It’s the Great British Pop Awards 1991 and bizarre showbiz entrepreneur Jonathan King is prancing around telling the world that James are going to be huge this year. Not for the first time, he’s right. James are up there with the big boys … and about time too.
Is that man King psychic? Only weeks later there’s Sit Down hanging around at Number 2 in the BBC charts for what seems like forever, unable to climb over Chesney’s flowing locks. For most of the millions watching TOTP, James were another new madcap Madchester outfit, but we know better.
James have been marked out from the crowd since they began, way back in 1983. And although James Mk 2 is radically different from the earlier model – less fearful of writing simple songs, for one thing – their individuality shines through.
James arrived too late for the big Factory boom of the early 1980s, although their first singles were released on the Manchester label, and too early for the second spearheaded by Happy Mondays.
A brace of Factory outings included What’s The World, later covered by The Smiths, who then invited the band out on tour. Early shows were dominated by Tim Booth’s scary intensity, the gallows humour of the songs and a definite touch of weird greatness.
James signed with Sire, home of Talking Heads and Richard Hell, in what is now widely regarded as one of the disastrous career moves of the 80s. They made a superb first album in Stutter, produced by Patti Smith cohort Lenny Kaye: Really Hard remains a gem of a song, Johnny Yen an oddball classic, but it was determinedly anti-commerical. The group and the company were reported to be at loggerheads and the world passed James by.
The next album Strip Mine was delayed and delayed again. It’s a seriously strange record with a few hints of the more direct style they were later to adopt. And What For should have been a hit, guv.
Live shows were sporadic, and one gig at the ICA, supporting the then hot tips The Woodentops, saw James floundering, no direction home, as they say.
Finally out of the Sire mire, James took stock. They’d pushed the obscure intricacy they delighted in to its extreme and seemed destined to become nothing more than a minor cult.
The 1989 live album One Man Clapping, recorded over three nights at Bath Moles, provided a farewell both to drummer Gavan Whelan and to James Mark 1. Fresh faces and a fresh style were the order of the day.
In came the forceful drumming of Dave Baynton-Power, Andy Diagram, of northern indie strange guys The Diagram Brothers, multi-instrumentalist Saul Davies and keyboard player Mark Hunter. And suddenly James were hungry again.
Sit Down and Come Home came out on white labels so that dance DJs wouldn’t be put off by old connotations, and proved huge indie successes. A big, punchy, wide-open sound was the order of the day, and Tim sounded more confident than ever. James t-shirts became the fashion item of the year, the future was in no doubt.
A new album Gold Mother on a new label, Fontana, saw them link up with the Inspiral Carpets on the title track – at least as strange as anything they’ve done before, but played with a new maturity. And the long-awaited chart debut came with How Was It For You?
But it was on stage that James really proved themselves. Wild, all systems go, older fans moving to the beat beside a huge horde of new ones – and it became a ritual to sit down to Sit Down.
The intensity of the earlier shows was still there, but it was now channeled in to an explosive outburst. Now it was OK to love James – not just like them, but to go totally overboard, heart and soul. And yet it’s only four years since one music paper, replying to a “what happened to James?” letter, sniggered back that they couldn’t find anyone in the office who’d admit to liking them. Hah! Times do change, don’t they?
Onwards and upwards, today Reading, next month a new album, then a UK tour sold out months in advance. That Jonathan King, he can’t half pick them (and go tell that to Carter too).