They used to dress up in muesli and eat sandals whilst meditating on their heads, but now they’re a gleaming multi-membered pop combo. Are James jessies or the finest live band in Britain? Stuart Maconie jumps on their tour bus and finds himself in teen pop heaven (!!!)
“Two weeks ago they said ‘We’ve got the Railway Children coming down here today’ and ‘I thought ‘Bloody Hell! Jenny Agutter and all that lot from that film’. Then they said to me ‘James will be here afternoon’ so I thought ‘James who?’ Was that two sugars, did you say?
PC68 is clearly the odd good apple that gets the whole force a bad name; a fine man whose notion of community policing extends to making coffee for journalists and keeping you up to date with the World Cup scores. His beat, happily, takes in that part of downtown Sheffield which includes the HMV shop and thus, it is he who is called upon to cast a firm but paternal eye over the drooling drug nympho teenies whenever rock phenomena such as Springsteen or Edsel Auctioneer are in town for a ‘signing’.
Downstairs in the shop, a disparate crowd of young folk are gathering excitedly to have their CDs, shoes, faces and tea towels signed by their favourite group whose current glorious ascent is testimony to the powers of human spirit and the importance of good t-shirts. Eighteen months ago, James were matchwood on the cruel and rocky shores of pop success; indie art-rockers (so the theory went) who had been left behind in the headless chicken rush for new good times.
When such things mattered, they had the King’s Ear, the Papal blessing – Morrissey liked them. But as the 80s ground to a halt and the spectre of disco entered many a polytechnic common room, so James became the sensitive Zen vegans who couldn’t dance properly and were not prepared to learn.
Now, in the summer of 1990, there are few more exciting or original groups on the planet. On record, they have become brazen, bold and eclectic; live, they are a revelation, of which much, much later. For now, I have seen the future of multi-cultural, chart-friendly, stadium pop/folk metal and its first name is James.
“The embarrassing thing about signing teenage girls t-shirts is that they always want you to sign them halfway up the back and you always end up in trouble with the bra strap. I wonder if that’s the idea….”
Saul Davies, if my calculations are correct, will have to get used to this for there is much of it ahead. Saul is one of the four new personnel whose introduction into the James camp has coincided (though it’s no real coincidence) with the spectacular renaissance in the group’s fortunes. When he and Dave, Mark and Andy joined the band, James were firmly in neutral and beleagured by a welter of preconceptions that had James backed into a corner. James the academic, aloof dilettantes, the bloodless folkies, the mantra chanting recluses.
Most of these were wrong but you could see how they had gained currency. From the outset, James had nurtured a peculiar style that invited comparisons with both folk, indiepop, The Birthday Party and other radicals, and even high life and tribal rhythms. They were touted as new and unusual white, Northern hopes; heirs apparent to the vacant Smiths throne.
There was a flurry of front covers, and a series of interviews in which the odd reference to Buddhism, meditation and alternative healing was to provide pundits with a dream of an angle; James as brilliant rock weirdos. And what was to make them intriguing and individual in 85 would have turned into a mocking albatross by the end of the decade. Those silly buggers with the carrot juice and cardies who never made it.
But such depressing thoughts seem inappropriate as we cruise through the Yorkshire streets sipping our Aqua Libres, idly pondering which CD to play or which video to peruse. Thanks to a logarithmically expanding fan base, a hit single and a burgeoning reputation as a live act of extraordinary power, the days of draughty Transits littered wiht old banana milk cartons are over.
Availing myself of the sumptuous tour bus comforts, I introduce myself to James. The central core of Tim Booth, Jim Glennie and Larry Gott has been augmented by Saul, a personable multi-instrumentalist who is probably sick of being called impish; Mark, the tactiturn genius of the keyboards; Dave, the AWOL drummer; and trumpeter Andy, once a member of the The Diagram Brothers, a curious group who I practically venerated in the early 80s. For the entire two days I think of bringing the subject up only to think better of it. I hope this explains my odd behaviour.
We’re on route to the venue having completed the successful in-store PA. These are invariably strange affairs, made stranger in this instance by James insistence on playing an acoustic set. So we are treated to Tim singing of global annihilation whilst wedged on the counter between tape cleaning kits and Kylie posters. The place is packed, though, and it does afford an interesting glimpse at the James fan of the 90s. And they’re young. Horribly young. Except for the old ones.
Many wear hooded tops, flared trousers and have faces curtained with floppy fringes obviously in the throes of geographical adolescent crush. Others are more conventionally alternative and have albums by Echo and the Bunnymen back at the flat. Their enthusiasm is as infectious as it is justified as they queue patiently to have their merchandise autographed and pass the time of day with their heroes. Two hulking, neanderthal bodybuilders who’ve popped in for Tina Turner albums stand bemused in the midst of it.
Many of the kids clutch copies of Gold Mother, latest and undoubtedly best James album. Fleshed out by the additional members, the sound is now free of the slightly edgy diffidence. The Jamesian quest for originality is still evident but so is the desire to make a full-blooded rock racket. It even garnered a bona fide hit in How Was It For You?, a straightforward, unreconstructed knees up of a rock tune that successfully completed a string of excellent ‘nearly’ singles: What For, Sit Down and Come Home, the latter now set for re-release.
At the soundcheck, James go through the complicated daily routine of choosing tonight’s set. They try Crescendo and declare it to be a ‘bloody mess’. They perform an excellent God Only Knows and still seem unconvinced. They run through a lovely version of The Velvet Underground’s Sunday Morning (admittedly a song that could withstand an Erasure version) which I love and they dismiss as ‘shite’. Being an unconventional pop group, ie not having your nightly performance worked out down to the last witty ad lib, clearly has its trials and I leave them to it.
Over the catering crew’s delightful strawberry meringues, word goes round that tonight’s gig is sold out. Saul throws up his hands in mock horror. “Oh no, we’ve sold out! I knew we shouldn’t have released How Was It For You?” There probably are poor benighted souls who think this way (indeed, some of them work on music papers) but fortunately there are thousands of others to whom James are a new band and come unfettered by associations. Unsurprisingly, all of James turn out to be extremely nice folk indeed. Tim and I realise we have a shared love of the Lake District fells and I am quietly impressed and dead jealous when he tells me of travelling Helvelyn’s Striding Edge in a blizzard.
The bar is filling up with many of the same faces that were at the record shop earlier. They wear their freshly signed t-shirts as trophies, as proof that they are privy to the inner sanctum. James have always had a considerable live support but something indefinable and inexplicable has happened. The Manchester connection, though powerful, is not enough to account for this broadening of appeal, this new devotion.
And within two hours, I know why. I have a confession to make. I’ve been a little lukewarm about James in the past. Hymn From A Village, Johnny Yen, Scarecrow, interesting stuff I agree, but…. Maybe it was just me being suspicious but I could never really get past the wilful awkwardness of some of their songs and their seeming substitution of bug-eyed dementia for genuine passion.
In case you have harboured these thoughts yourself and have not had the pleasure of the new James, then let me, as Peter Purves would say, enlighten you. James have metamorphosed into an extraordinary rock group, a live event of breathtaking force. The individuality remains but with it comes grit, pluck, fire and brimstone.
As the siren riff of Come Home plays over the slide show of James banners, the expectation is palpable. They begin and immediately you’re struck by the imposing weight of the sound and the sense of self-assurance. Hang On and Government Walls are the work of a band not afraid to make a big beautiful sound, an intoxicating tumult.
Bring A Gun and Suffering are raucous and intense rock songs, with a physical presence most speed metal bands would envy. They take chances with impunity, dropping into the spectral atmospherics of Walking The Ghost or chancing their arm with an untitled new song building on relentless repetition and the interplay between an agitated violin and a bruised, blue-black trumpet.
There then follows a kind of mini greatest hits segment that sends the assembled bonkers with glee. How Was It For You? leads into the frenetic, primitivist Johnny Yen complete with ad lib along the lines of “Aren’t you just sick of all those translucent Manchester bands” If concessions to modernity (Mondays drumbeat, splash of house piano) have been made in Come Home they’ve been made with an elan that you can’t fault.
Sit Down; the new James anthem brings legions onto the stage, forcing Tim on to the speaker cabinets for fear of being crushed. In case anyone thought they were playing to the gallery for cheap applause, they finish with Stutter, a nightmare blast of psycho metal. The image retained is that of Andy’s wildly flailing searchlight illuminating corners of the hall, of Tim’s frantic dervlish dance, of Saul roaming the stage like a man possessed and of a pop group at the height of their powers. You could say I was impressed.
I gave it a week. It could have been a trick of the light or something in the lager, I figured. The James World Cup tour finished up at the Birmingham Hummingbird and I proposed to be there. To get some more of this addictive stuff and to sit down with James and a tape recorder. The night in Sheffield had ended in champagne, autograph hunters, eight different types of soft cheese and a curious coach journey to Manchester where the video entertainment came courtesy of Stallone and First Blood, not perhaps an automatic first choice as most people’s idea of fave James viewing.
James arrive in beautiful downtown Brum in good spirits, having had several good gigs in the interim, including one particularly special, emotional shindig at the Liverpool Royal Court. The World Cup tour proper ends tonight, the 20 gigs in 23 nights, although there is Glastonbury and some Irish gigs later. Are these extraordinary scenes of fervour and mass communion seen every night? Tim Booth laughs.
“Not always. God knows what it is that starts them off. I suppose certain songs like What For and Sit Down are very warm and they invite an emotional response. But in other songs like Come Home, you don’t get the same singalong quality, it’s darker… ‘After 30 years I’ve become my fears…..’ But, yes, often the audience seem to get involved in an almost U2 kind of way.”
You see, this has been bothering me. Though there’s nothing of the bombastic or messianistic about James, the last show I saw that had a similar feel to it was a Simple Minds concert. The same sense that for the crowd, and band, this was more than a collection of pop songs played loud but implied some celebration of import. Is Tim insulted by this comparison?
“No because I know what you mean. We’ve always had it, even though in the past the audiences have been a bit thinner on the ground. In Manchester, it’s been a celebration for four years. There’ve been times when we’ve had to stop playing because the crowd was singing so loud it was putting us off! But in the past this never got reported.”
“On stage, it’s a performance but it’s also a reflection of ourselves. Sometimes we don’t want to do the nice songs, we want to do the heavy ones with the nasty lyrics. Then the audience aren’t invited to join in, it’s more like ‘witness this’. We like those as well, though the sound people say ‘that was weird’.
“This tour I’ve encouraged people to sing Sit Down. In London they wouldn’t. But I guess I shouldn’t really try, it’s a bit of a cliche. So sometimes it’s a celebration – uplifting and rewarding. Other times, we release demons.”
Larry : “There used to be a real barrier between us and the audience. It was a criticism that was thrown at us a lot … that we were separate, somehow insular and aloof with all this improvising on stage and stuff. And we didn’t realise because we were concentrating so hard. In effect it was like a practice room with 600 people.”
Jim continues this rueful reflection. “We were much more self conscious then. Much more vulnerable. Going on stage was terrifying because we were right on the line, taking real risks…. and sometimes it would go badly wrong. It would fall apart and we’d all freak out, all turn round and retreat, heads down and face the drummer. Try and get off quick.”
How about the audiences themselves? Who comes to James gigs these days?
Tim : “Well on this tour it’s been young girls. Loads of them. That’s certainly never happened before. I can’t remember when it started…..”
Saul interrupts. “Basically it’s been since I joined the band, hasn’t it?”
Larry : “I think partly because we never made it, our records have become very dear to people. It’s as if there have been a lot of people quietly rooting for James who are now coming out of the closets.”
Jim : “It seems to go in pockets around the country. In Glasgow and Norwich, it’s older people. You can see the odd grey hair in the audience. But you go elsewhere and there’s these really young girls down the front.”
I ask whether they are beginning to get tired of hearing that James areon the verge of stardom. Larry is quick to reply. “What, after seven years of it, you mean?”
Tim takes up the thread. “No, it’s very different now. This is it. In the past our music was often quite skeletal and difficult. But now there are seven of us, working hard and the sound has become more accessible. Fleshed out and huge. Like Johnny Yen, which has always been a good song has now become an anthem.
“There’s a real wave of support now. The biggest we’ve ever had,” continues Jim. “You definitely get the feeling something is happening.”
Tim : “It’s a new band. I’ve wanted this for so long but we were never able to find sympathetic musicians. Now we have. I wanted to change the name to emphasize this. But I’m glad we didn’t now because it’s become a good name again after a period of being terribly out of fashion.”
Larry : “I’m glad we kept the name too. For me, it’s like The Fall. They’ve gone through so many changes but they are still The Fall. The same spirit persists. And we’re still James. It’s just that now there are seven of us playing to the same principles that the four of us once had.”
Jim : “For me, changing the name was about destroying the preconceptions that people had about us. It was going to be a way of saying ‘Look we’re back and we’re completely different. Forget all that bollocks you read in the past.'”
And what preconceptions might those be, I ask innocently. Jim eyes me with a wry smile.
“I don’t really like to repeat them because it only helps to perpetuate them. You know that in the past we’ve been associated with…….” Tim clamps a hand across Jim’s mouth and doesn’t remove it until he’s certain Glennie isn’t about too say anything too incriminating. “… some softer areas of music. Yes, we do have our quiet moments. But really, we play half a dozen heavy metal songs in the set and people still say we’re a folk band. How can anyone who plays a song like Stutter be described as a ‘folk band’? It’s as if people are desperate not to confuse the issue. ‘Look you’re vegetarians, we suspect that you’re Buddhists, you do the odd acoustic number. You’re a folk band!”
Larry : “It’s like touring with The Smiths. We did that specifically to destroy the endless Smiths comparisons. We thought that by going out and playing with them every night, we’d hammer home the point that we were nothing like them. But it backfired. It just made the association stronger.”
Tim elaborates on this theme. “At the time the things that Morrissey said were very flattering and we were very grateful but when we didn’t make it, it became this millstone around our necks that we had to put up with for five years.”
James, undoubtedly, are a group reborn. They have not disowned their past but they have built something completely new from its foundations. At what point did this rebirth occur?
Tim : “In some ways it was external events like coming off Sire and Gavin (ex-drummer) leaving. That was a stimulus. We’d wanted more people in the band for ages.”
Jim : “We tried everybody. Ron Johnson. Blokes from the Halle Orchestra. Clint from the Inspiral Carpets. But it never seemed to quite work.”
Then Tim makes a shock admission. “You see I’ve always been a big fan of Bruce Springsteen live. I’ve seen him a few times and I’ve always been blown away by the real depth of talent within his band. That’s something I’ve wanted for James but it never seemed to work until this year. It all fell together.
“Andy’s really the most freelance of the four. He’s got his jazz band. Dave was suspicious because he’d been badly ripped of in the past. And in the beginning he had to join on trust because there was no money to pay him with. At the end of the first tour I think he was amazed when we paid him. Mark is extremely talented but so quiet that for a year we didn’t know whether he was enjoying himself or not. (He also has a sense of humour. In the tour programme, he lists his least attractive trait as being ‘loudmouth and pushy’) And Saul was spotted by Larry, doing his bit in a get-up-and-improvise club.
And how did Saul feel, I wonder, about his discovery, a la the Human League girls?
“Well, it came at a particularly good time for me as I was doing absolutely nothing. Indeed, I was up a particular creek without a certain implement. I’d never played on a stage in my life and within two weeks I was playing to 2000 people at the Free Trade Hall. I gradually learnt stagefright.”
It would seem to me that only a person stupider than a very stupid thing could not be enchanted by the new James. But have there been any mealy mouthed cries of ‘sell out’?
Tim : “Well, there have been the reviews. For the first time in our career, we were landed with a whole batch of pretty vicious reviews saying ‘what a good LP Stutter was’ which, of course, no one said at the time.”
Larry : “It’s ironic really, this talk of ‘selling out’ because we never saw ourselves as being particularly oblique at the time. We always wanted to be popular as well as experimental. An esoteric pop group. We thought we were accessible when really we weren’t. Stutter has its difficult moments, though a lot of it was naivety. We didn’t realise that there was anything odd about songs with no choruses.”
But, around the time of the Stripmining LP, things had reached a low ebb. Faced with public indifference and an uncooperative record company, there must have been a strong case for packing it all in. Larry pales visibly.
“There was one point. Sire had pretty much refused to do anything with What For and our management then couldn’t seem to do anything. I remember the four of us being in a cafe and I think it was Gavan who said ‘well, that’s it then’ and I think it all swung on the next remark. But fortunately someone said something to the effect of ‘let’s show the bastards’. I knew I wasn’t prepared to be told that my career was over by some bloke in an office in America who knew nothing about James.”
But did you ever feel, like many others did, that James had had their chance?
Tim : “Not really. We knew our music was improving. We were always confident that we’d be one of the biggest groups in the world. So we waited with a kind of arrogant patience.”
Cynics might suggest that your rocketing popularity has more to do with a general infatuation with all things Mancunian rather than your own qualities.
Larry : “Are we seen as part of that scene? I’m not sure that we are. There may be some overlap but I don’t think that it counts for very much.”
Tim : “When we toured with the Mondays well before this Manchester thing, we were beginning to get big audiences and a great vibe. You can’t win. Someone said ‘Oh you’re getting popular now because The Smiths had gone,’ but The Smiths have been gone for years now. So then it’s ‘well, The Stone Roses are doing well’. How can you argue with that?
And are these the happpiest times ever for the James gang?
Tim : “Musically, yes. My personal life is in a shambles. But everything to do with the band is very exciting and uplifting at the moment.”
And does the imminent threat of fame appeal to you?
“It used to frighten us; back in the days when everyone was saying it was bound to happen. But then it passed us by. We thought ‘we’ll never know’. Now we can’t wait. I’m getting used to all that strange business about feeling watched all the time. Being asked for autographs in nightclubs. And then there’s the sex……”
“The feeling of it being around all the time. The constant availability. It’s both very frightening and very exciting.”
I bet. That night in Birmingham the James World Cup Tour 1990 came to an exhilirating end. I was converted for the second time in a week. The air crackled. The rafters rang. And by Sit Down the band gave up and simply let the crowd sing the chorus in proof that sometimes pop music can still be powerfully affecting without resort to schmaltz or overblown, fake sentiment.
Backstage there is an intoxicating, gentle euphoria. For me, there is the joyous realisation that pop music doesn’t have to pick its spots and pull some potato-faced sneer in the mirror of its mum and dad’s house to be wildly, dangerously brilliant. Backstage, a hugely, tipsily pregnant woman gets Tim to sign the stomach wherein resides her unborn child. Is this making you feel sick, rock n rollers? Good. You’ll be getting a hell of a lot sicker before this party is over.