Because it has been a policy of James not to minimise the risks of accidental music, they’ve always had little in common with their play-safe British contemporaries. At early rehearsals in Manchester in 1981 and 1982 (when the band was called Model Team International), the emphasis was never on the barre chord or the obvious riff. Why write songs that will rescue you from material discomfort when you can write five that no other human beings would ever think of?
The first single by James, ‘JimOne’ (Factory, 1984), was pop music of dizzy and unusual character. Constructed from lengthy jams, the songs paradoxically had a gleeful and ‘once-only’ quality to them, as though this hybrid of folk, sea shanties, postcard and king sunny ads would be too audacious to attempt twice. By the equally startling follow-up, ‘Hymn From A Village’ (Factory, 1985), James fragile yet intense art had a besotted audience. As a music unit, James were the UK independent music scene’s nearest thing to cult: secretive, misunderstood, eagerly gossiped about, even a little sinister.
The long-awaited debut album, Stutter (Sire, 1986), was produced by Patti Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye and included the keynote track ‘Johnny Yen’, which addressed one of singer/lyricist Tim Booth’s most urgent topics: how much madness is too much when you are creating a work of art? For certain, there were few more intense ‘performance’ bands than James in the 1980s. As improvisors, they were all the more compelling for being non-virtuosi. There was no technique to hide behind.
After a second album, Strip-Mine (Sire, 1988), the band underwent one of its periodic restructuring, releasing the high quality live album ‘One Man Clapping’ (Rough Trade, 1989), and increasing ultimately to a septet with a trumpeter, a violinist and a keyboard player. Their hometown had exploded as a worldwide force in youth fashion. Yet James, for all their local success, had seemingly been omitted from the party invitations. A commercial-sounding single, ‘Sit Down’, in the summer of 1989, had failed to ignite as intended.
Hardly ever given a bad review, the band released their third studio album, ‘Gold Mother’ (Fontana, 1990), to terrific acclaim and the commercial breakthrough came at last in the spring of 1991 with the re-recording of ‘Sit Down’. A bouncy anthem for the downtrodden and the eccentric, the song became one of the most popular of the decade. Only the peculiar boy-man that was Chesney Hawkes prevented it from getting to number 1.
From being Manchester’s forgotten sons, James now whizzed to the other extremity: a crossover success story, a band that could headline a festival and a group with a total up-to-date attitude towards dancing rhythms. The next album, Seven (Fontana, 1992), lodged itself at number 2, behind Stars by fellow Mancunians Simply Red, yielding the hit singles ‘Sound’ and ‘Born of Frustration’.
There was an imperative at the heart of Seven that epitomised the band’s music and beliefs: “do something out of character.” Whenever they’re playing, and whichever song they’ve just started to play, James have always respected the element of risk, believing that if you take risks a great movement could potentially be only a few seconds away. In the studio, conventional procedures are avoided. Nobody actually writes James songs. They emerge from the intensity of jams, as shapes will emerge from a 3D puzzle if you stare hard enough.
For many years the band had wanted to work with producer Brian Eno, whose reserves of intellect and emotion marked him out as a must-have collaborator. When the sessions finally got underway in Bath in 1993, they turned out better than anyone had dared hope. For one thing, James went in to record one album and came out with two. Laid (Fontana, 1993) was the ‘official’ release: an intimate and soulful work, it not only delighted the band’s European fans, but also proved highly successful in America, where James toured heavily in 1994. Indeed, in a year when British music was struggling to make any headway whatsoever in the states, only James and Radiohead could rightfully claim wholly to have articulated their full-on psycho-dramatic-physical art to the North American continent, with nothing being lost in translation.
It was then revealed that, while making Laid, James and Eno had recorded an additional double album: a hidden treasure of proper songs, fully-blown jams and extra-curricular ambient footage that existed in a slightly different continuum to the parent album, but was far from mere over matter, since it gave a vital and unprecedented glimpse. It was released as Wah Wah (Fontana 1994).
If the music on Wah Wah pointed towards a non-song based, deconstruction alist, industrialised future for James, the actual outcome was even more minimalist: a long hiatus that stretched to three years. During this extended layoff, the six members of this once-parochial band were rumoured to be living in four different countries; in the meantime, the music world was a blur of genres, sub-genres and proto-genres. James hibernated. Tim Booth recorded an album with movie composer Angelo Badalamenti, Booth and the Bad Angel. For a moment it looked as if James might have run its course.
But there’s a momentum to this band that nobody can rightly pinpoint. In 1997 James returned, refreshed, slightly changed and armed with a glamorous new creation called Whiplash. This album – as momentously sexy and downright melodically uncanny as any the band had ever delivered – would have been a brilliant comeback under any circumstances. But it shot them back into the top 10; claimed a key place for James in a modern world; re-awakened those who had forgotten about them. Still their modus was mysterious: where did something as short-skirted and horny as ‘She’s a Star’ come from? How did it get there?
As we approach the third millennium, James continue to shine out in the dark like a lighthouse (not quite belonging to the land, not quite separated from it), a band whose music is beyond fashion – often better than fashion – and whose fans are a by-word in loyalty.
We have some news for you. James remain active, vivid, hot, coy, sensual, and absolutely inexplicable.
by David Cavanagh