It’s taken eight years for Manchester pop princes James to become a BIG DEAL. But before the stadia of the world are rocked, there’s that tricky Sheffield gig – Stephen Dalton reports, Ian Dickson photographs
It’s not very rock’n’roll in Sheffield these days. Gone are your Def
Leppards and Saxons, prophets of a dying sub-culture consigned to towns more grubby and provincial than this oddly faceless steel city. And no longer is Sheffield Techno Central; its central grid of science-fiction walkways and flyovers no longer ring with the distant metallic thud of Fon studios and Warp Records. Not tonight, at least, because James are playing — and James are androgynous ambassadors from the planet Pop.
It makes perfect sense, of course, in this most inoffensive and neutral of Britain’s major cities. The classless crowd at the City Hall is as sexually and socially balanced as you will find under one roof these days, united by their simple uniform of primary colours and artfully basic band T-shirts. Students from the local Poly and youths from Sheffield’s grim Blade Runner housing projects are outnumbered by the band’s core constituency — high-street teenagers addicted to the clean and clever pop thrills these Mancunian minstrels provide in stronger doses than anyone else around.
Because there is something about James that cuts to the bone, an emotional depth and left-field intensity that few of their peers and none of their descendants can equal. Eight years of crippling bad luck and false starts does that to a band, especially when their final reward is the sudden sun-drenched glory of massive mainstream popularity. It’s been a long and bumpy ride.
After their sparse but immaculate early Factory singles and attractively angular debut album Stutter, released under the searing searchlight of Morrissey’s double-edged patronage in 1986, critical hysteria cooled. The band fell out with Seymour Stein’s Sire label over the shambolic and half-hearted release given their excellent second long-player Strip Mine in 1987, jumped through a legal loophole to record a self-financed live collection One Man Clapping for Rough Trade in 1988, before finding themselves in the absurd position of being able to pack huge venues without even having a record deal.
But 2000 Sheffield teenagers don’t care about the intervening years of poverty, illness and misfortune when the band found themselves back on the dole and deeply in debt. It doesn’t affect these youngsters whether James are on Phonogram — which they now are, with an expansive album, Gold Mother, and several awesome hit singles behind them — or Plastic Dog Records of Skelmersdale. What matters to any pop fan is the gorgeous sensurround sound this new-look seven-piece belts out.
James send a huge surging power through two chunky bungalows of speakers: violins, acoustic guitars, synthesizers, babies, personality disorders, sexual politics and whopping great singalong anthems the size of Norway.
It’s not very rock’n’roll, but it’s brilliant.
Of particular note: the rousing anti-religion battle-cry ‘God Only Knows’; a scathing attack on Sire and their industry ilk in the lurching lament ‘Burned’; former single and thundering pop juggernaut ‘How Was It For You?’• a sweet stroll through the Velvet Underground’s ‘Sunday Morning’ and a deliberately truncated ‘Sit Down’ purpose-designed to defuse the call-
and-response crowd hysteria invariably generated by their biggest hit to date.
Just occasionally, when impish choirboy Tim Booth trains the search-light of his maverick intelligence onto obvious targets like the Gulf War rather than his trademark psychological territory, James descend into verbose pomposity.
More often, as on throbbing current single ‘Sound’, they change into the acceptable face of stadium rock — wired and weird, lean but huge.
“The U2 you’re allowed to like” is the approving post-gig verdict of one friend and critic of the band.
Which obeys a perverse sort of logic: both groups lash fierce idealism to the clatter and strum of rootless neo-primitive polyrhythms, both emerged from a musical wilderness and both have advocated monkish self-denial in varying degrees. Tim was a teetotal celibate vegan long before his mentor Morrissey made sobriety sexy, which might explain why the band’s backstage gathering at Sheffield is so low on alcohol but piled high with tasty vegetarian cuisine. As befits their sensitive New Man reputation,
James sit around discussing poetry and art while their dressing room buzzes with wives, girlfriends and children. It’s a family affair, and 2000 light years from rock’n’roll as we know it.
As is longtime band manager Martine McDonagh, politely answering questions as the two-and-a-half year old son Ben she shares with Tim Booth — the couple have separated but enjoy a healthy working relationship — excitedly bellows the titles of James songs at her. Does she think the band are in danger of becoming genuine stadium rockers?
“In danger?!” laughs Martine, pound signs clearly visible behind shrewd eyes.
‘They are a big band, so the sound they make will always have to adapt to the venues they play. But every song they write is different from the last, so I think they’ll always retain some idiosyncratic character. ”
Part of that idiosyncrasy is the oddly feminine aspect of James, the gentle and androgynous side of seven male performers which Martine wholeheartedly encourages. It is she — along with Booth and fellow founder members Jim Glennie and Larry Gott — who has final say over band policy. “They’re not afraid of their femininity, they’re not out here to be big macho men or prove something. They’re not worried about their sexuality and they’re prepared to go out and display all sides of their personalities. I feel that’s something to be praised. ”
One side of their personalities James no longer display is the self-destructive dithering and crippling idealism of their early days: refusing interviews and photo sessions, turning down a prestigious support slot with The Smiths in America, waiting two years between releases. “There’s been bad luck and bad decision-making,” confesses Martine, “but I’m glad we made all the mistakes we made in the past, because if we hadn’t made them then we’d be making them now.”
What finally sent the band careering towards careerism was the “Madchester” explosion of recent years — in spirit at least — when fellow Mancunians and former James support acts like Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses benefited greatly from saturation media coverage.
“We very consciously avoided it but obviously realised we could use it to our advantage,” Martine admits. “We were very aware of musical waves at that point, having had our own one crash rather suddenly. We were aware the Madchester thing was a wave that would crash at some point, so we decided to develop alongside it but apart from it.”
Encouraged to think big by recent successes at Europeån festivals, Martine confesses she has been sizing up the potential international profile of James for the last two years. “I think in the UK we’ve hit a point where it could go very stale if we’re not careful, we’re going to have to be very creative.”
When she speaks of creating a buzz in selected territories and taking alternative hits to mainstream radio, Martine begs the question whether James are becoming just another packaged pop product. But she refuses to accept they have lost anything since their electrifying early incarnation besides “a bit of naivety. I don’t think they’ve lost their soul by any stretch of the imagination. You lose things, you gain things.”
James— The Movie: the touching story of a band who lost everything, but found themselves along the way. It’s possible, but who would play Tim — still a waifish waistrel at 30 with his little-boy lisp and wide-eyed innocence — Booth?
Even their sex-starved female press officer calls them “the kind of band you want to be your friends, and Tim’s the boy next doör.” Women, sighs the singer, only really want him for his mind.
“In the early days I was celibate, then I was with Martine for three years, and now I’m a free man — so I’m kind of frustrated! Some nights we do really sexual concerts, but unfortunately I don’t think people quite relate to us in that way, and sometimes I would like them to! I think we get a lot more… it’s going to sound really corny, but respect and love. And lust can be a healthy thing now and again. ‘
Preconceptions fall away minutes after meeting Booth. Educated at the same public school as John Peel before moving to drama college, the precious and po-faced crank we might expect overflows with gentle charm and dry wit. Tim is that rare and immensely treasurable commodity, a genuinely intelligent, eternally questioning pop star, even if he doesn’t take kindly to Simple Minds comparisons. “We can communicate with large audiences but stadium rock is a dirty word in hip English journalism, which is indie and white and sarcastic.
They aren’t going to like us if they know we can communicate in those kind of venues. When we did ‘Come Home’ everyone said we’d turned into a rave band; when we did ‘Government Walls’ and ‘Promised Land’ everyone said we were a political band; when we had a couple of songs on an acoustic guitar we were a folk band. They’re not listening — we’ve got fifty songs and maybe two or three you could say are in a stadium rock style. Two songs out of fifty — I mean, fuck off!”
Reviewers slammed James’s patchy performance at Reading this year as flabby and bombastic, but Tim dismisses this as the inevitable backlash against bands who become too big for the music press. His mind is on bigger horizons: Australia, Japan, America.
“There’s a kind of hollow stadium rock, where it promises a lot and nothing happens, and there are people who can play in large venues and still communicate in a very kind of personal way. To me it’s all part of this
whole English thing about success: I don’t think people in this country know how to handle success beyond a certain level.”
Tim protests that the set list he chose for Reading was deliberately difficult, overflowing with new material and not leaning too heavily on crowd-pleasers. He loves the celebratory atmosphere of recent James concerts — which reached a hysterical peak at Blackpool’s Winter Gardens last year when 3000 people sat down to ‘Sit Down’ — but is wary of becoming a Greatest Hits act. “We thought we could actually control ‘Sit Down’ but we can’t, it’s out of our hands now, we’ve come to that realisation since Reading. ‘Sit Down’ to me is like the end of a big book, the last chapter, and it has to be seen in context. I don’t like it overshadowing songs I love as much or more. ”
Perhaps Tim Booth overestimates his audience? At one stage during the Sheffield gig he thanked everyone for concentrating so hard. “Tonight the audience got loads of new songs and they really concentrated, and we were fired by it. Tonight I got the sense we could have played any song we chose, and they were willing to really listen, and that’s beautiful. The Sun underestimates people’s intelligence: I don’t want us to be a fucking daily newspaper, I want us to be challenging and still be big.”
Like The Doors, Talking Heads and The Smiths… the success rate at this game is pretty low — one band per decade — but James are ideal candidates to continue this lineage. All four bands are able to yoke the intensely cerebral wordsmithery of messianic, manic frontmen to savagely visceral energy and conjure up rock theatre on a visionary scale. When James tap into this soaring momentum, their anthemic majesty transcends everything on today’s pop landscape. Even when they wear waistcoats, a telltale symptom of stadium-itis, their passion and intelligence sparkles through.
“It’s not very rock’n’roll, is it?” coughs Tim apologetically. No, and thank God for that. She must be smiling on James at last.