If like me you are a big fan of harmony pop, then you will instantly know who John Carter is, if not, but however you grew up as i did in the 60’s you will know him, even if you think otherwise, through a myriad number of names and hit records. John is simply a legend. As a singer, writer, producer, arranger, engineer, he has few equals in pop music history. Over the years various compilations have been released focussing on different phases of his career. At last the excellent Grapefruit Records have managed to put together a pretty much definitive collection spanning John’s illustrious career spread over 4 CD’s boasting over 100 tracks. His story began in the late 50’s when schoolfriends John Shakespeare and Ken Hawker formed a skiffle band in their native Birmingham writing Buddy Holly type songs and gaining experience. In 1960 the duo made the pilgrimage to London and under their pseudonyms of John Carter (born Shakespeare) and Ken Lewis (Born Hawker) made the rounds and gained a management deal. The pair were convinced to form a band to showcase their material and the result was Carter-Lewis & The Southerners. Making a brief stint as their lead guitarist was the ubiquitous Jimmy Page. The band gigged extensively, including locally on Hastings Pier and The Witch Doctor. Although successful as a working band record success eluded them until 1964 when they met an engineer working at a record studio in Denmark Street by the name of Perry Ford. Noting the 3 men’s voices blended well together whilst making demo’s John got them signed to Pye Records and after a few false starts they saw their career take off, firstly when Herman’s Hermits recorded one of John & Ken’s songs ‘Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat’ taking the single all the way to No 2 in the US. It was also a minor hit in the UK for Goldie & The Gingerbreads. In 1965 after providing backing vocals on The Who’s debut hit ‘I Can’t Explain’ John, Ken & Perry now renamed as The Ivy League scored 2 massive hits with ‘Funny How Love Can Be’ & ‘Tossing And Turning’ and the rest as they say is history. And oh what a glorious history it’s been. Never particularly comfortable with performing in 1966 John took a back seat to concentrate on writing and production. His place in The Ivy league being taken by one Tony Burrows. John along with new song writing partner Geoff Stephens wrote the title track of this new Grapefruit compilation ‘My World Fell Down’ for The Ivy League, it’s wonderful complex and intricate harmony arrangement can now be viewed in retrospect as something of a template for what i and others consider his 2 greatest creations, the pop/psychedelic band The Flowerpot Men and Britain’s answer to The Beach Boys in the form of The First Class. Even when John stepped away from creating and was just doing a favour as vocalist for a fellow song writing friend (Geoff), he found himself at No 1 in the USA as the lead vocalist on The New Vaudeville’s Band ‘Winchester Cathedral’. In 1967 John and Ken formed their own production company (Sunny Records). From then on John would go on to create the aforementioned Flowerpot Men, The First Class, Stamford Bridge, Kincade and a plethora of other names the majority of which can be found on these 4 discs. His output has been to say at the very least prodigious. He even entered Eurovision territory writing Mary Hopkins second placed ‘Knock Knock Who’s There?’. As you can clearly see there is so much to John i could write a novel! But returning to this new release, on Disc1 you can follow his progress from the beginning with the early Carter Lewis offerings, The Ivy League. the demo’s for The New Vaudeville Band and ‘Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat’ amongst many others. Disc2 offers up (for me) his finest work with the impeccable Flowerpot Men and in particular ‘Let’s Go To San Francisco’ and happily it’s at last put together as one track instead of Parts 1 & 2 as it originally appeared, as separate A & B sides when first released back in 1967. And contrary to what seems to be popular belief over the years, it was John that sang the lead vocal NOT Tony Burrows! (he was on backing) and Tony performed in the touring band and on TV. This is followed by the equally glorious follow up single ‘Walk In The Sky’ and more less well known FPM cuts .You can also hear demo’s for what ultimately became hits for Herman’s Hermits in the shape of ‘Sunshine Girl’ and ‘My Sentimental Friend’ and a further extensive selection of other demo’s. Disc3 concentrates on more demo’s and various differently named offerings from John including a track for Ohio Express, who you may remember as the American ‘bubblegum’ act that had a huge No 1 with ;Yummy Yummy Yummy’. It also showcases 2 of John’s more longer running pseudonyms The Haystack and Stamford Bridge. Disc4 opens with more tracks from Stamford Bridge, followed by many tracks by yet more of Johns’ creations such as Scarecrow, Stormy Petrel, The London Boys & Sequola. Two tracks appear from Kincade including the big hit ‘Dreams Are Ten A Penny’ before we are treated to what many other reviewers/critics consider his finest work, with the band The First Class. There is no doubt that ‘Beach Baby’ the most well known of First Class tracks is a tour-de-force of writing, production and brilliant vocal work that critics have hailed time and again as being up there with some of Brian Wilson’s best offerings. It’s certainly true that since it’s release all the way back in 1974 it’s been a staple of radio programmers (particularly in summer) and still sounds as fresh as ever. But there was more to First Class than just BB, have a listen to ‘What Became Of Me’ and especially ‘I Was Always The Joker’ (a big personal favourite) both phenomenally good compositions. This comprehensive, marvellously put together, new in depth overview of John’s work actually concludes with a track by First Class I’ve played so many times on my radio shows entitled aptly ‘Too Many Golden Oldies’. Could there ever be such a situation/question?…..with John Carter at the helm?….nah…….definitely not. As ever i have only been able to impart a portion of all the information on John that is available without writing a book, the accompanying booklet to the compilation does an admirable job and i was lucky enough back in the late 60’s early 70’s to be friends with Pete and Robin who were members of The Flowerpot Men and the band they morphed into in the shape of White Plains. So for me this release has been a hugely enjoyable nostalgic trip bringing back some memorable moments. The compilation is released this Friday (18th) the same day as the next SMART meet, see you there! Enjoy.
Alan Esdaile… Great track.
Robert Searle… Alan, Great track, great production, great vocals.