Patti Caldwell : Welcome to Out of Order the programme that bites. Tonight we see the flipside of the glamorous pop industry. How one promising British band disappeared when they signed on the same British label as Madonna.
Looking for fame and fortune and climbing the charts, tonight Out of Order looks at what it’s like to be young, talented and signed up to a huge American music corporation and then left on the shelf with little chance of escape.
Reporter : Madonna is number one in the album charts. This is the story of the British band hoping to copy her success with the WEA/Sire record corporation. They too joined the stable of Seymour Stein, the man who signed Madonna.
In 1985, rock critics had tipped James as the next big British rock act and Seymour Stein snapped them up into an exclusive contract. But unlike Madonna, they were never to earn more than £30 a week. A number one band in the independent charts, front page of the NME and described by Sounds Magazine as “pop gods and saviours of rock n roll., they now belonged exclusively to the world of Sire and WEA, part of the massive Warner Communications. Only when they were signed did they realise that it wasn’t a passport to fame and fortune.
Jim : Things were going really well for us. We were being courted by the record companies. We signed to Sire on a high. We were going and then things stopped basically.
Tim : We would ring people in WEA a year after we’d signed and we’d say “This is so and so from James” and they’d say James Who? and it was like they didn’t even know you were part of WEA and Sire
Reporter : From rock n roll to medical guinea pigs, testing drugs at the local hospital for £10 a day so that they could continue to work full-time. James shared their manager with top WEA act Simply Red. They’ve sold millions. Now Elliot Rashman has put at risk his vital relationship with WEA and Sire by talking to Out of Order. He believes that by now James should be a top international act, but he says they were left in a dark corner of the musical industry, what’s known as the mummification process.
Elliot Rashman : Most of the major record labels in the US use the independent music scene in the UK as a Sainsburys and they come over here with their metaphorical shopping trolley and fill it full of independent acts and the cost for a major American conglomerate is minimal so they come over here and every year they sign bands and bands and bands and they tell them it’s all going to be wonderful and they’re the next big thing and that’s as much as they do. All they have to do is sign them, they don’t have to work them. Now their view is business is business.
Reporter : Into the shopping trolley and locked into a sixty page contract, James were owned by Sire “throughout the universe” and in the hands of that company. In this letter to WEA, manager Elliot Rashman accuses the company of failing to give proper promotion. The problem he says stems from Sire’s policy of “sign them and see what happens but don’t spend any money in the meantime” All this from a man whose only other band, Simply Red, were making millions for WEA. Sire were committed to releasing two albums. Today hype and promotion are the lifeblood of pop hits. Elliot Rashman is scathing over the release of the second James LP.
ER : It ended up on the shelf. It ended up being released because again from a contractual point of view, all they have to do is release it and they’ve obliged, they’ve fulfilled their side of the contract.
Reporter : Is it possible to have hits by just releasing….
ER : No, it’d be dead within a week.
PC : Well, the only advice Elliot Rashman could give James was to break up and to escape the contact. James, the high hopes of 85 watched the obituraries roll in.
Reporter : Across the Atlantic, Rolling Stone magazine wrote a glowing feature on flamboyant Stein, boasting that he’s a collector, he likes to collect furniture. James felt like they were in the attic and Sire wouldn’t let them out of the contract.
Larry : If they turned round and let a band go and they then go on and have success elsewhere, then they’re left with egg on their face and probably no job. They’ll be branded as “He’s the guy who let James go. He’s the guy who let the Beatles go.” It’s not a very good reference for the next job. So they keep you.
Reporter : So the band waited. Their last album recorded in February 1987 wasn’t released by Sire until Autumn 88. With no new material, there seemed little point in playing live.
We tracked down Seymour Stein to London to see if he would talk to us and he refused. He said he was too busy at the moment with the promotion, the parties and the razzmatazz of the new Madonna album.
Three years on from signing, James are at last free, risking everything, they’ve borrowed £12,000 to put out a live album.
Tim : Seymour heard that we were making this programme and threatened to stop us releasing our LP even though we’re not on the label. So obviously there’s a threat there.
Reporter : Stein eventually relented but there’s a final twist.
ER : It means their new album, which is a live album, coming out on their own independent label, they have to pay the record company because they’re using songs, albeit performed live, from the previous two albums. They don’t even let you go. It’s a bit like hacking your arm off and still feeling the sensation for a couple of years.
Reporter : Saturday night and the touts are out. Freed from their contract, James are back.
PC : We called WEA Records no less than seventeen times to ask for an interview with Seymour Stein because we wanted to hear what he had to say. We traced him through his New York office to Madrid where we delivered a list of questions. Why did his company not let James go when, as it appeared, they were not promoting them? Well, we’re still waiting for an answer on that one. But one question it appears has been answered. This week, four years on, James new album went to number one in the independent charts.