Their name is James. Not Jesus James, just James. But you don’t know them. Actually, this band’s namesake is Jim Glennie, its bassist and founding member, but that won’t help you much since you don’t know Glennie either. It’s funny that James still isn’t a household name, but their American label, Mercury, isn’t laughing. How come a Brit-nominee (U.K. Grammy) that’s gone platinum is such a well-kept secret here? Surely they should have hit the mainstream after their single and album charted in the college top ten last summer.
You didn’t miss them in the onslaught of English Ecstasy bands because James didn’t ride to #1 via the Manchester gravy train, even though they hail from that berg. James predates that fad by light years. According to band historian/guitarist Larry Gott, “James began in the dark mists of time”. Such heady musician talk puts the early 80’s somewhere in the Mesozoic Era, but in people years, thats nearly a decade.
Back in 1983 their first EP with Factory Records prompted alternative arbiter Morrissey to proclaim James “the best band in the world.” Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, the Smiths covered their single ‘What’s the World.’ Five records, four new members, three labels, and two top ten hits later, sales and concert attendance bear out that prophecy. Gott reminds us, “It’s been five or six years since that quote. We’re all different people now.” Nevertheless, Mercury invokes Morrissey’s quote in case you can’t decide for yourself.
Apparently the meatless man still fancies them. Morrissey requested a spot on the bill alongside James for Amnesty International’s recent 30th birthday concert. “He did a song and the main lyric was ‘We hate our friends when they become successful. I think it was an affectionate little dig at us,” relates Gott.
You may have overlooked a reassembly of their 1989 LP “Goldmother” hiding behind a stripped-down neo-60’s daisy cover. This eponymous version omits two songs while adding “Lose Control” and the infectuous “Sit Down”, their charmed single which soared up the charts a second time, two years after its original indie release. That’s a neat trick every artist would like to pull off.
Excuse me, but isn’t it concert convention to get the crowd on their feet? A dose of james can cure such close-mindedness. Their live, full-length concert video, “James: Come Home,” recorded at the G-Mex in Manchester, will get you on your feet in your own living room. James’ stage improvisation is both a band and crowd favorite, and the charismatic Booth’s way with words and wails have made him a media darling. They’ve got youth dancing to irony again without the suicidal undertone of Depeche Mode or the self-indulgent apathy of the Smiths. Their misery is closer to the theraputic reflection of U2, without the profundity. Hard to get too serious with boyish Booth bopping in a franzy, his hair tousling, and his oversize shirt flapping.
When they tour the U.S. for the first time this year, expect to see a large, tight band which has spent the last year playing sold-out houses supporting huge acts like The Cure and headlining open-air festivals. Modeled on the strength of the E-Street Band (no kidding), James boasts virtuoso musicians each talented enough to front his own band. But it wasn’t always so.
Booth admits “we were terrible” at the start. The original members- Booth, Glennie, Gott, and departed drummer Covin Whelan- were more interested in new sounds than in perfection. Though that’s probably what attracted Factory records, the danger for a cerebral is to not connect with the audience. ” It was a criticism we had thrown at us a lot… that we were somehow insular and aloof,” recalls Gott, “and we didn’t realize because we we’re concentrating so hard.”
James worked dutifully to correct the flaw, gaining a reputation as a great live act. Then when they had great stage energy, their material just didn’t translate to enough people, or so the conventional label wisdom went. Booth reflects, “In the early days, our songs were like sketches that people had to interpret.” After years for searching for new band members, James found their ideal compliments within a four-month period. Perhaps fate selected Mark Hunter (keyboard), Andy Diagram (trumpet), Saul Davies (guitar, violin) and Dave Bayton-Power (drums), in time for James’ triumphant success with “Goldmother/James.”
“Aside from me, Tim and Jim, we’d only been together a couple of months,” recalls Gott. “We had songs we’d written and we tried to communicate to [the new members] what we wanted.” Now the whole band participated in a selection process on the material the cardinal three generate in jams. “We could jam and it sounds like shit and the next minute we write “Sit Down”- that took ten minutes! You can’t stop the song because it’s so good.”
Recent successes had a daunting effect on the group, though they overcame the pressure. “We’ve tried to write a song like “Come Home” and we can’t do it. It’s not like putting all the same ingredients in a pot and coming up with the same thing,” confesses Gott.
But what came out of the pot is very good. “Seven”, their current release, reflects the group’s maturity, in the studio and as well as in the message. Gott characterizes “Seven” as “James’ coming together.” Whereas “Goldmother/James” ranged from sincere to cynical about loneliness and desire, most of the songs on “Seven” imply the same deception, rejection, and shame, but suggest facing one’s fears can supply the strength to overcome them. Perhaps “Ring the Bells” will catch on, as it begs a tamer audience response.
James’ songs are soothing unless you really listen to them. Says Gott: “In the past, we’ve juxtaposed sweet lyrics with quite disturbing music. Juxtaposition is one of our fun areas. We write music that inspires Tim, and he finds things that aren’t quite so obvious.”
The hypnotic rhythms, ethereal subjects, and Booth’s precious vocals may remind one of Simple Minds or U2. He eerily whispers, “Strip away all of your protection… do everything you fear/in this there is power…”
“It’s hard to comment on Tim’s lyrics because they come from him. He’s saying something you wouldn’t neccessarily voice in public.” Can’t we get a hint as to the object of desire in “Next Lover”? “I’m sorry, you’ll have to ask Tim. If you think its an icon like Madonna, its not like that.”
Gott talks about his favorite cut, “Heaven”. Recorded as a straight ahead song during the session, the band included some weird overdubs that got shelved. The song was passable until producer Tim Palmer (Mission UK) got his hands on it. “Tim went through the cupboard, if you like and sorted out all these bits that really worked, and threw out the main song. He pulled out all the nice, slidey violins and trumpet, and blended them all.”
The beautiful result confronts a fatalist: “I’m waiting for the king of the world to come and rescue me”, with a challenge: “Are you waiting for the heavens to descend?”
As if to repent Booth’s doubts the album closes with a gentle “Blow Me Away”, a thank-you to the Creator, if you will. Life is cruel but God takes care of you in Heaven, he seems to say.
If “Seven”‘s songs seem to await that illusive, kinder, gentler thing that we’ve been hearing about, Gott counters, “It’s more of a sneaking suspicion that that’s not going to arrive.”
What’s sure to arrive is the band’s U.S. success. Will their inevitable success spoil James? ” In some people’s eyes,” concedes Gott, “because we’re not their special find, their little treasure. Once you’ve become accepted in a broader sense, a lot of people think you’ve lost that special quality. I hope it doesn’t spoil us. It will probably be the end of James.”