James have never made life easy for themselves. Their early gigs started with a couple of poems read by singer Tim Booth, causing instant confusion – is he James, is he a poet? Some audiences didn’t wait to find out.
Then they were signed by Factory Records, whose A&R man Mike Pickering (now leader of M People) chose them over the Smiths. Their first single ‘Jimone’ (aka ‘Jim One’, an EP) had no proper sleeve design yet became NME and Melody Maker Single of the Week. It was released simultaneously with the Smiths’ ‘This Charming Man’, and though their fellow Mancunians had the hit they toured the UK together.
James signed to Sire but found they had linked with the wrong record company; their second album ‘Strip Mine’ was delayed for 18 months, forcing band members to take day jobs (two became car salesmen!). Slipping their contract on a technicality, they financed their next album with a bank loan – then, when their new label wanted to put a re-recorded hit single on it, insisted fans who’d bought the earlier version of the album could exchange it.
But James had enjoyed the safety net of a huge fan following gathered while waiting for their contract to expire, they’d kept bread on the table by playing anywhere and everywhere they could. Bruce Springsteen had done likewise, and garnered the eventual rewards. It’s doubtful the Boss was throttled on stage by his drummer, though – the fate of Tim Booth at one eventful gig in Stoke! No fewer than four new members had joined the band after that fiasco (one, needless to say, a new sticksman) and the result, ‘Gold Mother’, was the album that changed everything. Released in June 1990, it sold 350,000 in the UK alone and with the Top 3 single success of ‘Sit Down’ confirmed James as a major band for the new decade.
Then they charged up the rock ladder with big-selling but very different albums like ‘Seven’ – a real stadium rocker – and the considerably more laid back ‘Laid’ which struck a chord in America, selling 600,000 copies there alone. But James couldn’t somehow embrace success. “We’ve always turned inward and done something weird,” says bass-player Jim Glennie, and they proved it by taking their acoustic set to the Reading festival (where even the mighty Meatloaf got bottled off) and playing some new songs they’d put together a few days before.
James have always had a love-hate relationship with America. Larry Gott was mugged hours after landing in LA to shoot a video, and flew home. When they played Woodstock 1994 they chose to play not hits, but obscure and unreleased songs. ‘Laid’ saw them greeted like conquering heroes, and they milked it – but, having spent three years on a sold out tour bus their long-serving guitarist Gott decided he wanted out for good. Being the main music writer, this would be a problem. “We knew we had to rebuild James,” said Tim Booth, “and that took time. We had no idea what reaction our comeback would get. We hadn’t done anything in the UK for four years.” But the single ‘She’s A Star’ came in at Number 9, album ‘Whiplash’ was a major success and their ‘Best Of’ album released last year was a Number 1.
The success of the ‘Best Of’ not only opened up a new audience for James’s music but meant the group members were under a bit of pressure. Saul Davies admits “We were a little surprised about how well it sold. We’re quite nervous creatures in James and that’s one of the reasons we’ve been going so long – we’re not entirely sure where we’re going to be listened to!”
They’ve no problem there, but categorising their music is an entirely different matter. As Saul says, “Because there’s seven people in this band who all listen to different types of music, there’s a lot of influences on what we do and as a consequence we make diverse-sounding records.” But then that’s what makes them interesting. With the September-released ‘Millionaires’ set to confirm their place in the big league, let’s examine those influences that have made James the most popular indie group on the planet…
Everyone from James with the exception of bassist Jim was hugely influenced by the Birthday Party, Nick Cave’s pre-solo band. Tim had “never seen anyone infuse their music with such sheer violence.”
The woman who sang the Twin Peaks theme produced an album called ‘Floating Into The Night’. The ‘dreamy, aquatic sex songs’ contained therein influenced Tim to collaborate with film theme composer Angelo Badalamenti, the result being ‘Booth And The Bad Angel’.
James cut a version of ‘Sunday Morning’ for a tribute album to the 1960’s band patronised by Pop-Art icon Andy Warhol in which Lou Reed made his name. It showed up in the live set circa 1990.
When they were invited to support grunge supergroup granddaddy Neil Young across America, they didn’t realise they’d be asked to play acoustically so as not to upstage the headliner, who was doing a simple guitar and vocal set. “It was either do it acoustically or not do it at all,” recalls Jim, who remarked they’d have been bottled off stage by 10,000 fans if it hadn’t worked. “Fortunately it worked and it took us in a new, fresh direction we really liked.” That led to ‘Laid’, whose easy-strumming and overlaid guitars took America by storm.
An American dance teacher whose work influenced Tim Booth. He warms up for two hours before going onstage, and credits Roth with “…helping me get in touch with my body…to centre myself. I do exercises beforehand to connect myself with what’s wrong with me. Then I take it on stage and use it.”
Mary Margaret O’Hara
Acting on Morrissey’s tip-off that she was, “…the best singer since Patti Smith…”, Tim Booth checked out Mary Margaret O’Hara in concert and was shocked that she was “so vulnerable”. Apparently she broke down for 20 minutes and the band had to carry on playing while she gathered her strength to continue. It’s not something he’s tried himself.
The band’s bassist Youth produced James’s ‘Seven’ and Saul has since collaborated with him subsequently on some low-key ambient music under the name Celtic Cross. Youth cohort Durga McBroom, singer with Blue Pearl of ‘Naked In The Rain’ fame, also contributed backing vocals to Seven’s ‘Don’t Wait That Long’.
The comparisons here are manifold. Does Larry Gott sound like the Edge as much as he looks like him…do they share the same producer… and did they both record improvised, Eno-helmed albums (‘Wah Wah’ and ‘Zooropa’) within months of each other? Unfortunately, as James had just released a ‘proper’ album, they held back and inadvertently let their rivals steal the glory.
When James signed with Sire, they were seduced by becoming labelmates of David Byrne and company, who were also produced by Brian Eno. ‘We should also have noticed Sire had signed Madonna’ sighed Tim when it all went sour. Saul likens the current single ‘I Know What I’m Here For’ to them. “It sounds like dirty white boys who can’t quite play funk properly in the same way that Talking Heads couldn’t really play funk but were brilliant at it.”
The Royal Bank of Scotland
They may not advertise themselves as ‘the listening bank’… but by lending James £10,000 to fund a live album they kept the band going in a period of flux. Something that helped persuade them was the best-selling James T-shirt with JA on the front and MES at the back that had become a fashion item (over £2,000 worth of James merchandise was sold in Leeds in a single week). Another factor was the ecstatic reaction the bank manager witnessed at a gig. The album ‘One Man Clapping’ topped the indie chart, and the RBS got their money back with interest.
At the end of his schooldays Tim discovered Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’ lying around in the school common room where it had been left by someone else. His father was very ill at the time and, listening to the album on headphones he was staggered to hear the words “His father had died leaving him all alone on a New England farm.” Two weeks before his ‘conversion’, he’d thought Patti Smith was, “…this woman who sang out of tune…she was utterly alien to me until that moment.” When he went and saw her live, it wasn’t just Patti that impressed him but guitarist Lenny Kaye, who was duly appointed producer of James’ first album ‘Stutter’ (1986).
The Scottish jangly-guitar group of the early 1980s signed to the trendy Postcard label gave the world singer Edwyn Collins. But it was guitarist James Kirk who is said to have unknowingly lent his first name to the group formed by three 17 year olds and the 21 year old art student (Tim) they’d seen idiot dancing at a disco. A previous name, Model Team International has been taken from promotional T-shirts they’d been given and lasted just the length of a set! But it would be a different T-shirt that gave James a financial lifeline when they needed it most.
Comparisons with Georgia’s finest centre around the similarities between the ‘spiritual vegetarian’ characters who front them. We can however reveal that…Tim eats fish! Both Stipe and Booth appear to be men apart from their band, though James play that down. “There has always got to be someone outside in any relationship,” Larry Gott has said, “but it isn’t always Tim.” For Saul, “Tim can be an alien sometimes,” while manager Peter Rudge says, “I always think Stipe looks like a loner in his own band and Tim’s a loner in James.”
They may not have been around as long as Jagger, Richard and Watts but James (founded in 1982) are a lot longer in the tooth than you think. Also, manager Peter Rudge was once in their management. Olympic Studios, where the Stones recorded classic albums like ‘Let it Bleed’ and ‘Beggars Banquet’, was one of three west London studios used to complete ‘Millionaires’. Listen carefully, too, and you can discern a touch of the Stones ’Start Me Up’ –type riffery in ‘How Was It For You’. By the way, Tim was approached to play Tommy on Broadway but was too busy, so that ties in the Who, too!
The James have influenced themselves, notably the music of ‘Destiny Calling’ which Saul wrote as a bonus track for ‘Greatest Hits’ “I stuck a capo on the guitar and played ‘She’s A Star’ twice as fast in a different key,” he confesses. Ironically when Tim came up with the lyrics they ended up having a pop at the music business – so the irony of making people pay again for a track they already owned was priceless!
The ex-Genesis singer invited James to record at his Real World Studios, perhaps empathising with the fact that both he and Tim Booth turn their depressive lyrics into something approaching a celebration. And while Gabriel has toured in support of human rights for Amnesty International, James’s songs have attached secrecy (Government Walls) and examined attitudes to the Gulf War.
The stadium rock feel of ‘Seven’ brought comparisons with Jim Kerr and company and Tim Booth admits that there were two songs that triggered comparisons. “We were about to record one of them when someone brought in the Simple Minds track ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ and we thought what the f*** are we going to do? It sounded just like it but I hadn’t done it consciously…you don’t do that kind of thing!” The comparison led to James deliberately ‘de-epic’ing their songs, and even doing that acoustic ‘Sit Down’ at Reading. “…when people wanted the big one they’d seen on the G-Mex video. We don’t want to be trapped in a pattern.”
The tempestuous Irish chanteuse crossed paths with James relatively recently, as Saul Davies explains. “She came down to the studio one night to see Eno, he played her some of the stuff and she was dead cool. She asked if there was anything we’d like her to sing on, and we suggested ‘Vervacious’. It had previously just ended with music, quite turbulent, aggressive music, and its whole end section with her voice and these weird little pulses was Eno doing his thing. It’s funny because she’s got such a beautiful voice and he made her sound like a robot!”
After Patti Smith, the Smiths were the major early motivators for James. After Morrissey named them his favourite band in an interview the world suddenly wanted to know, and a series of support dates to the band they beat to a Factory contract certainly didn’t harm them. Larry thought that touring with the Smiths “…would hammer home the fact that we were nothing like them,” but now admits, “it backfired and made the association stronger.” Tim calls the Smiths comparisons, “…a milestone we put up with for five years.”
The ex-boxer’s atmospheric ‘Wicked Game’ was used as the intro tape to James’ 1990 gigs… and having been featured in David (Twin Peaks) Lynch’s movie Wild at Heart it comes as no surprise the song was Tim’s choice. “When I heard it for the fist time I thought it must be the greatest record I ever heard.”
Tim recalls as a kid his earliest memory was watching Top Of The Pops and seeing the Fab Four singing ‘Twist And Shout’. It was an early release, a cover of the Isley Brothers’ soul original rather than a Lennon/McCartney composition, but the power and energy touched him. “The purity of, a certain kind of innocence” before the music biz took hold.
Critics seized upon the powerful drum intro on ‘Sit Down’ and claimed the glam-meister was number one on the James playlist. Bassist Jim admitted he was worried Tim might be turning into Glitter Mark II, “…especially if he wears any more (glitter)”, but a fan put it all in context. “Gary Glitter wears platform boots. Tim wears Jesus sandals!” Interestingly by 1992 James were adding a tribute to another glam god, Marc Bolan of T Rex, to the song when in concert, courtesy of a snippet of ‘Ride A White Swan’.
Original guitarist Bernard Butler played on Tim’s solo album ‘Booth And The Bad Angel’. The pair shared a love of early Smiths, but Booth managed to steer clear of the problems vocalists Brett Anderson and David McAlmont ran into with Butler, “He was on fire, so I just let him get on with things, stood back and let him create.”
The link between James and the Boss is that they both had to play their way through record-company hassles, using live gigs as both a means of support and a testing ground for yet to be recorded songs. Tim was dragged to a Springsteen concert in the early 1980s “I thought he was a corny old American, but he blew me away. Not really the music because it wasn’t very original, but it was more the heart of how much he was giving. I always wanted to be in a band that was like that.”
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Tim was amazed when one of his cousins played him the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera – and he found he knew every word! “Perhaps I identify with Joseph, the sacrificial lamb,” he laughs. “The fall guy in his coat of many colours…”
Songs like ‘How much suffering’ and ‘god Only Knows’ have guitar riffs similar to the Stooges, while Tim recalls getting a slightly strait-laced teacher from school to take him to see Iggy at Manchester Apollo in the 1970s. “It was our only hope of being allowed to go.” As it happened, the teacher enjoyed it so much he took them back to see the Clash a few weeks later!
Robert Smith’s Goths were big heroes of James in the early days, notably because they stuck around and kept their standards up. “…most of my favourite bands burn out after two albums,” Tim admits. Smith was also approached to produce the band, but nothing came of it.
James’s mates added backing vocals to Gold Mother’s title track, though James haven’t always welcomed the attentions of fellow Mancunians. Graham Massey from 808 State remixed ‘Come Home’ but they didn’t care for the result. They’ve never been great ones for dance remixes, considering them too trendy, but made an exception in 1994 for Andrew Weatherall who turned out a 33 minute 17 second version of ‘Jam-J’.
As with the Beatles, Tim only enjoyed the early work of the man who created Ziggy Stardust. ‘Five Years’ from that album appealed to the former drama student, but his favourite album was 1971’s ‘Hunky Dory’ – especially the track ‘Kooks’, which is “…perfect for f***ed up adolescents to wallow in.” James have also worked with producer Tim Palmer, the man who helped Bowie record his heavy-metal project Tin Machine.
The New Album
We doubt if James themselves are ‘Millionaires’ yet, but their record company certainly think it’ll be a nice little earner – so much so that its release was delayed so as not to clash with labelmates Texas Not that there’ll be a ‘Hush’ as the new album appears this month (September), and with a Number 1 to follow it will be stripped for five singles to ensure it remains in the spotlight for well into the new millennium. Guitarist and songwriter Saul Davies takes up the story
“The album started when I started writing in Scotland more for fun than anything else. After three months I ended up with 26, 27 ideas which I worked on with Mark, our keyboard player. Tim started getting involved offering lyrics and more advanced melody ideas, and suddenly we had something really pleasing to our ears. I brought the songs down to London one day to play to Brian (Eno) and he was very complimentary about their potential. So we’d started the album without really thinking about it!
“It’s hard to say there’s a particular song that reflects what the album is, though it’s slightly more unified than some of our other records have been because a lot of it was done by Mark and me. We’re all very proud of ‘Someone’s Got It In For Me’ – a very big, slow song, almost a ballad, that’s very powerful lyrically. In a way, it reflects the emotional content of the record…I wouldn’t say aggressive but tough on people around us.
“’I Know What I’m Here For’ was chosen as the first single because we felt it didn’t really sound like James – it’s up, quite joyous and, I thought, not very commercial. I’m surprised by the reaction to it from the media: this is the first time in a long time we’ve had MTV support, so we’re quietly pleased. The second single, ‘Fred Astaire’ is probably our best shot at replacing ‘Sit Down’ as our biggest song.
“It’s huge, and has an enormous amount of potential as a crossover tune to a public we haven’t really had before – although we might’ve touched to an extent with the ‘Best Of…’. ‘Fred…’ is a perfect late-summer song – if I hadn’t done it, I know I’d buy it if I heard it! You know that feeling you get when you watch Fred and Ginger Rogers, there’s an amazing joyous kind of sensuality going on, completely untainted and totally 1950s.
“The oldest song was jammed live in a room in a studio in Woodstock, New York in 1994. It’s called ‘Dumb Jam’. I found it on a tape one day and thought bloody hell most bands would kill for this…and we’d forgotten about it! We knocked it into shape and we were aware at that point the record maybe needed a bit more fun on it.
“The album starts with a track called ‘Crash’ and finishes with ‘Vervacvous’. ‘Crash’ is there because it’s one of the more uptempo songs and we wanted to keep the first half of the record in your face. It’s also unusual in that it has a very strange intro, like a call to arms – a mad backing vocal that Michael and Eno did on their own. You hear it and you think yeah, this is the way a record should start! And ‘Vervacious’ ends it because the outro section of that song is Sinead O’Connor singing with a weird pulse of reverb behind it. Eno’s production on the voice at that point made her sound like a very small robot in a space capsule floating through the atmosphere. The obvious way to end.
“We’re old bastards now but we reckon we’ve made our best record yet, and we’re playing better live than we ever have done. It’s beginning to kick off again and it’s very exciting. I really feel like it’s the first page of a new chapter.”