On a sunny Friday afternoon in June 1989 is a tiny barely-furnished room in Rough Trade’s London HQ, two members of James were interviewed by a journalist from Sounds.
The main topic of conversation was the band’s imminent new single Sit Down. Tim Booth (vocalist) and Jim Glennie (bassist) were very excited about it – and rightly so, it was a terrific song – although it was noticeable that when “chart action” was mooted, the pair laughed darkly and intimated that they’d believe it when they saw it.
Booth had recently shaved his head; he wore a Moroccan skull-cap and radiated a kind of tranquil benevolence. Glennie was chipper, relaxed. But both shuddered and groaned copiously as every step of James career was discussed.
It was not, in truth, a great time to be a member of James. In fact, drummer Gavan Whelan had realised this and jumped ship shortly before, leaving a core of Booth, Glennie and Larry Gott (guitar).
Their major label deal, with American rock n roll tycoon Seymour Stein’s Sire Records, had collapsed after years of neglect, mismanagement and intransigence. From being 1984’s Band Most Likely To and 1985’s Band Most Certain To, James now found their suitcases unceremoniously dumped on the street.
They still packed out sizeable venues in their native Manchester, mind you, and they were virtually stars on the continent, but the further south they travelled from Manchester, the harder James found it to get arrested. Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses and Inspiral Carpets, all of whom had supported James in the not-too-distant past, were now coming along and doing a mighty thunder plunder, and James were being forgotten. Something had gone terribly wrong.
Their immediate contingency plan was to set up their own label, One Man, and put out an excellent live album One Man Clapping through Rough Trade. Money was so tight, they had to secure a loan from the Royal Bank of Scotland to do it. A measure of how low their star had plummeted was when their bank manager insisted on seeing a Manchester gig – he didn’t believe them when they told him how popular they were.
Two years have passed, Rough Trade’s in dire trouble. Sounds no longer exists. And Sit Down by James, re-recorded and released on Fontana, has made it to number 2 in the national charts. You couldn’t avoid James now if you wanted to. The James success story, about eight years out of schedule, is finally a dramatic reality.
It has been eight years of struggle, inspirations, intensity, tragedy, depression, stagnation, anti-careerism and outrageous risk-taking.
“For the first three years it was going to be a suicide dive,” claimed Tim Booth in 1988. “The band meant so much to us we were going to die for it.”
Die for it? Die for what?
When James first peeked out of Manchester in 1983, the overrriding impression was of a quartet of gentle, almost pathologically soft-spoken, possibly Buddhist, probably vegan nutters dicing with Olde Englande Maypole folk forms, splicing them with Smiths-like lyrical introspection and ending up with something thrillingly enigmatically unique.
Everyone saw in Tim Booth a frontman of wild purpose and hypnotic self-confidence… but pigeon holes were as cruel then as they are now and Green issues were not hip.
“We are not vegans,” fumed Booth. “There has never been a Buddhist or a vegan in the band.”
But they did come over ascetic and pretty stern. Frivolity was not a key factor in James interviews. What had occurred – and what is never discussed these days in James articles – was a total lifestyle volte face in the band’s camp. When they started out, they had been a confirmed drugs band.
“From Nick Cave to Van Gogh,” Tim Booth later noted, “most brilliant artists use some kind of artifical stimulant and, in creating their work, end up wrecking their lives. The intensity with which I love my work means that if I couldn’t create anything without fucking myself up, I don’t know that I wouldn’t go ahead and do it.”
When the idea of James was originally discussed, around 1982, Tim Booth was not the singer. He was a dancer, a Bez. The vocalist was a guy called Danny Ram, and they had a guitarist called Paul, who was the best friend of bassist Jim Glennie. This Paul, Glennie later revealed in a 1988 interview, got freaked out on drugs, and, over the course of several James gigs, became a catatonic liability. When he eventually wound up in prison, the surviving members of James, it is widely believed, decided en bloc radically to change their ways of life.
“Seeing a friend like that shot down like a plane,” recalled Booth much later, “we realised the reality of burning out. We knew so easily it could have been one of us. It was at that point that we decided we were going to make music so good it would make us high that we wouldn’t need drugs.”
They were tagged as “Buddhist vegans”, a reputation that gathered pace as they banned alcohol from their gigs.
“Because we’d been so deeply involved in drugs and drink,” explained Booth, “the reaction had to be equally as extreme. Just like any revolution….”
The three songs on James first single on Factory in November 1984, “Jimone” (pronounced Jim One), showed a band using daringly soft folk structures, stark lyrical images and vocal dramatics to create something seductively new. A 1991 listen reaffirms its appeal – it must have sounded very odd in the marketplace. Musically, it was kind of eclectic Smiths b-side via Brecht/Weill; lyrically it was precocious enough to intrigue a generation of bedsit dwellers.
But as the student franchise got tied up by The Smiths, James had to mop up the more eccentric branches of the wan intelligentsia with single number two, James II (usually known as Hymn From A Village). It was spring 1985 and Morrissey had declared James his favourite band.
They toured with The Smiths, lapped up the plaudits, left Factory for famous US magnates Sire and drafted in Lenny Kaye, doyen of Tim Booth’s beloved Patti Smith Group and all-round cool guy, as producer of the debut album.
James nightmare was about to begin.
Stutter was released in July 1986 to uniformly favourable reviews. People were still finding out about James, still getting to grips with the oblique medieval sing-song melodies, the strange stories and the arrangements that often seemed to come from a perverse encyclopedia of 15th century English folk-jazz.
But Stutter didn’t exactly do the truckload business Sire required, and the purse strings were promptly tightened. James would later claim, in a grim precursor of The Stone Roses vs Silvertone case, that they never earned more than £30 a week on Sire. In addition, they were advised by the label not to put out any new material for the time being. When the band wanted to tour, they were told they couldn’t because they had nothing to promote.
One swift re-reading of Catch 22 later, their manager resigned. James began work on their second album, one of the most convuluted sagas in recent rock history. They finished making it in March 1987 and a release date was set for May. Sire were unhappy, so it was put back. Then it was put back again. Then again.
“Each time it was put back,” recalled Tim Booth in 1988, “we kept thinking, It’s got to happen this time. Once it even got as close as two weeks to the day before the thing was pulled.”
The album eventually blew out eight different release dates as producer Hugh Jones embarked on a panicky, coffee-drenched, somnambulant full scale remix. Booth later revealed that choosing the running order of songs alone took four days.
By now the band were submitting themselves for drug tests at a tenner a day at a Manchester hospital just to pay for rehearsal time.
The second James album, Strip-Mine, emerged in September 1988, 16 months overdue. It had been one hell of a gestation period. Reviews were muted, confused, largely unimpressed. Gavan Whelan, the drummer, walked out.
“We nearly called it a day, there and then,” Larry Gott told Select in July 1990. “We knew that whatever the next person said would decide whether it went one way or another.”
The One Man Clapping album kept the wolf temporarily from the door – check the bitterness of Burned, the anti-Sire song, and a highly successful UK tour saw James make three adroit line-up changes. Dave Baynton-Power came in on drums, Mark Hunter appeared on keyboards and a stunning utility player called Saul Davies took on the violin, as well as additional guitar and even drums. Since then Andy Diagram, an erstwhile Diagram Brother and Pale Fountain, has been added on trumpet, to fill out the sound to unprecedented levels. James sound, Tim Booth admits, is now “orchestral madness”.
The lunacy has spread to the charts. What was once a rueful daydream is now hard fact. The 1990 James album Gold Mother breezed into the album charts on release, and, when reissued last month with two slight alterations in tracklisting, entered the charts at an astonishing number two.
Throughout 1990 the patented James t-shirts have done a ridiculously good trade, bringing in £2,000 plus a week. And finally, finally, the media’s reluctance to find a place in all the Manchester madness for James has subsided, and now it’s as if they had an invite to the party all along.
Sit Down, meanwhile, as anthemic as any single this year, has already booked its place on the next “That’s What I Call Music” collection. James have been utterly vindicated. The cliche has taken a well-merited kicking – James are no longer the best-kept secret in Manchester.