Most bands can do little more than gamely chase fashion and look forward to the day when they catch up with it. But James are not most bands. For the best part of a decade, James have stood alone, ploughing their own furrow, individual and unique, innovative and original, letting fashion and popularity try to get hold of them.
James are a cult group whose cult includes potentially everyone. They have the broad emotive sweep of the major rock band, able to fill arenas and stadiums with anthemic songs of mass appeal. And yet they have the alternative perspective of the most independently minded; a scorn for the easy move and the slick cliche. What James offer and demand from their fans is honesty, spirit and a natural elation far beyond the confines of most contemporary rock. In the bet sense of the word James are a people’s band.
Amazingly for a group who are still growing, still developing, still climbing towards the optimum of their success. They formed in Manchester in 1983 when bassist Jim Glennie spotted singer Tim Booth dancing in his unique, whirling dervish style in a college bar. They quickly came to the attention of the enormously influential and unimpeachably cool Manchester label Factory Records. Their first two singles, “What’s The World” and “Hymn From A Village” immediately set them apart from nearly all their contemporaries. James had a sound all of their own; the angularity of the new wave married to an almost folkish tranquility. Then the band was singer Tim Booth, bassist Jim Glennie, guitarist Larry Gott and drummer Gavan Whelan. Plaudits were not slow in coming. James found themselves on every front cover in England and found champions in every quarter, most famously with Morrissey who professed a public love for the band and invited them to go on tour with The Smiths.
In 1985 James signed up with New York based Sire Records, beginning a three-year phase of their career that was, by turns, exhilarating and perplexing. The albums from this period, “Stutter” and “Strip mine” drew praise for their striking individualism. But, despite critical acclaim, these records never reached the audiences they deserved and James, frustrated, left the label in 1988. At the very point where it seemed that their career may have stalled, James discovered a new lease of life. Drummer Whelan left and in came a massive injection of new blood in the shape of drummer David Baynton-Power, keyboard player Mark Hunter, trumpeter Andy Diagram and violinist Saul Davies. Inevitably the James sound changed. It broadened, became more expansive and colourful.
It had long been recognised that James were one of the most compelling live acts around, their concerts characterised by improvisatory daring and adrenalin highs. In an effort to capture this excitement, the band financed their own live album, “One Man Clapping”, Phonogram snapped the band up and their next studio album “Gold Mother” was to prove the turning point. Here it seemed James had at least fully realised their potential with music of extreme originality, but mass popular appeal, passionate, infectious, all their own. The hit singles “Come Home” and “Sit Down” became centrepieces of their live shows, the latter the scene of nightly celebrations where thousands of people would commandeer the song for fifteen minutes at a time. Then and now, being in the middle of a James crowd is a goose-pimpling experience. 1992’s million selling “Seven’ consolidated their position as a major modern rock band, although by now there were only six following the amicable departure of Andy Diagram.
Their new album “Laid” – an album that confirms James’ international status and yet is a bold stride in a totally new direction. Since the release of “Seven”, James have performed a succession of acoustic tours, both alone and as invited guests of Neil Young, another of the band’s champions. “Playing acoustically is playing without a net” says Tim Booth. “You’re naked, you’re vulnerable, but it’s exhilarating. That experience is certainly reflected in the new record. It’s not an acoustic record, but it’s a stripped down sound. We were quite sure that we didn’t want it to be cluttered with overdubs. If anything it’s more subtle than “Seven”, The lyrics sometimes tackle bigger themes, but are often quite intense and personal in their scope.”
The album is produced by renaissance man Brian Eno, The partnership has been a long time in the making. “We wanted him to produce “Stutter”. but he said he was a bit busy and he’d call back in a couple of years. Well, one morning he did. He’d heard the demos and loved them. “Eno’s influence is evident in the delicate, shifting nature of the sound. “As a producer, he’s quite unlike anyone we’ve ever worked with. Very balanced, very focussed and extremely encouraging. He encouraged us to improvise and take chances. He’s never outwardly critical. He gets his own way inmore subtle ways. It was a very productive time. I came up with 34 completed lyrics in 6 weeks. We even managed to record a whole other double album of jamming type that will hopefully come out next year.”
On the new album the classic James trademarks remain. Powerfully compelling songs, the result of a kind of organic interplay between the band’s musical fluidity and Booth’s plaintive, yearning voice. “Sometimes” is a personal favourite, I like “Laid” because it’s daft and uplifting, and “Low Low Low” would make a perfect football chant.
The new James album is set to convince doubters and delight the converted. Reaction in Britain is already strong. They recently drew rave notices for their massive Finsbury Park show with Neil Young, “When you get that kind of encourage- ment,” says Tim. “that kind of support from people you’ve always respected like Neil Young and Brian Eno, it just vindicates what you’re doing. It really gives you the impetus to move forward.”
For James the move forward to a new level of success and acclaim begins here.