Their T-shirt went to number one in Britain and now JAMES aim to follow it up with their debut LP for a major. So how far are they the band that Manchester forgot, or just a Madchester crazed media overlooked?
May Day in Manchester. Thermometers are nudging the 80 degrees mark and everyone’s stupid with the heat. It’s too sweaty too wear flares, so the city’s youth have left their flapping dungarees at home in favour of surf jams and questionable Bermuda shorts. So much for the Rainy City – this is more like Torremolinos.
On a postage-stamp of parkland near their city centre offices, the founder members of Manchester’s best kept secret lounge on dry grass. Today’s Today says that record smog levels make sunbathing a high-risk activity, akin to changing a lightbulb while standing in a bucket of water, but James couldn’t give a bugger.
The charming and amiable trio of Jim Glennie, Larry Gott and singer/wordsmith Tim booth are keen to relax – a wise move considering that their workload is about to increase considerably. After nearly eight years of diligent gigging, an unhappy marriage with a major label followed by 18 months in limbo, a succession of managers and enough false starts to wear down the most patient of artists… all these trials are about to pay off.
Their forthcoming debut album for Fontana, ‘Gold Mother’, is not merely James’ best studio recording so far, but the most accomplished example of what used to be called Indie-rock that 1990 has seen. And as bassist Glennie says, Beats International have already taken a James T-shirt to number one in Britain. All they need to do now is to match it with a record.
The omens are unmistakable. The smart money says that, at long last, James are about to happen. ’’This time we’re prepared to take the breaks,” Jim Glennie says. “And we weren’t in the past. That’s the difference. We’ve created a situation where we could have been successful, we could have gone for it and done everything, but we didn’t, we held back. And we lost our chance.” Today you could get a donkey ‘Blogged up’ in flares and Kickers and it would probably be hailed as the next wonder from the land of the Orange Buses.
Despite selling upwards of 2,000 concert tickets in most cities – more in Manchester – and despite shifting two grand’s worth of their distinctive T-shirts this week, James were virtually blacklisted by last year’s Madchester media circus.
With their back catalogue of sophisticated oblique pop, James clearly didn’t fit into the conception of a cartoon world filled with bowl-headed, so called scallies berserk on horse tranquillisers and bent on mischief. James were a Manchester band, not a Madchester band. And Madchester was about the Monday’s, The Stone Roses, 808 State, Oldham’s Inspiral Carpets and a slew of promotion play-off candidates like The New Fast Automatic Daffodils.
Maybe James (est 1983) had been around a bit too long and outstayed their welcome, failing to match previous glowing references from the press with attendant hits. Or perhaps it was the Morrissey seal of approval, priceless when he bestowed it on James in 11985 but now the equivalent of the Black Spot, that dropped them into the perceived no man’s land between the bright young things and the old Manchester of New Order, The Fall and The Smiths.
Either way, James fell victim to a conspiracy of silence. This rankles with guitar talent and conviction man Larry Gott. “James is not the band that Manchester forgot,” he says testily. “Once we were the medias darlings, but because we didn’t do what they expected of us (touring America with The Smiths for instance) we were forgotten about. It didn’t mean anything to us. Our audiences and record sales kept growing.”
Tim Booth is also at pains to put Manchester matters in perspective. “You have to divide what’s really going on in Manchester – the bands who know and respect each other – and what’s written in the press. The journalistic conception of the Manchester scene is totally different to the reality of how the bands relate to one another which is, on the whole, very good. And we are part of that. That’s why we’ve taken the Mondays and the Carpets and the Daffodils on tour; that’s why we were taken on tour by The Smiths, The Fall and New Order. It’s nothing like what’s written about by journalists from the South.”
James’ conspicuous failure to do the business was partly due to their ill-starred three year deal with Sire Records, signed in 1985, which was so grim it nearly finished the band off. Even today they groan at the mention of the company that promised so much – not least to share a label with band favourites Talking Heads and The Ramones – and delivered nothing but misery. ‘Stutter’ and ‘Strip-mine’, their two albums for Sire, were both fine, spiky offerings, but each received a negligible push from the label which was more concerned with its American operations. The records duly evaporated. The bands’ attitude did not help. ‘We were idealistic”, says a rueful Jim. ”We thought the music would win through, regardless of whether or not we we did interviews, or didn’t release anything for years or whatever. It was just naivety.”
These were dispiriting times for the then four-piece James, even when the contract expired, as Larry explains with the black humour of hindsight. ”We nearly called it a day there and then, when Gavin (Whelan, James’ original drummer) said, well that’s it. And we knew that whatever the next person said would decide whether it went one way or another.” Glennie, Booth and Gott opted to soldier on, eventually recruiting new drummer Dave Baynton-Power. They returned to indie-land and Rough Trade for the singles ‘Sit Down’ and ‘Come Home’ and an acclaimed live album, ‘One Man Clapping’. The album’s lengthy stint in the indie charts proved that there were still plenty of James fans out there after all.
For most of ’88 and ’89 James paid the rent not as musicians but bizarrely with the proceeds of the range of James T-shirts designed by a fan in London. The T-shirts have a ‘Ja’ on the front, ‘m’ on one arm and ‘e’ on the back and ‘s’ on the other arm. ‘Poor As Fuck’ might have been more appropriate. ‘It was ridiculous,” recalls Booth. “While we were producing ‘Gold Mother’ last year none of us even had cassette machines that worked properly to listen to the masters. Our record players were useless too. We’d been on £30 a week for about seven years and we had no money for the necessary technology.
This is unlikely to be the state of affairs from now on. It’s early days, but the new seven-piece James are enjoying a productive relationship with Fontana. The fiery ‘How Was It For You’, first fruit of the new deal shifted 15,000 copies in the North West alone during its first week of release and the label is doing it all it can to ensure the record’s chart success. Tim Palmer, who worked on the release of The House Of Love’s ‘Shine On’ has remixed ‘How Was It’ for single consumption with James’ blessings and Fontana are releasing the track in a variety of formats with bewildering permutations of exclusive extra tracks.
James, though not entirely happy with this chart chicanery have spent enough time on their metaphorical arses to realise that some compromises are worth making. “It is a fix really,” Glennie concedes. “But at this moment we do need that push. Hopefully when we’re in a situation where we don’t need it anymore we can stop bloody doing it.” Of course there are remixes and there are remixes. And it’s something of a surprise that James, stalwarts of the pre-Acid House, no disco-dancing, indie-kid brigade, are taking the plunge with a dancefloor remix for their next release.
Paul Oakenfold and Andy Weatherall (the men who made Happy Mondays dance) are possibles to re-work ‘Come Dance’ as is Inspirals and Erasure remixer Flood. And somewhere in the James tape cupboard is a remix by Graham Massey of 808 State which, reckons Jim, is more “bassy but too muffled to release.” The band had it done last summer – “When it wasn’t so fashionable, “quips Booth. “Yeah, dance mixes are a departure from what we were doing two years ago. But since then the Mondays and ‘Fools Gold’ and countless others have proved that there are no longer two camps of dance and rock, that it doesn’t matter which are you work in as long as the song itself is good.”
Inspired by the distant sight of Strangeways Prison’s wrecked Rotunda, Jim and larry toy with the idea of a ‘Strangeways Rooftop Dance Mix’ of ‘Come Home’ with the former indie hit’s spiralling hook replaced by incessant police sirens and an opening sample of a rioter shouting, “Good Morning Manchester!” All agree it would be mega-classic. They want to call it ‘Come Down’ but realise that then the song wouldn’t make sense.
This month’s Gold Mother is a measured, tempting collection with confidence to spare. The fractured wit and melodic inventiveness of ‘Stutter’ and ‘Strip-mine’ are still there but the context is new with recruits Mark Hunter (keyboards), Andy Diagram (trumpet) and Saul Davies (everything but specifically violin) bringing extra colour to what are some of James’ finest songs. ‘How Was It For You?’ and ‘Come Home’ are already well-known as wild things with heart and ice and ‘Top Of The World’ finds a pitch of poignancy that James have never reached before. The textures are many and varied, the sentiments intriguing and more readily intelligible if not exactly commercialised. Weak links are few: this is how James always should have sounded.
Booth’s lyric writing, noted for its tendency to sharp contrasts of specifics and abstracts has also moved into focus. ‘God Only Knows’ is hilarious, skewering religious head-the-balls of the Swaggart and Bakker school with some cruelly apposite sampling from Satellite God-slot programmes and the priceless lines, “If God is in his image/Almighty must be small”. Booth does not bother to disguise his contempt for today’s cheap goons who pass for religious authority. “If God made man in his image then it doesn’t reflect too well on God does it?” he grins. “Man is a total screw-up and if there is a spirit or meaning of life then man clearly has no idea what it is. He is much better off keeping his mouth shut rather than saying, Follow me as your intermediary.”
Maybe the title track gives the most telling clue to James’ present concerns. ‘Gold Mother’ deals with the birth of Tim’s son Ben in graphic Technicolor but it’s no lame bout of new-man drivel. The song is positively peculiar, an angular bass-driven chant with backing vocals by everyone’s favourite obstetricians the Inspiral Carpets. “Have you ever seen a woman giving birth?” asks Tim…. Only on the telly….” It’s not the same on the telly……”
Back at the James offices, the aforementioned Ben is having a messy late lunch and the band are poring over a limited edition of ‘How Was It For You?’ in a particularly desirable metallic sleeve. It comes with a free James logo stencil which Jim reckons will kill off their T-shirt sales in one fell blow. Talk turns to which of Larry’s guitars will look best on the inevitable Top Of The Pops slot and to the Gold Mother tour which begins this week coinciding with the World Cup. Instead of a support band, James will be screening the match of the evening with a DJ on at the same time so you can dance or watch the game. Or both.
“It’s not as if we’re a great football band or anything but people will want to see the game which seems fair enough,” says the obliging Tim.