Musical history is littered with bands who have briefly blazed brightly, to sink prematurely into depressing mediocrity as they repeat themselves with ever-diminishing effect. The path JAMES have forged has taken the band in exactly the opposite direction. Endlessly inventive, always taking risks and never satisfied with the easy option, James have dug deep into the wellspring of their creativity and come up with ‘MILLIONAIRES’ – the most adventurous and rewarding album of their 16 year roller-coaster career.
That they were threatening to produce something special was signalled last year when the band raced to the top of the album charts with ‘The Best of James’. Although the collection contained 14 of their (top forty) hits, significantly it was the two new songs, ‘Destiny Calling’ and ‘Runaground’, which caught the attention and suggested a band returning into peak form. Both, of course, became hit singles in their own right and heightened the anticipation for the next album.
“We were aware that last year’s success had created an expectation of this record,” says guitarist Saul Davies. “The songs were written just as that album was kicking off and it generated a lot of energy. I think we struck a really good balance between being commercial and being interesting and different”. “But we made the new album on the back of a mixture of things,” adds Tim Booth. “The optimism of last year did give the band a real lift. But there were a lot of problems and conflicts at the same time which hadn’t been resolved. Those tensions are all there in the songs as well. I think this is the best album we have ever made.” It is a bold claim given James’ impressive track record since they began recording for the Manchester-based Factory Records back in 1983.
Championed by Morrissey as “the best band in the world”, they toured with the Smiths, became Hacienda favourites and cult heroes and signed to Sire Records. Their debut album ‘Stutter’ in 1986 and ‘Strip Mine’ two years later established the basic guitar-driven James sound, and marked Tim out as a provocative lyricist and an emotive singer, but they found the label unsympathetic and unsupportive. By 1989 they were delighted to escape from Sire’s clutches, even though it left them skint. “After seven years we were living on dole-level wages and radio wouldn’t play us,” Tim recalls. Many bands would have folded. Instead James volunteered as human guinea pigs in medical tests at a local hospital and used the cash to release ‘One Man Clapping’, a rather fine live album on their own label. Although it included an early version of ‘Sit Down’, the distributors Rough Trade told them it was “minority music with no commercial appeal” and let them go.
They then re-grouped later and added new members Saul Davies, Mark Hunter (keyboards) and David Baynton-Power (drums). They recorded an album of songs for Rough Trade who sold the record on to Fontana. It was released as ‘Gold Mother’ and was the breakthrough they had waited so long for, selling 350,000 in Britain alone while a reworked ‘Sit Down’ became one of the most memorable anthems of the nineties.
The Madchester scene was in full swing and, together with the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays, James suddenly found themselves at its apex, hailed as the saviours of British rock music.
The sweepingly epic ‘Seven’ followed in 1992 and was only kept from the number one spot by Simply Red. The following year they secured the services of Brian Eno to produce the extraordinary’Laid’ and it’s experimental off-shoot ‘Wah Wah’.
Spending increasing amounts of time in America (including playing Woodstock Two),’Laid’ took off there too, selling 600,000 copies at a time when British bands were finding it particularly difficult to penetrate a grunge-fixated market. Then, at the highest point of their career, James almost fell apart.
One day in 1995 guitarist Larry Gott, the longest serving member apart from Tim and bassist Jim Glennie, decided to quit. So did manager Martine and, for good measure, the band learned that they owed a huge sum in back tax. Shell-shocked they took a break that as it stretched into its third year looked like becoming terminal. Booth went off to make a solo album with Angelo Badalamenti and no one seriously expected ever to hear from James again.
Yet adversity has always brought the best out of the band. With the addition of new guitarist Adrian Oxaal they eventually re-emerged in 1997 with the boldly melodic ‘Whiplash’. Brimming with rejuvenated confidence, it went gold and gave the band one of it’s biggest singles in ‘She’s a Star’. Last year’s ‘Best Of James’ only served to confirm their resurgence and gave them their first number one album keeping “Titanic” from the top slot in Oscar week, going on to be the band’s first double platinum album and sell out tour.
‘Millionaires’ finds Brian Eno back as co-producer and the band at a new creative peak with a set of sumptuous songs full of light and shade – accessible and yet complex, dense but somehow full of space. “Saul and I basically disagree when we are writing a song. There are a lot of contrasts and paradoxes. We have totally different philosophies to life and that gives us a certain creative tension. It’s that fight between us which produces the best writing,” says Tim. “James is a very intense group. There’s usually one of us cracking up at any given time.” The conflicting lifestyles on the surface appear irreconcilable. The band has strongly hedonistic impulses while Tim is these days famously sober and ascetic. But as Saul explains: “We’re all trying to get to the same place in our different ways. I can write the music for a song like ‘Someone’s Got It In 4 Me’ at six in the morning after I’ve been up for three days drinking litres of vodka. Tim gets there through his trance states and meditation. But we’re both experimenting with removing ourselves from the normal humdrum day-to-day existence.”
‘Surprise’ was written about a friend Tim thought was on the verge of suicide – although it could also be taken as an allegory for the band and a response to those who wrote them off. “Fred Astaire” is simply one of the best love songs the band has ever recorded. “I am completely and totally in love but I also have this English embarrassment that goes with it. That’s what the song is about,” says Tim. The slightly sinister ‘If Anybody Hurts You’ is a protective charm, he says. “There have been people who wished me harm and someone actually put a curse on me. The song is a shield.”
Several of the songs emerged from jams, a traditional way of working for the band who like to trust first instincts. ‘Hello’ is an entirely intuitive song with an improvised lyric Tim professes not quite to understand. ‘Vervacious’ similarly started life as a jam before Sinead O’Connor was invited to lend some hypnotic vocals. Jamie Catto of Faithless helped out on ‘Someone’s Got It In 4 Me’ and also on ‘Afro Lover’, an anti-war song with an almost religious intensity but a contrastingly upbeat arrangement. Eno’s ineffable influence weaves its magic throughout the album’s eleven songs. “On some things he had fixed ideas and on others he was prepared to roll with the flow”.
“We derived enormous encouragement just from him being there.” As for the title, Tim has a strong belief that words have certain properties of cause and effect. “The album should have been called “Love, Money and Revenge”, because those are the themes. But when we made ‘Laid’, we got laid. When we made ‘Whiplash’, I got whiplash. This is the best album we have ever done so we settled on ‘Millionaires’.
Well you can see the logic. And if there is any justice, it should prove to be yet another of James’s self-fulfilling prophecies.