FOR JAMES, THEIR FIRST DAY IN AMERICA did not offer the big, big welcome that greets so many would-be British invaders of the land of the free. Within three hours of stepping off the plane at Los Angeles where they were due to make a video, guitarist Larry Gott was mugged. At gunpoint.
Tney had just booked into the Chateau Marmont Hotel (where John Belushi died and The Doors and Led Zeppelin disported) where they hild a self-catering apartment. Being a “buttie addict”, Larry had stepped down Sunset Boulevard in search of a grocery. Successful, he was turning back into the hotel side entrance, when suddenly his nape hairs prickled with a sense of imminent threat. “It came to me too late. I turned around and there was a guy coming up the steps towards me. I was about to react when another guy turned the corner, with a gun out. Then I knew that this was fucking serious; it was for real. Give us your jacket, they said. Give us your wallet. I said, You got it – it’s in me fucking coat. Then they casually walked down the steps, turned around and said, If you contact the police, we’ll come back for you.
“In the hotel reception I said, It’s your fucking country, it’s your fucking town; what do you do in this situation? Phone the police. They came: an old guy with half-glasses and a shorter guy with a crew-cut and a gap in his front teeth through which he constantly spat out streams of phlegm. They were more interested in finding out exactly where rather than what had happened; if this gate had been 15 yards further down Sunset Boulevard, it would have been somebody else’s patch. All this time, their radio was blaring out: two streets away a woman had been garrotted from behind by two guys who fitted my description; there was somebody held up at knifepoint, somebody else at gunpoint. It was constant.
“The younger cop asked me about his gun. He pulled out his gun: Like this one? I said it was also a black automatic but much smaller. As I motioned to the barrel to point out that theirs had a silver stripe, he pulled back and said, Touch that and you’re fucking dead…”
WITHIN HOURS, LARRY WAS BACK ON the plane to Blighty, with road manager Richard taking his place in the Mojave Desert-set video for the single Born Of Frustration. The mild violence James have a habit of attracting is not the least of the paradoxes that attend this band who are reputed to be hardcore brown-rice fiends and meditation addicts. So wholesome, indeed, is their image that for some years they have felt the need to undermine it by confessing to the odd brush with pharmaceuticals, and, more particularly, to send it up at every opportunity.
Probe a little deeper, however, and the 31-year-old singer will vouchsafe the sort of intense and bookish confession that has maintained for seven years his personal cult following among those rock fans who like their frontmen pale and interesting.
“Every artist I’d ever liked had often used drugs to get to a certain state of mind,” he declares, in his soft Mancunianised accent, “and I’d always been fascinated by the schizophrenic state of mind of the witch doctors and the artists and the persons taking drugs, and where those states of minds linked with the holy man. I read R.D. Laing’s The Divided Self when I was 16 and thought it was brilliant, then The Outsider by Camus, and the other Outsider, by Colin Wilson – a paper chase of books pursuing this theme.”
From the mid-’80s, James have been a deep and elusively meaningful band beloved of indie sorts and, since the Manchester dance explosion, of the better-read raver. But in their earliest incarnation, in post-punk, Joy Division and Fall-dominated Manchester, James were not James but a distinctly low-brow, punk racket called Venereal And The Diseases. Bassist Jim Glennie is the sole survivor. “A friend bullied me into it!” says the hitherto directionless lad, recalling his induction into a rock’n’roll band. This friend, guitarist Paul Gilbertson, is James’s lost founder member. “He’d bought a stolen guitar for a tenner, and said our group didn’t need a drummer because of drum machines, but that we’d always need a bassist – so get a bass guitar! For some reason, my mother bought me one. I was going to see groups like The Fall and Teardrop Explodes and ended up in a weird crowd, smoking draw.”
Armed- or burdened – with their aforementioned moniker, Paul and Jim’s group played their first gig: “I got the buzz, and listening back to our songs, if you can call them that, on a tape recorder, this crackly cacophony, I thought, Yeah!” The band evolved through a succession of personnel and name changes – Volume Distortion and Model Team International: “Paul had a girlfriend who worked in a modelling agen- cy called Model Team International, so we got T – shirts ready-made with the name on, until they threatened to serve us with a writ. So we called our- selves Model Team so the shirts would still be just about wearable!”
Which is where Tim Booth came in -not, at first, as singer, but as the band’s pre-Bez idiot dancer. A reject of the public school sys- tem, Tim was of a church-going family who nonetheless was elbowed unceremoniously from Shrewsbury for being a bad influence.
“I was thrown out of the back door, told to leave – and if I didn’t, they’d formally expel me. So I went.” The memory still pricks. “Then, three years ago, I was driving by Shrewsbury and I started shaking. Fucking hell, I thought, still some unresolved emotions here. So I went back for an old boys’ thing – and you’re not meant to go back if you’ve been thrown out – but I never really understood why and wanted to find out. The housemaster who threw me out got quite drunk and kind of apologised. ‘I was new,’ he said, ‘and I didn’t know how to deal with you.’ I wasn’t one of those rebellious kids who smoked on the fire-escape or got drunk; I was just different, awkward, and they didn’t know what was going on in my head. I hated school and they knew it. There’d be one guy in the house who’d get all the shit, and he’d usually be small and Jewish. His life would be made miserable; I was OK but I had to hide my emotions all the way through. At the end, I think they thought I would go wild, so they kicked me out before I did. They did it an hour after my last , A’ Level exam. Why bother? It was symbolic and quite unpleasant.”
Convinced that acting was a life survival skill, Tim went to study drama at Manchester University, where he was a contemporary of Ben Elton. One evening at the University disco, his free-style dancing was noted by members of Model Team who were there enjoying the subsidised bar. “Paul came up and asked if I’d like to join their band,” Tim recalls. “I’d drunk quite a bit and woke up the following morning with this phone number written on my hand with the instruction: 6 o’clock scout hut. I went along and there they were rehearsing – naive, two-chord stuff, but it had something. I like Iggy Pop for his state of mind but Patti Smith was everything to me. I went to two rehearsals then we had a gig supporting Orange Juice. I shook a tambourine nervously and sang backing vocals.
“After one rehearsal when I still didn’t really know them, Paul said, Let’s go into town. When, Paul was in the toilet, Gavan (Whelan, the original drummer) said, Now, you mustn’t be too upset if Paul gets into a fight. Fights seem to happen around Paul. But he doesn’t start them. Sure enough, we left the club and Paul wanted a piss, so he started pissing against a car, and this bloke came out and started fighting him. It wasn’t even his car! There were these two guys rolling around in the gutter and me thinking, Bloody hell, what have I got myself into?”
One member, Danny Ram, “ended up in Strangeways for GBH,” they claim. “The first press we ever got!” As for Paul Gilbertson, “he changed,” as Jim delicately summarises how the guitarist’s enthusiasm became diverted towards less constructive leisure pursuits. “He’d throw himself into everything,” Tim recalls. “He had a real naive enthusiasm – and no fear. That was his weakness.” Gradually, Paul’s self-immersion into other pleasures distanced him from the band he founded and Larry Gott, a former guitar teacher, was recruited to cover his increasingly erratic playing. Finally, they confronted Paul with the stark choice of getting his act together or leaving the band. “We knew he was on a self-destructive path six months earlier, and we thought, Let’s try to reach these states naturally, through medita- tion,” Tim remembers.
“We were looking for a safe haven for us -and for him. It nearly worked. But we lost him.”
BY NOW, THEY HAD SETTLED ON THE NAME James, like fellow Mancunians The Smiths, a starkly anti-descriptive handle in reaction to the likes of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. Keen to cap- ture on vinyl the nervous, eclectic guitar-rock with which Manchester club audiences were rapidly falling in love, they recorded two critically adored singles on Anthony H. (then plain Tony) Wilson’s Factory label – Jimone and, after a mystique-building gap of several months, James II.
“We only wanted a singles deal and told him why: inefficiency, and this idea that they didn’t have to promote a record because Joy Division had got massive without any promotion -apart from the fact that the singer had killed himself,” Jim wryly notes. “Bands on Factory would disap- pear because they weren’t getting promoted. But he got us what we needed: attention.” Supporting The Smiths on tour, James were assisted by the endorsement of Morrissey as his favourite band. “We were flattered, but didn’t think we needed the boost to help our career,” remembers Jim. ” At the time, we were concerned to battle the negative side -that people would think we were like The Smiths. ..”
Tim grimly recalls how, after first avoiding the rock press and the necessity to construct for themselves “an image,” James bowed to the inevitable. “For one photo session, we put on these wacky coloured jumpers and funny hats – a piss-take of the cool image. But people took it seriously! As a musician, you naively think your music is wonderful and it will reach people. Then you suddenly realise that people want you to sell a personality – and it doesn’t even have to be your own!”
In search of both “alternative” kudos and big-league promouon, James signed to the New York-based indie-within-a-major, Sire, whose stable included Talking Heads and Madonna, and whose boss is Seymour Stein: ” A shy man,” Jim recalls. “He stood out because everyone else on Sire was like a second-hand car salesman. A quiet man -and we fell for it!”
Though they recorded two acclaimed albums, Stutter and Strip-mine, the cash-registers failed to ring. Despite maintaining their live following, by ’88 James’s career appeared to have stalled; meanwhile, it seemed that they would be washed away by another wave from Manchester, on the crest of which surfed The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays.
That they came to ride the same wave themselves owes something to the musical change that followed the departure of drummer Gavan Whelan. “We kicked him out,” Tim confesses. “He wanted the music to go one way and we wanted it to go another. He got frustrated because he couldn’t communicate his ideas to us and for over a year at every rehearsal we got bogged down in argument until we said, This isn’t working. After Gavan left, we had to write songs with a drum-machine, and that influenced a new direction in our music. Larry would find a preset, and, for the first time, a drum pattern would remain constant throughout our songs because we didn’t know how to change it.” James had already been on the lookout for additional musicians: “We’d done the four-piece,” summarises Tim. “Let’s see what other colours might be added to our palette. But we didn’t expect to end up as a seven-piece.” Drummer Dave Baynton-Power replaced Gavan, and James added trumpeter Andy Diagram (ex-Diagram Brothers and Pale Fountains), vtolinist Saul Davies and keyboardist Mark Hunter.
In ’89, James toured with Happy Mondays in support. It was the year of “Madchester” and the new crossover of indie rock and E-generation dance. The realisation that they were being swept into the new scene came at shows in Blackpool, where weekending Mancunian ravers would wig out to the new seven-piece, dance-friendly James. Even as they had let their Sire deal lapse, James inadvertently tapped into the scene’s craze for clothes with their eye-catching T -shirts. A fan designed the first of these items (“We had to keep finding him to give him more money because it did quite well”) and the band’s manager, Martine McDonagh (also the mother of Tim’s child, Ben), designed the others. Kids who had never heard the band wore the clothes, and today James’s turnover and profit is “far greater” from the T -shirts than the records.
JAMES RE-ENTERED THE RECORD FRAY WITH a self-financed live album, One Man Clapping: “We got a bank manager, Colin Cook of the Royal Bank of Scotland, to see us play a concert in Manchester with 3,000 people there,” Tim chuckles. “He gave us this huge loan, the biggest he could authorise. We had no collateral but for the great gig.” Out on their own label, One Man Records, it was distributed by Rough Trade and went to Number 1 in the indie charts – for one week. With an advance from Rough Trade, James recorded their next studio album, Gold Mother. “We gave Rough Trade the singles Sit Down and Come Home, and they said, This is great, we love it, but you have to understand, boys, that these will never reach a big audience,” sighs Tim. “They must have backed so many bands they loved who didn’t get anywhere that they must have lost faith in their own judgement of what would sell.
Next stop Phonogram, with a completed album up for grabs if the vibes were right. Not only did Phonogram accept the whole of the Gold Mother album as it was but, when asked how much they thought it might sell, instead of the expected 50-60,000 copies, the company replied, “about 300- 400,000 – a bigger number than we’d had in our wildest dreams.” And, kickstarted by the band’s anthemic single, Sit Down, this estimate proved to be “quite accurate”.
On the eve of the release of their new album, Seven (which has already been snubbed by some critics as “stadium rock”), James are learning to live with the mixed reception that is the flipside of pop stardom.
“I went to a bar for a drink,” Tim unwholesomely confesses, “and these four lads were going. This guy thinks James are a load of fucking nancies. This guy props himself up on the bar and says, Yeah, James are fucking poofs. So I say, Yeah, we are; we love sticking our penises up each other’s arses. We do it all the time. Really into it. Didn’t you know we were gay? Whatever he said, I just went with it, and he was fine after that. And at the Reading Festival, I was watching a band, and this guy in his mid-thirties who looked like a geography teacher came up: I’ve always wanted to talk to you, he said, very nicely. Five years ago, I thought you were so important, the best band. But now look at you – you’re awful! You’re crap! What happened? Well, I said, we sold our souls to the Devil. The Devil! We decided to make music that would make us lots and lots of money, and that’s what Gold Mother and Come Home are. I knew it! he said, and walked away. Fucking hell, I thought, you can’t argue with something like that. ..”