Here’s an amusing tale about James. In 1992, Morrissey was asked to perform on an Amnesty International TV special. He agreed, but only on the understanding that his fellow Mancunians would be approached to play too. Since Moz was still pretty hot property back then, the promoters complied. It was only on the night of the concert itself that the singer’s ulterior motive became clear – he wanted them present at the unveiling of his forthcoming single, “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful” …
“We hadn’t seen him for about a year,” recalls James’ singer Tim Booth. “We’d had ‘Sit Down’ out and were starting to get big. I asked him after the show if the song was about us, and he led me to believe it was. We’re very good friends, though, and it was all good-humoured. It was a great boost for us at that time.”
The biggest irony, of course, was that James had taken so very long to become Moz’s “hated” rivals. Both artists had started out around the same time (1982) and in the same city (Manchester), but the Smiths’ mercurial career was over a good four years before James’ had even started to take off.
There was at least one good reason for this: James’ ill-fated tenure with Sire, whose lack of support for the band in the mid-80s has passed into legend. Before that, of course, James had established themselves as minor cult deities, via a trio of wonderfully original EPs on Factory, combining a folk-rock sensibility with a diffident, post-punk twist. However, Sire’s indifference to the chequered “Stutter” and “Strip Mine” albums (the latter was put on hold for a year) meant that any early momentum was lost.
Once the band were released from their Sire contract in 1988, things finally began to fall into place. Signing with Rough Trade, they recorded the two songs that would make their name, “Sit Down” and “Come Home”, though commercial success wasn’t to come until those two singles were reissued – in a different form -by their next paymasters, Fontana, at the turn of the 90s.
It’s at that point that the cult of James really took shape, and the era captured on “The Best Of James” begins. Fontana’s interest in the group was, in part, geographical – ‘Madchester’ was in the ascendant, and though James didn’t fit in with the prevailing mood of 60s revivalism and clubland hedonism, they were sufficiently entangled in the Manchester myth (Factory, the Smiths) to be seen as key players. However, it was abundantly clear that the group’s ability to write anthemic, idiosyncratic pop songs and, more importantly, to deliver the goods live, provided them with a definite advantage over their contemporaries.
“I thought a lot of that stuff – the Mondays and the Stone Roses – was incredibly overrated,” declares Booth. “We tried to avoid that whole scene, because if you go in with a movement you’ll burn out with it. But it was inevitable that we’d be roped into it by some people.”
When their “Gold Mother” album reached No.5, and the reissue of “Sit Down” hit No.2 (in March 1991), James were catapulted from the murky margins of indie-pop into stadium territory .There then followed four amazingly fruitful years, spawning a string of hit singles (“Sound”, “Born Of Frustration”, “Sound”) and a brace of magnificent albums, “Seven” and the Brian Eno-produced “Laid”. Their expansive sound seemed tailor made for large venues, and it made perfect sense when Neil Young invited them to support him on his 1992 U.S. tour.
In stark contrast to most of the arena acts of the ’80s, James always resisted the temptation to sing about ‘big’ issues, offering instead intensely private meditations on the subjects closest to their and most people’s hearts – relationships, love, destiny, personal insecurity. Though permeated with a community spirit, their folk-rock wasn’t cut out along nationalistic lines, nor did it celebrate anyone’s cultural heritage. Thankfully, flag-waving wasn’t their bag.
“If you get into that big, epic thing, and you write about wide open spaces and not your own experiences it gets vacuous,” argues Tim. “The good side of epic is Lawrence Of Arabia; the bad side is The English Patient. What we do can’t be used politically because there’s too much frailty in the lyrics.”
Occasionally, Booth’s personal visions have erred on the gauche side and, as a result, James’ have never been tagged as “cool”. Certainly, he’s been guilty of coming across ‘like a sex-obsessed freshman -“How was it for you?,” “she only comes when she’s on top”, “we messed around with gender roles”, etc. – but there has also been a wonderfully poetic turn to Booth’s finely-crafted words (“The waves are turning into something else/ Picking up fishing boats and spewing them on the shore”).
By mid-1994, the workload was beginning to take its toll, and James went to ground for a while. Booth recorded the solo album, “Booth And The Bad Angel” with Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalementi, before learning that, not only was his longtime creative springboard, guitarist Larry Gott, quitting the band, but James owed five years of unpaid taxes.
“It was a bad time,” puffs Booth, “but we’d already been through so much that we had to go on. If we’d have split up, it would have been ten years earlier. We’d experienced everything before.”
Returning in 1997 with the dynamic “Whiplash” album, James scored three more hits with the U2-esque “She’s A Star”, “Tomorrow” and “Waltzing Along” (perhaps the only “waltz”-titled rock song not to be in 3/4 time). They also headlined Reading and consolidated their Stateside profile with a prestigious Lollapalooza slot. It was proof positive that James had secured themselves a reputation as a classic, timeless rock group.
Listening to “The Best Of’, its curious how a group with such an erratic, rambling biography have managed to produce such a consistently rich and satisfying canon of work. So much here sounds warm and familiar and striking, whether it’s the moody, stadium melodrama of “Born Of Frustration” or the tight, snare-roll powered pop of “Laid”. The album also includes two new songs – their celebration of manufactured pop acts, “Destiny Calling” (out now as a single), and “Runaground” – both of which sparkle with James’s magical, atmospheric stardust.
“We don’t usually write hits to order, but the record company wanted another two tracks,” laughs Booth. “They turned out really well.” With Booth set to appear in an Edward Bond play, Saved, being staged in Bolton this month, and “Destiny Calling” looking set to supply them with another hit, everything has turned out pretty well for James, too.