Former peers of The Smiths, prime movers of the Madchester scene and rivals to Simple Minds/U2’s stadium crown, JAMES have been there, done that. Glyn Brown meets the band once described as ‘Manchester’s best kept secret.’
~”James’ music exists in past/future territory, somewhere between eccentric, romantic, tender, crazy and ecstatic. Their best songs rank among the very best of British pop music: it rings true” – Brian Eno, 1997~
JAMES: what happened there, then?
You could call them – they’ll stop reading at this – pop’s big-league nearly men, the ones who blew our minds on several occasions, through several eras, whether they were dressed in tatteed sweater and moccasins, or straitjackets, or billowing silk shirts.
Again and again they’ve sidestepped the top bracket with some very fancy footwork but, boy, did they get close. One or two slightly different moves, and the band who were once third men to U2 and Simple Minds wouldn’t be sitting in the crowded lobby of a north London Hotel utterly unnoticed. Not that they seem to mind this relative anonymity.
Tim Booth, one-time troubled eccentric and God freak with a history of psychic unrest, and multi-instrumentalist Saul Davies – representing a seven-strong assortment of contenders – are far from the disconsolate has-beens popular opinion might cast them as. With a ‘Best of’ retrospective (1988: The Year Of The Hits) and a new LP in the works, they are back for another shot at pop’s crown.
And after 15 years in the business of rock’n’roll, this turns out to be an opportune moment for them to look back on their tumultuous history – at what was, might have been and might still be in store for them…
So, here we are, in 1982, which is when bassist Jim Glennie, drummer Gavan Whelan and guitarist Paul Gilbertson spotted Tim dancing at Manchester University, where he was studying drama, and picked him to be Bez before Bez was out of nappies. These days, Tim teaches a system of therapeutic shamanistic dance. Back then, he was just whacko. And James were called Model Team International, because Paul was going out with a model and that was the name of her agency and logo on their free T-shirts. When the agency boss threatened to sue, Tim suggested something to honour his inspiration, James Joyce.
Their first release, on Factory Records in October, 1983, was the ‘JimOne’ EP, its guitar-pop frippery claimed as a successor to Orange Juice or The Fire Engines at their best, thought many thought it embodied the very weakest elements of indie. One track, “What’s The World,” was quickly covered by Morrissey, an early and ardent admirer. “To be honest,” says Tim now, “I think Morrissey fell in love with me. I may be wrong. I mean, he wasn’t out then. We used to go driving round Manchester Together. I didn’t really realise his feelings ’til quite a bit later.”
If The Smiths were influenced by James, “then we were influenced by The Fall and Joy Division – by their bloody-mindedness, their awkwardness, their refusal to play media games.”
Media games were no problem for Morrissey. James may have had a certain mystique, but, by now, long-time fans The Smiths were up and past them, touring the States, and James, although they’d co-toured here, turned down that support slot, as well as several music paper front covers. “We want to introduce the band by music, not by words,” they pompously disclaimed.
Nevertheless, when the second EP, ‘James II,’ appeared in 1985, the boys were minor-league legends in their home town. It wasn’t long before they were approached by a major label – the Warners off-shoot, Sire – to record their first full LP, ‘Stutter.’ Produced by Lenny Kaye, right-hand man to another Booth icon, Patti Smith, ‘Stutter’ appeared in 1986. A Luddite counter-blow to the futuristic technological indulgence surrounding them, it owed much of its success to new member Larry Gott’s nimble guitar picking, and mixed traditional folk with more powerful rock – the Iggy Pop tribute, “Johnny Yen,” introduced themes of exhibitionism, despair and violence, though arguably the sound that backed those ideas wasn’t always powerful enough to carry them. And James were still dressing like idiots or Smarties, in tartan scarves and primary colours.
1988’s ‘Strip Mine’ continued the melodic course, with off-kilter folk influences, a few simple singalong choruses that would lay a path for the future and Tim’s vocals a cross between Ian McCulloch and Operatic yodelling worthy of Heidi. Perhaps the most interesting track is “Riders,” in which Tim, slipping from Morrissey to Cave, howls of “sipping the juice that causes the pain all great singers need.” Here began a tumble toward dark and devastatingly depressive lyrics. “All my early songs were either paranoia about the business and how it destroys the soul, or about suicide, the myth of the tortured artist.” Some time later, Tim will tell me how wary he is of the words he writes, because they so often pre-figure future events.
Sire were not kind. Head man Seymour Stein, a “collector of artefacts,” was devilish. “It’s not romantic,” says Tim, “it’s exploitation. Stein didn’t really like our music – we were simply something to be collected.” “Sit Down” was written during this time, but never played to Sire. Eventually, James escaped on a legal loophole found by the band’s astute then-manager, Martine McDonagh.
A self-financed live LP, 1989’s ‘One Man Clapping,’ prompted a deal with Rough Trade. This, too, was not entirely fortunate. Rough Trade were not only on the point of bankruptcy, they also failed to see commercial prospects in James. “Geoff Travis said, ‘Look, this is minority music, it won’t sell to more than 20,000 people,'” remembers Tim. “So I asked him to let us go, and he did.”
James regrouped, adding enough members to bring them up to a seven-piece (Gavan Whelan left; Saul, Andy Diagram, Mark Hunter and Dave Baynton-Power joined), and took the record Travis had heard in embryonic stage to Phonogram/Fontana. The album was ‘Gold Mother.’ It sold 350,000 in the UK alone.
‘Gold Mother’ was a triumph – brainy, with a full, sometimes distorted, guitar sound, sparky brass and danceable rhythms, though Tim’s lyrics, if you cared to listen, were black as pitch. By the time it came out, in 1990, “Sit Down” had reached Number Two in the charts. The Madchester scene was revving up to full swing and James, along with Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses, were its champions. Every venue they played sold out. And Tim was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, his miserablism turned to full-scale depression.
There were a number of reasons. One was the band’s seemingly impregnable image as freakish vegan monks. Which, at one point, they had been. In the early Eighties, there had been a bit of lunacy and dope-smoking. Booth had suffered a serious liver complaint. “I nearly died,” he says. “I stopped breathing in hospital.”
As a result, Booth and Jim Glennie screened what they ate, joined a semi-religious cult and spent three-and-a-half years shunning the debilitating practice of sex (Tim is still bitter that his guru of the time slept with half the “disciples”).
But the band were hardly celibate now. In an effort to confirm that, newer T-shirts said COME, and there was talk of promoting the single, “How Was It For You?”, by stencilling its name down the side of condoms. Still, the holier-than-thou schtick had been compounded in 1989 when Tim shaved his head after seeing a documentary on Auschwitz, and remained such a problem that the band thought of changing their name.
Gradually, however, ‘Gold Mother’ turned Tim into a different sort of messiah, a leader for the lost, lonely and confused. His furious lyrics yelped about devious politicking (“Government Walls”), and, since he’d been victim of a sternly religious upbringing, about Christianity and TV evangelists. The pungent vitriol of “God Only Knows,” which stands alongside Flannery O’Connor’s novel, “Wise Blood,” in terms of religious disillusion, saw the band receive sacks of hate mail. An obsessive drive saw him take up most of a 1991 “Melody Maker” interview by talking about 40 “hidden” gospels – gospels according to Mary Magdalene, gospels showing Jesus to be a vegetarian nutcase who gave his disciples enemas – that he’d found in the Vatican library.
Crass as it may sound, what may have prompted this leap off the deep end was a split from his long-time partner and manager, Martine, who had just given birth to their son, Ben, and to whom ‘Gold Mother’ was dedicated. Live reviews showed Booth wild-eyed and manic, often in tears before a show, and he tells a story of climbing speakers mid-gig to walk along a 40ft-high balcony rail (“I didn’t give a shit, I was totally fucked up”), only getting down when he saw his minder crawling along on all fours behind him – “The guy was risking his neck for me. I thought, ‘Fuck, get off this.'”
There’s more than an element, of course, of glorious self-indulgence in it all; there was bound to be a fall. 1992’s ‘Seven’ was where the James sound really changed. The opening track, “Born of Frustration,” was accused of being cribbed from Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me,” and the two bands’ sounds were not dissimilar – grungy, hypnotic, ululating and epic in proportion. Tim disagreed with the comparisons.
“I try really hard not to be Bono – we have to de-epic our sound now,” he said, though there was little sign of an attempt. And no reason for one: ‘Seven’ was windswept and often inspired. But the press were doubtful, petulantly slamming it as “bombastic stadium rock” – James by now were big enough to fill Alton Towers, where they played to 32,000.
And then they went West. Looking back, Saul tells me, “It was a mistake to leave this country. We could’ve nailed it here, and it felt like we had, but we hadn’t. We weren’t quite big enough or strong enough to avoid backlash – and it came.”
They spent three yeares in America, during which time they toured an acoustic set with Neil Young, and Tim was quoted as saying he yearned to “get out beyond the treadmill into hyperspace.” Egotistical as this may sound, Booth was, in fact, beginning to sort himself out. He’d dabbled with analysis, though the therapist cut short treatment, saying, “I’m sure I could cure you, but I don’t know what that would do to your songs.” So he turned to less conventional methods and, though still capable of insisting “art” could only come through pain, had embarked on lessons in shamanistic dance, which helped release his demons.
Work had begun on another album, 1993’s ‘Laid.’ An impressed Peter Gabriel offered his Real World studios; the producer was Brian Eno. ‘Laid had a subtle, stripped-down sound, loose with slide guitar – but the working atmosphere with the cultured Mr. Eno wasn’t always as relaxed.
Says Saul: “Eno used to get annoyed because I play a lot of instruments and, when we were improvising, I’d flit between different things.
“I remember him once getting me against a wall during a jam – he goes, ‘Listen to this fucking guitar you’re playing, you little c***. It’s brilliant – and then it stops. Why does it stop?’ He had me by the collar, up against the wall. I thought he was gonna hit me. I wanted to beat him up.”
But you went back and played guitar the way he wanted? “Oh, yeah.”
‘Laid’ broke James in the States, where it sold 600,000 copies. The follow-up, ‘Wah Wah’ (1994), a series of ambient jams from the ‘Laid’ sessions, was less successful. Intended as a reinvention, its release was delayed for over six months – by which time U2’s Eno-produced and similar-sounding ‘Zooropa’ had appeared, stealing James’ thunder. Aware that, at home, Madchester was history and feelings had changed, the band remained in America. Contemporar reports featured six men on a debauched bender, snorting drugs in the tour van, watching porn and waving around willies upon which young groupies had inked their names, while Booth, closeted away, sounded tired and defensive: “I think,” he said, head in hands, in 1994, “we’ve failed to present a coherent myth.”
What followed was 1995’s ‘Black Thursday,’ so-called because on that day Larry Gott and manager Martine walked out. It was discovered that James owed 250,000 pounds in back tax, and the band very nearly imploded. A long break from each other led to Tim’s solo LP, 1996’s ‘Booth and the Bad Angel,’ with 50-year-old Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti.
Meanwhile, Jim, Saul and Dave were back in the studio. They corralled the band, and the outcome was last year’s ‘Whiplash.’ Headstrong and poptastic, it was regarded by many as James’ best album to date, entering the UK Top 10 and delivering one of their all-time best-selling singles in the Beatles-esque “She’s A Star.”
But how quickly they do forget. Despite all this, and only 12 months later, people ask, surprised, if James are “still going.” They seem to be doing more than that. ‘1988: The Year Of The Hits’ is a holding device, though it features two powerful new singles, one of which, “Destiny Calling,” again features those reliable Beatles-patented descending chords so popular with Oasis. Its sentiments regarding the music biz are cynical and, though Saul doesn’t agree with them, he understands the bitter chorus of “We’re freaks.”
“Every band’s a freakshow. People look at you through the glass – ‘Don’t feed the animals.’ I was reading ‘American Psycho’ the other day, the bit where he kills a child at the zoo, and he sees a sign on the glass: don’t throw coins at the penguins, because they might die, they’ll choke on them. And he says, inevitably, ‘I throw a quarter into the pen.'”
This is as may be, but Saul – and Tim, and the rest, if it comes to that – know full well they’re not penguins. They’re in a business more or less like any other, with exactly the same swings and round-abouts. Which is why there’s a fresh LP just about half- written on a DAT somewhere. And a tour lined up for April.
And why, according to Saul, “This is gonna be our year. I don’t expect we’ll be massive, but I’m hopeful we’ll gain some respect. I know we had success in the past and let it go. It’s our fault, we walked away from it. Now, though, well, we don’t have a choice.”
Do James have a thing to say to us, right here, right now, in 1998? They say they do.
Time to get back in the ring.