Dave Simpson traces the history of the band and talks to singer Tim Booth about broken dreams, shattered illusions and a new faith for the nineties.
The story of James is a lesson to every aspiring young person that ever picked up a guitar, ever dreamt of pop success and the glory that goes with it, ever believed in the old adage that talent will win through in the end, that good will always triumph over evil. Which, after all, is most of us.
The story of James is a love story, a tale of young men at odds with the world and in love with their art. It’s a tale that has fought off betrayals, disappointments and crippling disabilities, that’s seen hearts break, tears fall and spirits shatter. But James are still here. And this is their story.
The band formed in the early eighties as a collection of schoolboy friends. Tim Booth, Larry Gott, Gavan Whelan and Jim Glennie became James, named after their guitarist and because “Gavan didn’t have the same ring to it!” Based in Manchester, it wasn’t long before they had progressed to playing the occassional gig at The Hacienda’s local bands night and it was there that the group came to the attention of New Order manager Rob Gretton, who saw something in the foursome’s idiosyncratic yet emotive music and the frenzied dancing of Tim Booth and asked if they might like to record a single for Factory.
The “Jimone” EP duly followed at the back end of 1983 – containing the live standard “What’s The World”, the anti-nuclear “Fire So Close” and the sublime “Folklore”, the band’s attempt at questioning the basics of male/female stereotyping, which, looking back, could have been the touchstone for the “wimps” tag which was to haunt them in years to come. The band’s image was far removed from the overt masculinity of much of the rock music of its time – the blustery chest-thump of Simple Minds and the increasing stridency of U2 – and their fondness for casual clothing (principally cardigans) and vegetarian politics provided the press with an easy label. The term of “hippy folkie vegans” became synonymous with articles on the group.
1985 saw the classic “Hymn From A Village / If Things Were Perfect” coupling that was “James II”, a biting attack on worthless big-league pop and the single that rightly had the critics falling over themselves and A&R men dashing for their chequebooks.
Things moved fast. Morrissey proclaimed them as his favourite band, a tour with The Smiths beckoned and the band were catapulted into playing to thousands on one of the wildest tours of the decade. “The Smiths tour – we were very very grateful to The Smiths for giving us that level of exposure. But it was a case of a double-edged sword, on the one hand we were playing to these huge audiences and all that, but on the other hand it meant we were to become associated with The Smiths, compared to them. Which we never really thought was appropriate at all, we were two different bands really. It almost became a stigma, y’know. ‘Oh James, Smiths type band.'”
Following the success of the tour and their notable appearance at the 1985 WOMAD festival, James signed to Seymour Stein’s Sire Records, home of Madonna and Talking Heads. Things looked good. Whilst lacking the raw power of the Factory records, the first Sire single “Chain Mail” dented the national Top 50 and gained a snatch of daytime radio play.
Things started to go astray however with the release of the band’s debut album, the ironically titled “Stutter”. The record contained some fine songs, particularly the dreamy “Really Hard” and “Johnny Yen”, which was to become a cornerstone of the band’s set for many years, but it was marred by a flat production job, courtesy of Lenny Kaye, former drummer with the Patti Smith Group. “We were inexperienced as a studio band, Lenny was inexperienced as a producer. We were lost, basically.” Tim Booth’s charming, charismatic vocals were rendered all but colourless. The album crept out to mixed reviews and without a substantial back-up. In chart terms, it flopped.
The band soon realised the difference between being independent hopefuls and major label artists. “You can be number one in the indie charts and mean nothing in the mainstream charts. When you go to a major you lose the profile an independent hit gives, even though you may actually be selling more records. Looking back, I think we should have done an independent album.”
Sire began to lose interest. They viewed James as still essentially being an “indie” group. They’d been signed as a “hip” band with a flurry of press activity and once they’d got them on the dotted line, the company had no idea what to do with them. A further problem was the fact that, as a huge American company, Sire didn’t have a UK office, which made it difficult for the group to deal with them. There was never any real working relationship between the two parties. Tim Booth recalls “With Sire, we didn’t accept any money, so they could really do with us what they wanted because they hadn’t put any investment into us. They could just leave us on a shelf for two years, they weren’t going to lose anything.”
Which is precisely what happened. Between 1986 and 1988 there were no James records – no singles, no albums, no more than a handful of gigs. Many of the group’s fans assumed they’d split up, there were the usual trickle of rumours surrounding the band’s activities (some almost as far-fetched as those surrounding The Only Ones), and for all intents and purposes James were close to being all but a cherished memory. The band were shattered, broken. Their dreams languished on the rocks, their morale was all but crushed. It was never meant to be this way.
1988 at last saw a release in the form of a fine single “What For”. It was to become an anthem for the band, an inspiring and uplifting tale of a yearning hope, flying in the face of adversity. Its success was seen as vital to the continued progress of the group. Sire thought the record still “a little too indie for Radio 1”, failed to give it any kind of push, and, despite the band’s faithful following rushing out to buy a copy, it failed to make the Top 40. James were devastated. The drummer, Gavan, left. Tim Booth recalls “That year had been really hard, we’d nearly finished, just given up, we were on the brink of bankruptcy. With Gavan, we had to ask him to leave after a series of arguments. He seemed to have a different idea of what he wanted from the music, so we just felt it wasn’t worth continuing, because it was like every rehearsal was a fight.”
James long awaited second LP appeared at the tailend of the year, two years after it was recorded and after remixing had attempted to give it a more radio-friendly sound. The company did nothing to promote it. “Strip Mine” was a great record that never got made, the resulting release a very good but rapidly dating and frustrating shadow of the group’s increasingly electrifying live form. Worse, their former champions in the press maintained the notion that the band and their music were somehow “wimpy and fragile”. Which was patently ludicrous.
“We were in this awful press rut where we were a, you know, ‘File under Smiths, vegetarian, Buddhist, arran sweaters’ kind of group. That was a hell of a shit rut to get into, we didn’t feel it reflected any of the music that we were making. We don’t feel out music’s ‘indie’, there’s never been a Buddhist in the band, vegetarianism isn’t a policy, it just happens that most of the members of the band are that way by choice. The music’s not wimpy, it’s more &ldots; provocative and aggressive. I’d actually quite like to meet the journalists who write that we’re wimps, then we could show them just how wimpy we are. We still get dismissed like that, only recently one paper wanted to run an article on us and the projected headline was ‘Return of the Hippies!’ It’s just ridiculous.”
Down to a three-piece, the band were at rock-bottom. But they didn’t give in. They still burned with a basic faith in the power of what they were doing, they found a new will, a new resolve. They found a legal loophole in their record contract and finally broke free. The phoenix began to rise.
In 1989, having spent time recruiting a new drummer, James expanded to a seven-piece line up and began work on a more powerful, more danceable sound. “We’d wanted other musicians before, but we’d not been able to find any with the same attitudes as us regarding improvising and taking risks, but gradually they just seemed to appear, we sort of stumbled on them. So we became a seven-piece, almost by accident.”
Finding a helping hand at Rough Trade, the band released a live album “One Man Clapping” to very favourable reviews. Their live shows had always far eclipsed their recorded work, so it was appropriate that the record featuring the original four-piece line up recorded over two hot nights in Bath should become their best long player to date. Featuring many previously unrecorded songs, including the bitter vitriolic ballad “Burned”, the album was a firm fixture at the top of the independent charts for weeks. Another classic single, “Sit Down”, possibly their best yet, was unleashed upon the public. But on the verge of a chart hit, the band’s jinx struck again. A technicality concerning the accompanying video resulted in a Musician’s Union ban on television showings for a crucial two weeks. The single entered at 77 and got no higher.
But by now, the group’s ever-growing following was beginning to show itself in huge numbers. Especially in the North, there was barely a gig crowd to be seen without someone wearing the band’s characteristic t-shirts. At Bradford’s Futurama Festival in October, a quite remarkable performance by James literally stunned the crowd into a massive standing ovation. There were people with tears streaming down their faces. The devoted fans that had stuck with the group through everything were sharing in the joy of the moment, the realisation that at last James time was about to come.
The next step was another single, “Come Home”. Wary of the band’s “wimp rock” reputation, Rough Trade dished out a few white labels of the record to club DJs, refusing to name the artists. Showcasing a forceful new dance sound, it was greeted ecstatically on dancefloors across the country. It was an excellent record. A hit single looked a safe bet.
“Come Home” entered the Gallup chart at 85 following a “Hitlist” powerplay on Simon Mayo’s Radio 1 show and coinciding with Manchester’s Stone Roses and Happy Mondays assault on the nation’s consciousness. Incredibly, disaster struck again. A cock-up at record business mag Music Week meant that the bottom end of the Top 100 was printed exactly the same as the week before. This meant that James single was not listed as a new entry and hence at the crucial time lost the profile it would have otherwise received. The band were livid. It came as a further blow to a marketing campaign which had already seen pluggers without copies of the record, cancelled video shoots and delays in availability. It seemed like par for the course when, touring to promote the release, the band were struck down by flu.
But the “Come Home” tour was, despite everything, a major success. Dates were almost all sold out as James were doing the same level of business as the Mondays and the Carpets, and whilst the tour opened in Sheffield with Tim Booth barely able to sing, by the final date in Leeds the band were in spectacular form. The tour ended with the stage packed with members of supporting act Band of Holy Joy and Holy Joy wordsmith Johnny Brown proclaiming that Tim Booth was “God”
That tour saw James unveiling the clutch of songs that form the basis of the “Gold Mother” era. As well as boasting the best tunes they’ve ever come up with, they show that as a lyricist Tim Booth now ranks with the best. His lyrics have developed from an early charming ambiguity to a searing directness, by turns intimately personal and vibrantly political. None moreso than the epic “Promised Land” which shows the group unafraid to speak out and take the lead as pop rises to the challenges of the new decade.
Tim : “I don’t like the word political, but yes, that’s the direction my lyrics have taken. In the early days though, we had songs like ‘Fire So Close’ which was about Cruise missiles, so it’s always been there. In those days, though, I was afraid to be as direct as I am now. I liked to keep it ambiguous, whereas now I just f**king write it, y’know. I was very angry when I wrote ‘Promised Land’, I was sitting on a train and it came out in half an hour. When a song comes out very smoothly you just have to use it, I couldn’t turn it down. A lot of them are like that, you just write it down, don’t censor yourself and then you find it usually makes more sense later. The ‘Promised Land’ thing was also about Hillsborough. We were recording ‘Sit Down’ in Sheffield at the time and she was in the hospital the next day. There’s these poor buggers trying to get better and Thatcher’s hanging over them trying to get a photo session done.”
The last tour saw audiences increasingly reacting to the content of the songs. A crowd in Birmingham let out a rapturous cheer when Tim altered the lyrics of ‘What For’ to take in ‘I will swim through Sellafield seas’ in comment on recent spills.
“When we played in Edinburgh which is very politicised at the moment due to the Poll Tax thing &ldots; when we played it, they were just cheering and cheering. I’ve never known anything like it, Larry was in tears. It was incredible.”
“We’ve always known though that people were listening. We’ve always had that belief, sometimes that was all we had to keep us going, y’know. We’ve just gone on at our own pace. The last tour was sold out virtually everywhere, we’re just letting it grow naturally, building. I suppose we’re hoping for a similar growth to U2 or Springsteen. Because we can do it live, I think we can sustain it. I think Springsteen is a role model for us, some of his music’s very cliched but he can really cut it live. So can U2, I would imagine. I’ve not seen U2 but some of the sequences in that film, the live thing, they’re incredibly powerful.”
Tim Booth radiates an aura these days. It’s not something you can easily put your finger on, but maybe things like faith, determination, hope, love and anger have something to do with it. He’s more authoritative, maybe happier.
“I’ve been looking back at certain memories, and they’re just really awful memories, y’know, about not being happy and everything. I hope I won’t look back on my present as being like that. The funny thing was, it was all in me, it was my mentality that was making me unhappy.”
Whatever the future holds, the lessons of the past have not been spared on James. “We were wary of signing again after what happened with Sire, but we’re far more aware now than we were then. We won’t make the mistakes we made then and we won’t get f**ked around like we were then. Record companies all come down to money in the end, even your smallest back bedroom indie label. They’re bankers, it’s just with a major label the sums they invest are far greater. The thing what made us look at signing again, was &ldots; we’ve been on the verge of bankruptcy for about a year. We have a huge amount of faith in our music, and we were thinking, y’know, we can’t go on writing songs this brilliant and not get anything from it. We’ve got to the point also where we’re a seven-piece band and to tour costs us thousands. It’s the only option open, really. But I think this time it will prove to be the right one.”
1990 has been (so far, at least) kind to James. They’ve broken the charts, (firstly with “How Was It For You?”, a trite, weak single as it happens) and the “Gold Mother” album has helped restore their reputation as the great white hopes for British pop. The band have moved towards the kind of corporate games that typify the approach of many major label artistes (multi-format releases, in-store p.a.’s etc) but it is hoped that, with the chart barriers broken, the group will once again rely of their music, and their music alone, to maintain their success.
After all, it’s that what’s carried them this far. It would be a shame now, after all they’ve been through, James threw it all away and became just like all the rest. Bankers.