Buddhist vegatarians-turned-sado-masochistic chicken fiends JAMES return with a gunslinging vengeance to stake their place alongside the Noelrock hierarchy. Armed with a pervy new LP “Whiplash” and tales of six-foot transvestites, who’s gonna stand in their way?
There’s no knock , just a slow creek of a swinging door and the head honcho enters. His cowboy boots tap carefully across the stone floor treading dust and Spice Girl feature underfoot. He shakes a couple of drops of rain from his poncho and tips his wide-brimmed hat further over his eyes. “Hi,” he says in a soft, lilting voice. Controlled. Potent. “I’m Tim”
Behind him, the posse gather. They dress casually and grin grins of the wicked. They scatter around the photographer’s studio, prodding light stand, fumbling at packing cases, giggling, seeking mischief. Behind the genteel facade, these are hard men, unflinching in the face of adversity, never backing down from a challenge. For over a decade they have struggled with the pitfalls of meditation, beaten off the cruel lure of vegetarianism, taken on the American heartland and won. These are savage times and they have tales to tell.
“We had a fight with (Def Leppard’s) Joe Elliott”, says the one who, with the addition of a curled moustache, would be the spitting image of Speedy Gonzales. “He just started having a go at Jim, but Jim offered him outside and he shat himself. Then there was the time we set fire to a house in LA..”
The head honcho touches his fingertips together and sighs.
“I don’t think we should talk about that”, he intones, a slight grin playing across his lips.
Speedy is silenced as the head honcho turns his gaze back to his inquisitor.
“They’ve been putting up with my idiosyncrasies for long enough”, he says. “Now I’ve got to start putting up with theirs.”
He has been away for three years, this veteran of musical sharpshooting. Other business to attend to, a rest from being top dog and a target for fresh faced young cowboys. Now he’s back and the town has run riot without him, overrun by upstarts with bigger guns. He’s Sheriff Fratman no longer, but from the spark in his eye you can tell he hasn’t done with fighting yet.
So where to feed? Where to charge their bellies before the dictaphone fight at the UK corral begins in earnest?
Tim Booth taps his lip methodically. Options pondered.
“Shall we go Mexican?”
In 1989, the whole world sat down. As the baggy phenomenon reached it’s pill popping peak, a five year-old band called James (previously only known to about 13 indie types as black-clad Smiths wannabes) decided to re-release an epic anthem of lurve called “Sit Down” in the wake of the chart success of “Come Home” Not a bad decision as it turned out. Within months it had scaled the UK and US charts and became alongside “Wrote For Luck” and “She Bangs The Drums”, a tune for the uniting of a hedonistic generation and encouraged every sentiment being in the known universe to buy one of their T-shirts. Baggy had transcended The Cult of James was underway.
And at its head table sat a man called Tim. A man who advocated Buddhist meditation, vegetarianism and dancing as if your arms were on fire. A visionary, a mystic and a man who was born to be a pop star. And, most important of all, a man with a voice that was able to shake mountainsides, skin prairie dogs at 100 paces and reach such gargantuan heights that even the most grunge-obsessed of American butt-heads sniggered into their Maiden T-shirts and agreed that it kicked hippy ass.
Then, as their contemporaries descended into obscurity, smack desolation or a very long snooze. James spent four years building the myth, sneaking a foot into the U2 superleague. There were three ultra-successful albums (“Gold Mother”, “Seven” and “Laid), outdoor megagigs, a Top 20 hit every time they farted near a microphone and photo shoots in dresses to cement the raggle-taggle Dexys-style image.
And all the time, as they were slowly filed away on a million dusty indie compilations at home (a symbol of nostalgia rather than an ongoing concern, forever Number 16 with a bullet) the globe continued to fall at their feet and snog their sandals.
“In different countries you’re remembered for your biggest song.” Tim Booth hisses, free from his poncho and clad now in a neatly tailored suit. “In America, it was ‘Born of Frustration’ and ‘Laid’. In England it’s ‘Sit Down’. And in Portugal it’s ‘Sometimes’. So every country has its own perception of your peak, but it’s a narrow one.”
“People say to us ‘Oh you’re in that band that did that Sit Down song, aren’t you?'” says Speedy-alike guitarist Saul Davies. “And we go ‘No, we’re actually part of the fabric of British pop.'”
So did you never become out-and-out rock star arseholes?
“Sadly, we haven’t got the rock star bit right yet,” says Saul. “We’ve got the arsehole bit.”
But the best laid plans of mice and mystics oft fall arse over tit in the end. The first blip on James rise to the megabowls struck in 1994 and it was called, almost an ironic summary of their career to date, “Wah Wah.” A warped mish-mash collaboration with Brian Eno that intentionally steered clear of their traditional widescreen dust-bowl territory. It was intended as a rebirth of cool, a leap back into the underground, just to prove they could. They couldn’t.
“In one way it was too extreme,” muses Saul, “we jumped right in and pushed it. For us, it was a learning process, finding a different way to approach the songs.”
Tim presses his fingertips together and grimaces. “I think it was passed over because we didn’t promote it. It was only released for a week.”
“We should either have not released it or really gone for it,” reflects Saul.
“It was supposed to start this underground thing,” bassist Jim Glennie interjects, “where you’d get a typical James audience plus all sorts. We thought it was a great idea.”
A great idea, sadly, that U2 had slayed the world with years earlier. The rut that James had ploughed for themselves, it seems, was deep. And worst of all, the mammoth two-year US tour they had just embarked on was to expose wickedness at the heart of the band that had been hidden from public view for too long.
You see, like all decent cults, the Cult of James hid demons behind its spiritual facade.
“My girlfriend was sticking things up my bum last night,” Saul yelps, spitting chicken chunks across the table. “She tried to get a bottle up there.”
Nearby diners in the high-class Mexican restaurant gag on their forks and eye their coats. They thought their eating space had been invaded by a nice pop group intent on discussing the advantages of the karmic cycle. Quietly. Then, within minutes, the corner had erupted with raucous laughter, the smashing of bottles and shaggy tales of sado-masochistic excess. Oh well, they’ll just have to ban their children from listening to the band’s records.
“I’ve got one of those tight rubber masks, a zip-up thing,” grins James, Manc laddism leaping to the fore. “It really freaks out my girlfriend. She says it’s not like me, obviously. It’s great” I lie there with my hand around her throat going “GRRRR”
Tim takes his fingers from his lips, drops his disapproving glare and smiles along.
“Jimmy is the gimp” he pronounces, unapologetically.
James, Vegan buddhists to a man. Think “football” is a particularly difficult yoga position. Partial to a quick tomato juice and mung bean soup before tucking up for an early night with their copy of The David Icke Tantric Workout Book, right?
So, so wrong. They are, in fact, rollocking ROCK savages who like nothing more than drinking the steaming blood of babies to fulfil their cruel lusts, then beating up their parents. Possibly. Certainly, of the assembled throng of devout carnivores, only Tim has the gall to ask for some broccoli sauce with which to baste his tender chicken meat. His bandmates meanwhile are regaling your correspondent with sordid tales of debauchery, deviant sex and knuckle-filled sandwiches.
“Last night we got one of the record company guys down on the floor and we were snogging ‘im!” screeches Saul. “He were lovin’ it!”
“I was sat on his face,” continues James enthusiastically, “and Saul was shagging him up the arse, shouting, what were you shouting?”
Saul almost leaps onto the table “We’ve been shagged up the arse by this record company for too long,” he yells. “NOW IT’S OUR TURN!!”
Crikey, and we thought you were such lovely, clean-living young chaps.
“The press would always focus on me and think that the whole band was like that,” says Tim, “but we’ve always had our contradictions. There’s been loads of things like this going on for years, but we usually keep it rather quiet.”
“The press never get hold of this sort of stuff – like getting thrown out of the Brit Awards or threatening other people’s lives when they threaten ours. It’s a whole side to us that never got publicised. It’s not violence so much as protecting yourself.”
“James has always been perceived in pretty much one way: the weird hippies playing folk music,” Saul explains. “And even though we haven’t had anything to do with that for years, people still think that’s what we are. People still think James are Buddhists. And it’s so far from the truth that it’s actually becoming really really funny.”
“No matter how bad we are,” laughs James, “people don’t just believe it.”
But what of Tim? Are there no devils of depravity lurking in his spotless soul? Has he, for instance, ever been arrested?
“I was nearly arrested once,” he sniggers. “It was a nudist beach in Greece and they don’t like nudist beaches in Greece. These young people had colonised it. The police came one morning with truncheons and started arresting people. I said I had a room in the village and pretended I wasn’t on the beach and they said ‘We’ll take you to your room and if you don’t have a room, we’ll put you in jail for a few days and then deport you’ We were waiting by this car when this bus stopped about 50 yards down the hill, so me and my friend Alex just ran for it and got away. It was really stupid.”
Yet despite such anti-establishment frolics, once the mask that is Tim’s pseudo-spiritualism is ripped from the James phantom, the scars of laddism are plain to see. Tim’s favourite film, for example, is The Fisher King, while James all-time favourite is Roco Does Prague. If they could become invisible for a day, Tim would start a fight in the House of Commons, James would “fiddle with women.”
Saul, meanwhile, spent his spare time during the recording of the new LP “Whiplash” trawling through the seediest of Soho’s transvestite bars and porno shops until six in the morning.
“He used to turn up in a shiny PVC jacket and a disco harness with chains and a big ring in the middle,” says James. “And a pair of shades.”
Hence while press and public alike considered James to be the band of Mary Whitehouse’s wet dreams, such behaviour was turning the American tour into an all-cylinders-burning rollercoaster ride into oblivion. The kind of tour indeed, that even the toughest was unable to survive.
“The only person that really cracked was our bodyguard,” Tim laughs, “our insecurity man. I think what really broke him was ending up in a room with a six-foot tall black transsexual on acid.”
“Eric,” says James helpfully.
“It was about a week later that he had to leave,” continues Tim. “After that, we needed a year out.”
It wasn’t only the security men who felt the strain, however. The tour left the band exhausted and sick of the sight, smell and (presumably) taste of each other. Like a million tour bus hostages before them, there came a point where the road simply ran out. And then the guitarist left.
“We had a really bad day that we have called Black Thursday,” Saul explains, dropping his fork. “We were sat in this studio in Wales when the shit really hit the fan. Larry (Gott, guitarist) said he was leaving the band, which meant that everything as it had been was over immediately, it was all gonna collapse.”
“And then the accountant discovered a five-year tax bill,” recalls Tim.
“To get from Black Thursday to the point where we’re really happy making records is a fucking miracle, to be honest,” says Saul.
It was a long haul back to the land of the happy people, and many bullets had to be bitten. Unsure of how to approach the British market after a five-year gap between tours, they withdrew entirely, took a year out from each other and recuperated.
Tim relaxed by “dancing, acting and making the d’Angelo record” whilst the rest of the band chased after their scattered marbles. Then, when they reconvened, they discovered that not only did they look better, but they also smelt less offensive and – hey! – maybe they didn’t taste too bad after all. Except Saul. Obviously.
But with almost every James T-shirt in Britain having been transformed into a washing-up cloth, aren’t you daunted by having to clean up the town once again?
“It’s a big unknown,” Tim says, fingers firmly pressed to lips once more, “we’ve had a great rest and we feel totally ready now. You’ve got to find your own pace, otherwise you get totally burnt out like all the other bands. That’s why we’ve lasted longer than anyone else. So we really didn’t have much choice, we had to have that time off.”
“It’s Oasis, Radiohead and James in terms of sales in America, but we can’t consider the market. We knew what we had to do for us and we did it. Now we’re back and it’ll be great for us, but God knows if there’ll be an audience.”
“It’s like: ‘We’re ready now!'” James shouts at the embarrassed diners collecting their coats, “Hello, come back!'”
“Erm, are you finished with these?” The waiter has never been so nervous in his life. He eyes the bottle in Saul’s sweaty palm and decides to inch out of the room backwards. And what’s this? Some flowers from the singer.
Tim Booth shakes his head, stares at the bowl of decorative flowers that he’s in the process of handing to the waiter to clear away and laughs. He places them carefully back in the centre of the table, blushes at the riotous laughter from his bandmates and leaps back on his train of thought. Anything to get him away, really.
“In making this album we found a new way of working with each other,” he smirks. “We knew we would have to do that if James was going to survive after Larry left. It was going to have to become more of a band if we were going to continue. It took six months to work that out.”
“The intention was to try and bring the two things together, the tunes and the more abrasive sound. We always had that side of improvisation, but we never showed it to people very much.”
“It’s actually dead exciting for the first time in years,” continues Saul, invigorated. “We’re desperate to get out and play. It’s like: ‘I want this! I want to get out there and play guitar in front of loads of people and be a twat.”
Enter James new album Whiplash; an awesome attempt to chase Noelrock varmints right out of town with the traditional weapons of classic songwriting, wind-swept atmospherics and a few stray missiles of industrial/trip-hop/rock mayhem.
There’s more than enough lung-bursting pop singles here to have the faint-hearted wringing out their T-shirts and stitching them back into shape. as well as the kind of askew glance to the technological future that should see the much-courted underground fall and snog their zip-up leather perv boots. It’s agonised but optimistic, sumptuous yet , unsettling. Quite ace.
BUT THE enemy is strong and it has the the backing of the formidable Weller Cavalry, resuscitated Beatles tunes and, hell, the very karmic gods themselves. So how do the old guard rate the new contenders?
“It’s much too safe for my tastes.” says Saul, diplomatically, “If you listen to a lot of the groups from the ’60s, there’s an energy there. They really kicked ass! But with this current crop of bands it falls somewhere in between being fantastic and not quite getting there, For me, Oasis get the closest and that’s why the whole world loves them.”
“I 1ove the whole rock’n’roll nonsense of it all,” yelps James, sensing kindred spirits. “You give a couple of blokes from Manchester huge success and mi11ions of pounds, and this is what happens! I think it’s wonderful! It’s hilarious!”
“But they’re shamelessly ripping off our musical heritage! Surely this goes against the Creed Of James?
“As a musician I am totally frustrated by that,” Tim agrees. “I don’t understand it. We’re too proud to ever do that. But sometimes you hear it and it works. The Happy Mondays rehashed stuff and it worked, which was wonderful. .But we look to express ourselves, and that means expressing ourselves, not some guy 30 years ago.
“I know some of these musicians and they do, literally, deconstruct songs. They learn how to play a song, then they learn how to mess around with it to make one of their own songs. It’s what art forgers have been doing for years, and occasionally it’s brilliant.”
So maybe the returning heroes can set up ranch next to the new rock invasion. Maybe the West has been won and it got us to a state of universal harmony after all. No need for a civil war, let’s all just gang up against Joe Elliott instead, perchance?
But for all their sordid tales and bloodied reminiscences, James have one last test to pass if they are to match up to the Big Bad Boys of rock. So tell us, what is the biggest lie you have ever told?
“I didn’t sleep with her,” ventures Tim.
“It wasn’t me, your honour,” grins James.
Saul ponders a past of sleepless nights, fumbled encounters and rubber jockstraps. “I’m the singer,” he smirks, wickedly.
With that, ponchos are donned, cowboy boots dusted and they’re off into the sunset in a jet-black charger, licensed to carry five rock cowboys, chewing tobacco at the driver’s discretion.