.
WIM: You front a new version of The Members with The Damned’s Rat Scabies on drums. UK and European readers get lots of chances to see you back at it — what’s it going to take to bring you to the States? I’ll open the bidding with free beer and a place to crash.
JC: We will come. I have been talking to people on the west and east coasts about some shows, so it is only a matter of time. It’s a build it and they will come scenario! By the way, where do you live?
WIM: I’m in Sacramento, California — just a couple of hours outside of San Francisco, so when you hit Northern California you can expect at least one old fart in the crowd, likely pogoing and screaming whoo! and making an ass of myself. Actually, we have some great venues in Sacramento, too.
Tell us a bit about the 2.0 version of The Members.
JC: The band with Rat and Chris (Payne, bass player) is a fantastic three-piece power trio. Think of The Jimi Hendrix Experience or Cream with a rhythm guitarist instead of a lead player, or a punky reggae Who. Rat is like the Keith Moon of punk and Chris has been playing with me for over 35 years and it sounds great !
WIM: Do you keep in touch with the original Members?
JC: I speak to lead singer Nicky Tesco and keep in contact. He is a political activist and journalist now. He has a disability that prevents him from touring, but he gets up for the occasional show.
Guitarist Nigel Bennett has just finished a 5-6 year stint with The Vibrators and will be over in the US promoting his solo album
Adrian Lillywhite, the drummer, is a real estate guy In Cape Verde Islands. I had a lovely note from his brother Steve about the Bowie cover. He loves it.
WIM: So do I and a lot of other people — it has really taken off. The first time I viewed it on Youtube I think it had a 150 hits, and a week later it was at 40,000. Why do you think your version has struck such a nerve?
JC: Lots of people my age are moulded and steeped in Bowie. I saw the Ziggy tour when I was 15. When “Where Are We Now” came out we were all captivated as we thought we had lost him.
WIM: Yes, exactly.
JC: What gives the track real resonance to me is that The Members were in Berlin in 1978. Before the Wall came down we did this crazy sort of “Beatles in Hamburg” residency at a club called the SO36. I had a german girlfriend who took me to places like the Dschungel (a club mentioned in “Where Are We Now.” More here. – WIM), so it resonated very deeply.
In the seventies lots of people covered Bowie songs — Mott the Hoople, Lulu, Herman’s Hermits — so I decided to do a cover of the tune as an homage. I played it to Dave Allen and he said, “Let’s mix it at my studio.”
Meanwhile, The Members were due to do a show in Berlin, and I had always wanted to visit a monument to fliers who died in the Berlin Airlift, one of whom was my uncle. We had hardly any time to shoot in Berlin, just five minutes at my uncle’s monument. It was a very moving moment, as it was like I had finally found him.
So there we have this song about Berlin and regrets and a family history. My uncle died in Berlin in ’49, The Members first played there in 1978 and I returned to the the city to do Members shows in 2013. It was all meant to be.
JC: I Guess my version of the song resonates with people. I have made it my own and it is the first time I have used my film music palette on a pop record.
WIM: That’s one of the things that really grabs me — the accordion and mandolin. It turns an already moving song into almost a folk song.
JC: In the London film industry I am known as a multi-instrumentalist/composer/producer who blends electronic instruments with accordion, mandolin, zither, etc.
I wanted Holly Johnson to sing it. I sent him a backing track and he said that my vocal sounded fine (I didn’t think so), and told me to go ahead with that version.
Then I took it to David M. Allen’s studio and he sprinkled the Magic Krautrock Dust on it.
WIM: “Magic Krautrock Dust!” I’ll be stealing that line. But where does one find Magic Krautrock Dust?
JC: David owns Connie Plank’s (legendary German producer – WIM) old desk. That has magic powers. It is the same desk that your mates Flipron mix on.
WIM: So what’s next? Can we expect an album of Bowie covers?
JC: The Bowie cover is a one off. I have realised that the internet gives you the ability to put out singles via YouTube and reach your audience.
In 2006 I “came out” as an internet musician and began to share files and collaborating with people on the net. The next logical step was to start promoting myself.
WIM: I’ve heard that sort of thing from a few artists, i.e., that rather than destroying the music industry the internet actually opened all kinds of artistic and promotional outlets for them.
JC: I had a “road to Damascus” in 2006 when I got a laptop and began recording albums and collaborating with musicians all over the world. It was incredible. I’ve made about six albums in six years, including two concept albums: New English Blues Volume 1 and The Golborne Variations.
The Golborne Variations became a film. Also I am very proud of The Members’ InGrrLand album.
WIM: I can’t say enough good things about The Golborne Variations, by the way. That is just a brilliant piece of work.
Aside from The Members and your own recording you score films, too. Care to talk a bit about that?
JC: In 1999 I met Michael Kamen in London and got to chatting to him about klezmer and European music. He invited me to play on a movie called Don Juan de Marco with Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp.
From that I did lots of bits and pieces and became involved with Steve McLaughlin, Michael’s engineer, as musical director on stage shows and also with writing scripts. Through these shows I got to work with a another producer who got me involved with filmmaker Julien Temple.
I have done music for three of Julien’s films, the latest being the amazing London – The Modern Babylon. It’s an epic two hour punk history of London.
WIM: Why does music matter to JC Carroll?
JC: I am obsessed with music. I am steeped in music. I love to experiment with different genres. I always have several unfinished projects on my digital audio workstation (DAW).
Music enables me to play punk in Berlin to a full mosh pit and to communicate with listeners all over the world.
It’s a special kind of magic that can make a 55 year old man feel 15. It can melt your heart. And as a songwriter you can communicate directly to people in a very special way.
There are lots of ways to keep up with JC Carroll, and I recommend all of them: