WILL JAMES LAST?
GASPO! IT LOOKED LINE ONE OF THE FIRST—AND SOME WOULD SAY THE BEST—OF THE NEW NEW MANCHESTER BANDS WOULD MISS THEIR PLACE ON THIS YEAR’S MIGHTY MANC BANDWAGON, BUT IN THE NICK OF TIME JAMES GOT THE SUCCESS THEY LUSTED FOR, JUST LIKE THEY ALWAYS KNEW THEY WOULD. DONTCHA JUST LURVE HAPPY ENDINGS? ASKS ANDREW COLLINS
“It’s that time again, when I lose my friends/go walkabout/I’ve got the bends from pressure/this is a testing time when the choice is mine” (“Come Home”)
You and I, we’re on first names terms with James. We’ve been that way for some time now. Six years, in actual fact. And we’ve been through a helluva lot together, you, me, and James. Premature adulation, the pain of being misunderstood, peer pressure, the frustration of being leap-frogged, the crushing demoralization of one man clapping, and now, it’s that testing time when we’ve got more friends-you, me, and James-than we know what to do with.
For 1990 has been James’ Renaissance year. Look at the national chart successes of this summer’s “Come Home” single and “Gold Mother” album if you want statistics. Or ask anyone at Glastonbury which was the most ubiquitous T-shirt amongst the huddled masses, if you prefer less clinical proof that James have arrived.
“I’ve always found normal life pretty damn weird anyway, so I don’t find this any weirder,” says James frontperson Tim Booth, whose ‘normal” life now involves being mobbed in the street by young people wearing his T-shirts and the occasional “weird sexual advance.”
Tim has been at the helm of James from the beginning. He is not James, he is Tim; he is one seventh of The Band With No Surname. But occupying, as a singer inevitably does, the foreground, it is Time who has the clearest view of this lasting six-year friendship.
To get to the very beginning of James, “ the first stirrings”, as Tim poetically puts it, we have to travel back to 1984, to a Manchester University disco, when an angst-ridden Tim is ‘expressing himself’ on the bitter-soaked dancefloor.
“I was pissed off because my girlfriend had gone away and left me, and I’d had a few drinks and I was dancing wildly on a crowded floor, and people were having to make room for me. I came back to my table and this bearded fellow was stealing my drink. I confronted him, and two other fellows stood up to support him – so I immediately became charming! They were 16-year-old Manchester lads who’d seen me dancing and wanted me to dance in their band.”
The next morning, Tim woke up with a phone number on his hand. He rang it, and that very night, found himself sitting in a scout hut round the back of then-guitarist Paul’s house “listening to this really naïve band play songs with two chord changes that went on forever.”
This young band were also short a lyricist, so, assuming that Tim was dead clever, what with him being at university and all, they asked him if he’d write some words for them. (“I’d never done such a thing in my life, but I wanted to be in a band – so I allowed them to carry their ignorance with them.”)
A couple of practices, a spot of backing vocals (the band had a female lead singer at this point) and some angst-ridden tambourine banging later, it was announced that they had a support slot with Orange Juice in Sheffield. “Come along,” they said, to their new-found Human League-style dancing boy. And he did.
“I danced like a very frightened man, and that was it.”
James weren’t called James at this tender stage, they were The Model Team International, named after the model agency that Paul’s sister worked for – hence, ready-made T-shirts were available for stage wear. The importance of good T-shirts would crop up again in James’ career…
A year later, ‘that girl singer’ was ‘asked to leave’, and Tim was promoted. The name changed, too. Paul didn’t want them named ‘Paul’ for fear of looking big-headed; they shied away from being called ‘Tim” to avoid singer-as-bandleader connotations; ‘Gavan’ (the drummer) sounded too much like Heavy Metal band; so the honour of immortalization befell bassist Jim Glennie. James was born. The inevitable demos ensued, leading to a single with local Factory Records.
“They wanted us to make an EP but we refused to do that as well and did a single. We deliberately chose our three weakest songs and recorded those – we thought we were bound to cock up the first time and we were not going to waste our best songs.”
If “What’s The World’, Fire So Close’ and ‘Folklore’ were James’s worst songs, it was little wonder they got themselves noticed on the release of this first single. Slightly ragged, a tad ‘folk-tinged’, perhaps less overtly tuneful that the currently ‘happening’ Smiths, but tightly-sprung, highly-strung Pop oddities nonetheless.
February ’85 saw the “good songs” follow-up, headed by the now-familiar ‘Hymn From A Village’. Next stop – ‘that NME cover story’. On March 16, the four members of James- Tim, Larry Gott, Jim and Gavan – found themselves peering from the cover of said well-known weekly, automatically hailed within as Great White Hopes, saviors of Brit Pop, new pioneers of rubbish-trousered ‘ordinary ‘ blokedom. This was fine – except that far from being the fruition of an unknown band’s hopes and dreams, this cover-stars honour was soured by the fact that it was actually timed in spite of itself; James were staring up from the shelf of WH Smiths by (their own) default. The idea was, originally, that James would herald the new year, by being the NME’s first cover of 1985 – but they turned it down, “because we felt it was damaging to the soul”.
It wasn’t arrogance, then?
“No, it was naiveté. Things were going so well for us, we thought they’d carry on forever. We felt that the music was It – and it isn’t. That isn’t the reality of the music business.”
Things were indeed going well. Recently-elected guru for a new generation, Morissey, had name-checked James in print, and the boys were duly invited on the Smiths ‘Meat is Murder’ tour. James ‘awkward, self-consciousness, bedroom poetry style and Manc geography earned them many an early Smiths comparison.
“We liked the Smiths. They were a great band, but they were working in a different area to us. We were well-protected by them, too – they looked after us,” Tim admits. However, true to form, they turned down the subsequent American leg of the Smiths’ tour. While your average young band might measure their own brilliance by totting up press offers and support dates, James viewed their own worth completely outside of the great media circus. Simply, they knew their music was brilliant.
Courtship by major labels followed and James welcomed it-because Factory simply weren’t getting their singles into the shops of the towns they were playing in. (“We felt we were putting our backs into it and they weren’t. We get on really well with Factory now – it turns out that they weren’t the people to be frightened of. Sire were.”)
Ah yes – Sire. Entirely down to the naïve belief that any company that signed up the Ramones and Talking Heads must respect their artistes, James exchanged ink with the legendary New York label.
“We felt that the fat American who signed us was a real music fan and we went with him. It was a mistake.”
A mistake that would eat a full three years out of James’ divine masterplan. The vote of confidence inherent in the actual signing was the last evidence that Sire were behind them that James would see.
“They didn’t see us as a commercial band; they saw us as avant garde. Which in a way, we were.”
“We were very difficult,” Tim admits. “very naïve. We fought with the producers. We’d demand a lot of them and we didn’t know what we were doing.”
After much friction and studio-ache, a first album ‘Stutter’ sort of dribbled out of Sire’s Summer ’86 schedules. It was very much a first album, hung with haunted, jerky James ditties, often without the aid of a chorus, always injected with Moriss(ey) dancing maypole catchiness.
But the huge void between James’ idiosyncratic vision and Sire’s chorus-hungry transatlantic obsolescence soon became apparent. This doomed mixed marriage is most lucidly illustrated by the chapter in the James story where they record their second album; ‘Strip Mine’ and Sire take a full two bloody years to release it.
“’Strip Mine’ nearly killed us, because we had such debts. We couldn’t tour, there was no money coming in, and we were a complete mess.”
The second new manager James called in to try and salvage their career actually gave in, saying that they couldn’t physically get in touch with Sire at all. (Sire’s UK office comprises “a glorified secretary,” Tim spits.)
But there is a God. And this very failure to communicate became James’ escape.
“There was a small print in our contract that said if Sire didn’t send a telex to say that they were going to renew, six months after the LP was released, they lose us automatically. They told us verbally on the phone that they were, but they forgot to send a telex! They were so inefficient.”
And with one bound, James were free. Poor, demoralized, and instilled with a blanket dislike of Americans (“They’re up their own arses, they don’t understand new music!”), they somehow managed to stay together. How?
“The music was still brilliant, and we knew it. We never lost confidence in the music. If you know that you’re one of the best in the world at what you do, are you going to give it up and do something that you’re not very good at?”
“When we couldn’t tour, we’d play Manchester. We were playing Manchester four years ago to 1,500-2,000 people, and they would understand what we were doing! They would be going berserk!”
James “walked the tightrope with bankruptcy” for 18 months after the break with Sire, and, as if to add injury to insult, Tim had a funny knee. After two cartilage operations they told him he’d never dance again, and minor depression set in.
“So I got the whole of The Singing Detective out on video and watched it the day after I came out of the hospital. And I didn’t believe in painkillers so I was in f***ing agony and couldn’t sleep. There I was, on my back, watching a film about this man in hospital who’s in agony, shouting and swearing at people, and it really did me in. And really cheered me up because if something that odd can get recognition that I felt that there had to be some justice!”
Which leaves us with a splendid allegory to play about with: James as bed-bound genius, racked with creative fervor, disturbing the other patients, refusing the painkillers etc etc.
And – just like Philip Marlowe in The Singing Detective – James recorded a live LP in Bath to remedy all that time spent rotting in a confined space.
It was called, ironically, ‘One Man Clapping’, and it captured the still-intact spirit of James-bristling, frustrated, chewing at the muzzle, and independent. Yes, they were independent again, the album being financed by comfortable old carthouse Rough Trade. This might have been the start of a beautiful friendship, but “ they didn’t see us as a commercial band, they saw us a bit like Pere Ubu, a band they felt obliged to help – original, but not going to sell large amounts of records. Sol we felt obliged to leave-because we saw ourselves selling lots of records!”
The singles ‘Sit Down’ and ‘Come Home’ came out on the back of Rough Trade’s honourable sense of obligation, but, despite ‘89’s obsession with all things Manc, failed to be more than just indie hits. (‘Sit Down ‘ was dashed by a Musicians Union ban on the video, because Larry played a log with two sticks in a suspiciously drummer-like manner in it, and obviously put scores of real percussionists out of a job by doing so.)
Despite being “jinxed” in matter of business, James songs were still coming thick, fast and brilliant. Gavan had left in December ’88, and this paved the way for a recruiting drive – one that resulted in the new, seven-man line-up that exists today. Saul, the fiddle player, “blew Larry away” with some sparkling improv at a local jazz club, keyboardist Mark “blew the whole band away” with some improvised accompaniment to ‘Sit Down’ in a studio in Bath; trumpeter Andy (literally) “blew them away” by busking through a track called ‘Crescendo’ – are you spotting a pattern here?
So, newly complemented by top improvisation merchants, James set about rebuilding themselves on vinyl, in order to blow us all away too.
The Rough Trade-financed ‘Gold Mother’ LP (comprising many a track actually written during improv sessions at the previous auditions) was so fine, so convincing, that Phonogram bought it up lock, stock and barrel. Its eventual release in July this year signaled James’ official Renaissance (the one that had been happening for about six years!) and even though it’s ‘taster’ single ‘How Was It For You?’ flopped due to Top of The Pops changing their format to include album charts and hence nixing James’ long-overdue debut by one chart placing, a UK tour that featured serious Jamesmania in the area confirmed what they already knew.
“The people that follow us now are quite devotional,” understates Tim, who has witnessed an entire audience in Paris sitting down to ‘Sit Down’ and had a gig at the Liverpool Royal Court halted while the crowd sang this song for five full minutes. “The trouble with something like this is that you then try and recreate it. The next few nights I was holding the mic out to the crowd and they didn’t sing – and that’s where the cliché’s born!”
When you spend that long realizing your own greatness, you do tend to avoid clichés. James’ rise from Moz-tipped tank tops to fully-fledged national institution has been anything but a fairy tale.
“I find this inevitable,” smiles Tim, and you’re tempted to believe him.
Nov 84 What’s The World/Fire So Close/Folklore (Factory)
Feb 85 Hymn From a Village/If Things Were Perfect (Factory)
Jan 86 Chain Mail/Uprising/Hup-Springs (Sire)
Jul 86 So Many Ways/Withdrawn/Just Hipper (Sire)
Mar 88 What For/Island Swing/Not There (Sire)
Sep 88 Ya Ho/Mosquito/Left Out Of Her Will/New Nature (Sire)
Jun 89 Sit Down/Goin’ Away /Sound Investment/Sky Is Falling (Rough Trade)
Nov 89 Come Home/Promised Land/Slow Right Down (Rough Trade)
May 90 How Was It For You/Whoops/Hymn From A Village/Lazy (Fontana)
Jun 90 Come Again/Dreaming Up Tomorrow/Far Away/ Gold Mother (Fontana)
Jul 86 Stutter Sire
Sep 88 Strip Mine Sire
Feb 89 One Man Clapping (Live) One Man
Jun 90 Gold Mother Phonogram
The JAMES gang
Tim Booth (28) Vocals
Jim Glennie (26) Bass
Larry Gott (30) Guitar
Saul Davies (30) Violin, percussion, guitar
Mark Hunter (22) Keyboards
Andy Diagram (28) Trumpet, percussion
Dave Baynton-Power (27) Drums