published: 6 /
Tommy Gunnarsson chats to John Williamson, the bassist with 80's left-wing political indie pop band and C86 act, about his former group's history
One of the first interviews that I did for Pennyblackmusic, back in 2001, was with McCarthy's singer and lyricist Malcolm Eden. I tracked him down via a French chess website, and the interview we did was the first he had done since the demise of his band back in 1990. A year or so later, I managed to get hold of their guitarist, Tim Gane, now leader of the more successful band Stereolab, and did an interview with him about his first real band. Now I have had the opportunity to talk to another member of this fantastic, left-wing indiepop group, bassist John Williamson.
According to most music guides, McCarthy formed in Barking, Essex in 1984 (but John will tell us that's not the case a little later on), and consisted of Eden, Gane and Williamson, with Gary Baker behind the drum kit. They released their first self-financed single, ’In Purgatory’ in 1985, and quickly signed to the new Pink label, who released their next two singles, the now-classic ’Red Sleeping Beauty’ and indie chart hit ’Frans Hal’.
Before the band split up in 1990, they released three albums , ’I Am a Wallet’ (September Records, 1987), ’The Enraged Will Inherit the Earth’ (Midnight Music, 1989) and ’Banking, Violence and the Inner Life Today’ (Midnight Music, 1990), and several other singles and EPs.
Even though they didn't make much of an impact while still together, their legacy lives on, and they have influenced many bands later on, such as for example the Manic Street Preachers (who have covered three of their songs, ’We Are All Bourgeois Now’, ’Charles Windsor’ and ’Red Sleeping Beauty’).
The Cherry Red label re-released all the albums on CD in the late 1990s, alongside a compilation, ’That's All Very Well... But’, with singles and radio sessions. With the band's inclusion on the ’NME C86’ box set, I'm sure they will find even more new fans around the world.
PB: How did you become a member of McCarthy? Did you play in any other bands prior to that?
JW: Tim and Mal and I began planning to be in a group together in 1978. Mal could already play guitar, and when he began teaching me and Tim it soon became clear I should come down to four strings. We learned to play covers of our favourite songs from the time, the Buzzcocks and the Undertones in particular.
PB: What were your feelings about Malcolm's lyrics? Did you agree with him?
JW: The short answer is yes. Because of our 'punk' background we already had that youthful cynicism of straight love songs, and as we got older and as Mal progressed as a write, this kind of became the spine of our aesthetic approach to what we did.
PB: Both Malcolm and Tim agreed when we previously interviewed them that ‘The Enraged Will Inherit the Earth’ was McCarthy's ”worst” album. Do you agree with them too?
JW: That whole period was comfortably our biggest mistake and we ended up with a real dud record. Two or three of the songs on there are among ourten best, but I think only we know that.
PB: Which McCarthy song is your favourite, and why? Which is your favourite album?
JW: My favourite album is the last one, ’Banking Violence and the Inner Life Today’. I think it came pretty close to what we were trying to do all along. I think my favourite song is ’The Comrade Era’, which comes down mainly due to a very nostalgic and sentimental view of the past. That is an affliction of my age.
PB: How involved were you in the songwriting?
JW: I kept very much away from the songwriting once we got past the first couple of singles. Tim and Mal quickly got into a rhythm and it worked really well. Tim is still in that rhythm, perhaps the most amazing thing you could say about any of us.
PB: What have you been doing since the demise of McCarthy? I remember Malcolm mentioned something about you working with a music publisher... Have you been in other bands since then?
JW: No more groups no, I played bass with my friends but I am not a bass player. The music biz is an obvious place for someone who has a hole in their past that was dedicated to being in a group. I have worked at major corporations and now work at the current king of the indies, Domino.
PB: McCarthy will now be part of the C86 reissue... What do you think about your contribution, ‘Celestial City’? And did you feel that you were part of a ”scene” back in the 1980s?
JW: Well, from what I can remember, I think we felt a comradeship with our label mate, the Wolfhounds, and spent a lot of time with them in the early days, especially in 1986. Beyond that I don't think we could be considered as joiners in terms of the shambling bands. We ended up annoying most of them, I think.
And 'Celestial City' is a classic group in a studio tale. When we finished it we thought it sounded great, easily our best recorded song to that point. We soon had also recorded 'Red Sleeping Beauty' and realised we were totally wrong. I actually can't remember if we knew before or after we submitted it to the ’NME’ that we could have given them something much better, but, boy, we really could have.
PB: Do you have any contact with the rest of the band members?
JW: I am the one who has some contact with all the others. We don't see each other too often though. Domino publish our songs, so I am also the one most reminded by our past on a regular basis.
PB: When you split up in 1990, some magazines quoted Malcolm as saying that McCarthy was ”ignored”, something that he doesn't agree with today. How do you feel about that? Why do you think the band split up?
JW: To be frank I think Mal had had enough. You can also clearly see that Tim had not. I am not sure carrying on would have been a good idea, the practicalities of not making a living does take it's toll creatively, and we had been lucky to that point in having no obstacles like day jobs. I also don't think we were ignored. We made some classic errors during our time which contributed to our not quite making it.
PB: What are your feelings about a McCarthy reunion?
JW: I have never thought twice about it, and it's just a pointless notion. And the other three all really look their age. It would be very embarrassing for them to have me stand next to them on a stage.
PB: Thank you.