Chris Cooke looks back at the epic career of James as they release their twelfth album
IT’S HARD to believe that it was in 1990 that a young band by the name of James played an impromptu gig on the roof of Manchester radio station Piccadilly Key 103. “Who’s this James guy?” many a Mancunion asked that day as ‘Come Home’ blared out across the City. Nearly ten years later, however, few can still be unsure of the identity of Tim Booth’s band.
Actually, James have been on the go since 1983. In their early days they were championed as ‘the best band in the world’ by Mo rrissey and soon found themselves touring with the Smiths and becoming favourites at the infamous Manchester club Hacienda. They spent the eighties with a label know as Sire Records where they developed that distinctive James sound but received little lab el support, and pretty much no financial reward for their efforts.
They left Sire behind in 1989 and by selling themselves as human guinea pigs in medical tests at a local hospital managed to raise the cash to record ‘One Man Clapping’ – a fine live album which, despite featuring an early version of nineties anthem ‘Sit Down’ was described by distributors Rough Trade as ‘minority music with no commercial appeal’. But credit where it’s due – it was with Rough Trade’s support that ‘ Gold Mother’ – the album which made the band – was recorded. Once a deal had been struck with major label Fontana, who released ‘Gold Mother’, the James story with which we’re more familiar began.
After an eight year wait the release of ‘Sit Down’ was timed to perfection. With the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays dominating the music scene all eyes were on Madchester for saviours for British rock music, and so the mainstream eye fell on Booth and the boys, and so ‘Sit Down’ became an indie club anthem the country over.
Albums ‘Seven’ and ‘Laid’ followed in 1992 and 1993 respectively – the latter selling well Stateside despite the slow uptake of the Manchester scene across the Atlantic. Then it all went wrong.
The departure, in 1995, of guitarist Larry Gott and manager Martine, leading to a two year absence, gave the impression James has called it a day. An impression strengthened when Booth released a solo project.
But, despite the odds, in 1997 the band returned, with a new guitarist and the boldly melodic ‘Whiplash’ – a surprise return from which both ‘She’s A Star’ and ‘Tomorrow’ achieved single success, the former nearly equalling ‘ Sit Down’ in anthem status. Safely back on stream James released their greatest hits last year, and album which successfully kept the Titanic soundtrack off the top of the album chart in oscar week.
And so to the new album release ‘Millionaires’. Co-produced by Brian Eno, who last worked with the band on ‘Laid’, the album offers a sumptuous set of songs, fully accessible yet encouragingly complex.
“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 the Best Of 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.”
“The optimism of last year did give the band a real lift,” Tim adds. “But there were a lot of problems and conflicts at the same time which hadn’t been resolved. This album was made on the back of a mixture of things – the highs and those tensions both feature here. I really believe this is the best album we have ever made”.
While Madchester brought James to the limelight they were never truly part of the Manchester thing. In retrospect that individuality gave the band a longevity that could overcome the fickle nature of rock ‘n’ roll.
“When we made ‘Laid’ we got laid.” Tim explains. “When we made ‘Whiplash’, I got whiplash. This is the best album we have ever done, so we liked the name ‘Millionaires'”
So, assuming you find yourself ridiculous, sit down with Tim Booth and enjoy the next decade of James.
James’ new album ‘Millionaires’ is out now on Mercury