James were formed in 1982 when would-be musicians Gavan Whelan, Jim Glennie (bass) and Paul Gilbertson (guitar) spotted Tim Booth dancing at Manchester University (where he was studying drama), and asked him to join their band. Over the next few years James made their name on the Manchester scene, with two EPs on the city’s Factory label — JIMONE (1983) and JAMES II (1985) — and a tour supporting The Smiths.
In 1985, Gilbertson was replaced by Larry Gott, and the band signed to Sire, setting to work on a debut album. STUTTER (1986), produced by legendary New Yorker Lenny Kaye (guitarist with Booth’s hero Patti Smith), confirmed them as contrary, cultish and unique. The track “Johnny Yen”, with its themes of exhibitionism, despair and violence, set the tone for years to come and became an enduring highlight of the band’s live appearances. And it was as a live band that James were making their reputation, building a following strong enough to see them through more setbacks than most.
1988’s STRIP MINE followed the course set by STUTTER with its off-kilter folk influences, but added some simple singalong choruses which anticipated hits to come. But neither band nor label were happy, and they now parted ways, leaving James to finance their live album for Rough Trade, ONE MAN CLAPPING (1989).
The album made the top of the indie charts, but Rough Trade never saw James as a commercial band. They could not have been more wrong. In 1990 a revamped James — Gavan Whelan had been replaced by David Baynton-Power, who was joined by Saul Davies (violin), Andy Diagram (trumpet) and Mark Hunter (keyboards) — signed to Phonogram, released the anthemic GOLD MOTHER album and had three minor hits in “How Was It For You”, “Come Home” and “Lose Control”.
Then there was “Sit Down”, the re-recorded version of a 1989 single which gave James their breakthrough. It was the middle of the ‘Madchester’ boom. They had just supported the Happy Mondays (co-leaders of the scene), and their increasingly baggy (and big-selling) T-shirts were looking like fashion items. The band’s rhythmic sense and indie sensibility, present from the start, suddenly fitted into the indie/dance crossover sound that was making all the waves.
An anthem for outsiders, “Sit Down” got to #2 in the spring of 1991 and James were on a roll. By now they were playing big venues even supporting DAVID BOWIE at Manchester’s Maine Road stadium, and it all seemed perfectly natural. But there was a downside to all this. The first time an audience sat down for “Sit Down”, it was something special. The twentieth time, it was a hollow ritual and the one thing that the band had always tried to avoid. So they upturned expectations with unpredictable live shows full of new songs, with the hits in the wrong places. The audience didn’t know what to make of it, and the press backlash followed with SEVEN (1992), an album widely dismissed as ‘stadium rock’.
But the big sound had gone as far as it could. 1993’s album LAID, produced by Brian Eno, had a subtle, stripped-down sound and improvisational feel, closer to the early days. The LAID sessions also produced a series of experimental, ambient jams which later surfaced on the WAH WAH album (1994). Tim Booth recorded an album, BOOTH AND THE BAD ANGEL (1996), with the American composer Angelo Badalamenti (of Twin Peaks fame).
Meanwhile, James, still misunderstood at home, turned their back on the backlash, toured the US, and went back into the studio, preparing WHIPLASH (1997). Not the most risk-taking of releases, the album had James tentatively meandering back to the style that got them into the stadiums — anthemic, singalong rock. It went gold and laid the ground for 1998’s JAMES… BEST OF (Mercury).