Like the other Manchester favourites covered this month, the Chameleons, it seemed that James would miss out on success But after recordings for three labels, including a nightmare ordeal with Sire, the band are currently residing at Fontana, which has finally given them the long-overdue taste of chart action that they were always promised. 1990 also saw James touring consistently to encouraging live reviews, which included headlining the Glastonbury Festival, a two-sell-out stint at Blackpool’s Empress Ballroom, and the recent end-of-year bashes in London and Manchester.
Unlike several recent bands who’ve made the crossover from indie to national charts, however, James are anything but a flash in the pan. Centred around a nucleus of Tim Booth (vocals), James ‘Larry’ Gott (guitar) and James ‘Jim’ Glennie (bass), the band have been augmented by a variety of other musicians since their inception in the early Eighties, apparently sparked by Jim Glennie after a school mate bought a stolen guitar!. These early days of the band’s career, which included drummer Gavan Whelan, remain shrouded in mystery to all but a few. And the band always tended to distance themselves from the public eye, so much so that they shunned the chance of front cover prominence on NME’s 1985 new year issue, arguing that they wanted to introduce the band “by music, not by words”. In these formative years, James were rumoured to have led the archetypal wild rock’n’roll lifestyle, until a close friend became ill and ended up in prison. This had a profound effect on the group, who are reputed to have dramatically changed their ways. They became vegans, much to the delight of the press, who often tagged them as ‘loony Buddhists’, but James may have taken matters a little too far by organising teetotal gigs with veggie food on offer!
Numerous low-key local gigs in and around Manchester attracted the city’s premier independent, Factory, and in 1983, James issued their debut EP, ” Jimone”. Engineered by Chris Nagel (who more recently twiddled the knobs on the Charlatans’ excellent debut single}, the record’s child-like cover endeared itself to many, with the gentle sound of “Folklore”, the absurd rhythms of “Fire So Close” and the classic “What’s The World”, which still remains in the current live James set.
Much has been made of Mornssey’s fondness for James, and he too must have been entranced by their aura, since James found themselves supporting the Smiths (fresh from a ‘Top Of The Pops’ appearance for “This Charming Man”), at the legendary “Manchester Explodes” night at the Hacienda. Neatly coinciding with the release of “Jimone”, this event is surely destined to be the stuff of ‘folklore’.
The Smiths paid James the ultimate compliment by releasing an excellent cover version of “What’s The World”. This can only be found on the extremely limited “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” cassingle, (Rough Trade RTT 198C), which now commands a price in excess of £10.
For their next single, the aptly titled “James II”, the band employed the excellent production skills of Nick Garside to produce a pop classic, and possibly my favourite single of all time. “Hymn From A Village” was a scathing attack on the pop world and has become a dancefloor favourite for all those who have worshipped its crafted beauty. The plaintive B-side, “If Things Were Perfect”, was equally memorable, and no doubt helped “James II” to enjoy a 31-week residency in the ‘NME’ independent chart, peaking at the top. This was sustained by a later 12″, entitled “Village Fire”, combining both singles, which is still available despite being difficult to obtain in some areas – although watch out for vastly inflated prices on this item.
Fans had also been drawn by the allure of John Carroll’s wonderfully bizarre sleeve drawings, which complement the band’s songs perfectly.
With further live dates with the Smiths (a band they are often compared to, but sound nothing like!), and rave reviews in the press (‘Sounds’ hailed them as “pop gods and saviours of rock and roll”), it seemed that James could do no wrong. Doubtless impressed by their high U.K. profile, they were snapped up by Seymour Stein’s huge American conglomerate, Sire. The band saw this as their path to fame and fortune, but it almost brought about their ultimate destruction. They found themselves locked into a contract where they were owned “throughout the universe” by Sire, and were never to earn more than £30 a week! Problems with lack of communication and funds dogged James throughout their years with Sire, and this sad plight was detailed on Granada TV’s “Out Of Order” consumer watchdog programme. As Jim Glennie phrased it on the show, “We signed to Sire on a high. ..but things stopped, basically”. Indeed, there was a suspiciously long gap before the first fruits of the Sire deal were unleashed on the public. The band’s then manager, Elliot Rashman (of Simply Red fame) later said the band had fallen foul of Sire’s “sign ’em and see what happens. .. but don’t spend any money in the meantime” musical policy. It also seems that the Soup Dragons suffered from Sire’s anti-midas touch – like James, they managed to escape their clutches and bounce back with a truly merited top ten success last year.
By the time “Chain Mail” was issued, the press had moved on, and much of the momentum gained by their Factory singles seemed lost. With its high-pitched vocals, “Chain Mail” was a more polished affair but suffered from Lenny Kaye’s suffocating production that seemed to restrain the band’s free-flowing rhythms. Backed by the funky “Hup-Springs” on the 7″ with additional, almost Caribbean-like “Uprising” on the strangely titled “Sit Down” 12″ EP, the single saw James diversify, but is still a worthy investment. Incidentally, like many other singles, the 7″ and 12″ utilise completely different artwork, which has encouraged fans to seek out both formats. The 12″ of “Chain Mail” is becoming increasingly difficult to find, and is now valued at over £20.
The next single, “So Many Ways”, was obviously a trailer for their debut album, which was to appear later that month, with possibly the finest James sleeve design adorning the 12″. The lead song was almost anthemic, but still contained a moody and reflective ‘dark’ element characteristic of James’ early work. The speedy delights of the forthcoming LP track “Withdrawn” surfaced on the flip, while the 12″ added the bizarre “Just Hipper”, a mish-mash of a song that sounded like an impromptu studio jam. A rarely seen video for the single featured Tim Booth showing his eccentric dancing ‘skills’ (so much a part of the early James live experience) to the best of his ability. Like “Chain Mail”, the 7″ for “So Many Ways” can be found for £10-£12, but again the 12″ is very rare, and probably the hardest to find. Although a price tag of £25 would be reasonable, it could well fetch far more if offered for auction.
James’ debut album, “Stutter”, was an eleven-song collection of erratic and unorthodox rhythms and lyrics, and proved a confusing release that gave many reviewers a shock to the system. Described as ‘too English’ (whatever that means!), the deluge of musical influences, dominated by medieval and folk elements, created a sound that the listener had to become immersed in – and was definitely not one for casual background accompaniment. From the opening track, “Skullduggery”, (which Booth later dismissed as “too wacky”) to the closing cut “Black Hole” (surprisingly resurrected at Blackpool last year), “Stutter” can best be summed up as quirky. All tracks from “So Many Ways” were included (although a calmer “Just Hipper” was renamed), alongside the excellent “Scarecrow” and “Johnny Yen”, and “Why So Close, a moving acoustic rendition of “Fire So Close” from their first EP. After mediocre reviews from confused reviewers, the press turned about tail and praised the band’s WOMAD festival appearance that year.
Then, nothing. James tried to release new material, but Sire wanted them to wait. They tried to tour, but were told not to, because they had nothing to promote. Next, their manager resigned, to add a further nail in the coffin that was seemingly being built for them. Eventually, the band got to work on their second album, “Strip Mine”, which was finished in March 1987. But its release was continually delayed and then halted completely with the arrival of a new manager, Elliot Rashman. He felt the LP needed completely remixing and the band agreed. It was some months before this could be financed, so in the meantime James recorded a John Peel session in August 1987 containing “Yaho”, “What For”, “Whoops” and the as yet unreleased classic “Stowaway”. With virtually no income, band members found themselves testing drugs for £10 per day at a local hospital so they could continue rehearsing full time.
A glimmer of hope came with Sire’s agreement to fund the “Strip Mine” remix. This decision apparently coincided with the Smiths’ demise from the ‘intelligent pop’ end of the market (presumably how Sire saw it); James were seen as successors to some vacant throne.
Almost two years after their last release, “What for” appeared as the band’s fifth single. Remixed by Steve Power, it was a striking uptempo pop song – far more commercial than any previous offerings. Indeed, the accompanying video was even aired on Saturday morning children’s’ TV, and the band performed the song live on Granada’s “Other Side Of Midnight” show, which has consistently supported up-and-coming Manchester bands. Backed by “Island Swing” on the 7″ and an extra track, “Not There” on the 12″ and limited library case cassingle, the single received favourable reviews, which the band celebrated with a handful of dates, including a home- town gig in May 1988, supported by none other than the Stone Roses (“We’ve never supported anyone” indeed!). “What For” is the most common Sire single, but all formats still command a high price, such is the current demand for James product. Completists should note the existence of a 12″ promo combining two versions of “What For” plus a short band interview, which can normally be secured for around £12.
The next single, “Yaho”, was a strange affair. Since it bore an earlier catalogue number than “What For”, it would seem that it was held back only to reappear several months later. Drawn from “Strip Mine”, “Yaho” was backed on 12″ by three amazingly individualistic tracks of an almost hillbilly nature, of which “Mosquito” remains one of James’. finest moments. Both formats are difficult to find, especially the 12″.
Nearly 18 months after completion, the remixed second LP “Strip Mine” reached the light of day, to scathing criticism from manager Rashman. He complained bitterly of the “bog standard promotion” for a group he rightly believed should have reached top international status by then. “Strip Mine” was sadly soon forgotten, ignoring the genius that clearly shone through on the pure pop of “Charlie Dance”, “What For” and “Are You Ready?”, perfectly contrasting darker songs like “Riders” and “Medieval”. The selective live dates to promote the album were supported by the latest Factory hopefuls Happy Mondays, then still relatively unknown, who owed more than a passing debt to James’ sound.
Further disaster struck, when drummer Gavan Whelan left the band. And locked into a horrible contract, the rest of the group were trapped, and feeling at an all-time low. Amazingly, Sire wouldn’t release them, even though the label were showing little, if any, interest in the band. The chips were truly down, and the only advice offered to them was to split up and later reform, which would have meant ditching their name.
Eventually, Sire relented and James were free. Risking everything, they borrowed £12,000 to put out an album by themselves which Sire, at first, tried to prevent. The live “One Man Clapping” magnificently captured the highly charged emotion experienced by both band and audience at many of their gigs. The best tracks were saved for last – the majestic “Burned” possibly took a swipe at Sire (who received royalties for the album), and the frenzied “Stutter”, a band favourite and the final song of many a concert.
Spurred on by the LP’s top spot position in the indie charts, James took the opportunity to introduce the new band members through ensuing live dates. David Baynton-Power took over the vacant drum stool, while the sound was augmented by Mark Hunter (keyboards) and the multi-talented Saul Davies (violin, guitar, etc), who was spotted by Larry strutting his stuff at a local talent night. Friends the Inspiral Carpets, who were breaking in new crooner Tom Hingley, supported. And Tim celebrated the band’s ‘resurrection’ by shaving all his hair off for the London performance!
Shortly afterwards, James signed with indie giants Rough Trade, who had lent a hand with the release of “One Man Clapping”, and what followed was one of 1989’s finest singles. “Sit Down”, with its distinctive Central Station Design sleeve, was a breezy summer pop song, possessing a charm that most acts could only dream of attaining. Accompanied by an Edward Barton-directed video, the single scored highly on the independent scene and John Peel’s end-of-year festive 50. The expanded line-up allowed for a steadier, more solid sound than their earlier, more erratic work. And since it hasn’t been included on album, the deleted “Sit Down” has spiralled in value, especially the 12″ and CD formats which boast a longer version. In addition, early copies of the 7″ and 12″ included a desirable promo postcard, which add some £5 to the value.
As the music press went overboard over the so-called Manchester scene, James still remained the dark horses. Not even their brilliant next 45, “Come Home”, which recalled producer Nick Garside, had them striving for the hype tablets. First aired at John Keenan’s superb Futurama “Indie Pop And Scally Rock” festival, the song was an obvious successor to “Sit Down”. Taking in new member Andy Diagram (erstwhile Diagram Brother, who’d also served with over-looked Mancs the Pale Fountains) on trumpet for a sound which Tim described as “orchestral madness”, the single was a flowing piece with a definite dance feel prompting many a wild stage invasion ever since. The B-side, “Promised Land”, was a harsh stab at the realities of Thatcher’s Britain, while the 12″ and CD added a longer “Come Home”, plus a demo version of “Slow Right Down”. Snap up copies while they’re still easy to find, since all formats are now deleted.
After such a problematic career, James were once more in the ascendency. Doubtless encouraged by the success of North West- based groups storming the charts, James signed to Fontana after much speculation in the press. Any collectors familiar with the House Of Love’s array of limited editions and sales gimmicks might have expected more of the same with the release of James’ first Fontana single, “How Was It For You?”. Indeed, the 7″, 12″ and CD were all necessary to obtain all the tracks – though a later, limited 12″ with free stencil contained the previously CD-only cut, “Undertaker”. Unfortunately, the lead track was disappointedly lukewarm, and those who had bought the Rough Trade 45s must have felt slightly short-changed.
However, any disappointment was shortlived, as within a few weeks, James’ excellent fourth long player, “Gold Mother”, arrived on the scene to rave reviews. The band suddenly became music press darlings, gracing several magazine front covers – an incredible five years on from their first. Regarded as their finest LP, “Gold Mother” had a laid-back feel that suggested the group had finally gelled together technically, as a musical unit. Songs of sexual guilt, childbirth and religious bigotry resonated around teenage bedrooms the nation over, with sales promoted by several chaotic in-store record signing sessions. Sales of the band’s striking merchandise, such an integral part of many Manchester bands’ popularity, shot up. It was impossible to walk down any provincial high street last year without being greeted with the distinctive” JA M ES” and flowers that adorn their T-shirts.
James’ ‘World Cup’ tour to promote the album was a great success, and included superb performances at Glastonbury Festival and the large capacity Blackpool Empress Ballroom, where touts were asking over £20 from those unlucky punters without a ticket! Fans attending the 1990 tour had the chance to pick up a souvenir programme containing an exclusive demo version of a new track “Weather Change”. This is still available from some mail-order outlets. but once stocks are gone, its value is bound to increase.
In the wake of this live and album adulation, Fontana chose to issue an unimaginative remix of “Come Home” by Flood. But at least it gave James their first Top 40 hit, aided by the label’s policy of requiring fans to buy several formats to obtain all the tracks. The best of these was a limited 12″ featuring a live rendition of “Come Home”, “Gold Mother” (Warp Remix) and “Come Home” (Andy Weatherall Boys Own Remix); this last dance-oriented mix benefitted from sampled parts of “Skullduggery” from the first album, This mix was combined with an ‘Extended Flood Mix’ and circulated around the clubs as a two-track white label 12″ housed in a stickered sleeve, valued at around £7.
After a short rest, James returned last November with a new single “Lose Control”, which was previewed live on Channel 4’s “The Word”. With its eerie trumpet and slide guitar, the song is their strongest single so far on Fontana. The back of the 7″ boasts a delightful cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” , which was recorded for the Imaginary’s “Heaven And Hell: A Tribute To The Velvet Underground” various artists collection.
As for other compilations, look out for the excellent Sarah Champion set “Manchester, North Of England” which featured an early version of “Sky Is Falling” , as well as the usual run-of-the-mill indie ‘greatest hits’ albums and videos, featuring the Rough Trade singles. The video for “Sit Down” surfaced on “Indie Top Video -Take Two” (PMI MVP 991200 3), while “Come Home” qualified for the follow-up, “‘Take Three” (MVP 991215 3). Also watch out for the Futurama 6 video (Jettisoundz JE 200), featuring three live cuts from the Futurama event, plus the earlier Factory Outing video, which also utilises live footage. In the meantime, how about an album from Strange Fruit, combining the band’s sessions for John Peel?
From their humble beginnings on Factory, James’ path to fame and fortune has been a rocky one. But they’ve won through by dogged perseverance and a blinding faith and love for their own, unique music. With a re-recording of the classic “Sit Down” due next month and an album pencilled in for early summer, James look set to reach the dizzy heights that have eluded them for so long.