THERE’S a general rule in pop that longevity sucks. Think about it: the Rolling Stones plodding theglobe like a mummified parody of a pop group; U2 flabbily reinventing themselves every couple of years, feverishly reading cyberpunk fiction, growing goatees and hiring happening DJs in the musical equivalent of monkey-gland injections, the Spice Girls outstaying their two-single welcome.
James somehow get away with it. They’ve been knocking around in one form or another for 16 years now, spending most of the Eighties languishing in obscurity in Manchester bedsit-land, beloved of the bleary-eyed obsessives who listened to John Peel, unknown to the rest of the world. When they had a hit, its hugeness was in proportion to the obscurity that had gone before. The humanist anthem ‘Sit Down’ swept the nation’s student common-rooms, encouraging the sort of smartass tertiary education ironists everyone wants to punch to occupy the dance-floors in a seated position.
‘Sit Down’ was one of the first indie records to kick down the gates of the chart castle, and show the way for a spate of arch, small-label guitar-pop records to storm in and change the consensus of pop music in Britain.
Now indie is the new orthodoxy, James are elder statesmen of the predominant pop genre in this country.
Singer Tim Booth is beginning to come to terms with the group’s legacy. “We meet these people like Oasis and they tell us how important James were to them,” he says, “how they would all listen to us and come to the gigs in Manchester back in the Eighties.”
Booth has been remembering James’s history recently, coming up with a track selection for their new hits collection, Best of James. It was a chance to follow the group’s mutations, from the folky, surreal songs on the first two albums, through the harder sound that followed ‘Sit Down’, to the freeform experimentation of their recent work with Brian Eno. As often happens with these affairs, Booth found the early songs difficult to listen to.
“They didn’t sound right somehow,” he says. “They just weren’t recorded as we would have wanted.”
They were also a reminder of the decade of struggling that formed James’s beginnings, a time of uneasy relationships with record companies, low sales, occasional bouts of wilful obscurity. “We were artists, we were very weird, meditated a lot,” he says.
“We always knew we had a certain pacing to James. We knew it wasn’t going to be quick. Like when we were invited to America to support The Smiths, we thought ‘no’. It scared us. So we retreated. We were always on our own trajectory, that was just going to play itself out.”
Their fondness for the post-punk purity, their desire to be known purely for the music rather than for any image, made them seem almost self-defeating. They turned down the opportunity to be on the front of the NME, when it might have meant something, because they thought it entailed a certain selling out.
They embraced the artistic cliches of independence.
Ironically, given their mistrust of commercialism, they were kept afloat in the wilderness years by huge sales of their striking flower-motif T-shirts (still a must-have for certain cadres of environmentalist twentysomethings).
They remembered this need for independent development when they seemed in danger of mutating into a stadium-rock band.
‘Sit Down’ and the expansive, rockier Seven album garnered James a huge live following, and their shows became mass, communal celebrations. When their Laid album sold well in America, the temptation was to take the road for a couple of years and move into the rock dinosaur league.
Instead the group took a step back, took three years off to regroup and rethink.
They came back last year with the successful, if not ground-breaking, Whiplash, and a single, ‘She’s a Star’, that immediately became one of those songs destined to crop up on every film and TV soundtrack around.
James were still around without being embarrassing, or even noticeably that old (although Booth was sidelined for a while by a muscle injury that suggested all those years of yoga were catching up with him).
“We look around for people who’ve been around for as long as us, and I suppose there’s REM, the Cure even, but we feel we are still making music that people want to hear, that we still are relevant. When we came back last year we found we do still inspire each other musically. We still have that creative streak.”